Outer Banks Travel Guide

USA  #1 in Best Family Beach Vacations in the U.S.
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Courtesy of VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Free Things To Do in Outer Banks

If you have extra time, Cape Hatteras National Seashore is worthwhile.
  • #1
    Things to do in Outer Banks
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    #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.

  • #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.

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