North Carolina’s Outer Banks are known for many things. Kitty Hawk is the birthplace of aviation. Cape Hatteras has perhaps the East Coast’s most famous lighthouse. All in all, the Outer Banks extend more than 120 miles from one end to the other, with hundreds of different attractions in between.
Many who haven’t visited the Outer Banks think that it’s similar to areas like Miami Beach, Florida, where the string of islands is perhaps a mile off the mainland at the most, easily visible across the inner waterway. But some islands of the Outer Banks are more than 30 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean; many aren’t even visible from the mainland.
The beach towns of the Outer Banks have long been some of the top beach destinations on the East Coast. If you’ve ever tried to drive across the Wright Memorial Bridge on a Saturday in the summer, you know this. Cars with license plates from as far north as New York line up to take the bridge across to the Outer Banks.
If you’re planning a trip to the area, here are six great beach towns to enjoy.
Corolla is the beach town at the far north end of the Outer Banks. The name might remind you of Toyota’s popular sedan, but it’s actually pronounced Coh-RAH-luh. If you say it wrong in town, expect the locals to correct you.
Perhaps the best-known part of Corolla is Carova Beach. At a point immediately north of Corolla, Highway 12 simply ends, and access to all points north of there requires a drive down the beach. There are many vacation homes in the area, but all of them can be accessed by driving down the beach. This is also the area where the wild horses can be found. Spanish Mustangs have roamed Carova Beach for centuries, but don’t approach them -- these are wild horses in every sense of the word.
The town itself has many unique shops and restaurants. Some of our friends own a vacation home in Corolla, so this has quickly become our favorite spot. Because you’re so far north of the busier beach towns on the Outer Banks, Corolla feels like a different experience. If you’re looking for a slower pace on your beach vacation, Corolla is your spot.
Kill Devil Hills
If you’re looking for the hustle and bustle of a busy beach town, on the other hand, then you’ll love Kill Devil Hills. This is the heart of the Outer Banks and the type of experience you would expect from an Atlantic Ocean beach town: a main drag lined with T-shirt shops and knick-knack stores, tall hotels and resorts lining the oceanside, and as many restaurants and bars as anyone could ever need.
Kill Devil Hills is also home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which marks the spot where the brothers attempted their first flight. They chose the spot because of the way the winds swept up the large sand dunes (the “Kill Devil Hills”). At the time, there was no town of Kill Devil Hills (and wouldn’t be for more than half a century), so the Wright brothers traveled to and from Kitty Hawk while they were attempting their flights. For that reason, most people believe that their first flight happened in Kitty Hawk, even though Kitty Hawk is 3 miles north of the actual spot. The memorial is worth a visit, since the history of modern aviation can be traced to this one spot next to a massive sand dune on the Outer Banks.
But Kill Devil Hills isn’t just about the Wright Brothers National Memorial. If you’re interested in the classic beach resort experience, this is your spot. In the southern section of Kill Devil Hills, you’ll find multistory hotels and resorts lining the beach. You can wake up, leave your hotel, walk 30 steps to the beach, and then walk to lunch and dinner before doing it all over again the next day.
Ocracoke Island is perhaps the exact opposite of Kill Devil Hills. If you’re looking for a quiet and secluded place to relax, you should head to Ocracoke.
Now, obviously, if you’re looking for someplace secluded on the Outer Banks, it’s going to take a lot to get there. If you’re coming from the north (across the Wright Memorial Bridge along with seemingly everyone else), then you'll have to drive 100 more miles to get to Ocracoke, which is located at the far southern end of the Outer Banks.
What’s more, there’s not a road to get there. Once you pass Cape Hatteras, you'll have to take a ferry the rest of the way to Ocracoke. The water is shallow there and nearly capable of supporting a roadway (you’ll notice that when your ferry boat goes far out into Pamlico Sound in order to turn south and head to Ocracoke -- you’ll feel like you’re traveling in the opposite direction for a while), but the ferry is necessary to access the island. Ferries travel to Ocracoke from both directions, and many who travel to the island do so from the southern part of North Carolina, taking a ferry from Cedar Island to the south.
