The Outer Banks of North Carolina is about 100 miles of glorious shoreline, barrier islands, natural beauty, and quaint seaside villages, and a great choice when you are ready for a getaway. One of the jewels of the Outer Banks (fondly called OBX by the locals) is the beach town of Nags Head.
As part of a snowbird vacation a few years ago, my husband Dean and I booked a vacation rental beach house in Nags Head for five days. The Nags Head area offers oceanfront, beachfront, and soundfront property rentals, but ours was located inland, sandwiched between the Atlantic and Roanoke Sound. While there are golf courses to play and art galleries to tour in the area, we selected more of the natural attractions that showcase the beauty of the area.
Here are some of the fabulous experiences, big and little, that we enjoyed while we were there.
1. Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Nags Head is home to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the tallest living sand dune system on the Atlantic coast, and it covers some 400+ acres. It’s a great place for hang gliding, swimming, paddling, kite flying, or windsurfing (or watching those who do), but we opted for hiking the dune out to the bluff to see the sunset. The wind made fascinating ridges in the sand, and it felt like we were on the moon.
Nags Head Woods Preserve
Jockey’s Ridge shields neighboring Nags Head Woods Preserve from strong Atlantic winds. The preserve is one of the largest maritime forests on the East Coast. It is humbling to see hundred-plus-year-old trees towering above the dunes.
Pro Tip: When you visit Jockey’s Ridge, wear good footwear to walk on sand and get there early. I’d recommend arriving at least 45 minutes before sunset so you can get a feel for the area and walk to the bluff. We left right after the sun dipped below the horizon, but if you plan to linger, bring a flashlight or use the one on your phone.
2. Nags Head Beach
Nags Head Beach is a great place to walk and take in the views. Check this site for public beach access locations, including those that accommodate special accessibility needs. Lifeguards are on duty throughout the peak season (mid-June to mid-August).
3. Nags Head Fishing Pier
We walked on the beach every day, and Nags Head Fishing Pier was a welcome sight to keep us oriented. The website claims it’s one of the oldest and longest piers on OBX, and it’s a great place to catch the sun rising over the Atlantic. It’s popular with fishermen, of course, but it also features the Pier House Restaurant and a tiki bar and grill for a relaxing afternoon or evening of good food, easy laughter, and ocean views.
4. Jennette’s Pier
South Nags Head is referenced separately from Nags Head, although it’s all part of the same town. In South Nags Head, you might want to visit Jennette’s Pier, part of the North Carolina Aquariums. We didn’t explore this one, but it highlights family fun with fishing opportunities, youth camps, interactive exhibits, and great aquariums. Check the website for programs, hours, and fishing and walk-on-pier fees.
5. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
As we branched out from Nags Head, we took a drive south along Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a slender series of barrier islands. From the web: “One of the largest preserved parcels of the Outer Banks, the National Seashore stretches across 70 miles of shoreline, encompassing seven villages on Hatteras Island, and providing visitors with miles of undisturbed, scenic beaches as well as some of the prettiest natural drives on the East Coast.”
The landscape here was fascinating. Some parts of the road were flanked by sand dunes; some sections cut through trees. We saw a workman moving sand from the edge of the road back toward the water, much like snow removal in Minnesota.
6. Bodie Island Lighthouse
Hatteras National Seashore
I’m a lighthouse fan and stopping at Bodie Island Light Station was another highlight. The lighthouse sits at the northern end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Bodie has a long wooden boardwalk from the lighthouse to a lookout point and tower overlooking some wetlands. Our March visit offered a beautiful view of the area.
7. The Graveyard Of The Atlantic
We learned something unexpected… this stretch of barrier islands has earned the ominous nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” We didn’t get there, but if you’re curious about this moniker, check out the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras.
It’s ironic. Today, OBX is popular with tourists, surfers, and fishermen alike, but the waters around OBX were treacherous for boats and ships. Because of modern improvements to sailing vessels, few ships meet their demise today, but storms still uncover the ruins of the old wreckages along the beaches.
