America’s Scenic Roads: N.C. 12 Epitomizes Banks’ Beauty

Thu December 11, 2003 - Southeast Edition
Pete Sigmund

Over the rivers and through the woods lie many scenic roads, like Highway 12 that runs along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Here is an installment in a series of articles on the most interesting roads, highways and bridges in the United States. We invite readers to send us their suggestions for future stories.

The 121.5-mi. long Highway 12 along North Carolina’s barrier islands, or Outer Banks, and Cedar Island on the mainland offers its travelers a scenic tour complete with sand dunes, sea, sound and sky.

Though some sections are developed, much of the highway runs through protected, uninhabited shore. You can see the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Pamlico Sound on the other while driving the asphalt strip that is as much as 50 mi. out from the mainland.

Sixty years ago, as the story goes, the Outer Banks had 108 roads that cut through the sand. Today, the islands have one –– N.C. Highway 12 –– and sometimes, during bad weather, none.

N.C. 12, two lanes of asphalt known as “The Beach Road,” stretches from Corolla on the north, down past Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head on Bodie Island.

It crosses the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge to Hatteras Island, where it goes through the old towns of Rodanthe, Salvo, Avon, Buxton and Hatteras. After breaking for a ferry ride, the highway continues through Ocracoke Island to the village of Ocracoke.

At Kill Devil Hills, you have the opportunity to visit the memorial and museum marking the achievement of the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers on Dec. 17, 1903, and climb mountainous dunes similar to the ones on which the brothers flew.

Then, at Whalebone Junction, a few miles south of Nags Head, you can take Route 158 for a short drive over to Manteo on Roanoke Island, the site of the “Lost Colony,” the first English settlement in the New World, whose inhabitants vanished.

Crossing the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet, N.C. 12 ventures to more remote areas. You travel through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and eventually wind up at Cape Hatteras, “the Graveyard of the Atlantic,” with its famed lighthouse and churning waters caused by clashing currents.

You can still hear the Old English dialect of some old timers in the towns, which were founded by both shipwrecked sailors and people from the mainland who wanted more solitude.

They pronounce high tide as “Hoy Toide.”

“There’s no doubt this is a scenic highway, especially outside the villages,” said Bill Jones, public affairs officer of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) in Raleigh. “You just hope the wind doesn’t blow up and the sea doesn’t get up.”

From Cape Hatteras, a ferry carries you and your car to Ocracoke, which also is a national seashore. This was the haunt of Blackbeard the Pirate.

With a beard that masked his entire face, Blackbeard has often been called the most notorious pirate in the history of seafaring. It is rumored that this infamous pirate would weave wicks laced with gunpowder into his hair and light them during battle. Adding to his menacing appearance, Blackbeard dressed himself in a crimson coat, two swords by his side and bandoleers filled with pistols and knives across his chest.

After a very successful, albeit short lived, career as a pirate, the Royal Navy tracked down Blackbeard, who was killed in a battle at Ocracoke Inlet on Nov. 22, 1718.

“A lot of people still look for Blackbeard’s treasure,” said Jones. “If he ever did bury it, I feel it’s long-gone.”

From Ocracoke, you can take another ferry approximately 24 mi. across Pamlico Sound to Cedar Island, where N.C. 12 continues for nearly 12 mi. before becoming Route 70.

Building a Highway on Sand

The road down the Outer Banks was completed in sections, starting in Hatteras and heading north. More than 17 mi. (27.3 km) joining Hatteras and Avon were finished in 1948, followed by an 18-mi. (30 km) section between Avon and Rodanthe in 1952 and one from Rodanthe to Oregon Inlet in 1953. The road was designated N.C. 12 in 1963.

Considered by many to be one of the most unique highway construction projects ever attempted, the construction of N.C. 12 was in itself precarious. If the roadbed was built too high, it would be undercut by the frequent over wash, If too low, it would be covered by sand dunes. The contractor’s solution: build it as close to the contours of the land as possible. This allowed both sand and water to move easily across the surface without damaging the highway.

The contractor, Ballenger and Associates, extended concrete shelves 12 ft. (3.7 m) beyond the road’s edge. This prevented the tide that flowed across the road during storms from undercutting important sections.

Despite the innovative engineering, it is not uncommon for portions of N.C. 12 to disappear during ferocious hurricanes and tropical storms. Cape Hatteras takes the brunt of many hurricanes moving up from the Caribbean Sea. High winds and blowing sand frequently cover sections of the road.

“A lot of times, the road gets flooded,” said Jones. “Last September, Hurricane Isabel formed a new inlet, cutting off Hatteras Village from the rest of Hatteras Island.”

Yet, longtime islanders are used to this sort of thing. Tropical storms and nor’easters hit the East Coast eight or 10 times a year on average, some of them with deadly force.

North Carolinians say a 1933 storm had many characteristics of last September’s Isabel, hitting at high tide and washing deep inland. Many still talk about the Ash Wednesday storm of March 1962, which also breached the barrier island. Hurricane Dennis in 1999 was the most recent major washover, though that was not a total breach.