Pea Island NWR

Sea, sand, surf and sun are just a few of the attractions at Pea Island.
Sea, sand, surf and sun are just a few of the attractions at Pea Island.

How can you tell if a nature refuge is working? It becomes wildly popular.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, south of Nags Head and on the Outer Banks, was created in 1938 from commercial hunting lands and was nearly inaccessible until the 1950s. Today, it hosts 2.5 million visitors a year, all looking to enjoy nature.

Boasting 13 miles of Atlantic shoreline, this fragile ribbon of land is only a quarter-mile to a mile wide. Its 5,800 acres of land and 25,700 acres of water span a wide variety of habits from ocean beach to marsh and tidal creeks.

The result: a habitat that boasts more than 350 bird species, 34 fish species 32 reptile species and 25 mammal species.

Cindy Heffley, visitors services specialist of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains the refuge, says it is charged, among other things, with providing a “nesting, resting, wintering habitat for migratory birds” and for “public enjoyment of wildlife.”

Right smack in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, the refuge is the eastern airborne “interstate” for birds, so spring and fall are big seasons. But even summer months are interesting: You’ll see species like the American oystercatcher, American coot, black necked stilt, black skimmer and many others, so make sure you take binoculars.

Weather and insect permitting (take your repellent and sunscreen), walk two trails that meander primarily around North Pond, one of three controlled impoundments. Two viewing stations offer great views of any birds resting or feeding in the pond.

Fishing is another great draw for visitors: The refuge’s beach is a favorite of fishermen. Any time of the year, you’ll find someone with a line in the water. In additional to bluefish, anglers are after red drum, speckled trout, gray trout, spot striped bass and flounder.

Oh, yeah: The beach is also open for good old-fashioned sunbathing, swimming and beachcombing. Tip: Take a picnic, as no food is nearby.

The refuge also has a nearby shallow-draft boat ramp that canoeists and kayakers use frequently. Ongoing road repairs may limit some of the available parking.

In keeping with public use, the refuge offers several programs, many without charge, including bird walks, interpretive programs (many geared to kids) and guided canoe trips ($30 for a one-hour, $40 for a two-hour).

There are very few places you can do so much for so little and it be so priceless.

Admission is free to the refuge. Refuge details:

If you’re hungry/thirsty …

At the Outer Banks Fishing Pier on South Old Oregon Inlet Road (access just north of Bodie Island Lighthouse), you’ll find Fishheads Bar & Grill (, a casual, affordable, indoor/outdoor venue with daily specials and live music.

Around for 70 years, Sam & Omie’s (, near Jeannette’s Pier in Nags Head, is noted for great food and reasonable prices. Area info: