Founded in 1975, led by a lifelong resident of the area, the Historic Albemarle Trail (HAT) has today become one of the oldest Heritage Trails in North Carolina. This seventeen (17) county regional self-guided tour is contained within the boundaries of Virginia, the Pamlico River, the Outer Banks, and I-95. As reported by the Historic Albemarle Tour.org, it’s not the most heavily visited area of North Carolina, but for those seeking an escape to the “road less traveled,” the natural attractions and sites found along the way quench the appetites of even the most urban sprawl weary traveler.
As further reported, this Albemarle region began to take shape when early European settlers explored beyond the Tidewater region of Virginia in the 1600s. As survival depended upon their ability to cultivate and grow crops, the wide-open undeveloped landscape and fertile soil of this area seduced them to leave the comforts of community. There were, of course, the established Native Americans to deal with so this expansion was not without its challenges.
Image by historicalbemarletour.org
Throughout my research, there doesn’t appear to be any “official” direction to the tour, I suppose due in part to it being a self-guided tour of sorts. Typically, visitors to the region have found their way along the northeastern Trail by the brown Historic Albemarle Tour signs that line the highways throughout the area.
Therefore, what follows, a description of the various sites along the Trail, will not necessarily be in any recognized order, but rather an attempt to follow the signs!
Aurora, North Carolina, known to locals as a center for fossil hunters, is home to a natural science museum. Most of the fossils in the museum’s collection have been found nearby thanks to a working phosphate mine that continually provides mine tailings (leftovers from the process). The museum can provide visitors with the history of the Aurora area as well as enabling them to be a real life Indiana Jones where they are encouraged to search and collect their own fossils from the museum’s self maintained fossil pits.
Historic Washington has become a favorite North Carolina destination among travelers throughout the southern region. Whether visitors come for an overnight stay or a weekend getaway, they are sure to leave feeling refreshed. From a relaxing downtown waterfront stroll amongst the art galleries and restaurants to a taste of southern cuisine surrounded by beautiful surroundings, the charm of the Inner Banks awaits. And according to Budget Travel, it’s one of the “coolest small towns in America.”
Historic Bath is a North Carolina State Historic Site and North Carolina’s oldest incorporated town (1705). Early Bath was riddled with conflict and reportedly Edward Teach, aka “Blackbeard,” called it home for a brief time. It has quieted down a lot since those colonial times so you won’t find such action here anymore, but it is full of culture and history from that time period in North Carolina.
Thanks to the collective efforts of Mary Eva Blount Way, (1869-1962), the Belhaven Memorial Museum came into existence. What originated as a display in her home of the items she had collected over the years to raise money for the Red Cross, has today, found it’s new home at the original historic Belhaven Town Hall. This structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is in itself a wonder of its own but truly the exhibits of “Miss Eva” on the second floor are the icing on the cake.
What started life as the world’s largest pumping station designed to drain North Carolina’s largest natural lake, reportedly became the Mattamuskeet Lodge in 1937 when the draining project was terminated and later, was placed on the National Historic Register in 1980.
One look at its unique 12-story observation tower, that appears to be very similar to a lighthouse combined with its red tile roof, sparks the imagination of a time long since gone by. Once a hunter’s paradise, home to special gatherings and celebrations now sits dormant for almost three decades. Recently declared unsuitable for occupancy, a project is currently underway to renovate and restore the building to its former glory.
An island community since the early 1700s, Ocracoke Island remains the most remotely located and populated island of the Outer Banks. During the winter months the island becomes almost ghost-town like with it’s small population and few businesses available. However during the tourist season, the island comes alive with activity thanks to the numerous bars, restaurants, and shops that welcome visitors.
For the treasure seekers, who come to the island for the casual stroll, they will be delighted to find an ample supply of local, handmade goods and rare antiques. The island is also not without it’s history and rewards visitors with centuries old live oaks, historic structures from the period, family graveyards, Civil War memorials, and tales of the region’s favorite pirate, Blackbeard.
Located in the Hatteras Village, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum presents the history and shipwrecks along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Whether sunk by war, piracy, or weather chances are you’ll see it here and rumor has it you’ll even spot what remains of a “Grey Wolf,” a German U-boat submarine!
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is a public, non-profit, educational institution, that preserves and interprets its exhibits for the benefit of the general public.
Come see the Native American treasures on display at the Frisco Native American Museum on Hatteras Island and don’t miss the nature trail that includes examples of Native American structures as well! Created for the purpose of sharing Native American art and culture, the Museum is nationally recognized for its collections and displays.
