Sweeping new rules took effect in February to restrict beach driving at the national seashore, which covers 65 shoreline miles on three barrier islands from south of Nags Head to Ocracoke. The rules provide safeguards for federally protected birds and turtles, and they set aside long stretches of shoreline for human visitors who want to get away from vehicles.
Permits are now being required for the first time: $50 for a week of beach driving, $120 for a calendar year. In the first five months, drivers have paid more than $1 million in fees for more than 14,000 beach permits.
Off-road vehicles are banned now from miles of Outer Banks beaches where they were allowed in the past. The spots most popular with surfers and surf casters, swimmers and shell collectors are off-limits for all or much of the year – both for vehicles and for people on foot. They include the broad spits where these narrow islands end at inlets, and the long Cape Point elbow that bends around the spiral-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
“It’s the best beach in the world, but it’s closed over a couple of birds,” said Tom Barkalow, 47, a Nash County high school science teacher, who pulled a few sea mullets from the surf on a hot Monday morning.
He and his wife, Susan, basked in a sea breeze beside their pickup truck on a half-mile stretch of sand near beach access Ramp 43 at Buxton. This strip is popular and sometimes crowded because it’s the closest spot to Cape Point – which is almost two miles to the south – where vehicles have been allowed this summer. Barkalow spends 50 to 60 days here every year.
“People have been driving on these beaches since the 1930s,” he said. “And all of a sudden, they’re shutting it down. I’m going to keep coming down here until they tell me I can’t.”
Beach drivers argue that most of the Cape Hatteras seashore beaches are hard to reach on foot. They are fighting the new restrictions with lawsuits and legislation.