The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a narrow strip of land, a set of barrier islands that run along the coast of the northern half of North Carolina. It’s a popular vacation spot and a great family-friendly place to visit.
Judy has been coming to the Outer Banks for as long as she can remember. When we started dating, she introduced me to this area, and we have been visiting since then.
The Outer Banks, or OBX, includes several communities including Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Rodanthe, Waves, Buxton, and Hatteras. While there are similar barrier islands south of the Outer Banks, they are closer to land while the Outer Banks is separated by the Currituck, Albermarle, and Pamlico Sounds.
Getting Around the Outer Banks
While there are several passenger ferries, most visitor access the islands by car. There are two bridges.
If you are coming from the Hampton Roads area of Virgina and the north, use the Chesapeake Expressway which connects to Interstate 64 in Chesapeake VA. It is a toll road.
If you are coming from the Raleigh area, use Highway 64 and cross the bridge at Manteo.
The original beach road, Highway 12, is a 2-lane road that runs the length of the Outer Banks. From Southern Shores to Nags Head, a four-lane highway (158) is also available.
A bridge connects the northern part with Hatteras Island. From Hatteras, you can continue further by taking a ferry to Ocracoke.
You need to allow time to drive from one part of the Outer Banks to another. The roads often have significant traffic, especially on Saturdays when people are starting their vacation. While the highway speed limit if 55 in most places, there are stop lights that slow traffic.
Directions are often given by using mile markers. A business may say they are located at MP11. Some people will even put their mile marker on their license plates.
Top Things to Do in the Outer Banks
Visit the Beach
Hanging out at the beach is the number one reason to visit the Outer Banks. Reading a book, boogie boarding, throwing a ball. playing beach-friendly games like paddle ball and spikeball, or just watching the waves are reason enough to head to the beach.
There are beach access points with parking. Some areas have lifeguards. Be sure to watch the weather and respect no swim advisories – posted with a flag.
Bring a beach chair, umbrella, and towel. A cooler of snacks and drinks is great. There are restaurants along beach road if you need a sandwich.
Of course, you’ll want a good beach read. This summer, Judy read “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop” while Erling chose “Beat to Quarters”.
Visit a Lighthouse
There are several lighthouses in the Outer Banks including Hatteras, Currituck, Bodie Island, Ocracoke, and Roanoke Marshes. Climbing to the top of the Currituck Lighthouse offers a great view.
At Hatteras, you can learn how the Hatteras Lighthouse was moved inland – a pretty amazing feat.
See Wild Horses
A herd of wild horses lives in Corolla. The horses are Spanish Mustangs that have lived there for 500 years. While no one knows exactly how the horses came to live on the Outer Banks, they likely arrived from a shipwreck. The herd is considered endangered due to small size of the herd and continued construction that has reduced their habitat.
The best way to see them is to take a tour. We did the Wild Horse Safari with Corolla Jeep Adventures. It takes you on a beach drive with a stop to view the horses.
There is more to the Outer Banks than the beach. If you want to see nature up close, the best way is to take a kayak tour. We used Coastal Kayak and did the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge tour. It was fantastic.
Try Hang Gliding at Jockeys Ridge
While we have visited Jockey’s Ridge State Park, we haven’t done a hang gliding adventure yet. You can catch the wind just like Orville and Wilbur Wright. Or, if you aren’t feeling that adventurous, take a hike in the park. Just note that the sand can get hot. If you plan to bring your dog, you may want to visit early in the day.
Play a Game of Putt-Putt
A visit to the Outer Banks wouldn’t be complete without a game of miniature golf. Locals call it “putt-putt”. Whatever you call it, it’s fun. There are many pirate-themed putt-putt courses along the main highway. Check visitors guides and you may find a coupon.
Eating in the Outer Banks
One nice thing about the Outer Banks is that most of the restaurants aren’t chains. Instead, there are many local restaurants. In addition to crab shacks & seafood buffets, you’ll find a great variety of other places to eat. Here are a few we recommend.
If you like Caribbean flavor, you might enjoy eating at Tortuga’s Lie. You can get Jamaican jerk chicken or a skewer of Barbados-style shrimp. Of course, they have key lime pie for dessert. If you want a second opinion, check out what Guy Fieri had to say about Tortugas Lie on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Tortuga’s Lie is located on the Beach Road at MP11.
Carolina-style barbeque is different than what you find in other parts of the country and it’s fantastic. If you want a good place to try it, check out High Cotton. We visit whenever we are in the OBX. It’s located on the Beach Road at MP2.
