Visitors to Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands will simultaneously be visiting the gorgeous Cape Hatteras National Seashore. One of the largest preserved parcels of the Outer Banks, the National Seashore stretches across 70 miles of shoreline, encompassing seven villages on Hatteras Island, and providing visitors with miles of undisturbed, scenic beaches as well as some of the prettiest natural drives on the East Coast.
- Nags Head
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The Herbert C. Bonner Bridge is a lifeline for Hatteras Island, connecting the fragile barrier island communities of seven villages with the Northern Outer Banks. Completed and officially opened in 1963, the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, (known informally as just the "Bonner Bridge"), essentially opened the door for mainstream tourism to the southern Outer Banks. After its opening, vacationers from all over the East Coast could now access the gorgeous miles of beaches along the Cape Hatteras Seashore within minutes, instead of the lengthy and weather-dependent ferry ride that the Bonner Bridge had replaced.
For avid island vacationers, crossing the Bonner Bridge often marks the beginning of a great beach vacation, and the mile high views of Oregon Inlet, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pamlico Sound are an eye-opening experience for newcomers.
With great fishing holes located at either side of the bridge, and scenic views in every direction, it's no wonder that crossing the Bonner Bridge has become an enjoyable rite of passage for over 50 years of Outer Banks vacationers.
The History and Specifics of the Bonner Bridge
Hatteras Island has always had visitors, from the early European explorers to the rugged fishermen and hunters who would make long treks to the island for years leading up to the bridge's opening.
For centuries, Hatteras Island was connected to the northern Outer Banks, until a rogue hurricane cut a deep inlet through the island in 1846. A boat that was stranded in the sound during the storm, the Oregon, was the first vessel to notice the new inlet, and after gaining notoriety for spreading the word, the inlet was officially named "Oregon Inlet."
After the inlet formation and before the bridge, a privately owned ferry run by Capt. Tillet made regular runs across Oregon Inlet in the 1920s and beyond. This provided necessary transportation for locals, but also introduced the first tourists to the southern Outer Banks shores. These early visitors were adventurers, travelling through miles of makeshift sand paths and muddy soundside terrain to access some of the East Coast's best fishing and waterfowl hunting grounds. Hatteras Island locals picked up on this opportunity to earn a little extra income, and a handful became guides for these early explorers, directing them to some of the best locations for hunting and fishing.
Captain Tillet's ferry, and the resulting stories of the fantastic beaches, hunting and fishing on Hatteras Island, soon became legendary. This naturally caused more and more visitors to head to the northern border of Oregon Inlet to catch a ferry ride to Hatteras, and by the 1940s and 1950s, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) had stepped in, first subsidizing Tillet's ferry operations, and then buying him out and taking over the daily operations altogether.
By the late 1950s, the North Carolina state-run ferries across Oregon Inlet had become efficient enough to carry 2,000 passengers across daily, but unfortunately, the operations were incredibly expensive, costing half a million dollars a year to maintain the regular runs. In addition, during the peak summer and fall fishing seasons, the ferries couldn't accommodate the number of tourists who were eager to explore the Cape Hatteras seashore, and long lines would ensue on both sides of the inlet.
As a result, the state and federal governments joined forces to contemplate the possibility of building a bridge that could span the inlet. The ensuing Bonner Bridge would cost an estimated $4 million to build, with the state covering $1.5 million and the federal government footing the bill for $2.5 million. A portion of this cost was passed on to the National Park Service, and the funding was orchestrated and assisted by a local North Carolina congressmen from Washington named Herbert Covington Bonner, who the bridge was eventually named after. (Sadly, while Bonner was able to celebrate the successful opening of the bridge, he passed away just two years later in Washington, DC.)
After the bridge opened in 1963, Hatteras Island blossomed, with NC Highway 12 being paved all the way to the edge of Hatteras Village, and a collection of vacation rental homes popping up all along the landscape. In fact, the oldest rental homes on Hatteras Island are just 40 or 50 years old, proof that the Bonner Bridge was the single most important instrument to bringing mainstream tourism to the southern Outer Banks beaches.
While the Bonner Bridge certainly opened up an entirely new portion of the Outer Banks for visitors to explore, the original architects and planners did not anticipate the decades of stormy weather that would threaten its very existence. The NCDOT worked hard to provide regular maintenance to keep the bridge up and running, spending an estimated $50 million between 1987 and 1999 to repair the bridge and keep it open for locals and visitors, but the bridge nevertheless underwent occasional periods of closures.
