Plan an Iconic Trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks

The Outer Banks encompasses a 130-mile stretch of barrier islands on North Carolina's northern coast brimming with well-known beaches, quaint towns and quiet fishing villages. Plus, many iconic monuments and natural wonders dot the landscape. The combination makes this an ideal destination for a summer beach vacation or an offseason coastal getaway.

The Intrigue of Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island is site of the New World’s first English settlement, which was founded nearly 450 years ago. When supply ships returned three years later, all the colonists had vanished. Their fate remains unknown, but a visit to Roanoke Island Festival Park can have you making your own theories about what happened. Get a peek at the colonists' lives at the Native American village and Settlement Site, and set the sails aboard the Elizabeth II, a replica of a 16th-century merchant ship. The park even hosts outdoor concerts on its pavilion during warmer months.

The island, which separates Roanoke and Croatan sounds, has hosted fishing ports for more than 1,000 years – so it's only appropriate that delicious seafood meals are in order. And at O’Neal’s Sea Harvest in Wanchese, you can choose between ordering your local catch fresh or enjoying a lunch that's already prepared. If you want a landlubber meal, try the smoky pulled pork at Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop in Manteo, where stores and history – such as Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse  – combine for a perfect afternoon stroll.

Roanoke Marshes lighthouse with orange and yellow sky in background
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

Manteo is home to both the National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center, which represents all 11 national wildlife refuges in North Carolina, and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The 150,000+ acres of woods, water and wide-open spaces are home to birds, black bears, alligators and red wolves, which were once considered extinct in the wild. Book a guided tour with Kitty Hawk Kites to explore the canals and creeks while getting to know the refuge's residents. Pro tip: Pack weather-appropriate clothing, drinking water, insect repellent, a camera and binoculars.

Barrier Island Aviation offers views as brilliant as its red vintage biplane. Don goggles and a leather aviator cap for an air tour over the island, Bodie Island Lighthouse or Kitty Hawk. The flights offer a perspective of the islands, shipwrecks and even dolphins that you’ll talk about forever. And if those same spectacular views with a side of adrenaline is more your speed, Skydive OBX invites you to experience your freefall in the same spot where human flight began.

First Flight and Largest Sand Dunes

U.S. Highway 64 East goes from Roanoke Island to N.C. Highway 12, the Outer Banks’ north-south thoroughfare. Head north and you’ll find Wright Brothers National Memorial, where powered flight began. The monument on Big Kill Devil Hill will catch your eye first, but begin at the visitors center to stroll through exhibits that detail man’s quest for flight, listen to park rangers’ inspired recounts of Orville and Wilbur’s trials and tribulations, and admire newer artifacts that include a 5-foot section of cloth from the wing. Walking the grassy grounds can take a few hours. Imagine the difficult conditions among the dunes at replicas of the Wrights’ simple camp and hangar. You’ll feel their excitement on the flight line, where each takeoff and landing is marked.

Hang glider in distance flying over sand dunes under sunny blue sky

There’s a day’s worth of exploring at nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Start at the museum, learning about the local environment, from six-lined racerunners – North America’s fastest lizards – to fulgurites, the rocky remnants of lightning strikes. Walk the 360-foot boardwalk and trails before enjoying a picnic lunch at one of eight shelters. Then climb Jockey’s Ridge, the largest active sand dune on the East Coast, to enjoy panoramic views and pleasant breezes that are perfect for kite flying. Kitty Hawk offers beginner-level dune hang gliding lessons too. 

Shipwrecks and America’s Tallest Lighthouse

The southern stretch of N.C. 12 parallels The Graveyard of the Atlantic, where more than 5,000 ships have been lost to current, shoals and German submarines. The navigation hazards spurred the construction of Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe in 1874. It played a role in two of the biggest maritime rescues, including 42 sailors from the Mirlo, which was sunk by a torpedo in 1918. Tour the buildings and experience life for the forerunners of today’s Coast Guardsmen through stories, photos and artifacts, including the surfboat used in the Mirlo rescue.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which stretches from Oregon Inlet to Ocracoke Island, is where the infamous pirate Blackbeard pillaged and met his fate. Today, it's all about fun. The warm waters and winds create conditions perfect for riding kiteboards. The wide beaches are ideal for walks and driving off-road vehicles (can be rented locally). If you use your own car, just be sure to buy a permit beforehand online.

The seashore is home to the Outer Banks' most recognizable landmark: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It’s a strenuous climb up 257 steps to the balcony, but you’re rewarded with spectacular views, especially during monthly full moon tours. (Please note: The lighthouse is currently closed for climbing due to ongoing restoration efforts.) There’s also plenty to see if you choose to simply stay at the base of the lighthouse. Museum of the Sea exhibits fill the double keeper’s cottage, and some depict the lighthouse’s incredible move in 1999. Across the parking lot is one of the seashore’s three lifeguarded beaches. 

This article was produced in partnership with Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.

Updated June 7, 2022
About the Author
Pete M. Anderson

Pete M. Anderson

Pete M. Anderson is a Gastonia-based writer whose work also has appeared in Business North Carolina, Carolina Sportsman and Thousand Islands Life. He enjoys exploring North Carolina, especially its diverse fishing holes, local race tracks and world-renowned barbecue joints.

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