For a local taste that is quickly spreading across the country, try Duck Donuts. They serve made-to-order gourmet donuts. There are some pretty amazing flavors like peach cobbler, cookies & cream, and smores. It’s hard to pick just one so consider getting a sampler. Duck Donuts started in Duck. There are now locations throughout the OBX and franchises in many cities across the US.
On a hot day, you need ice cream. A great choice is Big Buck’s Homemade Ice Cream. They make their ice cream fresh each day. Some of their 57 flavors include cherry vanilla, chocolate peanut butter, and vanilla caramel fudge. There are three Big Buck’s locations in the OBX.
If you are near Avon, head over to the Froggy Dog. There are many seafood options along with burgers and other options. The Froggy Dog is a place we have returned to for a great meal.
Other Outer Banks Attractions
The Lost Colony is a show about the first English Settlers to land in the OBX. The colony mysteriously disappeared, but the legend lives on. Check out this live production that has been offered each summer for 85 years.
If you are looking for a good rainy-day activity, head to the North Carolina Aquarium. It’s in Manteo and is a great place to learn about the natural environment on the Outer Banks. Note that during COVID, you need to purchase your tickets in advance.
Another OBX landmark is the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Located in Kitty Hawk, this National Park Service location tells the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright and their pioneering work in aviation.
The Outer Banks With a Dog
You often see dogs on the beach at the Outer Banks. Many of the beaches are dog friendly as long as you keep your dog on a leash. For some additional guidance, check out GoPetFriendly’s review of the Outer Banks.
Where to Stay in the Outer Banks
RV camping is our preferred way to travel and there are some great campgrounds in the Outer Banks. Other options include hotels, beach rentals, and condominiums.
While most of the campgrounds in the OBX are near Hatteras, there is one worth considering in Kill Devil Hills. Set several miles back from the main highway on the sound side, the OBX Campground is very near to the Wright Brothers Memorial. There are 56 gravel RV sites. We haven’t stayed here yet but did have the chance to drive through. There are several waterfront sites that might be a good choice for your visit to the Outer Banks.
This is a large campground with sites on both the ocean and sound sides. Located at MP 40.5 near Rodanthe, Camp Hatteras is a resort-style campground with over 400 sites. The sites are level with a concrete pad. Keep in mind that there are few trees and minimal shade. It’s easy to access the beach via a short boardwalk over the dunes. Camp Hatteras has nice indoor and outdoor pools. We have stayed at Camp Hatteras several times and enjoyed our stay.
Cape Hatteras/Outer Banks KOA Resort
The Outer Banks KOA is right next to Camp Hatteras. It also has great access to the beach. The over 300 sites are a mix of paved, gravel, and grass sites with different levels of amenities. The KOA has a nice zero-entry pool open most of the year as well as a variety of daily activities. In addition to campsites, the Outer Banks KOA offers camping cabins.
Ocean Waves Campground
Ocean Waves Campground is located in Waves, NC, about ¼ mile south of the KOA. It has paved sites, some with shade. Access to the beach is easy.
Frisco Woods campground is located in Frisco, almost at the southern tip of Hatteras Island. It has 174 RV campsites.
If you aren’t an RV traveler, consider renting a condominium. This can offer many of the advantages of an RV. For example, you’ll have a full kitchen so you can save a bit on your food budget. There are several time-share condominiums in the Outer Banks. Some provide the ability to do short-term rentals when the units aren’t occupied.
Sea Scape is located in Kitty Hawk. It has one- and two-bedroom units. With two outdoor and one indoor pool, a basic putt-putt course, pickle ball and tennis ball courts, and a nice golf course, you are sure to find something to do at Sea Scape.
A few other condominiums to consider are:
Outer Banks Beach Club, Kill Devil Hills
Barrier Island Station, Duck
Ocean Pines, Duck
Things for the Beach
To help you get ready for your trip to the Outer Banks, here are a few product suggestions. Note: these are affiliate links. If you choose to purchase by using the link there is no additional cost to you, but we earn a commission that helps enable us to continue sharing helpful information.
When selecting a beach umbrella, look for one that has a screw-in sand anchor or purchase an anchor separately. This feature really helps keep the umbrella secure.
It’s a great idea to bring a book to the beach. Here are the two we read on our Summer 2021 OBX trip.
Thanks for reading our Outer Banks of North Carolina review. We hope you found it helpful. We’d love to hear about your OBX favorites. Leave a comment to share. Thanks.
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