Outer Banks Travel Guide

USA  #1 in Best Family Beach Vacations in the U.S.
Credit

Courtesy of VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Best Things To Do in Outer Banks

The Outer Banks have activities for relaxation and for adventure. The quiet beaches are the main draw to the area, but others visit OBX for the horseback riding, hang gliding and water sports. Touring the shipwrecks off the coast, sightseeing at Corolla's Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Kill Devil Hills' Wright Brothers National Memorial or Nag's Head's Jockey's Ridge State Park make a happy medium for vacationers who desire a more balanced getaway.

How we rank Things to Do
  • #1
    Things to do in Outer Banks
    View all Photos
    #1 in Outer Banks
    Beaches, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The beaches in the Outer Banks stretch for more than 100 miles along barrier islands that frame the eastern coast of North Carolina. These sands are known for their cleanliness and their family friendliness. Each beach has something different to offer travelers, but take note that lifeguards are on duty on all beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

    The shores at Hatteras Island are known for their fishing and sailing (the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras is the tallest in the United States) as well as their campgrounds and 4x4 beach driving. The northern shores (specifically Kitty Hawk and Kill Devils Hills) are ideal for water sports like surfing and skimboarding, as they see more waves than the southern beaches. Nags Head also completed a 12-mile beach nourishment program that widened the sands so visitors have more room to spread out. Travelers should be mindful that the public parking is limited in Southern Shores. Those bringing their four-legged friend can head to Duck where dogs are allowed to be off their leash as long as they're under control.

  • #2
    Jockey's Ridge State Park
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    #2 in Outer Banks
    Parks and Gardens, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Parks and Gardens, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The most popular attraction on Nags Head (aside from the oceanfront) is Jockey's Ridge State Park, home to the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast. You can reach the top two ways: either a mile-long sand-covered trail (do this in shoes as the sand can be as much as 30 degrees hotter than the air temperature) or use the 360-foot boardwalk to walk to the top. Once at the peak, you can tap into your adventurous side by sandboarding (which requires a free permit from the park office), take hang gliding lessons or pilot a Wright Brothers 1902 glider replica with Kitty Hawk Kites, or relive your childhood and simply fly a kite. Just remember to bring your own kite or sandboard along with you. For nature enthusiasts, the park also has several other trails you can wander and spot fulgurites (glass tubes formed when lightning hits the sand) – but removal of them is not allowed.

    Recent travelers said a visit to the park is a great experience for the whole family, and report that the top of the dunes provide stunning panoramic views of the coast. To avoid brunt of the midday heat, reviewers recommend visiting in the morning or just before the park closes. 

  • #3
    Cape Hatteras National Seashore
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    #3 in Outer Banks
    Beaches, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    The Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches for more than 70 miles and tempts visitors with its well-kept sands, picturesque lighthouses and rolling waves. While many visitors come to soak up the sun along the Atlantic's sands, you should devote some time to the seashore's other attractions, most notably the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

    The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest in the United States, has long protected passing ships from the fierce currents and hidden sand bars that earned the area the nickname "the graveyard of the Atlantic." You should also keep an eye out for Cape Hatteras' wildlife: A wide array of birds (more than 360 species) can be found here, mingling with sea turtles along the golden shores.

  • #4
    Wright Brothers National Memorial
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    #4 in Outer Banks
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    If you flew to the Outer Banks, you have the Wright Brothers to thank. In 1900, the two moved here from Ohio for the area's steady winds to pursue their aviation dreams. After three years of experimentation, the first flight was born in Kill Devil Hills on December 17, 1903. Today, a 60-foot monument in the shape of an airplane tail marks this significant flight. To get a glimpse into the brothers' lives, travelers can visit their restored hangar and home as well as the Wright Brothers Visitor Center, which houses exhibits detailing the men's lives in the Outer Banks and the failures they endured along the way to that historic first flight.

    Recent travelers said this is a must-visit site and highly recommend taking a guided ranger tour, which reviewers described as informative and fun. 

  • #5
    Currituck Beach Lighthouse
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    #5 in Outer Banks
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    Before 1875, ships sailing by the North Carolina coast faced a 40-mile "blind spot" between Bodie Island and Virginia's Cape Henry. Then the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla was created. To this day, the lighthouse still functions and orients incoming boats. If you have visited other lighthouses, you may notice something a bit different about this one – the exterior was never painted and still maintains its original exposed brick (approximately a million of them!). Today, you can get your heart pumping and climb the 220 steps for gorgeous views of the area from the top, which recent visitors highly recommend for the outstanding photo-ops. Afterward, pick up nautical-themed souvenirs at the gift shop (located in a small house that was probably part of the keeper's residence). If you're visiting during the school year, keep in mind that the lighthouse often hosts school groups on the weekdays, which can crowd the site.

