- North Carolina‘s Outer Banks are a spectacular stretch of uncrowded beaches, historic spots, and uncommon sights like wild horses, a maritime forest, and waterfront sunsets on the East Coast.
- You’ll need a car and/or a boat to travel around.
- Most visitors rent homes, but there are plenty of hotels if you prefer.
The Outer Banks are a 200-mile string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. Quiet, beautiful, and saturated with history, they’re a wonderful place to escape from the mainland rush into a relaxed vibe for a few days.
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The Outer Banks are dotted with small beach towns, from Corolla at the northern end, down through well-known places with off-beat names like Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, to Emerald Isle at the southern tip. It’s easy to explore several spots in a trip, or even a day. You will need a car and/or a boat to travel around.
I’ve been on trips ranging from a shoulder-season get-away for two to a Memorial Day weekend extravaganza for two dozen. The Outer Banks offer plenty of things to do; here are ten of the best:
Hit the beach
The beach is always a good idea. And the Outer Banks beaches are usually some of the least crowded I’ve seen, even during the day. But they’re especially beautiful to walk at sunrise. Three of the best shorelines to stroll are Corolla, Kill Devil Hills, and Ocracoke.
Hike the Currituck Banks Reserve
The Currituck Banks Coastal Estuarine Reserve encompasses 965 acres of natural maritime habitat just north of Corolla. You may spot owls, egrets, osprey, lizards, and more amid the sand dune, salt marsh, and swamp forest terrains.
There are two easy paths that lead to the Currituck Sound, the body of water between the Outer Banks and the mainland: the Boardwalk and the Maritime Forest Trail.
A companion and I walked the latter. It was beautiful, haunting, and unique.
Look for the wild horses
One of the uncommon features of the Outer Banks is its population of Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs north of Corolla. No one knows for sure how their ancestors reached the Outer Banks, but legends suggest they arrived during the 16th century — brought by early explorers or traders or even washed ashore after shipwrecks.
Technically, I’ve only done the looking part — in a companion’s Jeep, which we ended up getting stuck in the sand on the beach before aborting the mission. You might have better luck than we did, or you could sign up for a public tour.
Discover the Lost Colony
Roanoke Island, roughly across Roanoke Sound from Nags Head, is the site of the first British settlement in North America, established by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587. But by 1590, the more than 100 colonists had disappeared with barely a trace. Legends suggest perhaps they tried to move to another island or were massacred by native Indians. But to this day, no one knows for sure.
Visitors can learn more about the “lost colony”, America’s original unsolved mystery, at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
Explore Fort Macon
Fort Macon is a 19th-century coastal defensive structure located on the southern Outer Banks near Emerald Isle. It’s similar to Fort Sumter and was the site of a lesser known Civil War battle. The grounds of the Fort Macon State Park are easy and pleasant to stroll, with views of the water.
See the Wright Brothers National Memorial
The site of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic first flights on December 17, 1903, now features an extensive and inspiring museum, markers showing the lengths of each of the first four flights, replicas of their cabin and hangar, as well as an imposing memorial to their achievement. Much of the terrain is flat and easy to hike, though the climb up to the Memorial is more demanding.
Climb a lighthouse
Given its hazardous location, the Outer Banks hosts several lighthouses. I have visited the one at Cape Hatteras. Its original was built in 1803, but at 90 feet tall, it was too short to be effective. So a new 150-foot lighthouse replaced it in 1870. Due to beach erosion, the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1935. In 1999, it was moved 2,900 feet inland. Now it’s a challenging climb to the top but well worth it for the sense of satisfaction and the view of the water.
Stroll the Duck boardwalk at sunset
One of my favorite rare features of the Outer Banks is that it’s possible to watch both sunrise and sunset over water, thanks to the islands’ narrowness. The East Coast is home to several fabulous boardwalks, but the extensive one in the town of Duck is special because it offers a spectacular view of the lingering sunset over the Currituck Sound. It’s nearly a mile long and makes a wonderful spot for an evening stroll after a day of fun. It also has lots of boutiques and restaurants, including the Blue Point, an upscale spot for Southern seafood.
There are two types of must-try cuisine on the Outer Banks: seafood and Carolina barbecue.
Fish and shellfish caught in the temperate waters off the Outer Banks cover a broad range, including mackerel, snapper, mahi-mahi, shrimp, and blue crab. They’re delicious served simply with some butter or swimming in rich Southern-style sauces or anything in between.
Carolina barbecue is melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. The sauce is vinegar-based, with some sugar and red pepper. The classic meat (and my favorite) is pulled pork, but you can have chicken or beef brisket if you prefer. Cole slaw is a traditional accompaniment, and it’s customary to top your meat with it. The hush puppies are worth the carbs.
Take it easy
There’s no place like a quiet beach just to sit and sip, relax and read.
Where to Stay on the Outer Banks
Most people visiting the Outer Banks rent homes via services like VRBO. I once went with such a big group of friends that we rented two large beach houses, and it was a blast.
If an entire home is too big for your needs, there are a handful of upscale beachfront hotels like the Sanderling Resort in Duck.
If you prefer a select-service hotel, there are lots of them, including:
Planning travel to the southeast? You might be interested in:
I fell in love with travel on a trip to Mexico when I was nine years old. Since then, I’ve travelled the globe from Israel to El Salvador. I’ve skied the Swiss Alps and hiked national parks like Acadia, Zion, Shenandoah, and Virgin Islands. I’ve marvelled at masterpieces in the Prado, the Uffizi, the Huntington, and the National Gallery of Art. I’ve stayed in a cabin on a mountaintop in Norway and on a kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee, and been kicked out of the Ritz at the Place Vendôme. I’ve taken cooking classes from New England to the Caribbean, and watched a chef prepare traditional shakshuka in the kitchen of his restaurant in Tel Aviv. I weave historical research and my personal experiences together in writing this blog. I hope you find it helpful. Read more …