While the majority of these bridge closures occurred for a day or two at most after a storm, long enough for structural engineers and deep sea divers to check both the bridge itself and the concrete pilings deep underwater that held it together, one much longer closure in particular has a permanent place in local history.
In October of 1990, during a passing storm, a dredge collided with the structure, causing severe damage to several of the spanning bridge portions, and closing the bridge for approximately 6 weeks. During this time, emergency ferry runs were set up by the NCDOT to transport essential food and supply deliveries to islanders, as well as provide a way off the island for locals with medical appointments or family emergencies. And while the emergency ferries were certainly helpful, Hatteras Islanders were essentially stranded for weeks, with limited groceries and supplies, and completely cut off from the rest of the world. This incident also effectively shut down the tourism season for the year, and made everyone appreciate just how essential the Bonner Bridge was for both the local economy and the locals themselves.
When the bridge finally did reopen weeks later, local legend has it that the first vehicle to cross over the newly repaired Bonner Bridge was a Budweiser beer truck, and is was greeted on the southern side of Oregon Inlet with cheers.
The Bonner Bridge itself is 2.7 miles long, and spans the marshy areas bordering the southern end of Bodie Island, Oregon Inlet, and a small parcel of bulk headed waterfront on the southern side of Oregon Inlet. Heading from the north, the initial mile or so is a scenic drive overlooking a network of saltwater canals which are often dotted by stark white ibises peeking out over the marshy grasses.
Of course, every vacationer gets a little rush going over the "hump" which has limited visibility of oncoming traffic, but some incredible towering views of Oregon Inlet, the recently remodeled historic Coast Guard station, and the northern portion of Hatteras Island in general. After the hump, it's a smooth downhill ride to the paved NC Highway 12, which is bordered by a public parking area and exceptional fishing beaches on both the sound and ocean sides of the bridge.
While the Bonner Bridge has provided millions of vacationers with a scenic introduction to Hatteras Island and the southern Outer Banks, every good thing must come to an end, and in recent years it has become clearly obvious that the Bonner Bridge is outliving its intended period of use. Plans are in the works to replace the Bonner Bridge with a newer version, although like many current large endeavors along the shoreline, this plan is not without some controversy.
There are two camps on the bridge issue: proponents of a 17 mile long bridge that will span from Oregon Inlet to the outskirts of Rodanthe Village, and folks who favor a less expensive, replacement bridge with smaller bridges located over Hatteras Island "hot spots" that tend to flood easily, like the S-Curves outside of Rodanthe and the new Irene's Inlet that was formed in 2011.
There are also a small handful of folks who want to simply let the bridge deteriorate, and revert back to the original ferry system, with permanent ferry docks set up in Stumpy Point and Rodanthe. (This route is currently an emergency ferry route, which is set-up after road closures due to hurricane damage.) However, most folks agree that with the current number of vacationers, (well over a million a year), this option isn't a practical solution and the NCDOT is concentrating its efforts on designing a suitable and practical replacement bridge.
As the political parties involved weigh the pros and cons, current vacationers will still get to enjoy a drive over the scenic Bonner Bridge, and marvel at the incredible views during any time of day, and during any time of year. A drive over the Bonner Bridge is ever-changing, with the landscape always different depending on weather, time of day, and season, and for even the most seasoned of vacationers, every drive over the Bonner Bridge feels like the first time.
Attractions surrounding the Bonner Bridge
While most visitors think of the Bonner Bridge as a means, (albeit a beautiful means), to get to their final Hatteras or Ocracoke Island destination, the Bonner Bridge is in fact an attraction all its own.
Experienced Outer Banks fishermen know the Bonner Bridge well, as the 1/8 mile or so southern section features a ramp which is connected to the bridge, and extends well into the open waters of the inlet. This ramp was originally designed for sightseers and bridge repairmen, but over time it has become one of the most popular fishing locales on the northern edge of Hatteras Island.
All an angler has to do to take advantage of this unique fishing locale is to pack a cooler and tackle box, park in the paved public parking area located on the oceanside of the bridge's southern borders, and start walking. It's a two minute stroll from the parking area to the metal ramp way, and summer and shoulder season visitors alike will see groups of fishermen stacked along the walkway, with their lines in the water.
This ramp is relatively narrow, and doesn't provide much room for maneuvering, however some fishermen have been known to squeeze in a beach chair for more comfortable inlet-front accommodations, or simply lean or sit against the Bonner Bridge itself, and feel the subtle shakes and vibrations whenever a big truck passes through.
Obviously, the ramp isn't only open to just fishermen, and photographers and vista lovers alike will appreciate a quick 5 minute stroll along the walkway to view a top-of-the-world perspective of the Oregon Inlet, and to see what the fishermen are reeling in.
