With 200 miles-long chain of breathtaking islands off the east coast of the US in the state of North Carolina, the Outer Banks is one of the most loved beach destinations in the USA. The region showcases charming little towns and numerous water sports activities beseeming the families traveling with kids. Having said that, there’s no dearth of things to do in Outer Banks, NC!
Sounds like just any other island with beaches to enjoy? You got to visit to feel the magic it spells on you that you want to visit it again.
How is it different than any other beach destination? Outer Banks offers more than just regular sand, surf, and sun. There are many activities off the sand too.
You can ride the wind and bike the land. Outer Banks State Parks viz. Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, Elizabeth Gardens, Roanoke Island Festival Park and others celebrate the evolution and existence of Outer Banks.
Nags Head or Southern Shores have public beaches brimming with energy while Hatteras Island offers beaches with relaxed and quiet vibes.
The little villages and towns on Hatteras Island connect you with ever lovely and warm locals to make friends with.
When I think of America’s National Park Service (NPS), I think of National Parks like Grand Canyon National Park or Great Smoky Mountains National Park that encompass forests, mountains and lakes. I never thought of any beach to be a national park.
It was surprising to know that Cape Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks is a National Park managed by NPS!
Did you know that Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is America’s First National Seashore?
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10 BEST THINGS TO DO IN OUTER BANKS, NC
With countless things to do, it might get confusing to choose what to do and what not to. Check out our list of 10 best things to do in Outer Banks, NC.
1. Spend Leisure Time at its Pristine Beaches
We just sat the whole day doing nothing but everything at the beach. Albeit, it may appear as if doing nothing is too much indulgence, however, every now and then it proves to be the re-invigoration one needs. Yes! We spent quality time together enjoying the endless water surface, reading a book, making castles of our dreams, going for leisure walks along the sandy beaches, letting the waves kiss our feet, and collecting seashells as our lovely souvenirs.
The 200-mile long seashore has numerous beaches for sun basking, the most common being Northern shores of Duck and Corolla or the Southern shores of Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hill.
The southern beaches are more touristy with most of the attractions close by. The Northern shore is a quaint little town with a beautiful neighborhood where one would want to stay and enjoy the 4*4 ride on the beach. It has more vacation rentals while the hotels and resorts around southern beaches.
We were lucky to get the hotel room by the beach. It was great to wake up and see the sunrise and sea waves crashing from your window.
2. Indulge in the Thrill and Adventure of Driving on the Beach
There are many beaches in Outer Banks where you can drive your AWD vehicle, some require a permit though. At the beach in Corolla, you don’t need a permit to drive your 4*4. Beware, the adrenaline rush of driving here thrusts you to be more adventurous and you might get stuck in the sand. We were lucky to have a shovel to our rescue.
Access to Corolla beach – At the end of the paved road on NC 12, drive through the unpaved path towards the right to enter the beach.
The other beaches that you can drive are Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but a permit is required.
The ORV(off-road vehicle) permit for Cape Hatteras National seashore can be booked online or at any of the 3 visitor centers for $50 for a 10-day permit and $120 for an annual pass.
To get the permit ($25) to drive on beaches of Nags Head or Kill Devil Hills, one needs to visit the Nags Head Town Hall or Kill Devil Hills Town Hall.
Here are some rules to follow:
a. The speed limit reduces down to around 30 mph. Always follow the speed limit mentioned and slow when approaching pedestrians.
b. Remove air from the tires where the air pressure should not exceed 20 psi. This helps to drive in the sand.
c. Please drive in the designated lane. You can park the vehicle in the middle of the driving lane and dune lane.
d. There are wild horses in this area, so be mindful of them when driving.
e. The beaches are generally closed for driving during the peak season, so do check before.
- Please don’t attempt to drive on the beach if your vehicle is not a 4 wheel drive. Also, avoid totally dry sand, better yet drive on the wet sand and preferably follow the track of the vehicles ahead of you.
- If your vehicle gets stuck, don’t accelerate much, rather try and go in the reverse gear. If still stuck, shovel out sand from the tires and try again. There is an NPS ranger on the beach who might be able to help you in the worst case.
3. Chase the Wild Horses
Outer Banks is famous for sighting wild horses – the Spanish Mustangs. Usually spotted roaming freely around the Corolla beach, they are a sight to behold.
These beautiful brown creatures with long mane can make you run from one end to other just to get one glimpse of them. You can even see tour jeeps chasing their way over sand dunes to make their tourists satisfied.
It’s true that they have more idea about spots to capture these wild horses, but we felt they were too expensive and not worth the money. They charge about $50 for adults and $30 for kids. The wild horse tours can be booked online.
We were able to see the Mustangs on the Corolla beach while driving. So be a little patient and keep your eyes open and you will be lucky.
- Stay at least 50m away from them and don’t feed them.
- Don’t try and follow the tour operators jeeps in your 4*4 as you might get stuck in the sand.
4. Climb up the Spiral Stairs of Black & White Lighthouses
There are 5 lighthouses in Outer Banks – Currituck beach lighthouse, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Bodie (pronounced body) Island lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Ocracoke Island lighthouse.
Though each has its own charm, from red brick to white and black stripes or a miniature version of the lighthouse in front of it.
The lighthouses open for tourists to climb atop from April end to October (Columbus Day), else you can still appreciate the beauty from the grounds.
Fun fact: You can boast of visiting America’s tallest lighthouse – Cape Hatteras lighthouse.
5. Visit Wright Brothers National Memorial
” If you can dream it, you can do it ” ~ Walt Disney.
This famous quote sums up what Wright brothers –Wilbur and Orville achieved. They dreamt of flying and made it true at the famous Kitty Hawk.
