Herons; ibis, sea gulls of various type, egrets; pairs of osprey circle their nests. On shore, wading and shore birds cover the 3.5 acre Monkey Island, North Carolina, from the beach to the tree tops. You stop counting at 32, realizing it’s fruitless to count more with several hundred birds in front of you.
Leaving the ruined guano covered bulkhead pylons you anchored to, you head over to the east side of the island where the hunting lodge stands – barely. Once the vacation home of the wealthy it falls into ruins, now home to birds and numerous snakes.
Across the sound, over the mainland, storm clouds build and wind starts pushing at 10-12 mph southward. Looking for a fun paddle back, you leave the birds, hoping to ride the winds back towards the red brick lighthouse.
The Currituck lighthouse is the only lighthouse in North Carolina with this distinct look. Every North Carolina lighthouse has a unique pattern, allowing sailors to know which lighthouse it is, and thus know where they are. The Currituck lighthouse is the only one unpainted, showing the construction methods of the 1870’s.
There are two paddle trails from the Whalehead Club, one requiring experience (Monkey Island) and one perfect for a family friendly casual outing (the lighthouse). Both are described below.
The Paddle Trail – 7 mile loop and 1.4 mile loop options
Who Should Paddle This Trail
This trail is for you if you:
- want a bit of adventure with an open water paddle on the sound (watch for the wind!)
- enjoy seeing birds, primarily osprey; little and great blue herons; pelicans; snowy and great egrets; glossy ibis, among others.
Wind tides influence the depth of Currituck Sound. As the wind blows from the north/east for several days, it pushes the water towards the middle of the sound, causing a shallow sound to go even shallower, and between 1 to 6 feet deep, the sound is already shallow. Generally you should always have enough water though you may need to zigzag to find it deep enough.
If the wind is forecasted to blow regularly above 13-15mph, think about a new location. While there are two islands to rest on, there is no escaping the wind.
On Monkey Island there is no dry land to park your boat; US Fish & Wildlife prohibits walking the island to protect the breeding grounds.
The Whalehead Club is a free public park with 1 boat ramp next to the clubhouse. Parking is limited but reserved for boaters/paddlers only.
To paddle to Monkey Island, a decked sea kayak is recommended due to open water conditions. SOTS, canoes, standup boards work well for the lighthouse paddle.
Neither trail is signed but line-of-sight navigation is straightforward. You can see Monkey Island from the access point (the only island with trees). Use this NOAA nautical chart (section # 14 of the booklet) if you want a print-at-home map. h
The Route – Monkey Island – 3 to 4 hours round trip
From the ramp, paddle straight out (west), slowly turning to your right (north), towards the pier with kayaks stored on it (home of Coastal Explorations guide service).
Keep the marshland on your right as you paddle to the open water in front of you, eventually passing between the mainland marsh on your right and an island on your left.
Pass between this island and mainland marsh to enter the open water. Paddle 1 mile northwest to the next island you see, Mary Island.
Mary Island is small and grassy and provides a brief break from paddling. There is no good landing spot on Mary Island.
From Mary, continue northward for 1.2 miles to reach Monkey Island, visible and distinct with large trees. Just .2 miles north of Mary is a tiny unnamed island. Paddle by this unnamed island, and then it is just you and the water until Monkey.
When you reach Monkey, paddle to the west (left) side and tie your boat to the numerous bulkhead pylons. This allows you to watch the birds without floating away.
To head back, paddle around the island (your choice of direction) until you can paddle eastwards towards the closest looking section of mainland.
Paddle approximately 1 mile across the sound to Ships Bay. This route provides shallow water to stand in if you need a break (out of your boat) from afternoon winds.
Once the water is at the depth you want, turn right (south), towards the lighthouse and follow the marshy coastline, retracing your steps till you reach your starting point.
The Route – The Lighthouse Paddle 2 hours round trip
From the Whalehead ramp, paddle straight out (west), slowly turning to your right (northwest). paddle towards the long pier with kayaks stored (home of Coastal Explorations Kayak Company) on it.
Keep the marshland (and lighthouse) to your right as you paddle for the gap between a marsh island and the mainland marsh – the gap is on your right. This is the only gap in the marsh since leaving your access point.
Once you pass between the island and mainland marsh, make a gentle right bending turn (heading north then back east), keeping the mainland marsh grass on your right.
As you follow the water, the path narrows for 500 feet before opening up into a small lake, with the lighthouse visible. Paddle back as far as you want, keeping in mind you can’t actually paddle to the lighthouse.
To return, retrace your route.
What You See
A hundreds of white dots appear when you zoom in on Monkey island using Google Maps Satellite imagery. Those white dots are the birds. And just the white feathered birds on a random day the satellite was overhead. In-person there are even more.
The Currituck Lighthouse is rustic, solid red brick, distinct from other Outerbank lighthouses.
Open sky. Open water. And at the height of summer, really warm water. And very few motor boats – the sound is shallow here, between 1 to 6 feet deep, often too shallow for motor boats.
The restored canary-yellow art nouveau Whalehead Club and grounds is a fantastic walk before or after your paddle. It has a curious history regarding club members, plane flights, and old money. It is a former hunting club built in the 1920s, and now a public attraction.
The Local Knowledge To Make it Great
Go early in the morning, when the wind tends to be less strong.
Summer and late fall are ideal since the water is warm, allowing you to get out of your kayak at Monkey Island and stand in the water.
As a winter paddle, be prepared for the cold, and few paddlers but plenty of hunters in the morning hours till 1pm (end hunt time).
November through January is the state waterfowl season. Hunting is allowed only Fridays and Saturdays.
October 1st through 31st (Monday to Saturday) is deer and feral pig. March 1st through 31st is feral pig only.
Corolla is narrow, only .5 miles wide. An early morning paddle provides great light over the lighthouse and sound.
The free public Currituck Heritage Park is made up of the Whalehead Club and lighthouse. Both are well worth exploring. Next to the park is the Outerbanks Wildlife Education Center – also worth visiting.
Monkey Island is managed by US Fish & Wildlife Service. Visit fws.gov/refuge/currituck/ for refuge information.
Currituck Heritage Park
- 1100 Club Road Corolla, NC 27927
Download and print this NOAA Nautical Chart (#12207 Booklet Chart) for paper navigation; only map section 14 is needed for this paddle.
Free to paddle and enter the parks. There is a cost to climb the lighthouse.
Where to Stay
The northern Outerbanks offers numerous inns, hotels, B&B, and rental cottages. You don’t lack for housing. Trip Advisor has this list of highly rated B&Bs.
If you wish to camp, the nearest campground is in Kitty Hawk (24 miles and about 45 minutes to hour south of C0rrola). Adventure Bound Campground. Clean, plenty of facilities and near other paddling. Oh, and they have peacocks.
- 1004 W Kitty Hawk Rd, Kitty Hawk, NC 27949
- (252) 255-1130