The ramp is open year round, any time of day, and while the railing is certainly high enough to prevent any accidental plunges into the inlet, visitors are advised that it is not guarded or monitored whatsoever.
The public parking area at the southern bridge entrance also provides easy access to two fantastically scenic waterfront locales - the soundside and oceanside portions of Oregon Inlet, both protected by a border of man-made rock walls that keep the inlet from closing.
These two spots are also popular fishing spots, as well as ideal locales for an oceanfront sunrise or a soundside sunset. Though there are no public restrooms available, road warriors that are en route to Hatteras Island and are in need of a break will find a scenic stop here well worth the effort, and a revitalizing intermission from a long drive.
As mentioned, the northern portion of the Boner Bridge overlooks a series of marshes and saltwater canals, as well as the Oregon Inlet beach which is accessible seasonally by a 4WD vehicle. Folks who make the trip via the beach access ramp will find several incredible stretches of soundside beaches that are literally located almost directly under the Bonner Bridge, depending on the tide. For a look at the bridge from an entirely new perspective, beach drivers are encouraged to take a drive along the sand and take a peek.
Of course, there are additional attractions at either end of the Bonner Bridge, including the Oregon Inlet Marina and the historic Oregon Inlet Coast Guard Station, but for most vacationers, the biggest thrill is that long stretch of raised NC Highway 12 that spans across the open water and offers nothing but panoramic views.
Early morning or late afternoon visitors will most likely encounter a line of charter boas heading offshore or coming back home. Shoulder and off-season visitors will note thousands of pelicans and cormorants stationed at the sandbars that are sprinkled throughout the inlet. And evening travelers on a clear day have the best view in the house to open water sunsets that turn the horizon pink, and the water underneath the bridge shades of yellow and green.
Regardless of whether you take a break from the road, enjoy a full day of bridge fishing, or simply enjoy the breathtaking 3 minute trip across, the Bonner Bridge is an attraction that every southern Outer Banks vacationer encounters, and generally enjoys to its fullest.
Tips and Trips for Visiting or Crossing the Bonner Bridge
- If you're heading to the Bonner Bridge walkway in the winter for a little fishing, be sure and bundle up. While the outside air temperatures may not be too chilly, the ocean breezes coupled with the proximity to Oregon Inlet makes bridge fishing generally a lot cooler.
- Night fishermen should also bring plenty of lights along, including camping lanterns, glow sticks, or plain old flashlights. With no lighting over the bridge, it can be a little tricky to navigate the bridge-side walkway, as well as bait and hook your rig, without an additional source of extra lighting.
- Travelers are advised to maintain the bridge speed limit of 55 mph, and not slow down or stop to admire the view or take pictures. Remember that many portions of the bridge have very limited visibility, and as such, stopped or slowed vehicles can cause a dangerous traffic hazard.
- Though scenic, pedestrians are also advised to stay off the main vehicular portion of the Bonner Bridge. There are no safe pedestrian lanes along the bridge, and local law enforcement officers will stop joggers or walkers who are crossing the bridge on foot.
- There is only one stretch of the Bonner Bridge that features a dotted line, indicating that it is OK to pass, and it is located on the northern portion of the bridge, well before the "hump" that spans directly across Oregon Inlet. If you do pass, do so with care, and be extra careful that there are no vehicles coming from the other direction, which occasionally can be hidden by the bridge railing.
- In the winter months, sections of the bridge are occasionally closed for regular maintenance, leaving one lane open and a guard or stoplight to guide traffic across the bridge. Pay attention, be patient, and take your time to protect any workmen who are working along the bridge.
- If you're driving, please pay attention to the road. If you're riding, simply sit back and enjoy the view. The scenery surrounding the bridge changes literally every minute, making this 2.7 mile stretch the most fascination portion of NC Highway 12.
The Bonner Bridge is a southern Outer Banks attraction that almost every vacationer to Hatteras Island will encounter on their way to or from their final vacation destination. With mile wide views and a legacy of bringing mass tourism to the island in the first place, the Herbert C. Bonner bridge is an essential part of the cultural make-up of Hatteras Island and a fantastic, although all-too-brief attraction to boot.
On your next visit to the southern Outer Banks, why not stay a while and discover the sheer beauty of the Bonner Bridge, both from the top of the span, and from the bordering beaches or bridge walkway. Spend a little time admiring the view from different perspectives, and you'll surely gain an even greater appreciation of Hatteras Island's waterfront vistas at their finest.