Wondering What to do in Outer Banks NC? 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 unique 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 or popularly known as OBX offers more than just regular sand, surf, and sun. There are many activities off the sand too. You will be amazed to see so many attractions in OBX.
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.
Driving through Outer Banks’ scenic byway is one of the best road trips in the USA.
Nags Head or Southern Shores has 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!
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
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 the 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.
Outer Banks Attractions Map
To save time and have the most of the vacation, having a map handy is the best way. So use this interactive map of Outer Banks NC things to do to help plan your trip.
The map also has all the Outer Banks ferry terminals listed.
How to use this map: Click the tab on the top left corner to see all the Outer Banks attractions. By clicking on the different icons on the map, you get detailed information about the OBX attraction. If you click on the square on the top right corner the map opens directly in Google Maps. You can even share this map by clicking the Share icon (horizontal V) in the top right corner.
15 Best Things to do in OBX, North Carolina
With countless things to do, it might get confusing to choose activities to do in Outer Banks. Check out our list of the 15 best things to do in Outer Banks, NC.
Spend Time at the Pristine Outer Banks 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 reinvigoration 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 the Northern shores of Duck and Corolla or the Southern shores of Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hill.
Related Read: Interesting Outer Banks Fun Facts
The southern beaches are more touristy with most of the OBX 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. Our kids just loved playing on the beach the whole day, splashing through the waves.
Indulge in the Thrill of Outer Banks Beach Driving
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. This is one of the fun things to do in Outer banks that we loved.
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.
Book online the ORV(off-road vehicle) permit for Cape Hatteras National seashore can be 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 the beaches of Nags Head or Kill Devil Hills, one needs to visit the Nags Head Town Hall or Kill Devil Hills Town Hall.
Read More: Best Beaches on East Coast for Families
Here are some rules for driving on the beach:
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.
Chase the Outer Banks 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 another 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 ideas 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 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.
Climb up the Spiral Stairs of Outer Banks Lighthouses
There are 5 lighthouses in the Outer Banks:
- Currituck beach lighthouse
- Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
- Bodie (pronounced body) Island lighthouse
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Ocracoke Island lighthouse
Though each OBX lighthouse has its own charm, from red brick to white and black stripes or a miniature version of the lighthouse in front of it.
The OBX lighthouses are 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.
Essential Reading: Lighthouses in Outer Banks
Visit Wright Brothers National Memorial
“If you can dream it, you can do it.” ~ Walt Disney
This famous quote sums up what the 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.
So, Wrights Brother Memorial is one of the top places to visit in Outer Banks to feel pride.
There is a monument on top of a hill to commemorate the brother’s contribution At this Wrights Brother National Memorial. 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 every day from 9 am to 5 pm. 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.
Fly a Kite at Jockey Ridge State Park
The Jockey Ridge State Park has the largest natural sand dunes on America’s east coast. And you can’t miss flying a kite and watching the spectacular sun kissing the horizon goodbye for the day.
The most popular activities at the Jockey Ridge are hand-gliding, kite-flying, and sandboarding. Our kids loved running on the sand and watching their kites flying high in the sky. There are Hand Gliding lessons also available at additional charge by Kitty Hawk Kites. This is for sure one of the best adventurous Outer Banks family activities.
The park is maintained by the NPS Parks.
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. This is one of the many free things to do in the Outer Banks.
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Duck is the fancy side of Outer Banks. Plan to walk on the famous mile-long Duck Boardwalk or shop at the Waterfront shops, it is a great way to unwind.
There are some great coffee shops and of course the famous Duck Donuts.
Want to try your hand at fishing? Then Jennette’s Pier is the perfect place stretching 1000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. You will see enthusiasts waiting patiently for their catch with their fishing rods. It indeed requires a lot of patience.
Right in front of our eyes, a man was lucky to catch a huge stingray that he threw back into the waters though.
The Pier House has an educational center and also a small aquarium with the native fishes of North Carolina.
Day fees for the pier: $2 per adult and $1 per child
Enjoy the Magical Sunrise and Sunset
There is something you can’t miss is the magical sunrise and sunset. Wake up early to catch the magnificent sight at the beach by the ocean with the sky becoming the canvas for a spectacular creation.
Jockey Ridge State Park is famous for viewing the sunset.
Tip: Our hotel room was by the ocean and was easier for us to enjoy the sunrise. It is best to have your accommodations by the beach.
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 small children who get fascinated by small things.
Ocracoke Island, a small quaint village is connected by the mainland in Cape Hatteras only by ferry run by the North Carolina Department of Transport (NCDOT). There are toll ferries as well 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 am 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.
Drive the Outer Banks 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. It is a drive to remember.
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.
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
A must-do Outer Banks kids activity is the visit to the aquarium. With many fishes, endangered sea turtles, crabs, and sharks, it is a fascinating aquatic world. The special thing about the aquarium is that it also focuses on the region of Outer Banks and its wetlands and the animals that are specific to the region.
There is a Sea Turtle rehab center in the aquarium as well, where the ailing turtles are tended.
Have you ever touched a stingray or an urchin? Then don’t forget to visit the Close Encounters exhibit to touch and feel them.
Timings: 9 am – 5 pm
Tickets: $12.95 per adult and $10.95 per child (3-12 years)
A memorial to the English colonists who first settled in America on this island. There are many old statues scattered all through the garden. The garden with exquisite flowers and plants makes you smile and feel good being amidst nature.
There is so much for the kids as well. The indoor Butterfly center has many species of butterflies in it.
Kids would love to visit the Discovery Cottage that has a play area and clay to play with. It is the best place to explore plants, bugs up close.
Tickets: $9 + tax per adult (18+ years); $6 + tax per youth (6-17 years); and $2 + tax per child (5 & under)
Currituck Heritage Park
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 parks, 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 to 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 yourself with history. Now it is a famous place for weddings and events.
Across the street from Currituck Heritage Park is the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife. This is a great place for kids to learn about the wildlife and history of the place from the educational exhibits. Entry is free.
The Lost Colony – Roanoke Island
Outer Banks is also an important part of American history as one of the first English colonists arrived on this island and settled here.
And these events of history are depicted through a play on a huge stage. With more than 120 artists, music, drama, and history, it is a great option for history buffs.
The longest-running play is performed on an outdoor amphitheater during the summer months at the original Roanoke Colony site. This is one of the activities in OBX for history lovers.
Show Timings: 8:30 pm (Mon-Sat)
Tickets: $20 to $35 per adult (there are VIP tickets as well) and half-price per child (6-12 years)
Book your tickets for the play.
Update: The shows for 2020 are canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Restaurants in the Outer Banks NC
Are you wondering where to eat in the Outer Banks?
Outer Banks is famous for local restaurants specializing in donuts to seafood to beer. It is always good to savor the local harvest to enjoy the flavors.
Some of the best restaurants in Outer Banks 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
Where to Stay in the 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. Read our handpicked Airbnb Outer Banks Vacation Rentals listed from all towns of Outer Banks to choose the best that suits you.
Read our recommendations on Best Outer Banks Hotels NC for families to suit your requirement of Oceanfront, pet-friendly, or away from the hustle-bustle.
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.
Or you can book one of many amazing Outer Banks holiday rentals and homes on Airbnb. The idea of having an entire home to yourself in a country or city other than your hometown is thrilling. We love Airbnb for its homely and local vibes.
Tips for Visiting the 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 a vending machine/ small cafe.
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