We sort-of cheated on a couple of these items, but it was just too hard to narrow down!
The Outer Banks in North Carolina is a place of dreams. Miles of beautiful beach that is mostly protected, tons of history from pirates to the original coast guard, and wildlife galore! Living all around the country, nothing can compare to the Outer Banks and North Carolina beaches. Since there’s so much to see and do, we’ve picked out 9 things you MUST see if you’re heading to the Outer Banks from north to south.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
North Carolina is proud to be the state that was “first in flight”. Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright came to this specific location in 1903 to test out their theory in flight and their flight machine. This location was perfect for it’s open space, no vegetation, steady winds, and privacy to set up camp. You can walk the place where the first powered airplane flight took off, check out the monument, see a replica statue of their flight machine, and see how they lived while in Kitty Hawk. Check out the National Park Service website for planning your visit. You might even see a kite festival while you’re there.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Check out the location of the Atlantic coasts tallest sand dunes with a gorgeous view from sound to ocean. This is a perfect location to watch the sunrise or sunset or bring some cardboard or a snowboard to ride the dunes! Right across the street is Kitty Hawk Kites, where you can sign up for hang gliding lessons or purchase a spectacular kite to fly while visiting the dunes. Jockey’s Ridge is a must see for the ecology of the outer banks but also a super fun stop along the Outer Banks.
This island tucked in the sound is full of history! Being the location of the First Colony in the New World, there is so much you can learn, see, and do here. First check out Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to see how colonist lived, as well as their famous disappearance. An important part of America history, you can also see the award winning play “The Lost Colony” that has been in production on the island since 1937.
Right beside this historic location, you can also visit the Elizabethan Gardens. This is a living memorial to Sir Walter Raleigh and the lost colony replicating garden styles from the late 1500s. With blooms and activities year round, there is always something to catch here at the gardens. Take a stroll around the gardens, attend a workshop, or visit their garden shop to learn more about gardening.
Not far from the gardens and Fort Raleigh is the North Carolina Aquarium Roanoke Island. One of the many aquariums in NC, this one works closely with the surrounding communities to protect Sea Turtles at the STAR Center. Visit the center for a close look at how the area rehabilitates this endangered species and you might even be able to watch a release back into the ocean!
Don’t miss driving into downtown Manteo for local craft beer, wonderful cafes, and shopping along the sound. Manteo is such a cute, picturesque town, you’ll definitely want to stop for a stroll before leaving the Outer Banks or continuing south.
Pier fishing is a popular Outer Banks activity. However, Jennette’s Pier is quite special as it is part of the North Carolina Aquariums, LEED Certified, and reaches 1,000 feet out into the Atlantic Ocean. You can’t miss this pier as the wind turbines show off just how energy efficient it is. Get a fishing pass for the day or spend the $2 to walk on the pier to breath in all that beautiful, salty air. Often, you can watch anglers bring up some large fish or just some weird stuff that gets caught on their line.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
This stop is for those wanting some quiet time among the local wildlife. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for birds and sea turtles along the Outer Banks. Stop at their visitor center to learn more about the area’s wildlife, take a stroll on their trails, or pop over to their beaches. We recommend taking an educational program to expand your knowledge on the local wildlife. This is also a popular spot for the Wings Over Water festival that happens every October where they celebrate the birding migrations and the environment of coastal North Carolina. Bring binoculars and bug spray!
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Most of the Outer Banks is taken up by Cape Hatteras National Seashore. From just south of Nags Head all the way to Ocracoke Island, this seashore is protected by the National Park Service. A must see mainly for the beautiful beaches, however, there are so many historical sites, wildlife viewing, and outdoor recreation. Hatteras is mostly known for the beautiful lighthouse and it’s historical move, but did you also know that the famous pirate, Blackbeard, was a frequent visitor in his time? Along with hundreds of Sea Turtles to lay their nests? From fishing, beachcombing, to kitesurfing, Cape Hatteras is a place for everyone.
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
At the very end of Hatteras Island, a building that resembles a beautiful shipwreck emerges from the sand and dunes; the home of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. Inside, you’ll find out just why the North Carolina seashore is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. With more than 2,000 shipwrecks off the coast, the museum has artifacts from U-boats from WWII to pirate ships. An overall maritime history museum of the Outer Banks, take the opportunity to learn more about fishing, the lifesaving service, and diving on these barrier islands. The museum is free and can be a stop before hitting the ferry right next door for Ocracoke Island.
Ocracoke Island is a remote island only accessible by ferry. At the very end of Hatteras Village, hop on the Passenger Only or Vehicle Ferry to see this pristine island; a place to relax and explore local, island living. Coming from the vehicle ferry area, you have miles of seashore before reaching the town. We highly recommend going to the island early in the morning to take advantage of the quiet beaches you can access along this stretch. Just park and hop over the dunes to have a beach practically to yourself. The passenger ferry takes you right into the town of Ocracoke. From here, hop on a fishing charter, take a walk around the town, and enjoy the local seafood and drinks. Even rent some bikes or a golfcart to get around while you explore the island.
A beacon of hope for travelers along the coast, North Carolina’s lighthouses are iconic. There are 7 coastal lighthouses along the coast line and the Outer Banks has 4 of them. Check these out on your trip along the OBX:
- Currituck Lighthouse
- Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Ocracoke Lighthouse
- BONUS – Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
The Outer Banks is a wonderful place to visit. There’s so much more to see and do than what we have listed, but part of an adventure is being there and exploring on your own! Enjoy the drive along HWY 12, the local seafood, the beautiful beaches, and the historical sites. Create your own “must-do” list or add to this one.