Explore Geology
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Cape Hatteras

National Seashore

North Carolina

cover of park brochure

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Photo of people fishing on the seashore at Cape Hatteras
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

A thin broken strand of islands curves out into the Atlantic Ocean and then back again in a sheltering embrace of North Carolina's mainland coast and its offshore sounds. These are the Outer Banks of North Carolina. For thousands of years these barrier islands have survived the onslaught of wind and sea. Today their long stretches of beach, sand dunes, marshes, and woodlands are set aside as Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

  • It can be a lonely place; you may walk along the beach unseen except by shore birds searching for a meal.

  • It can be a place of discovery; you may visit the 1870 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, one of many monuments to man's encounter with the sea.

  • It can be a wild place; you may be buffeted by an approaching gale or surprised by the honking of large flocks of migrating geese.

  • And it can be an exciting place, where you may explore many opportunities for recreation: surf fishing, sunbathing, swimming, beachcombing, canoeing, sailing, surfing, snorkeling.
Part land, part sea, Cape Hatteras offers rewards from each.

Where Land and Sea Merge
Cape Hatteras is at the ocean's edge. But no well-defined boundary marks where the sea ends and the land begins. Here land and sea work together in an uneasy alliance. They share many valuable resources. But the sea rules the barrier islands and there are few places that escape its influence. On your visit take a moment to discover this seaside kingdom.

Dwarfed, odd-shaped trees may catch your eye. Severely pruned by salt-laden winds, these trees are just one example of how the sea affects living things. Closer to the sea, shore birds patrolling the beach for food are interesting to watch. Some catch small fish or crabs carried by waves, while others probe the sand or search under shells for clams, worms, and insects. On a hike through the maritime forests you will leave the sea behind briefly. These woodlands of oak, cedar, and yaupon holly grow on the islands' higher, broader, somewhat protected parts.

Bright red holly berries and wildflowers offer a brush of color that enlivens the mostly green, brown, and blue landscape. It is a landscape that is usually peaceful—but not always. Storms sometimes batter the islands with fierce winds and waves. Over the years you can witness the retreat of the shoreline from these violent attacks. For the tiny ghost crab, living on the beach in a wave-washed underground burrow, survival is a matter of adaptation, adjusting to meet the demands of the land and sea.

In the protected waters west of the islands you can find excellent opportunities for crabbing and clamming. The ocean also harbors a bounty of life, which includes channel bass, pompano, sea trout, bluefish, and other sport fish. Wintering snow geese, Canada geese, ducks, and many other kinds of birds populate the islands. The best times for observing birdlife are during fall and spring migrations and in the winter. Salt marshes are a source of food for birds and other animals year-round. Here sound waters meet the marsh twice each day as tides come and go, exchanging and replenishing nutrients. At the ocean's edge, you are always on the threshold of a new experience.

Graveyard of the Atlantic
The treacherous waters that lie off the coast of the Outer Banks bear the name Graveyard of the Atlantic. It is a grim, but fitting, epithet, for here more than 600 ships have wrecked, victims of shallow shoals, storms, and war. Diamond Shoals, a bank of shifting sand ridges hidden beneath a turbulent sea off Cape Hatteras, has never promised safe passage for any ship. But seafarers often risked the shoals to take advantage of north or south flowing currents that passed nearby. Many never reached their destination. Fierce winter norteasters and tropical-born hurricanes drove many ships aground, including the schooner G.A. Kohler in 1933. Other ships were lost in wars. During World War II German submarines sank so many Allied tankers and cargo ships here that these waters earned a second sobering name—Torpedo Junction. In the past 400 years the graveyard has claimed many lives. But many were saved by island villagers. As early as the 1870s villagers served as members of the U.S. Life Saving Service. Others manned lighthouses built to guide mariners. Later, when the U.S. Coast Guard became the guardian of the nation's shores, many residents joined its ranks. When rescue attempts failed, villagers buried the dead and salvaged shipwreck remains. Today few ships wreck, but storms still uncover the ruins of old wrecks that lie along the beaches of the Outer Banks.

Photo of Nineteenth century island rescue crews

Nineteenth century island rescue crews returned shipwreck survivors to safety in small oar-powered boats. Today the U.S. Coast Guard patrols the Outer Banks with helicopters and other modern equipment. The Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest peacetime honor for saving a life has been awarded to many Hatteras rescuers for their extraordinary heroic deeds.

park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A geology photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

geologic research subheading

Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/caha/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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