Beyond the Museum’s traditional tours and exhibits, activities include numerous programs that support student’s science projects, boy scout merit badge pursuits, and Native American studies designed to enrich those looking to learn about their culture.
Before you leave Hatteras Island, be sure to visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, located in Rodanthe, North Carolina. Formerly an active station for the United States Life-Saving Service and United States Coast Guard, the only one designated as a teaching museum. While visiting be sure to stick around and catch the Breeches Buoy or Beach Apparatus Drill that was used up until the late 1950’s (helicopter rescue initiated) for rescues and saved more than 170,000 lives! If you’re coming as a group, be sure to make your reservations early as the tour is quite popular and spaces fill quickly.
Located on the Northern end of the Outer Banks, a visit to Historic Corolla is not complete until you see the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the Whalehead Club, and Currituck Heritage Park. You don’t want to miss the view from high atop the 162-foot lighthouse or the self-guided tour at the Whalehead club and lastly a sunny afternoon in the Park enjoying the scenery or time out on the water, all available to the public today, but at one time long ago reserved only for the elite. If you're lucky, you might even spot the Wild Horses of Corolla, but don’t blink, they are a shy bunch! Plenty of activities for all in your family to enjoy!
Ever wonder what life was like for the first settlers from long ago? If so, then prepare to set sail for a new adventure of the old world at Roanoke Island Festival Park in Dare County. Children of all ages can journey back in time to meet, watch, and question historic costumed interpreters demonstrate how they survived back in the day throughout the Settlement site and Elizabeth II ship. Come and be entertained and enlightened at the many interactive exhibits in American Indian Town as well as the Adventure Museum! Fun for the entire family and great pictures to add to your Facebook page!
Get a front row seat to all the underwater activity at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. You don’t want to miss the Graveyard of the Atlantic tank as you watch sharks and other fishes swim by within arms reach, so close you’d think you could touch them! And, who doesn’t love a “shark-by” when the shark is on the other side of the window? Ever wonder what a stingray or hermit crab might feel like? Get up close and personal with them at the two touch tanks.
And that’s not all folks, examine the one-third scale replica of the USS Monitor and imagine what travel in that would have been like… and leave room in your schedule for the Sea Turtle Rescue exhibit as well! Come and join the North Carolina
The Town of Columbia offers visitors access to it’s extensive natural resources, woodland areas, waterways, and wildlife activity and their Cultural Resource Center houses an environmental history museum that focuses on everyday life in the County. Residents and visitors alike speak highly of the shoreline beauty with its wooded boardwalk perfect for the strolls away from the everyday. And don’t forget to take in what is known as the pride of Columbia, the annual RiverTown Christmas celebration in December as well. .
Built to encourage and facilitate the learning experience, the Eastern 4-H Conference Center is available to help any HAT members to construct a unique training program sure to inspire any and all groups. Reportedly not far from where the colonists planned the first tea party, it’s location provides excellent facilities and close access to the area’s historical settings and its diverse natural delights. Rest assured there is more offered here than you can possibly take in for one day.
Somerset Place, now a state historic site, offers visitors as close a view of life on a Southern plantation during the Civil War era as is possible today. This unique attraction remains as the only plantation in North Carolina preserved and open to the public. Reportedly, more than 800 slaves passed through Somerset Place during its active life making it one of the South’s largest plantations, comprising 40+ buildings spread throughout the Lake Phelps area of the property.
Historic Plymouth’s history includes hosting a 3-day skirmish during the Civil War where the Ironclad first made its successful appearance on the battlefront. Only later to then be destroyed during a raid that was called, The Most Daring Mission of the Civil War, by the History Channel. Explore their Historic District with churches and museums located along the city’s waterfront area and don’t forget to walk the very favorable reviewed Civil War Trail sites throughout the Plymouth area and imagine what it might have been like during those times!
Historic Windsor is yet another North Carolina city that remains on the Civil War Discovery Trail with a milestone at Gray’s Landing that designates the battle that occurred at Windsor in 1864. A nice walk on the boardwalk along the Cashie River takes you to the Cashie River Center which is home to many exhibits that describe the local area as well as offering visitors the opportunity to rent a canoe and get out on the Cashie to take in all the history. There are many sites for visitors of all ages to see in Windsor.