    To reach the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, take Route 12 north toward Duck and Corolla. The lighthouse is open from early spring through Thanksgiving weekend from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and general admission and parking is free. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, it stays open until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. To climb the lighthouse, it's a $10 fee, children ages 7 and younger can climb with an adult for free. The lighthouse also closes during inclement weather for safety reasons. Visit the lighthouse's official website for more information.

  • #6
    Bodie Island Lighthouse
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    #6 in Outer Banks
    Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    This thrice-built, black-and-white lighthouse sits south of Nags Head on Bodie Island. The first incarnation fell due to poor construction, the second was destroyed during the Civil War and the latest version received a facelift that was completed in 2013. It still functions as a working lighthouse today and can be seen as far as 19 miles from shore. Past visitors said the recent renovation makes this lighthouse one of the best in the area and recommended a stop by the lower level's small museum and gift shop. They were also pleased with the historical information provided by the rangers.

    You can tour this 156-foot-tall lighthouse for a small fee ($10 for adults, $5 for seniors and children ages 11 and younger) daily from the third Friday of April through Columbus Day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis and only eight people can climb to the top of the lighthouse at a time. If you're planning to make the climb, wear the appropriate footwear: You'll have to traverse 200 steps (the equivalent of a 10-story building) with only one handrail to guide you.

  • #7
    Roanoke Island Festival Park
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    #7 in Outer Banks
    Museums, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Located in Manteo, the Roanoke Island Festival Park takes visitors back in time to the 1500s and the settlement of Roanoke. Inside the park, you can board the replica Elizabeth II ship, where kids will love swabbing the deck and playing games with costumed sailors; visit American Indian Town, where exhibits detail how American Indians lived in the late 16th century; and tour the Settlement Site to see how the early colony looked – all the while interacting with re-enactors wearing period dress. The park also offers a history museum, a docu-drama and a performance series.

    Recent visitors said that the staff is knowledgeable and informative about Native American and early American history and that the park is great for families. Others were especially impressed with the ship, saying it's a great way to learn what life was like for these early explorers.

  • #8
    Elizabethan Gardens
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    #8 in Outer Banks
    Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    This 10.5-acre public garden, located less than 3 miles north of the North Carolina Aquarium, offers a peaceful sanctuary with more than 500 different species of plants, including collections of hydrangeas, camellias, historic herbs and native coastal species. The camellia collection is a highlight, boasting more than 85 varieties. Another treasure of the gardens is a particular rose, found in the rose garden, which was sent by Queen Elizabeth II from the royal rose garden at Windsor Castle in 1976. Don't miss the ancient live oak on the property, estimated to have been living in 1585 when the first colonists landed in the area.

    Most visitors raved about the grounds and beautiful landscaping, though some think the admission price is a bit too high.

  • #9
    Outer Banks Golf Courses
    View all Photos
    #9 in Outer Banks
    Golf
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Golf
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Thanks to the Outer Banks' cooperative weather, golfers can easily swing a club year-round. Several 18-hole golf courses offer challenging layouts, paired with ocean breezes and scenic views.  

    Nags Head Golf Links, a particular favorite among past visitors, is an 18-hole Scottish-style championship course designed by Bob Moore. Though visitors say it's a challenging course, they also praise its beautiful views, particularly at sunset. The clubhouse is home to the Links Grille, with a bar and restaurant (and more photo-worthy views), plus there's a golf shop. Clinics and lessons are also offered.

  • #10
    North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
    View all Photos
    #10 in Outer Banks
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    If you want to see what animals you're sharing the water with when you're splashing around on the Outer Banks beaches, head to Roanoke to the North Carolina Aquarium. Its main feature is the Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit. Models of remains of the USS Monitor make up the home for giant turtles and sharks in the 285,000-gallon tank found in the Ironclad Sanctuary exhibit. Throughout the rest of the aquarium, you'll find a variety of other marine critters, including alligators, otters, frogs and plenty of fish. If the kids are itching for a hands-on experience, head to the Sea Turtle Rescue exhibit, where they can touch turtles while learning about efforts to protect these creatures.

    Some recent visitors said the aquarium is rather small, but still say it's worth a visit with interesting exhibits and animals to see. Keep in mind that the aquarium sees the most crowds on rainy days and during the summer.

  • Jennette's Pier
    View all Photos
    Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    Read More »

  • Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site
    View all Photos
    Museums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Read More »

  • The Lost Colony
    View all Photos
    Entertainment and Nightlife
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Entertainment and Nightlife
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Read More »

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