Shells Galore at Pea Island

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A trip to the beach isn’t quite complete without finding a pretty shell or two. Since we were spending a week at the Outer Banks, I wanted to find out if we were going to be staying near any good shelling beaches. Several websites pointed me to one place: Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

We collected a surprising number of scallop shells on our little piece of beach at Kill Devil Hills, but the bulk of the shells we brought home came from the stretch of beach we walked on at Pea Island, which is located on Hatteras Island and about four miles south of Oregon Inlet.

My biggest regret this outing was forgetting my DSLR. The dunes were beautiful and the ocean was a very pretty blue (unlike the gray we see visiting beaches in Virginia). But the best camera is always the one you have with you, and thank goodness for camera phones. I spent just as much time taking pictures as I did collecting shells.

I’ve never seen so many (whole!) shells on a beach before:

When I looked out at the beach from the top of the dunes I started kicking myself in the butt for ALSO forgetting bags to collect treasures in. Thankfully my sister had the foresight to come prepared and gave me a bag so I didn’t have to stuff my pockets. There were a lot of clam and oyster shells, but I came across really pretty scallop shells, a couple of (mostly whole) whelks, and a Shark Eye (Atlantic Moon Snail).

The beachside of Pea Island is only accessible by walking over the dunes that separate it from Route 12. Because of its lack of public access, it’s a very quiet beach. We parked our car on a grassy spot on the dune-side of the road and walked, but there is also parking at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.

As you drive through, you’ll notice that parts of the dunes were blocked off to protect gull-billed terns, which were breeding and nesting. I read that they’re also protecting sea turtle nests. We also found a couple of jellyfish that had washed up on shore, like this red one.

The crab dwellings were at least twice the size of those on our beach at Kill Devil Hills:

Aside from nature, I came across larger pieces of trash: broken deck chairs, rusted metal, and even PVC pipe. If I walk this beach again I’ll be bringing along a trash bag to help clean the beach a bit.

The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge also has a visitor center, which includes a self-guided nature trail that runs through the sound side, as well as bathrooms. Learn more about Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge here.

My tips for shelling at Pea Island

  • Go in the morning
  • Bring something to carry your treasures in.
  • Bring a trash bag to collect litter.
  • Park at the visitor center if you’re worried about your car getting stuck in the sand.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Wear bug spray — especially if you’re planning on walking the nature trails at the visitor center.

Have you visited the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge? What are your shelling tips?

Check out the other adventures we went on while we were in the Outer Banks:

6 thoughts on “Shells Galore at Pea Island

  1. So much fun! I would love to come visit. We went to a beach last weekend here in Texas which was empty (we were the only ones in the water that we could see!) and there was just a ton of shells to collect. My 3 year old had a blast. We are going to go back and bring our older kids. My tip is to bring a mesh bag. That way after you collect them you can wash in the water. My 3 year old picked up the shells faster than I could clean them each individually. Finally I started sticking them in a mesh bag and cleaned the sand off all at once.

    1. That sounds amazing! I love empty beaches 🙂 Those mesh bags are great! I wish I had remembered to pack them when we went to Pea Island.

  2. I live in a landlocked state, and really wish we had a beach nearby so we could do some shell collecting. Hopefully one day I can talk my husband into a family trip somewhere with sand and beaches!

  3. I live in Montana, so the beach is no where to be found. I hope I can take my son to the beach soon. I am sure he would have a wonderful time collecting shells because he loves collecting rocks! Thank you for sharing.

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