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Visit the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks (It’s Worth It!)

Pea Island, located on the northern end of Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, is home to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Visit the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks (It's Worth It!)
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Hatteras Island, NC

Nature and bird lovers will enjoy visiting this protected area. Here you can learn about local wildlife and efforts that are being made to protect them.

Is Pea Island Worth a Visit?

If you’re looking for a half-day or day-long activity to keep your crew busy during your trip to the Outer Banks, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is worth a visit.

Located just south of the Oregon Inlet Bridge, it’s an easy 25-minute drive from Nags Head or Roanoke Island. If you’re coming up from the south, it’s also easy to access, being about a 40-minute drive up from the Avon or Buxton area.

Visitor’s Center

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Visitor Center

The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center offers hands-on learning for people of all ages. Visitors can use binoculars and telescopes to view birds and other wildlife from the large picture window.

Scavenger hunt and map activities are available for the kids. A “please touch” sandbox on the porch filled with shells, along with an identification sheet was a bit hit with our kids as well.

The kids also enjoyed the many specimens of animals on display inside the visitor’s center, and the chance to learn about their habits and habitats.

Hiking Trails

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Trail

The most popular trail at the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge is the North Pond trail. This leaves directly beside the Visitor’s Center building, behind the restroom facility.

The North Pond trail crosses a small freshwater pond filled with turtles (not sea turtles, the freshwater variety). The kids loved watching the many turtles of various sizes, and this was, in fact, a highlight of the whole excursion.

If you don’t have time to do the whole hike, at least head out on the boardwalk to the turtle pond to watch the turtles for a few minutes.

The trail turns from there down through a quite magical area overarched by trees and vines, also fun for the kids, minus the mosquitoes and biting flies.

Insider tip: Be sure to wear insect repellent on this hike to discourage the bugs! Hats and water are a good idea too.

The trail then turns to crushed shells or sand in places, and continues on past several deck-board vantage points, both to the North Pond to your right and the New Field Pond to your left.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Trail

The terminus of the half-mile hike out on the North Pond Trail is a two-story observation deck. This is a rewarding way to finish the trek in the heat and sun, with some stunning views of the ponds and the Pamlico Sound.

From here you can retrace your steps to the visitor’s center, for a total hike length of about a mile.

If you’re up for a longer hike, you can keep heading around the North Pond, along the service road which will take you out to another parking area farther north along Highway 12, which is also where the Salt Flats trail is located, along with additional observation areas.

From here you can hike back along the highway to your car in the visitor’s center parking lot, for a total hike length of four miles.

Is Pea Island Free?

Perhaps one of the best parts about a visit to Pea Island is that it’s absolutely free. There’s no cost to park, access the visitor’s center, or use the hiking trails.

If the vacation budget is already stretched to the limit, a visit to Pea Island can offer a fun, educational day out without breaking the bank.

You can also use the two boat launch areas on Pea Island without any associated fees. One is located near the Oregon Inlet Bridge, and the other is just south of the Bonner Bridge.

Both of these boat launch areas give access to Pamlico Sound, and are great for putting in kayaks to explore the marshes and inlets of the sound side of Pea Island.

What is Pea Island Known For?

Pea Island is best known for being a habitat for nesting and migratory birds. These include flocks of Snow Geese, Tundra Swans, Least Terns, eagles, ospreys, and many, many other species of wading and shore birds.

The freshwater ponds visible from the visitor’s center and along the hiking trails offer many of these birds an ideal, protected habitat. Thirteen miles of protected beach also offer plenty of bird nesting and feeding grounds.

Pea Island is also managed as a protected nesting area for Loggerhead Sea Turtles. The beaches within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge are off-limits to vehicles, and active turtle nest sites are kept under observation and roped off from visitor access.

In addition to wildlife observation, also available on Pea Island are plenty of other recreational activities, including hiking, swimming, fishing, and kayaking. It’s a perfect nature-lovers retreat.

Don’t miss the chance to spot the shipwrecked “Oriental,” which you can see just offshore here when the tide is low. This shipwreck is home to quite an impressive number of fish species as well, if you’re interested in casting your line in that direction.

Can You Take Shells From Pea Island?