Pro Tip: We drove past the small town of Frisco and then turned around. If we had visited in summer, getting to the next island, Ocracoke Island, would have been worth the effort. “Dr. Beach” (Dr. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research) named Ocracoke Beach the #1 beach in the nation in 2022.
8. Wright Brothers National Memorial
The Wright Brothers National Memorial, just north of Nags Head, is another fabulous experience. We walked through the world-class museum that explained the bigger story of the first flight, including who the Wright brothers were, how they got interested in flight, and all the trial and error that went into it. Since we are avid bikers, we loved that their inspiration for the flight came from the leaning and balancing of riding a bike.
The grounds are as impressive as the museum. A large field with four stone pillars marks the distance the Wright brothers flew on each of their four initial, short-but-still-incredible flights on December 17, 1903.
Big Kill Devil Hill
If you’re up for it, the Wright Brothers National Monument set high on Big Kill Devil Hill is worth the climb. In the early 1900s, the hill was a giant sand dune. It was hard to imagine these two persistent brothers tirelessly climbing the dune to conduct flight experiments. The monument recognizes this inspiring story of perseverance and guts.
Pro Tip: After visiting the museum, Outer Banks Brewing Station in the town of Kill Devil Hills is a fun place to go. Try their specialty “pubwiches” and a beer.
9. Soundside Boardwalk
About 30 minutes north of Nags Head is the town of Duck. Named for popular duck hunting in the surrounding Currituck and Albemarle Sounds, we loved to walk the boardwalk. It’s almost a mile long with plenty of trees, shops, restaurants, sculptures, and more.
Pro Tip: If you are a foodie, make a detour into Outer Banks Olive Oil Company and consider any of their many flavored olive oils or balsamic vinegar, like blackberry-ginger or fig.
10. Currituck Beach Lighthouse
While we didn’t get there, about 15 miles north of Duck lies the town of Corolla and the popular Currituck Beach Lighthouse. It’s unique for the unpainted brick that distinguishes it from other lighthouses along the coast. Check the website for dates, hours, and the fee to climb the tower to the top of the lighthouse for expansive views of the area.
11. Coastal North Carolina National Wildlife Refuge
About 15 minutes west of Nags Head, on Roanoke Island, is the Coastal North Carolina National Wildlife Refuge. It’s on the shores of the Alligator River; if one was ever going to see alligators, this would be the place!
A park ranger told us March is still too cold for alligator sightings this far north, but she did map out recent sightings of cougars, bears, otters, and red foxes (no guarantees, of course). We drove down the gravel roads with high hopes of seeing wildlife, but the best we could muster up were turtles!
12. Elizabethan Gardens
The elegant Elizabethan Gardens are self-proclaimed “the Outer Banks Crown Jewel” (and they’re not wrong). Stroll among sculptures, manicured bushes, trees, fountains, and expansive flower beds. Even in March, some early flowers were blooming. I liked the impressive statue of Elizabeth I, one of the largest statues of her in the world. It was made of bronze and her skirt was full of intricate detail.
Manteo is a beautiful place to walk around, with its extensive boardwalk along the shore and harbor. Seeing another lighthouse was a plus.
Pro Tip: Hungry? Lost Colony Brewery boasts about having the best and freshest English-style ales on the coast. They also have great pub fare.
A Marvelous Mystery
The geography of this area is a marvelous mystery. On a map, OBX is the thinnest stretch of land from southern Virginia into North Carolina. As we explored the area, I kept asking Dean, “How come the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t just completely swallow up this little strip of land? With enough time and erosion, wouldn’t this just all be gone?”
If it hasn’t disappeared by now, perhaps it never will. We loved our outer banks vacation in the town of Nags Head. It makes a great base to explore all the fabulous experiences there and throughout OBX. If you’re looking for places to stay in North Carolina’s outer banks, here are some amazing options.