You’ll immediately notice how different Ocracoke is from the rest of the Outer Banks islands when you arrive in the harbor and get off the ferry. Instead of cars everywhere, you’ll see people walking and biking. And with all the pedestrians and bikers, the very tight streets of Ocracoke can only be navigated by car at about 5 miles per hour.
That basically describes the entire scene. The beach is a short drive away (there are public parking lots, but many people bike to the beach), and you’ll find only 10 percent of the people you’d find at Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. Everything on Ocracoke Island moves slowly, from your day at the beach to your stroll to a local restaurant. If it’s a quiet beach vacation you’re after, check out Ocracoke.
Once you cross the Wright Memorial Bridge, you’ll come to an intersection where you’ll travel north toward Corolla or south toward Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Ocracoke Island. If you travel to the north, you’ll soon come upon the quaint beach community of Duck.
To stay in Duck, you’ll likely need to rent a home or condo on Vrbo or Airbnb. This is not a resort community -- it’s where the locals on the mainland have made their beach homes. And that’s part of the charm of Duck. A drive up the highway will reveal some of the greatest beach homes you’ve ever seen, massive five-story houses on stilts that will make you dream of bringing your entire extended family and renting out a house for the weekend.
Duck is also home to the world-famous Duck Donuts. There are now more than 200 franchise locations across the United States, but the original Duck Donuts is in Duck, North Carolina. They serve warm, made-to-order donuts and great coffee, the perfect combination for a beach breakfast. Whenever my wife and I visit the Outer Banks, we make a point to stop by Duck Donuts.
There are also great shops and restaurants in Duck -- in our opinion, some of the best restaurants on the Outer Banks. The locals are very friendly, so we often ask them for restaurant recommendations. Last time we were there, they recommended The Paper Canoe, where we enjoyed an amazing meal and excellent wine.
Because of the Wright brothers, when people think of the Outer Banks, they think of Kitty Hawk. The settlement dates back to the 1700s, when it was known as Chickenhauk. Eventually, the name became Kitty Hawk, and with the establishment of the Kitty Hawk Lifesaving Station in 1874 (the Coast Guard before there was a Coast Guard), the town became the center of development on the Outer Banks. And when the Wright brothers conducted their aviation experiments there in the early 1900s, the town became famous all over the world.
Kitty Hawk is very much like Kill Devil Hills -- it features miles of development along the beach -- but it centers more on beach houses than on resorts and hotels. There’s a historic vibe here, not a modern beach city vibe, and many of the houses appear to date back to the time of the Wright brothers.
Looking at a map, you can see why Kitty Hawk was the original development on the Outer Banks. It’s one of the widest areas of land on the Outer Banks as well as the closest access point to the mainland. This is why the Wright Memorial Bridge was built there, and why Kitty Hawk remains the central access point for all beach towns listed here.
If you rent a beach house in Kitty Hawk, you can do so either on the busy Atlantic Ocean side or the more secluded, marshy Kitty Hawk Woods side. If you’re looking to rent a house on a secluded canal where you’re still on the water yet far from the noise of the beach, Kitty Hawk is your spot.
At the north end of the Outer Banks, you’ll find development after development from Corolla to Kitty Hawk to Nags Head. At the south end, you’ll find Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island. Right in the middle, you’ll find the town of Avon.
The towns at the center of the Outer Banks -- Rodanthe, Salvo, and Buxton -- are much quieter than the towns to the north. In fact, if you’re driving south, once you leave Salvo, you’ll almost wonder if you’re reaching the end of the Outer Banks, since there are very few houses. You’re basically driving down a highway on a skinny strip of sand out in the ocean, almost like the bridges you’d drive in the Florida Keys.
But then you'll come upon the town of Avon. Avon feels like -- and this is a good thing -- a beach town in the middle of nowhere. There are plenty of amenities in town -- restaurants, grocery stores, beach shops -- so you won't want for anything. But you will feel isolated. It’ll just be you, your family, and the ocean, for the most part.
The beaches seem to stretch on forever in Avon. While it can be tough to find a spot on the beach in Kill Devil Hills on a summer weekend, that’s never a problem in Avon. And if the experience in a place like Nags Head is walking past high-rise after high-rise, the experience in Avon consists of beach houses as far as you can see.
That’s the best part about the Outer Banks: It’s basically one long beach! Whatever your vacation speed, the area has something for you.