A visit to North Carolina’s Outer Banks is full of history, mystery, and of course sand. The Outer Bank archipelago is well over 100 miles of ocean vistas and sand dunes. Most of the chain is classified as national seashore and therefore undeveloped. This was the first national seashore in the United States. Visiting the Outer Banks is an amazing way to get away from it all and enjoy some time in the sun. We’ve got the top ten reasons to put the Outer Banks on your must-do list.
#1 – The Drive
The drive through the Outer Banks is one of the most beautiful and picturesque in the world. Sand Dunes and ocean vistas await those who take on the 100 miles of road between the towns of Corolla and Ocracoke. There is even a free ferry linking the Ocracoke Island with the rest of this amazing roadway.
Getting to the Outer Banks
There are two ways to drive onto the Outer Banks. Highway 158 enters the island chain at the historic town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. While Highway 64 crosses over the infamous Roanoke Island further to the south. There is a ferry that connects the southern tip of this drive at Ocracoke with the mainland at Cedar Island, North Carolina or Swanquarter, North Carolina. Whichever way you travel along this scenic roadway it will be an amazing adventure.
#2 – The Ferry Boats
Ferry boat rides are very peaceful. I like to watch the birds soar overhead as they follow the boat. The possibility of spotting dolphins or whales at home in their natural environment gives a ferry boad ride an air of anticipation. While a trip to the Outer Bank can be achieved without partaking of a ferry boat ride no visit to the Outer Banks is complete without at least one ferry ride.
Ocracoke – Hatteras Ferry (60-minute transit)
There is a free ferry connecting the islands of Ocracoke and Hatteras. Reservations can not be made ahead of time. The scheduled times for the ferries change seasonally so check out the NC DOT ferry schedule for the most up to date information. The route through the shallow seas around the sandbars is a circuitous route and a very picturesque journey.
Ocracoke – Cedar Island (2 hours & 15-minute transit)
The ferry from Ocracoke to Cedar Island is the best way to get on to and off of the Outer Banks from the south. This is also the branching off point for visiting the very southern tip of the island chain at Cape Lookout. Visitors should make reservations ahead of time. Click here for the ferry schedule.
Ocracoke – Swanquarter (2 hours & 30-minute transit)
The ferry from Ocracoke to Swanquarter is a great option for those traveling to and from the north to experience a ferry ride or for those traveling directly from the west. Again, visitors should make reservations ahead of time. Click here for the ferry schedule.
Harkers Island – Cape Lookout (No vehicles: 15-minute transit)
The ferry from Harkers Island to Cape Lookout is a passenger ferry that takes riders out to the southern tip of the Outer Bank chain at Cape Lookout. There is another lighthouse located here that is beautiful and wild horses still roam the island. Camping on the island is available. There are no roads or industry on this island. Everything you need must be brought with you and leave with you. For more information on planning your visit to Cape Lookout click here. Visit the Island Express Ferry Services website for scheduled departures.
#3 – The Lighthouses
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the World’s second tallest brick lighthouse and a must see when visiting the Outer Banks. It is on the point of the island chain that protrudes the farthest into the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse was built in 1870 but the Hatteras island’s coastline has moved so much that the nearly 193’ tall lighthouse was relocated in 1999 to a safer distance inland.
#4 – First in Flight
Kitty Hawk was home to the experiments of the Wright Brothers in controlled flight. The Dayton, Ohio bike shop owners were afflicted with the idea of powered, controlled flight. In the year 1900, the brothers went in search of a windy and secluded spot with lots of sand (for soft landings… crashes) from whence they might test their experiments in flight. It started with large kites and then moved into gliders. Finally, in 1903 the brothers made the first four successful controlled power flights in the world. With a high school education and the money that their bike shop produced these two brothers did what no one else could and many thought impossible. They found the formula for controlled flight and set into motion a century of flight innovations that would eventually lead us to the moon and our unmanned craft to the very edge of our solar system.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial
Today when visiting the Outer Banks people can explore the Wright Brothers National Memorial which is located on the site where the Wright Brothers did there experiments. There are stones here to commemorate those first four flights. Kill Devil Hill is a sand dune that was shored up in later years. It was from this dune that many of there glider experiments took place and today a giant memorial to the two brothers stands on top of the hill. It’s an amazing story of perseverance in the face of uncertain outcomes. As a national memorial, there is an entrance fee required but an America The Beautiful – Annual Pass will get you in for free if you’ve got one.
Monument to a Century of Flight
When visiting the Outer Banks make sure to also check out the Monument to a Century of Flight which was dedicated in 2003. It is located at the visitor center in Kitty Hawk. All the major events of the first 100 years of flight are written on the monument’s pillars. It is amazing how fast the human race moved from learning to fly to sending rockets into space.
#5 – The Mystery of Roanoke Island
I am a big history buff and who doesn’t love a good mystery. Roanoke Island may be the pinnacle of both—a historic tragedy filled with mystery. Roanoke was the site chosen to be the first English colony in the New World. It was established in 1585 and then abandoned after tension with the natives escalated. Another group of colonists reluctantly reestablished the colony in 1587 after the encroaching winter kept them from moving north into present-day Virginia as they had planned. The first child of the new world, Virginia Dare, was born here.
