You can soak up the sun on one of the region’s many secluded beaches, tee off at a world-class golf course, explore nature preserves and lighthouses, go kayaking or fishing, or sample local seafood specialties. Whether you’re looking to relax on the beach or enjoy family-friendly fun, there’s something for everyone in the Outer Banks.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a chain of barrier islands that begins at the Virginia border and runs south for 120 miles off the coast to Okracoke Island. Locals refer to the Outer Banks as “OBX.”
Getting to the Outer Banks is easy. There are a variety of options. If flying, the closest airport is Norfolk International Airport (82 miles north). Once in your rental car or if driving, follow the directions and routes outlined on The Outer Banks website.
The best time to visit to avoid crowds is in the spring and fall. Temperatures are perfect, and there are fewer people. Three travel writer friends and I visited the Outer Banks in May. We had so much fun and learned much about the area and how much there is to do. Our weather in spring was not ideal as a noreaster had just passed through, but we still had plenty to keep us busy.
A trip to the Outer Banks is sure to be an unforgettable experience. Even if you visit for a week, you probably won’t find time to do it all. Read on for ideas on what to do and see in this beautiful coastal area.
The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau hosted our visit. All opinions are my own.
1. Wild Horse Tours
In the northern portion of the Outer Banks, you can find wild horses roaming the beach in Corolla. The best way to get close enough for photos is to take a tour with Wild Horse Adventure Tours in their open-air Hummer H1s or one of the other tour companies offering similar outings. You will not only learn about the horses but the history of the area.
Pro Tip: Under no circumstances should you try to feed or pet the horses. They are wild. They can bite and kick. There is a law in NC saying you have to stay 50 feet from them (five car lengths).
2. Duck Soundside Boardwalk And Duck Donuts
We enjoyed an evening stroll on the boardwalk. You can access the boardwalk from Town Park and other locations through the commercial district. The Duck Soundside Boardwalk stretches approximately a mile, allows you to take in the beauty of the Currituck Sound, and is the perfect spot to catch a sunset.
You can’t visit the Outer Banks without enjoying some famous Duck Donuts. You can watch them make the donuts. The original location is in the town of Duck, but you can find stores all along the Outer Bank Coast. I enjoyed a bacon maple glazed donut and wished I had ordered two.
Pro Tip: Be prepared to stand in line. Duck Donuts is a popular place, and watching the donut production line is fun.
3. Wright Brothers National Memorial
You won’t want to miss the site of the world’s first powered and sustained flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright Brothers National Memorial includes a visitor center, interpretive talks, a granite monument, historical markers, and a full-scale reproduction of the Wright flyer. There is much more here than you might think, so plan to visit for several hours.
Pro Tip: It is a lengthy walk to get to the 63-foot granite monument on top of a 90-foot dune, but you can drive to a parking lot near the monument if you desire.
4. Jockey’s Ridge State Park
The tallest natural sand dunes on the East Coast are located in the 400-acre Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It is an excellent place for hiking and climbing the dunes, flying kits, enjoying a picnic, or attending a nature program. This is also the prime spot for hang gliding.
5. Hang Gliding
Have you ever dreamed of flying? Hang gliding was my favorite activity during our trip to the Outer Banks. The four of us took flight at Jockey’s Ridge State Park with Kitty Hawk Kites, which was a fantastic experience. They provide a lesson and teach you what you need to know and allow you to practice the moves before you try your luck at hang gliding.
Then, you climb the highest dune, take a running start, and fly! Two guides on each side hold tethered ropes so you don’t fly away. It is a fantastic experience to fly through the air. If you try it, you will surely fall in love with flying. Kitty Hawk Kites has been teaching people how to fly since 1974. They also have advanced lessons and private instruction.
Pro Tip: Kitty Hawk Kites has Adaptive Hang Gliding for those who can’t walk or run.
6. Jennette’s Pier
The North Carolina Aquariums operate a one-of-a-kind educational ocean fishing pier. The 1,000-foot pier features educational programs, meeting facilities, live animal exhibits, alternative energy demonstrations, a tackle shop, and a shack and gift shop. Jennette’s Pier charges a fee to enter the aquarium space, walk out on the pier, and fish. Clean wide public beaches surround it. We walked under the pier and took photos.
