The Outer Banks is known for its wide, pristine beaches and quaint beachfront towns. The easternmost part of the state of North Carolina, the Outer Banks are actually a collection of several thin barrier islands that run for about 120 miles. Due to its interesting geographic location and historical significance, there are many sites that are worth visiting. Cute beach towns abound here, and you can easily see the charm of the beach life. Just three hours from Raleigh, the Outer Banks area is ideal for families and romantics alike, and well worth a visit.
Plan Your Beach Day at the Outer Banks
Arguably the best part of the Outer Banks is its national seashore. Some of the most picturesque beaches on the eastern seaboard are found in the Outer Banks. While the popular beach spots get very crowded in the summer you can drive up or down the coast to find a more secluded spot to relax. Also, visiting in the winter is a great way to enjoy all that the Outer Banks has to offer, with minimal tourists around. Despite getting a bit cold in the winter, you can still take in the beautiful nature and scenery, although the water maybe a little too chilly for swimming. Summer is ideal for a family day at the beach since you can easily spend all day lounging and swimming in the ocean, but it can get super crowded, so plan accordingly.
The Outer Banks Best Beaches
Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills are some of the most popular tourist spots for a beach day, but there many other great locations in the Outer Banks. Near the northern end of the Outer Banks is Corolla, one of the more upscale areas in the region. Corolla is a great place to be a bit away from the major tourist centers, and Corolla’s beach is also excellent, with pristine sand and space to spread out. However, the legendary wild horses are probably the biggest draw to this part of the Outer Banks. Keep in mind that you absolutely need a car with a four-wheel-drive to access the area, however, if you have the car and the time, seeing these wild horses is not to be missed. If you haven’t heard of the wild horses before, the story goes that they date back to an old shipwreck, and are the wild descendants of Spanish mustangs. These are some of the most majestic horses you will ever see! It is absolutely breathtaking to see them running along the beach. Just note that the horses are totally wild, so you should not approach them or try to feed them. They have delicate digestive systems and cannot eat human food, and are not accustomed to direct contact with humans. With all of that in mind, visiting the wild horses at Corolla is an absolutely incredible experience. We reiterate, though, that a car with 4WD is necessary– from personal experience, you will absolutely get stuck in the sand if you attempt this with any other type of car.
While the beaches may be the main draw, the Outer Banks is filled with surprising nature that is sure to delight. Our favorite unique nature spot in the Outer Banks is Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. Known for its spectacular dunes– the highest on the east coast– Jockey’s Ridge is one of those places that you have to visit to really get a sense of what makes it so special. If you visit early in the day or in the evening, it is likely that this state park will be almost empty, which makes exploring the over 400 acres extra special. Its landscape is absolutely mesmerizing, and you will love viewing the huge dunes and the fauna found here. You can easily walk around its various trails and nature paths, and plan to budget 2 hours to a half-day here. If you are interested in something a bit more active than just walking around, Jockey’s Ridge is a great place to go sandboarding, hang gliding, or even flying a kite.
The Outer Banks Lighthouses
Another great draw are the many famous lighthouses that can be found up and down the coast here, for those looking to learn about the history of the area. There are six lighthouses in the Outer Banks: Currituck Beach, Roanoke Marshes, Bodie, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke, and Cape Lookout. Compared to other lighthouses around the country, the Outer Banks’s lighthouses are quite large and have interesting and unique designs. The best lighthouse in the Outer Banks (in our opinion) is the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. It is the largest, and its spiral black and white design is mesmerizing. The Bodie Light is also worth visiting, as it is on the way back into town from Hatteras and easy to add on if you have limited time in the area.
The Outer Banks History Things To Do
Relatedly, due to the Outer Banks’s geographic location, it’s no surprise that it boasts a strong maritime history, with prominent trade and shipping lanes that brought many ships and pirates to the area through the centuries. One of the most famous pirates ever to leave his mark on the Outer Banks, Blackbeard, operated out of the area for some time and was killed at Ocracoke in 1718. This section of the coast is so unpredictable and dangerous that it became known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the thousands of shipwrecks that occurred in the area. The low visibility, sudden squalls and storms, and difficult conditions were the reasoning behind building the iconic lighthouses. One of the best places to learn about the history and the types of storms that affect the area to this day is at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which is dedicated to preserving and sharing information about these shipwrecks. You can see exhibits relating to the various shipwrecks, as well as many historic and rescued artifacts. This museum is free, which is the icing on the cake.
“First in Flight” at Kitty Hawk and the Birthplace of American Aviation
If you are a history lover or would like to learn about the beginnings of American aviation, you are in for a real treat. This is where the Wright Brothers successfully launched their aircraft on December 17th, 1903, paving the way for flight as we know it today. This momentous achievement is memorialized in Kitty Hawk, where you can walk around and view the monument to their success. This national memorial also has a Visitors’ Center, where you can learn more about the Wright Brothers, as well as their planes and designs. This is definitely worth visiting and is one of the Outer Banks’s greatest claims to fame, as well as North Carolina as a whole. While you’re in the state, you may notice that NC’s license plates say “First in Flight” in commemoration.
Visit the Lost Colony of Roanoke
Lastly, the Outer Banks is also famous for the historically lost colony of Roanoke, founded in 1587. Sadly, this English colony’s fate remains unknown today. Roanoke Island is where this first English settlement in North America was located, and it is also where the first English baby, Virginia Dare, was born on the North American continent. This historic event and the surrounding mystery of the Roanoke colony make for an excellent lesson in the early colonial experience in the area. In Manteo, there is an excellent play about the Lost Colony, which is performed seasonally and is absolutely worth attending for a history of the area.
Where to Eat in The Outer Banks
With all of this touring around, you would be remiss to forget about the food! With plenty of delicious restaurants, it is often hard to pick where to eat. Being on the coast, seafood is a great choice, with some of the freshest caught food you can find. Fish, shellfish, and crab are all so delicious, and there are options to buy it raw or wholesale to take with you or enjoy it in a restaurant. If you are not feeling like seafood, there are tons of other restaurants, ranging from Mexican food to pizza to American bistro fare. The Outer Banks also has amazing options for ice cream, such as Island Snowball Company, Snow Bird, or Coastal Creamery. Nothing says a beach day like some ice cream, right? Definitely indulge in some local scoops while you’re here.
The Outer Banks is a special place, filled with fun activities to do for everyone. There are miles and miles of beaches, beautiful nature, and lots of history to explore, so there is sure to be something for the whole family to enjoy. If you take the time to explore the lesser-traveled parts of the Outer Banks, you will be greatly rewarded with fantastic views and fewer crowds, always a good combination! Whether you spend the day lounging at the beach or visiting the various historical sites, you will have a great time soaking in this special region.
Guest Author: Tegan and Alex are travel, hiking, and biking enthusiasts currently based in Boston, USA, looking forward to moving to The Netherlands in 2021. There is nothing they love more than exploring new places by walking, and they have visited over 30 countries together since they met in 2015. Their love for “walking the world” led them to found Why Not Walk, a travel guides site. Follow them on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest to start planning your next adventure.