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End of the road is start of 4WD fun on OBX

Posted August 13, 2010 2:21 p.m. EDT
Updated August 13, 2010 6:23 p.m. EDT

— In the northern Outer Banks, the last asphalt of N.C. Highway 12 doesn't mark the end of the road, but the start of a 14-mile-long beach where wild horses and small communities hide among sand dunes and all the vehicles must have four-wheel drive.

"There is no paved option," tour guide Mike Nicholson said. "The only way out here is to drive up the beach."

Five days a week, Nicholson leads tours of the four-wheel-drive area, commonly called the 4x4 beaches.

He points out the unusual sights on the beaches: water-covered tree stumps that are the remnants of an ancient forest, an old navigational buoy washed up by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, a large osprey nest on a utility pole.

And, of course, the area's treasures: the wild Corolla horses.

"They came on a ship," Nicholson tells tourists.

He explains how the herd of approximately seven dozen wild Spanish mustangs are descendants of horses shipwrecked or abandoned by European explorers in the 1500s.

Horses, osprey and off-road drivers, though, aren't the only inhabitants of the 4x4 beaches. There are 1,000 permanent and rental homes tucked behind the sand dunes.

Life is simple for the people who live and vacation there, Nicholson said.

"No mayors, no town councils. The town council up here is where they all get together and have a few beers," he said.

But for the unprepared, the 4x4 beaches hold plenty of pitfalls.

Tow truck owner Larry Weaver said that drivers stuck in the sand can keep him busy "all day long. ... Sometimes, (there's) one; sometimes, eight," he said.

Visitors who can navigate a four-wheel-drive vehicle on a bumpy beach say it's worth the effort.

"We like it, because it's peaceful. We like to fish, have fun," tourist Joe Bradford said. "We love the four-wheel-drive beach."