Your Mini Guide to the Islands of The Outer Banks
The Outer Banks of North Carolina has always been a place of rejuvenation for me. Since childhood, I’ve been visiting this series of barrier islands, from the southernmost Emerald Isle to the northern end in Corolla. The OBX, as locals call it, holds a special place in my heart, and I consider it my go-to destination for soul healing.
The Outer Banks is a popular tourist spot with something for everyone, from populated areas with shopping, restaurants, mini-golf and excursions to the wild and remote island of Shackleford Banks.
It can be hard to decide which area of the Outer Banks to stay in, so I have outlined some key things to see in each.
As someone who has traveled here many times, I can tell you that you simply can’t go wrong, no matter how you choose to visit the Outer Banks.
If you stay in Central Outer Banks, you can head north to Corolla or south to Hatteras for day trips. Each direction is about an hour in the low season. Add another half hour to forty minutes in high season, June to late August. Staying central has a lot of appeal to those who want to see as much of this stretch of island as possible.
North Outer Banks
The northern end of the island chain, including Corolla, Duck and Southern Shores, is quieter and runs a bit upscale.
I suggest a visit to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. At the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, you can climb the 220 steps to the top for a stunning panoramic view of the Outer Banks. The lighthouse dates back to 1875 and is a historic landmark and an iconic symbol of the northern Outer Banks. You can also explore the newly restored lightkeeper’s house.
Near the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, you can find several other attractions. Just down the road is the Whalehead Club, a stunning 21,000-square-foot Art Nouveau-style mansion built in 1925 that is now a museum.
My father particularly liked the Currituck Maritime Museum, where you can learn about the long and storied history of shipwrecks in the Outer Banks. The treacherous waters off the coast of the Outer Banks are known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the many ships that have sunk there over the centuries.
The nearby Historic Corolla Village is a charming collection of restored buildings that date back to the 1700s, including a schoolhouse, a church and a general store. You can also walk on the Currituck Sound Boardwalk, which offers a peaceful stroll through the marshland and the opportunity to spot wildlife.
If you want lovely items to bring home from your trip, I suggest The Scarborough Faire Shopping Village. It features a variety of unique shops selling everything from art to clothing to jewelry. My personal favorite is Seaglass Gallery. I have bought several lovely rings and various fun items to bring home. A lot of local artists have their wares in the shops here. I also love the Island Bookstore and always stop and pick up a beach read!
Central Outer Banks
Here you’ll find the central Outer Banks towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, popular with families. This area boasts numerous vacation homes, motels, hotels, restaurants, mini-golf and stores for all your needs.
The Wright Brothers Memorial is a must-visit for anyone interested in aviation history. This is where Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic first flight in 1903. You can explore the visitor center and museum, where you can learn about the Wright Brothers’ experiments and see a replica of their flying machine.
Jockey Ridge State Park is another must-see attraction in the area. It’s home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast, and you can hike to the top for a breathtaking view of the ocean and the surrounding landscape. In addition to hiking, the park offers hang gliding lessons and kite flying.
While you’re there, be sure to check out the site of Carolista Fletcher Baum’s famous stand in front of a bulldozer to prevent the development of the dunes. Baum was a local activist who fought tirelessly to protect the dunes from development. Her efforts ultimately led to the creation of Jockey Ridge State Park. It’s a powerful reminder of the importance of environmental conservation and the impact that a single person can make.
Be sure to stop by Kitty Hawk Kites and check out their impressive selection of kites to bring home, and a meal at Outer Banks Brewing Station is a must. In addition to great beer and food, the Outer Banks Brewing Station is also known for its live music. The brewery hosts local and regional bands several nights a week, and the outdoor stage is a popular spot for concerts and events. The outdoor area is excellent for the kids to blow off steam while you sample a flight. My favorite beer is their Lemongrass Wheat!
South Outer Banks
In the southern end, you’ll find smaller towns like Rodanthe, Avon, Buxton, Salvo, Hatteras Island, Hatteras and Frisco, as well as the protected lands of the Hatteras National Seashore. This area is much less developed, quieter and slower, giving you a real glimpse into life on the island.
I have always camped at the KOA in Rodanthe when staying in this area. It’s expensive, a KOA resort, but it offers small apartments, tent camping, cabins and RV spots. There are a ton of amenities for families, including a giant pool (great for small kids who can’t handle the sun, sand and salt all day), a restaurant and other activities.
My favorite spot in this area is the Hatteras Lighthouse.
The Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the most iconic landmarks on the Outer Banks. The lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, standing at 198 feet tall. The Hatteras Lighthouse has a rich history that dates back to 1803, when the first lighthouse was built on the site. The current structure was built in 1870 and has been guiding ships safely through the treacherous waters off the coast of Hatteras Island ever since.
In addition to its impressive height, the Hatteras Lighthouse is notable for its move in 1999. Due to the erosion of the beach and the encroaching waves, the lighthouse was in danger of collapsing into the ocean. To save it, the entire structure was moved 2,900 feet inland over the course of 23 days. Today, visitors can climb the 257 steps to the top of the lighthouse for a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding area. The Hatteras Lighthouse is a must-visit attraction for anyone traveling to the Outer Banks. It symbolizes the island’s history and resilience, and its towering presence is a testament to the power of human ingenuity and determination.
I was always the photographer
If you’re looking for remote and wild spaces, Ocracoke Island is the place to go. You will take a ferry from the southern end of Hatteras to access Ocracoke. You will drive your car onto the ferry, and Ocracoke Island has a road that runs the island’s length. You can also camp on the island, as I did in the fall of 2020; it was one of my favorite experiences.
It wouldn’t be an island experience without another lighthouse to explore! The Ocracoke Lighthouse is the oldest functioning lighthouse in North Carolina and one of the oldest in the United States. The lighthouse was built in 1823 and is still in operation today. Visitors can climb to the top for a stunning view of the island and the surrounding ocean. In addition to the lighthouse, Ocracoke Island has a variety of other attractions and activities to offer. The island’s beaches are some of the most beautiful and unspoiled on the East Coast, and there are plenty of opportunities for swimming, surfing and fishing. The island has a vibrant arts scene, with numerous galleries and studios showcasing the work of local artists. The island also has a rich history, with ties to Blackbeard the Pirate and the Civil War.
From Ocracoke, you can continue south, taking the ferry from the island’s south side to Cedar Island, the mainland, and your access point to the southernmost parts of North Carolina. I drove from Cedar Island to Harkers Island, a 45-minute drive to take another ferry to Cape Lookout.
I could not take my vehicle out to Cape Lookout. I drive a Buick, and the only vehicles allowed on the island have to be able to drive on sand; there are no paved roads on the island. The ferry dropoff point puts you right at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. The lighthouse is home to the Keepers’ Quarters Museum, where you can learn about the history of the lighthouse and the people who maintained it over the years.
Cape Lookout Point Beach is a stunning location on the southern end of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. It’s a remote, undeveloped beach offering miles of pristine sand and crystal-clear water. I paid a park ranger at the lighthouse to run me out to the point so I could walk and collect shells. He dropped me off with the promise to pick me up in an hour, and he was true to his word. There were quite a few people out there fishing and collecting shells, so I never felt unsafe, but being on that narrow strip of land surrounded by water was a weird feeling. It’s beautiful, which makes it a secluded and peaceful spot to relax and unwind. Visitors can swim, fish, shell-hunt and enjoy a variety of water sports, including kayaking and paddleboarding.
The absolute highlight of my trip in 2020! Shackleford Banks is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. I paid for a tour that dropped me off on the island and picked me up 2.5 hours later. The island is home to a herd of wild horses believed to have been brought to the area by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The horses roam freely on the island, and it’s not guaranteed you will see them. I got lucky and saw so many! As with all wildlife, keep your distance. There are no amenities on the island. I packed water, some snacks, sunblock, toilet tissue and a Ziplock baggie with me and packed everything back out.
No matter which part of the Outer Banks you choose to visit, you will find plenty to do and explore in this unique and special area of the country. From the natural beauty of the beaches and dunes to the rich history of the landmarks, Outer Banks is a place that will capture your heart and leave you with memories that will last a lifetime.
- Travel Bags for Women — My Favorite Road Tested Travel Bags
- 15 Helpful Travel Apps You Should Download for Your Next Trip
- Do You Need Trip Insurance? The Answer Is YES!
- Free Downloadable Travel Checklist So You Don’t Miss A Thing!
- A Simple Day Hiking Checklist for Beginners
Although we strive to provide the most current information, bars, restaurants and attractions mentioned may close at any time, operate with a limited menu or reduced hours, or have takeout options only. We recommend checking individual websites for operating hours and updates before visiting.
The views expressed on this website represent the opinions of the authors; we encourage you to form your own opinions and confirm any facts.