Carova: Where the Paved Road Ends

By Kip Tabb | June 3rd, 2014

BOOMER's OBX issue explores some of the area's more pristine beaches, like Carovan.

There is, on the northern end of the Outer Banks, a place that is as close to the original feel of the land as any setting can be in the 21st century. The paved road ends about two miles past the Currituck

Beach Lighthouse, but the 12 miles to the Virginia line can still be navigated. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is needed, and some skill and knowledge of how to drive on the sand is helpful, but the effort is worth it.

There are houses scattered among the dunes, some of them rustic, some palatial, but the density is far, far less than the rest of the Outer Banks, and interspersed among the homes is a wilderness filled with wild horses and an occasional wild boar and teeming with a unique history.

The whole area is called Carova, which is the village at the north end resting on the Virginia state line. There are actually five subdivisions along that stretch of beach – Carova, Penny’s Hill, Sea Gull, North Swan Beach and Swan Beach – but it’s almost always collectively called Carova.


The land is directly connected to Virginia, and there is still a dirt road leading through False Cape State Park and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge that connects with the Sandbridge district of Virginia Beach. A gate marks the state line now, but families who were residents of Carova when Back Bay was created were given a key to the gate and are still allowed to access the road.

Ed Ponton is one of those residents. He’s lived his entire life north of the paved road. “My dad built a house up here in 1965,” he says. Ponton makes his living working for a Corolla rental company guiding guests up to the vacation homes that dot the landscape.

He’s seen a lot of changes over the years – mostly more and more people coming in the summer. “It used to be you would hardly see anyone driving [on the beach],” he says. “Now on a Saturday or Sunday, it’s a line of cars and you don’t even bat an eye.”

Yet there is still magic here – still a sense of wonder and adventure north of the asphalt. “For people to get off the paved road a little bit. Go outside on their porch and see horses and deer. That’s really special,” he says.


The wild mustangs of Corolla are what almost everyone associates with Carova. Direct descendants of the horses of the Spanish Conquistadors, they probably came ashore sometime in the 16th century.

The Spanish were the first European explorers of the Outer Banks, and the most likely scenario has the horses surviving a shipwreck, although it is also possible a crew exploring the area did not bring the horses back on board.

There are only 110 horses left in the herd, and there are concerns about whether this herd, which has been shown to have a direct genetic link to the Spanish Mustangs, can survive. “They’re an endangered species,” Scott Trabue, owner of Back Country Safari Tours, says. “There’s not a proper genetic pool.”

There are efforts underway to bring two mares from the Shackleford Banks herd that is the closest genetic match to the Corolla horse to increase the diversity of the herd.

The attempt is somewhat controversial. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns 3,000 acres of the more than 7,500 acres in the Carova area, believes the Spanish Mustangs – which are the official North Carolina State Horse – are an invasive species and are destroying habitat needed for a healthy migratory bird population.

It is the beauty of the Corolla wild horses that attracts so much attention. They are the last herd of the Spanish Mustangs that still run free, and they are magnificent animals.

“They look regal,” Trabue says. “The horses look muscular. Their coats are shiny because there is no disease in this group.”

Sometimes as a tour rides along the beach, they’ll come upon a stallion and two or three mares and a foal. “We’ll see a harem and the people on the tour will be amazed. You’re mesmerized by the beauty of these animals.”


There is more to this land beyond the road, though, than wild horses. The Currituck Banks was one of the first areas settled by European settlers, although there is little evidence of that now. Accord- ing to Ponton, there is, however, an aged and weathered state line marker in Carova – a reminder of the 1728 surveying expedition that established the borders. “There’s a monument at the state line from the original survey,” he says.

On the way to Carova, there is a large sand dune, actually the second largest dune on the East Coast behind only Jockey’s Ridge down in Nags Head. The dune is Penny’s Hill and it has played its part in the history of area.

At one time the village of Seagull was nestled at its base. There were probably never more than 100 or 120 residents there, but they supported a one-room schoolhouse and the local U.S. Life-Saving Service Station – the predecessor to the Coast Guard. The village is buried now, the inexorable southern migration of Penny’s Hill covering remnants of the town.

Barrier islands like the Outer Banks are dynamic and mutable environments. There is along the beach a forest of petrified tree trunks that give clear evidence of the westward drift of the land. It is also an area that takes some skill to navigate – cars are invariably the loser in collisions.

It is the beauty of the area, however, that awes visitors for the first time or brings them back time and time again.

Trabue, who offers kayak tours on the sound side and Segway tours in addition to his guided safari tours, gets excited as he talks about what he has seen. “There’s so much to see on every trip,” he says. “There are osprey nests. They mate for life, you know. And they come back to the same nest every year. There’s lots of deer, quail. Sometimes we’ll have a sighting of a wild boar. But that’s rare.”

Ponton agrees. “Wild pig, they’re elusive,” he says. “But they’re right there, where the road ends.”

Kip Tabb is a freelance writer and editor of the North Beach Sun, a quarterly newspaper that covers the northern Outer Banks of North Carolina. Tabb wrote about the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum on Hatteras Island in the February-March issue of BOOMER. Contact him at 

More from Boomer