While many nationally protected parklands prohibit you from removing any natural elements, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, this is not the case with shells on Pea Island.

The beaches are relatively unfrequented, meaning the likelihood of finding good shells is higher than at some more popular beaches.

And as long as the shells are not currently home to a living animal, you are free to take any shells you find home with you.

The best time to look for shells is after a storm, as the stronger waves and currents often push many fresh shells up onto the beach.

Can You Swim on Pea Island?

Pea Island is a great place to go swimming! The beach is just across Highway 12 from the Pea Island Visitor’s Center.

If you’re headed to Pea Island for an outing, be sure to pack your swimsuits and beach gear (and a picnic lunch), to finish up your morning of exploring with some sun, sand, and water time at the beach.

The beach does not have a lifeguard, so be sure to pay attention to your kids as they play in the water. As at any beach on the Outer Banks, always be aware of currents and waves, and know how to be safe in the water.

There is a restroom facility available at the Wildlife Refuge trailhead, but no shower facilities for washing off sandy feet.

Where Do You Park for Pea Island Beach?

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Park

The easiest place to park to get on the beach on Pea Island is the parking lot next to the National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center.

The only inconvenience here is that the parking lot is on one side of the highway, and the beach is on the other. This means you have to cross the busy highway to climb over the dune to the beach. Cars don’t slow down, even though there is a crosswalk painted on the road, so proceed with caution.

But once you’re across the road, it’s a very short walk to the ocean! Just climb the dune, and there it is.

You can access the restroom facilities at the trailhead near the visitor’s center.

Farther south along Highway 12, close to Rodanthe, is another parking area and beach access point to the Pea Island Beach.

This parking area is a pull-off parking area, with no restroom facilities. From this parking area, it’s a slightly longer walk over the dunes to the ocean front.

Can You Drive On Pea Island?

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Highway 12

Pea Island is accessed via Highway 12, the National Scenic Byway that passes through the Outer Banks. You can drive to the Pea Island visitor’s center and beach access.

If you were hoping to drive on the beach on Pea Island, this is strictly off-limits.

Many other beaches on the Outer Banks allow beach driving by permit, with numerous beach ramps available to access the beach.

However, Pea Island is a protected nesting site for sea turtles and numerous endangered or threatened bird species, many of which nest right on the sands of the beach. For this reason, this particular stretch of beach is restricted from the use of vehicles.

Are Dogs Allowed at Pea Island?

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, No Pets Sign

If you were hoping to bring your four-legged family member along for the hike on the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge nature trails, sadly you’ll have to leave him out of this adventure.

According to the park service, dogs are not allowed on the west side of Highway 12, except for the parking area. This means you can’t take dogs on any of the hiking trails on Pea Island.

Dogs are allowed on the beach on Pea Island, however. In this case, they must be kept under owner control at all times, and kept leashed on a max. 10 foot long leash.

Can You Fish in Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge?

Yes, fishing is allowed on the ocean and in Pamlico Sound on Pea Island. In fact, fishing is one of the popular attractions of these protected beaches.

Oregon Inlet offers plentiful fish, drawing fishermen and women from far and wide. Pea Island is home to a popular fishing pier located at the inlet. Bank fishing from the rocky terminal is another popular location for fishing.

Fishing is not allowed, however, in the freshwater ponds located within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. These ponds and their contents are reserved for the wildlife that are being protected here.

What Is the History of Pea Island?

Pea Island is indeed an island, or at least is has been an separate island at various times in its recent geologic history.

It first became an island separate from Hatteras Island in 1738 when the New Inlet was created by natural forces, cutting a channel across the dunes to connect the ocean with Pamlico Sound.

Oregon Inlet was similarly formed in 1846, separating Pea Island from the lands farther north.

Pea Island has intermittently been connected or disconnected to Hatteras Island between the years of 1922 until 1945 as storms and waves shift sands around in the very narrow New Inlet.

How did Pea Island Get Its Name?

The pressing question my children wanted to know as we drove toward Pea Island was why is it called Pea Island.

It turns out that the island is named for the plentiful flowering wild pea vines that grow all over the island and offer food for the migrating geese and other birds.