7. North Carolina Aquarium
Roanoke Island has a lot to see and do. The North Carolina Aquarium is a fun activity for all ages. “Waters of the Outer Banks” is the theme of the aquarium. You can walk through and see over 200 species of fish, sharks, and other sea creatures. They also have a turtle rehabilitation center on-premises you can tour.
Pro Tip: This is a popular attraction, especially on rainy days, so you might prefer to visit on a sunny afternoon.
8. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is the location of the first English Colony where Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorers and colonists established settlements in the 1500s. It became known as “The Lost Colony” after the settlers disappeared. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site includes a nature trail, interpretive programs, and a visitor center.
9. Elizabethan Gardens
Beautiful flowers, statues, fountains, and more await you at the gorgeous 16th-century-style Elizabethan Gardens. It is a living memorial to the Lost Colony. We visited on a rainy day, and it was pretty, so I can only imagine how beautiful it is when the sun is shining.
10. The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama
The oldest symphonic outdoor drama in the country, The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama, tells the story of the first English attempt to settle in the New World. This 2-hour award-winning production plays from June through August.
11. Freedman’s Colony Of Roanoke Island
Part of the underground railroad and a safe haven for freed or enslaved runaways in the South during the Civil War, Freedman’s Colony housed thousands of enslaved African-Americans. They established a working settlement once the Union captured Roanoke Island in 1862.
12. Sunset Sailing
There is nothing like watching the sunset while sailing the ocean. You can book sunset sails with a variety of vendors. We enjoyed our sail with Sail The Outer Banks. Katherin and Dan were great hosts and even permitted each of us to have a turn as the sailing captain. We boarded from the Manteo Waterfront docks and sailed for about 2 and a half hours. It was a great ending to our day.
13. Bodie Island Lighthouse
Did you know that the Outer Banks is home to America’s first lighthouse? There are several you can view and some you can climb. We visited two of them. The Bodie Island Lighthouse was the one closest to where we stayed. It is open for climbing from April through October and is 156 feet tall with black and white stripes. There is also a self-guided nature trail that will interest bird watchers.
14. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the very first of America’s National Seashores. Established in 1953, it extends from Nags Head to Ocracoke Inlet for over 70 miles covering 30,000 acres. It is a beautiful beach with sparse visitors. A great seashore to get away from the crowds.
15. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
At 208 feet high, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in North America. The North Carolina Coast’s international symbol is the spiral-striped black and white lighthouse. America’s lighthouse is a “must-see” when visiting the Outer Banks. It was built in 1870 and was moved a half-mile inland in 1999 due to the encroaching sea. It is undergoing some refurbishment, so you can’t climb the stairs inside. It is still a worthy stop for photos and walking the grounds. A visitor center and museum are open year-round in the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters.
16. Horseback Riding On The Beach
Horseback riding on the beach is a memorable Outer Banks experience. Seeing the Hatteras Island on horseback during a guided tour gives the seashore a whole new perspective and is an exhilarating experience to ride so close to the ocean.
17. Graveyard Of The Atlantic Museum
Located in Hatteras, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum features exhibits about pirates (Blackbeard,) shipwreck artifacts, and more. There are over 2,000 identified shipwrecks off the coast, which is how the Outer Banks got the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” If you are in Hatteras, stop at this museum for an hour or two.
These are just some of our favorite activities in the Outer Banks. There is much more to do and see; we haven’t even mentioned eating in this article.
Outer Banks is the place to go if you’re looking for a memorable experience. With miles of beautiful pristine beaches, charming seaside towns, hang gliding, thrilling water sports, and plenty of hiking trails, there’s something for everyone in this North Carolina destination. With its natural beauty and abundance of activities, the Outer Banks is sure to please everyone in your group. So if you’re looking for a breathtaking coastal escape, look no further than the Outer Banks of North Carolina.