Offering distinctive insights into the Civil War era rural life of eastern North Carolina, the Hope Plantation represents the architecture of those times, and visitors will also find a sizable gathering of the period's furniture inside as well. Also on the property, the restored King-Bazemore House built in 1763, remains one of the few examples again of this Civil War era architecture. Both homes are on the National Register of Historic Places and are administered by the Historic Hope Foundation, Inc.
The delightful waterfront town called Historic Edenton has accumulated much national attention from the traveling press over the past several years. Once a major port during the colonial period and then the first capital of the North Carolina colony, this coastal town offers visitors the opportunity to relive those times and yet enjoy the present as well. From a casual walk through the downtown shops to a trolley tour of the Historic area or perhaps a narrated cruise of Edenton Bay, visitors will be amazed at the activities and fun Edenton offers!
Despite being known as a farming community, due to vast fields of corn and soybeans, Historic Hertford has surprises in store for those visitors looking for great fishing and hunting opportunities and various water sports activities on the Perquimans River. And for those so not inclined, there is a walking tour of the tree-lined historic home district and of course all the wonderful shops downtown. Hertford remains as one of the earliest permanent settlements in North Carolina and this quiet little river town is bathed in history, possessing the oldest house in the state that is still open to the public, the Newbold-White House.
Historic Elizabeth City is a treasure trove of activities awaiting the eastern North Carolina visitor. Located near the Pasquotank River, visitors are encouraged to relive the colonial era with its historic walking tours including Civil war milestones, the Wright brothers dream of flight, and African American freedom seekers and their escape on the Underground Railroad. Continue your tour by visiting the six historic districts of Elizabeth City and don't be surprised if you happen to catch some live music downtown or perhaps a local art gallery display.
The North Carolina Museum of the Albemarle offers visitors free admission to all the exhibits and though exhibits are self-guided, groups are welcomed, but highly advised to register ahead of their visit for specialized tours and those of course are based upon availability. While the museum represents the cultural history of the northeastern North Carolina counties, the featured exhibit, "Our Story" provides a more detailed and specific summary of life in this Albemarle region. For example, the Jackson House exhibit provides visitors a glimpse into the typical small farmhouse design of the day.
Historic Camden County is the recognized home to the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Visitor Center provides visitors with exhibits that celebrate its rich and dramatic history. Opened in the early 1800's, the Dismal Swamp Canal is the oldest operating fabricated canal in the country. Listed in the Register of Historic Places, the Canal is part of the Civil War Trail and Intracoastal Waterway. Reportedly, it was also part of the Underground Railroad providing intimidating refuge for freedom seekers of the day. The Battle of South Mills during the Civil War, was the result of attempts to destroy the canal, which was an important supply link for the South.
Today, eco-tourism opportunities abound within Camden County and the Visitor Center is your primary contact for more information on those activities.
Visitors to Historic Jackson will re-discover the magic of small town life that existed throughout the South during the 18th century. Northampton county's museum in fact, preserves this history and culture from the period with its numerous, rich with heritage exhibits. But don't be fooled, this is not just your everyday run of the mill museum of Southern culture, but yet remains a working educational opportunity for young and old alike to take in the abundant natural and cultural resources of the area.
The town of Halifax, located on the Roanoke River, reeks of American Revolution history. Lighting the spark for independence, the Fourth Provincial Congress assembly, held in Halifax, first adopted the Halifax Resolves which was the first official action calling for all colonies to support independence. Guided tours of Historic Halifax takes you through several restored buildings of the era, the home of a local merchant, law office, and a wealthy planter's home as well as a jail and the Tap Room tavern. The continued tour includes a visit to the local Spring, long a source of water for the area, the town park, marketplace, and the cemetery.
Those interested in Eco-tourism opportunities, will not want to miss nearby Medoc Mountain State Park with its Fishing Creek that flows 2.5 miles through the park and over 10 miles of equestrian and hiking trails along the creek.
Historic Tarboro, once a candidate to become North Carolina's capital city, presents visitors with the state's largest historic district and unique, one of only two in the United States, town common area. First on your list should be a visit to the Blount-Bridgers House & Arboretum. Listed in the Register of Historic Places, it served as the final home of Thomas Blount, who fought as an Officer in the Revolutionary War and today contains an art gallery of collections from local artists as well as the exceptional manicured grounds.
And speaking of manicured grounds, you'll not want to miss the Calvary Episcopal Church with its unrivaled Gothic architecture and most exquisite stained glass windows in eastern North Carolina. Beyond the church and even more spectacular, is the bordering cemetery and it's charming mix of native and exotic trees throughout the well tended to grounds.