A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

When I was a boy, my cousins and I used to leave our family’s Kitty Hawk seaside cottage after lunch and tromp away from the ocean, walking west toward the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

When I was a boy, my cousins and I used to leave our family’s Kitty Hawk seaside cottage after lunch and tromp away from the ocean, walking west toward the

Climbing Sand: The Dunes of the Outer Banks

When I was a boy, my cousins and I used to leave our family’s Kitty Hawk seaside cottage after lunch and tromp away from the ocean, walking west toward the sound-side woods, crossing a naked, mile-wide sandy plain behind and beyond the oceanfront cottages and beach road. Only a few times did we go sliding down the loose, angled sand into the woods themselves, for we were always warned how difficult it might be to climb back up.

Most afternoons, we stopped just shy of the woods line at a single, large, teapot-shaped dune absolutely swarming, in summertime, with briars and trumpet vine and scuppernongs. We found what small bit of shade this dune afforded, took our fill of grapes, and stared back to our small, white, red-roofed cottage silhouetted against the deep blue sea.

In time, I found and strode other ranges of North Carolina sands: One, of course, was the great sand mountain called Jockey’s Ridge, just down the road apiece. I once climbed it as a boy with my father on a day when the wind was really blowing and the sand was stinging my legs ­— it hurt, and I was crying, till he picked me up and sang me a song, carrying me the rest of the way to the top. There were the dunes of Shackleford Banks and, farther south, of Sunset Beach and Bird Island, where the Kindred Spirit mailbox, full of its soul-baring notebooks, stood atilt among the sea oats in all weather. And, too, the beach and steep live-oak dune bluff of Durant Island looking north across Albemarle Sound; the many miles of low dunes out on Core Banks; the East Beach on Bald Head Island, up where Corn Cake Inlet once was; and the half-mile walk from marshes to sea on Bear Island through its own teapot dunes.

The sand hurt, and I was crying, till my father picked me up and sang me a song.

My wife, Ann, and I have lately taken to what, on Ocracoke, passes for a mountain range: the piney woods and live oaks of the Hammock Hills, not far northeast of the village. There, a mile-long trail snakes through the forest in lovely fashion, first crossing a duck pond by way of a wooden footbridge, then climbing into the pines and leading out to a marshy spartina and needlerush cove on Pamlico Sound, replete with a viewing station to rest and muse a bit before heading on back. Even higher and larger are the great forested dune ridges, with low swamps between them, of the 1,000-acre Buxton Woods, lying between NC Highway 12 and the national seashore, just west of Cape Hatteras.

Yet, after a lifetime of striding and shuffling and threading my way about all of these places and many more — up, over, and through the lovely and constantly changing sand masses of our coast — I must own up and play a favorite, hard as it is to do so, and admit my deep, abiding love of Run Hill.

Such a love does not come upon one lightly, nor does one forget how or when or why.

• • •

On the mid-August, Aztec-calendrical occasion called the Harmonic Convergence, back in 1987, I found myself yet again on the Outer Banks, at Nags Head beach. Ann and I, new to each other, met up there and drove south, over the old Bonner Bridge at Oregon Inlet to Pea Island, found a pull-off that would not sink our borrowed sports car in the sand, and walked over the dune to swim in the cool Atlantic.

Built in 1898, the Oregon Inlet Life-Saving Station, was the third station at Oregon Inlet. photograph by Chris Hannant

After a spell, we sat together in the shade of the dune, and she told me about her family, how they had lived on the coast of Spain when she was very small, her father a Navy doctor at Rota, and then moved to Sea Level on Nelson Bay down our coast when she was only 6. She told me about her younger sister, Carolyn, the ecologist, and her outdoorsman brother, Tad, and Tad’s great friends Specklehead and Fig. We laughed and laughed till she reached over into the high-tide surf, pulled out a big, weedy, olive-and-brown mess, and shook it my way.

“Sargassum weed,” she declared to one who had never heard of it. “Where the little sargassum fish live.”

So I was in the company of a naturalist — and I was charmed eight ways from Sunday and even more.

“This stuff gets loose and floats all the way up here from the Sargasso Sea,” she said.

Across Highway 12, we walked slowly down the long, curving sand levee beside one of the big waterfowl impoundments, stilts and herons and egrets all around us, and mullet jumping, too. I climbed atop an earthwork and stared north toward wading willets and plovers in the marsh shallows, “one of the finest places on the coast to observe the seasonal migrations of the shorebirds,” Rachel Carson once wrote of the place. Ann clambered up after me, and we stood together as the brilliant late-afternoon sun’s long light lay over the tall, golden grasses.

• • •

Two trails snake through the 426-acre Jockey’s Ridge State Park — one runs from the parking lot to the ridge and on over to Roanoke Sound; the other makes a loop through wetlands and maritime thickets near the sound. photograph by Chris Hannant

The next morning, Ann and I took a much longer stroll down the lanes of the Nature Conservancy’s Nags Head Woods. She had helped put this treasured preserve together, working from both Chapel Hill and hereabouts only half a dozen years or so earlier, and she wanted to show me places that she had come to love back in the woods: the small, old family cemeteries with chalk-white marble grave slabs, conch shells atop them that marked recent visits of kin. She wanted me to see the steep, involuted sand slopes forested with pines and live oaks; the small, dark ponds with duckweed on them at the bottoms of the hills; tiny gum swamps almost within kissing distance of the marshes of Roanoke Sound. And lastly, a very long, slow-rising path ending abruptly — surprisingly — in the 20-foot-tall face of a vast, living, moving dune, a sand mountain rivaling the more southerly Jockey’s Ridge in size, clearly, if slowly, coming into the western woods and taking it over: Run Hill.

Such a love does not come upon one lightly, nor does one forget how or when or why.

The next high dune to the north was Kill Devil Hill, where the Wright brothers first flew, yet it was the view west from the summit of Run Hill that truly caught me. I found it simply stunning, first looking down from above the treetops into the steadily sanding forest, next over the broad salt marshes below and the great cove those marshes lined, and, at last, across the long reach of Roanoke Sound toward Shallowbag Bay and Manteo on Roanoke Island.

“What’s the cove right down there called?” I asked Ann. Smiling, she gazed out upon it for a few seconds, then said exuberantly: “Breathtaking Bay.”

Years later, I learned she had made up that name right on the spot.

And just for me.

Hike the Outer Banks

Hike (or hang glide or roll down) Jockey’s Ridge — which rises to about 100 feet — or spend a day at Pea Island, one of the best places, according to the great naturalist Rachel Carson, to observe the seasonal migrations of shorebirds.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park
300 West Carolista Drive
Nags Head, NC 27959
(252) 441-7132

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
14500 NC Highway 12
Rodanthe, NC 27968
(252) 473-1131

This story was published on Apr 27, 2020

Bland Simpson

Bland Simpson is the author of The Coasts of Carolina: Seaside to Sound Country, Into the Sound Country, The Inner Islands, and North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky. A longtime member of the Tony Award-winning Red Clay Ramblers, he regularly appears on UNC-TV’s “Our State.” He is Kenan Distinguished professor of English and creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.