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Visitor numbers are up for Outer Banks national parks

Pandemic-related restrictions appear to have had little effect on visitor numbers.

If there is any question that visitor numbers are up for the season, Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Dave Hallac has the numbers that should erase all doubt.

Speaking at the August 19 Dare County Tourism Board meeting, Hallac shared several visitation numbers for park service sites across the Outer Banks.

“It has been a very busy summer,” said Hallac. “So far we are seeing some of the highest numbers we have seen at Wright Brothers in the past decade. And the Cape Hatteras numbers just came in for July. At 1,844,000 at the end of July, this has been the busiest first seven months in the history of the park since it was established in 1953.”

national parks

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Dave Hallac. Philip S. Ruckle Jr. photo

Although visitor numbers were down in the early part of 2020, the first half of this year saw the number of people visiting that park bounce back with close to 300,000 people checking in so far this year. The 2017 total for all 12 months was 413,387.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore had an estimated 2.65 million visitors in 2020.

Hallac said another busy place has been Fort Raleigh, with about 192,000 visits.

“That is the highest number to date since 2016,” Hallac added. “It’s not clear if we will have the busiest year on record; it turns out that back in 2001, August and September were extremely busy. So for us to keep up with those numbers will be interesting.”

Even The Lost Colony production, a partnership with the park service, has had a very good year. Although the remainder of the season was canceled, Hallac said there were often six or seven hundred or even a thousand people in the theater, where in the past it was fairly typical to only have four or five hundred guests at a time.

“So there has been a lot of renewed interest in the play,” he added, “and we are happy to see that.”

The increased numbers have, however, come with a price. As visitor numbers continue to set new records, health concern restrictions have cut into the areas open to them.

“It has been a little bit of a challenge for workers in the visitor center,” Hallac continued. “We are now back to mask wearing with reduced occupancy.”

Hallac went on to say there have been substantial management challenges on everything from law enforcement, to trash, to visitor complaints about the quality of their visit.

“That being said,” Hallac added, “I think the majority of visitors have accepted that, and had a good visitor experience. But we are going to have to keep our fingers crossed so that either the numbers go down a little bit so that they are more manageable, or that we can find other strategies related to education and communication to try to have a more preventative way to overcome some of these challenges we have been having.”

Hallac then shared future plans for the area related to fishing center improvements, a new visitor facility, lighthouse renovations and NC 12.

On Monday, August 23, the first-ever designated kayak launch within Cape Hatteras National Seashore opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the south east end of the Oregon Inlet Marina. Hallac said money from Ocean Atlantic Rentals, Bass Pro Shops and TowneBank helped the nonprofit partner Outer Banks Forever make the project possible.

The fishing center itself will be getting a face lift.

Hallac said the 57 boat marina leased to Oregon Inlet Fishing Center LLC and managed by Russ King will be getting an in-slip fueling system which will be safer and more efficient for boats fueling on a daily basis. Following that will be some parking improvements and then, probably not for at least a year,  the old building will be demolished and a new structure built a little further back from the water along with a new fish house as well.

At the other end of Oregon Inlet will be a new facility, the Bonner Bridge Pier.

“As you may know,” Hallac explained, “the last 1,000 feet of the Bonner Bridge is staying in place. The purpose is to form a current training device, a way to help deflect the current into the middle of the inlet to help enhance water depth and safe navigation. DOT has made a variety of structural improvements to what is now the Bonner Bridge Pier and will be managing it from a recreational perspective. They have also placed a beautiful new railing all the way around the top of the pier for safety purposes. We are in the process of installing traffic cams and are working on some substantial improvements to the parking area we hope will be completed soon.”

Although Oregon Inlet is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the remaining Bonner Bridge section is still owned by NCDOT within a right-of-way. Some 72 parking spaces are planned and Hallac said he was confident that they are going to fill up –particularly next summer once visitors know about the pier.

“I’m sure you are going to love it,” he continued. “When you get out to the end of the pier, you really feel like you are in the middle of Oregon Inlet. There is a beautiful view of Pamlico Sound, the Basnight Bridge and a great view out to the east of the Atlantic Ocean. We think it is going to be very, very popular, and at this point it is going to be free access and open 24 hours a day.”

Reporting on progress for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse restoration project, Hallac said the first step was to remove paint from the inside.

“That proved more complicated than expected,” he said. “Turns out there were seven to nine coats of paint, several of which contained lead, including some of the original coating inside the lighthouse, often called whitewash or sometimes referred to as lime-wash. It is a lime-based solution, so it was very difficult to get this off the inside of the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. Most of it is now off and we are doing final testing to make sure the levels are appropriate.”

national parks

On August 16, Cape Hatteras National Seashore biological technicians discovered a live, two-headed loggerhead sea turtle hatchling during a routine nest excavation. Courtesy CHNS

A little farther south, just south of the last few houses in Frisco at the Frisco Beach Access, work will start soon to add 50 parking spaces to that area along with renovations to the restroom facility and boardwalk. Work is scheduled to begin in October. Some of the parking will be blocked off, but there will be temporary facilities in place during construction.

Hallac concluded his talk saying he is part of a Highway 12 task force looking at seven hot spots within the park service area. The first is the canal zone, second at Pea Island Visitor Center, third is Mirlo Beach S Curves, fourth is in Avon south of Avon Pier at Ocean View Drive, the fifth is in Buxton at the curve by the motels, six is between Frisco and Hatteras villages and the last one is on the north portion of Ocracoke Island for about a mile near Ramp 59.

Hallac said the group is looking at factors that affect those areas and working on a conceptual plan to solve transportation issues at those areas.

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