Cape Hatteras National Seashore: A User's Guide

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from the Air
wbritten / Getty Images

As you might expect, Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers water, water everywhere. But there are more than 70 miles of Atlantic Ocean shoreline — and there are sheltered sounds teeming with life where adventurous visitors can explore by sea kayak.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the nation’s first national seashore, is a place of what might be called sustenance recreation: fishing, crabbing and hunting.

Mostly, it’s a place where it’s easy to escape the sounds of the 21st century and hear nothing but the surf and the sea birds.


When the U.S. Congress authorized Cape Hatteras National Seashore on Aug. 17, 1937, it was little more than words on paper. Land acquisition began in the 1950s and the national seashore was established on Jan. 12, 1953. Building the necessary infrastructure for visitors took another five years and the park was officially dedicated in 1958.

Things to do

Get a tern’s-eye view of North Carolina’s Outer Banks by trudging up the 248 iron spiral stairs nearly 12 stories to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in the world. The lighthouse was built in 1870 to guide ships around Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras, an area of so many shipwrecks it is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The lighthouse is open from the third Friday in April through the second Monday in October. Weekly night climbing tours are offered during peak summer months.

Pier at Cape Hatteras

Instead of a snow globe from the gift shop as a souvenir of your visit to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, adopt a pony. The National Park Service cares for a herd of “Banker horses,” (as in Outer Banks) thought to be descendents of the horses of shipwrecked explorers in the 16th century. The ponies were on Ocracoke Island when the first European settlers came in the 1730s. Donations help pay for the costs of veterinary care, feed and hay. You'll receive a photo and a certificate of adoption with the pony's name, age and description.

Why you’ll want to come back

Kicking up beach sand at night disturbs sea sparkles, bioluminescent dinoflagellates that glow blue-green. It’s like a tiny Fourth of July at your ankles.

Flora and fauna

It’s not just tourists who come to the beaches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore each summer. Loggerhead and green sea turtles — both considered threatened species — nest here, as does the endangered leatherback turtle. Digging a nest in the sand and laying a clutch of up to 100 eggs can take a sea turtle one to three hours.

Migrating shorebirds — including piping plovers, sandpipers, American oystercatchers, sanderling and willet — stop here has they travel back and forth between the Artic tundra and Central and South America.

Waterfowl such as snow geese, Canada geese, mallards and tundra swans winter at the marshes on the lee side of the barrier islands that make up the park.

And you may spot a whitetail deer in the maritime forest traversed by the Buxton Woods Trail.

By the numbers:

  • Website: Cape Hatteras National Seashore
  • Park size: 24,470 acres or 38.2 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 2,193,292
  • Busiest month: July, 383,232 visitors
  • Slowest month: February, 42,520 visitors
  • Funky fact: The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved inland 2,900 feet — more than half a mile — in 1999 to protect it from the encroaching shoreline.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

Inset photo of Frisco Pier: A. Strakey/Flickr