by Eric Wallace
Enclosed by a wildlife refuge, a military base and the ocean, Sandbridge Beach is refreshingly isolated. With no hotels, two restaurants, one bar, a tiny supermarket-style grocery, and beachy cottages nestled into dunes brimming with pines and live oaks, the community feels more Hatteras Island than hustle and bustle.
Following Sandpiper Road, my girlfriend steers past a sign advertising a “Luxury RV Park” and a cluster of pastel-colored condominiums. She parks in the lot before the old wooden fishing pier in Little Island Park. I wrestle my rented fat bike from her station wagon and shoulder my backpack. With a kiss, I saddle up and head for the shore.
The day will find me biking some 12 miles down the beach to the southern tip of the 3,884-acre False Cape State Park. With public entry restricted to foot travel, pedal power, boat and shuttle, it is one of the state’s hardest to access and most rarely visited parks. I plan to explore and camp deep in its interior.
Tomorrow, I’ll bike 15 more miles of shoreline and meet my girlfriend in the northern Outer Banks town of Corolla. From there, we’re off to vacation in Buxton.
For me, a downhill mountain biker, the fat bike offers a novel experience. The huge, 4.8-inch tires and 10-speed Shimano drivetrain have me gliding over the wet, low-tide sand as if it’s a manicured greenway. A cluster of elementary schoolers pump their fists as I ride a wheelie down the beach.
A quarter-mile in, the way is blocked by an unexpected barrier. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Servicesign informs me the beach is a sanctuary for breeding sea turtles, coastal birds and other wildlife. It’s closed for 1.1 miles.
“Dude, you gotta go around,” hollers a teen, pushing his bike toward a gap in the dunes.
Having officially entered Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I follow Sandpiper Road through a lonely stretch of dunes and high scrub brush for about 1.2 miles to the Visitor Contact Station. Hanging a left, I follow a long boardwalk to the beach.
Gazing southward reveals nothing but shoreline, cotton ball clouds and crashing waves. Sandpipers, curlew and plover attack the tide with Lilliputian fervor. A trio of pelicans dive-bomb the water. With the place to myself, I humor the idea of a nude plunge. Instead, I ride on.
Three miles in, I spot a massive bald eagle perched atop an old telephone pole. The image looms over the dunes like a monument. I slow, but keep pedaling. The bird watches the ocean. I trace its gaze to the horizon. The eagle ruffles its feathers, turns its back on the sea, and soars away over the dunes.
Five more miles and the words of Rob Lindauer – a bike enthusiast who owns Surf & Adventure Co. in Sandbridge – slap me like a gong.
“This isn’t like mountain biking,” he said. Without hills, there are no inbuilt rests. Fat bike or no, the sand adds friction. “It’s tough and constant pedaling. You have to take breaks and pace yourself.”
Luckily, just as the quad-burn becomes unbearable, I happen upon a fantastic deposit of seashells. I opt to search for conches for my 8-year-old daughter. Untrammeled by humans, the area proves a treasure trove. Within 10 minutes, I locate and return six or seven living specimens to the water and deposit five pristine empty shells of varying size and color into my bag.
Eventually I spot the high mesh fence marking the North Carolina border. The closer I get, the more I appreciate the agencies that have protected the land. Across the border, a small caravan of SUVs, Jeeps and trucks is parked on the beach. Classic rock floods the air. Despite having no paved roads, about 750 vacation homes pepper the outskirts of the roughly 10-mile-long, 4,392-acre Currituck National Wildlife Refuge. The difference is marked.
I pause to count the big tri-colored herons perched atop the wooden poles of the fence – there are 10 – and then I steer toward a break in the dunes. On the other side lie the wilder territories of False Cape. I turn back into the park and follow a winding, sandy path northwest through thick stands of scrub brush, sugar maples and gnarled pines.
About a half-mile in, the trail veers west to enter what may be the mid-Atlantic’s most pristine example of a temperate maritime forest. Sprawling live oaks dominate the landscape and create fantastic tunnel-like corridors. Sunlight falls dappled through trembling leaves. The interior feels warm, benevolent and balmy – like an organism.
The trees are alive with the chatter and play of birds. Situated on the Atlantic Flyway, False Cape and Back Bay are prime migratory stopovers. (The latter’s inland impoundments attract tens of thousands of visiting waterfowl and geese each year.) I take a seat in the scooped limbs of a big live oak and wait for the show. Twenty minutes later, the forest transforms into a wilderness aviary.
Fluffy red-winged blackbirds dart through the canopy. So too, camouflaged Carolina wren and brown-headed nuthatch. Neon flashes alert me to a yellow-rumped warbler and a pine warbler, both mature males. Peripheral streaks of blue solidify into multiple indigo buntings.
Later, along the bay, I’ll spot 15 to 20 species of waterfowl, ibis and heron. There are large bills, small bills, beaks ranging from short and daggered, to big and arced like a toucan’s, to long and saber-like. The array of color and diversity is astounding. It seems almost unfathomable to have this show all to myself.
That evening I watch the day end from the paddle-in boat dock at Tripps Cove. The sun falls through wispy belts of clouds over Back Bay. The water glows like a sea of molten ruby and sapphire.
I camp about a half-mile east, in one of the park’s 12 primitive sites. My tent is pitched on a soft, sandy pad beneath a stand of adolescent oaks, their limbs as gangly and rambling as rhododendron. The ocean crashes maybe 600 feet away.
I fire my ultra-light camp stove to heat my Yeti filled with sake. Wind riffles the trees. The flame casts strange shadows. I half expect a procession of cloaked Druids to come drifting down the trail, lanterns swaying in a vacuum of silence.
Donning my headlamp, I follow a path over the dunes to the beach. To the far north and south, civilization’s glow bleeds into the darkness. Here, though, the cosmos takes precedent. I lie on the sand, watching the quarter moon rise above the ocean, surrounded by diamond pinpricks.
I close my eyes. Draw the ocean night deep into my lungs. Tomorrow, there will be four-wheel-drive vehicles, chatter over martinis, gourmet tapas, an evening soak in a jacuzzi. I will pass through the gate along the border and leave this place behind. For now, I am thankful for its sanctity.
Be sure to:
Check with Sandbridge Realty | Sandbridge has no hotels, but like neighborhoods in old Nags Head, it brims with rentable cottages, efficiencies and the like.
Have breakfast at Margie & Ray’s | One of the few eateries in Sandbridge, this converted, mid-1960s tackle shop and general store is a local favorite.
Explore the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge by kayak | Renting a kayak from Sandbridge’s Ocean Rentals brings access to isolated interior islands and tidal creeks in Shipps Bay and Sands Bay.
Have dinner at Metropolis | This is the best restaurant in Corolla. Expect a seasonal menu of playful, New American tapas dished out in a small dining room setting with chic urban ambience and a dash of speakeasy cool.
Sip beers at Northern Outer Banks Brewing Co. | Located next door to Metropolis and a wood-fired-pizza parlor, this is the area’s lone purveyor of locally crafted alcoholic beverages. It brews a rotating cast of eight beers.
Saddle up and head for the shoreTour the Whalehead Club | This 21,000-square-foot mansion, top, was built in the early 1920s by outdoorsman and railroad tycoon Edward Collings Knight as a kind of personal vacation hunting lodge. After falling into disuse in the 1980s, the home was purchased by Currituck County in 1992 and has since been restored.