They made their workshop and temporary shelter where they worked day and night for 4 years chasing the one dream. And finally on December 17, 1903, at the third attempt, they remained in flight for 12 seconds and created history. It transformed the travel industry and made distances shorter.
There is a monument on top of a hill to commemorate the brother’s contribution. You can view the location of the first flight from the monument. There is a replica of the airplane that the brothers took the first flight in. You can climb up on it and pretend to be Wilbur or Orville.
Admission/Ticket Price: $10 for adults (16 yrs and above) and kids 15 yrs and younger go free. The ticket is valid for 1 week. There is an annual pass also available for $35.
Operational Hours: The memorial is open all days from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. It’s closed on Christmas Day.
Let your kids know about this incredible journey and get inspired by reading these wonderful books about the Wright brothers.
6. Fly a Kite at Jockey’s Ridge State Park
The state park has the largest natural sand dunes on America’s east coast. And you can’t miss to flying a kite and watching the spectacular sun kissing the horizon goodbye for the day. Our kids loved running on the sand and watching their kite flying high in the sky.
Operational Hours: The hours depend upon the season. In summers, the park is open till 9 pm while in winter it closes at 6 pm. Do check the exact timings.
Admission/Ticket Price: You can enjoy all the fun free as there is no ticket to enter the park.
7. Enjoy the Majestic Sun as it Paints the Magical Colors on the Sky
8. Take your car on the Ferry to Ocracoke Island
Since this was our first experience of driving in our car on the ferry, we were super excited as a small child who gets fascinated by small things.
Ocracoke Island is connected by the mainland in Cape Hatteras only by ferry run by the North Carolina Department of Transport (NCDOT). There are toll ferries that ply from Swan Quarter and Cedar Island to Ocracoke.
Admission/ Ticket Price: The ferry from Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke Island is free.
Operational Hours: The ferry runs from the terminals daily from 5 a.m to midnight. In summer, the frequency is every 30 minutes while it reduces to every hour in winter or offseason.
Note – The ferry is first-come-first-serve, so you should wait for your turn. During the peak summer season and during the daytime, there can be a rush and you might have to wait. We had to wait for about 30 minutes before we boarded the ferry. If you are taking your vehicle along, please remain seated in your car in the line as the queue progresses as vehicles board the ferry. Once on the ferry, you can get off your vehicle.
9. Drive Across the Scenic Byway
To enjoy the beauty and nature of this picturesque place, it is imperative to drive a partial or complete stretch of this 138-mile scenic route.
We drove the complete stretch plus the ferry to Ocracoke. The route begins at the intersection of NC-12 and US-64 in the north and continues south on NC-12. Check the complete route and details at Outer Banks scenic byway.
10. Savor Locally Harvested Food
Outer Banks is famous for local restaurants specializing from donuts to seafood to beer. Some of the famous restaurants are:
- Waterman’s bar & grill
- Duck Donuts – has 3 branches in Corolla, Duck and Kitty Hawk.
- Miller’s waterfront restaurant, Nags Head
- Outer Banks Brewing Station, Kill Devil Hills
- Eduardo’s Taco stand, Ocracoke
Other interesting places to see
If you have time and want to explore further or head out for shopping, check this:
- The park around the Currituck beach lighthouse called the Currituck Heritage Park is a great place to unwind. It has a beautiful pond on the premises, mindfully designed park, bridges and old trees. My kids loved running around the bridges and climbing the trees to find a spot to relax. 🙂 In fact, there was an Easter event happening which the kids participated in and had a blast playing the games and egg hunt. During summer, it is commonplace for many events open for the public. So make the most of your vacation.
- The Whalehead club for those interested in history is an old mansion built by the knights. Guided tours help you acquaint with history. Now it is a famous place for weddings and events.
- Across the street from Currituck Heritage Park is Outer Banks Center for Wildlife. This a great place for kids to learn about the wildlife and history of the place from the educational exhibits.
- Roanoke Island – the lost colony, Elizabeth gardens
- North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
- Shops at Duck
GETTING TO THE OUTER BANKS
There are only a few entry points to Outer Banks:
From North, via US 158 you reach Outer Banks Visitor Center from the Wright Memorial Bridge
From West via US 64 through Roanoke Island and
From South using the ferry either from Swan Quarter or Cedar Island (Both are toll ferries and you can take your cars in them) to Ocracoke island. The ferry tickets can be booked in advance from NC ferry.
Read more about our experience of Ocracoke Island.
We entered from North via US 158 and even drove the Scenic Byway to Ocracoke Island which took us about 2 hours 30 mins which were worth every moment. The journey included taking the free state ferry (can take cars in ferry) to Ocracoke island.
From Ocracoke Island, we took the 2 ½ hour toll ferry to Swan Quarter (made online reservations in advance) to end our magical Outer Banks vacation with the promise to come back soon.
The nearest airport is Norfolk International airport about 82 miles away.
WHERE TO STAY IN OUTER BANKS
There are a lot of vacation rentals mushrooming all along the coast and is a great option for a group of families traveling together. Some hotels like Best Western, Hilton Garden Inn, Days Inn & Suites or The Sea Ranch Resort are great oceanfront properties.
We stayed at the Days Inn & Suites oceanfront suite. We were right on the beach, with spectacular views of waves crashing and the sunrise through our window. The suite had a fully equipped kitchen that was a boon to us with young kids.
Or search from over 1000 properties to find your best fit.
TIPS FOR VISITING OUTER BANKS
- During the high season, the vacation rentals and hotels are booked therefore plan and make reservations well in advance.
- Plan to arrive early since there is a long waiting queue for the ferry to and from Hatteras. The ferry terminals and ferries have restroom facilities though.
- The ferries have vending machine/ small cafe.
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