This 72-mile-long national seashore encompasses several barrier islands and many miles of pristine beaches. The preserve takes its name from an elbow-like bend in Hatteras Island that sweeps the barrier strip southwestward along the coast. This bend, known as Cape Hatteras, is the site of the famed Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The beaches along Hatteras Island are recognized nesting areas for Loggerhead sea turtles during summer.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, a towering 208 feet high, was activated in December 1870, 1,500 feet from the water's edge. With its distinctive black and white stripes, it soon became a landmark of the Carolina coastline. It is the tallest lighthouse in the United States, and has served as a primary navigational aid for mariners rounding the treacherous Diamond Shoals. As the shoreline around it eroded away over the next century it became clear that in its original location the lighthouse was in danger of collapsing into the sea. In 1999 the National Park Service moved the lighthouse approximately one-half mile to an area less susceptible to the ocean's influence.
Naturalists come to the Cape (a National Audubon Society Important Birding Area) to observe the immense populations of shorebirds, seabirds, and migrating raptors; nearly 400 species of birds have been recorded in and near the national seashore. Nearby Buxton Woods preserves the largest remaining maritime forest on North Carolina’s coastal barriers. The forest is a songbird migrant magnet; its pine and oak woodlands provide cover and foraging and resting areas for exhausted songbirds flying north in spring, as well as for fall migrants needing to store energy before making their southbound departures. Large numbers of Black Skimmers and terns and small populations of endangered Piping Plovers nest on adjacent Cape Point.
First-time visitors should begin at the Bodie Island Lighthouse and Visitor Center. A short trail and boardwalk leads from the visitor center to marshes and ponds that support a variety of ducks, geese, and Tundra Swans. Observation platforms along the trail offer good vantages for viewing the wildlife. The unmarked 75-mile Cape Hatteras Beach Trail runs the length of the park.
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