What To Do When It’s Too Hot To Hike: Part I
We hope you had a happy Independence Day!
The Fourth of July is the day Americans celebrate the simple joy of being an American, which is certainly something celebrate.But it has other meanings as well. For some, it’s also a day when we reflect upon the enormous sacrifices made by others that built and preserved our great nation.
For many it’s an opportunity to fire up the barbecue grill and celebrate with family.
For others it’s a day to throw huge military parades. Tanks a bunch!
Kids of all ages love the fireworks.
And of course, the Fourth marks the start of the full-on summer season, when most people are on vacation down at the beach or in that cabin in the mountains.
For Brian and Sylvia, Independence Day marks the high point of the summer Dog Days, IE Air Conditioner Season. In the Southeastern United States this season starts sometime around Memorial Day and lasts all the way through Labor Day at least. But it peaks right in July.
We’re of the opinion that with the exception of water sports, almost any other time of the year is better to be outside. Summer in the South is simply too hot (and too buggy) for enjoyable hiking. In addition, it’s also thunderstorm season. The fury of Eastern Carolina storms can be quite severe. Some of the absolute worst weather we have ever seen has been on the Blue Ridge Parkway during summer thunderstorm season.
So what would we recommend as an alternative to the mountains in the two scorching hot months to come?
The obvious answer is the coast. North Carolina’s long coast with its many beaches, wildlife refuges and historical sites provides a good refuge from the heat. The temperatures here are usually a bit milder here than inshore, and the strong onshore breeze makes it feel much less hot and humid than it actually is. Plus a cool dip in the water never hurts in summer.
Here’s a few ideas based on our own experiences…Today we’ll focus on one of our favorite coastal areas, and one NC’s true treasures…The Outer Banks
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Stretching from The Virginia Border all the way south to Cape Lookout, North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a 200 mile long strip of barrier islands, most of which is fronted by excellent beach. While beaches tend to be crowd attracting magnets, the enormous size of the Outer Banks acts like a great sponge absorbing the legions of beach goers. Fairly spartan amenities also plays some part — this is wild beach, there are very few foot wash stations here.
Nowhere is this more true than Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Only a few beaches here are ever crowded and then only on certain days; note that some beaches allow four wheel drive vehicles, and these will be the crowded ones, if any. Still, any one of these beaches are in a far more primitive state than the more popular ones to the north and south; you’ll likely see all sorts of wildlife in just a short stroll. Top off any visit with a trip to the justifiably famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Famed for being the place where the pirate Blackbeard met his end, the little island of Ocracoke is home to small but thriving community of artisans, artists, antique and curio shop owners that give it a ‘far out’ feel, something like a smaller Asheville by the sea. You can only get here by boat or ferry; the easiest way to reach it is from Cape Hatteras Town, where a short (and free) auto ferry runs at regular intervals. Note that the lines to get aboard this ferry on peak summer weekends, are quite long. Fortunately they run at 15-20 minute intervals at mid day. Our advice is NOT to depart the island late in the day and get stuck in the massive stampede to the exit.
Note that many travel guides mention the “wild ponies” of Ocracoke as one of the signature attractions. Well, the ponies exist and you can see them…inside a fenced in enclosure off the main road. This is where they have been kept since the 1950’s by the National Park Service to prevent accidents on the narrow island’s single busy road. Like many groups of “wild” horses scattered around the United States, these are better termed ‘free range livestock’ and are managed by the park staff.
If you want to see ponies in the wild our advice is to head down to seldom visited Cape Lookout and see the Ponies of Shackleford Banks. These too are managed, but are generally free roaming (they are ‘penned’ in by deeper water that surrounds the islands) and feel less like domestic livestock and more like something wild. You can also see “quasi-wild” ponies at Corolla further north, and at Grayson Highlands in the Virginia Blue Ridge.
Our advice here? Rent (or bring) a bike and take a bike ride around Ocracoke village which is the home of small, but charming, Ocracoke Lighthouse.
Fort Macon and Beaufort, NC
All things considered our favorite destination on the coast is probably North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. It’s easy to reach, much less developed than the commercial beaches further South, and still offers some small seacoast towns that have real charm. Representing these two classes is the little town of Beaufort, and nearby Fort Macon State Park.
Beaufort ranks as one of our favorite small towns in the Carolinas. From the downtown you can take a private boat and go see ‘wild’ ponies out on Shackleford Banks — or you might even be able to see the ponies, which are scattered in small herds throughout the offshore islands, right from the outdoor decks of the restaurants in town.
Fort Macon is just a few miles from Beaufort (both are just outside of bigger Morehead City.) It is sort of the companion to the busier Fort Fisher located out on Cape Fear, which is quite good in its own right. There is a historic fort here, as the name implies, and also a fine and lightly developed sand beach. Like almost all NC State Parks, admission is totally free. But please keep your dogs on a leash!
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Though it may well be overrun with people on peak summer weekends Jockey’s Ridge is still worth seeing. This is the largest active sand dune system in the eastern United States, and is a great place for kite flying, hang gliding, and just general ‘dunacy.’ Dogs love it too…just bring plenty of water. We recommend visiting on a weekday if possible Jockey’s Ridge is the busiest state park in the NC system (and like almost all the rest, admission is free!)
There is a very nice driving trip that requires 2-3 days and allows you to take in everything listed above. It begins on NC 70 in New Bern NC, which is a fine place to visit itself; moves south on 70 to the Crystal Coast; proceeds along a small scenic route to Cedar Island where it hops on the ferry (this ferry is NOT free and runs infrequently; check the schedule on the NCDOT website.) The Ferry drops one at Ocracoke, which in turn is lined to Hatteras by the shorter ferry described above. From Hatteras it’s just an hour or two to reach Nags Head, where one can pick up US 64 and from there complete the loop back to New Bern or else speed off to whence you came.
Next we’ll look at some other places one can go in and around the Carolinas to escape the heat of the long, hit summer.