After some setbacks, the governor of the colony returned to England for resupply but due to tensions with the Spanish, another ship wasn’t sent for three years. Upon returning to Roanoke Island in 1590 no sign of the colonists remained. They had vanished and the only sign left was the word “Croatan” etched into a tree. No trace of the colonists was ever found.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Today there is a park on Roanoke Island known at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. The park has several walking trails with information signs to learn about the history of the island during the times of the colonists as well as the role the island played during the Civil War. The visitor center does a good job of telling the story with interactive displays. However, the video there is dated and the storytelling is near too awful. The Lost Colony is a theatrical play that runs during the summer months and is the highlight of the park. It is a dramatic interpretation of the events of that historic first colonization. This play has been running every summer since 1932 and a must see when visiting the Outer Banks. For tickets and show info, visit www.thelostcolony.org.
#6 – Civil War History
The Outer Banks and the intercoastal waterway between the mainland and the islands was a strategic thoroughfare during the Civil War. The side that controlled these waters was able to easily move war munitions, artillery, food and personnel up and down the east coast to help with the war effort. Taking control of these islands was a strategic objective for the North early in the war.
Safe Haven for Slaves
Within the first year of the war, the North took control of the Outer Banks with the only exception being Roanoke island. These islands became safe havens for slaves fleeing the south. By the end of the second year of the war Roanoke had fallen and shortly thereafter the island became one of the first Freedmen’s Colonies where freed slaves learned agriculture and other skills to build a community.
Today when visiting the Outer Banks the history of this Freedmen’s Colony can be found at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island.
#7 – The Beaches
The beauty of the scenery found on the Outer Banks is fairly obvious. Many people flock here for some time on the sand and in the surf. These stunning white sandy beaches run for over 200 miles with only small sections of the ocean breaking the chain between the islands. Many of the islands are lined with sand on all sides and with sand dunes in the interior. If sand and sun is your thing then visiting the Outer Banks should be your next destination.
Driving on the Beach
Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) permits are available that allow visitors to drive on to the beaches during certain times of the year. There are permit offices near the Bodie Island Lighthouse as well as the Ocracoke Island Visitor Center. You can click here to apply for a permit online.
Shoreline fishing is also permitted with a proper coastal recreational fishing license. Click here for more information.
#8 – The Sand Dunes
The Outer Bank islands are covered in sand dunes and this is the natural state of this archipelago. Until mankind’s intervention, these islands were mostly covered in mounds of sand. For those wanting to find this kind of vista it still exists and can be found when visiting the Outer Banks.
Most of the island of Ocracoke is untouched. The only signs of mankind outside the small town on the southern tip is the road that runs across it. The road itself is lined with sand dunes and from time to time it gets buried in the sand as the dunes attempt to retake it.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
The best example of the dunes in their glory is found in Jockey’s Ridge State Park which is home to the East Coast’s tallest dunes. The area resembles Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve just on a smaller scale and surrounded by water rather than mountains. It is a beautiful spot and a great place to do some hiking or hang gliding when visiting the Outer Banks.
#9 – The Wildlife
Most of the archipelago that makes up the Outer Banks is designated and protected as National Seashore. This is a place where wildlife run the show and humans attempt to do our best not to muck it up. Sea turtles nest here. Migratory birds of all kinds pass through these islands. The offshore waters are protected as well and are known to have as many as nine different species of dolphin.
One of our favorite spots to see birds was at the large lakes on Pea Island. There is a trail that encircles the largest lake allowing visitors better views of the wildlife. The viewing tower adjacent to the Bodie Island Lighthouse is also a great spot for bird watchers.
The Red Wolf
Although technically not a part of the Outer Banks, visitors feeling ambitious can cross over the inter-coastal water back to the mainland at Manns Harbor, NC, and head to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This is the last known area to find the extremely endangered red wolf in the wild. In 2019, their reported numbers range from as few as 40 remaining so if you can spot them that is a rare treat. Be judicious not to harm them or their environment.
#10 – Camping
Camping is the best form of accommodation when visiting the Outer Banks. Sure renting a beach house sounds nice but camping allows visitors to get away from it all and enjoy nature. There are many great affordable camping areas found in the National Seashore areas as well as private campgrounds found in the nearby small towns.
Oregon Inlet Campground
The Oregon Inlet Campground is one of our favorite campgrounds. The campground is relatively close to Kity Hawk and Roanoke Island without being surrounded by the modern world that has encroached on both. The camping spots at Oregon Inlet back right up to the ocean, only separated by small sand dunes. We could hear the crashing waves on the beach all night long. It is a very serene place to stay when visiting the Outer Banks.
The Ocracoke Campground is another great choice. It is so far out in the ocean that very little light pollution obscures the night sky. It is a great spot for star gazing.