The best things to do in the Outer Banks, NC

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The Outer Banks, North Carolina, is a destination of undisturbed beauty, with secluded beaches accompanied by historic lighthouses. But what are the best things to do in the Outer Banks?

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What to expect when visiting the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks, also just known as OBX, trace the Atlantic coastline of the United States. From the Virginia border, this string of peninsulas, barrier islands and sandspits stretches southward down the North Carolina coastline.

With 125 miles (201 km) of untouched beaches, the Outer Banks is a beach bum’s delight. The abundance of beaches is to many the prime reason to visit the Outer Banks.

Still, without the historic lighthouses, something would be missing. The tall Outer Banks lighthouses are not only pretty to look at but as importantly tell tales about the area’s long seaside history.

So the best things to do in the Outer Banks are an appreciated mix of both awe-inspiring beaches and interesting stories. No matter if you’re a beach lover or a history buff, an Outer Banks vacation is for you.

As the locals say: Welcome to the Outer Banks, the paradise on earth.

Sunrise in the Outer Banks, NC
A new day begins in the Outer Banks.

Best things to do in the Outer Banks

From the serene beaches to the tall lighthouses, an Outer Banks vacation has all you need for a good time. The best things to do in the Outer Banks aren’t complicated, but that certainly doesn’t make them less appreciated.

1. Enjoy the heavenly beaches

Among all the things to do in the Outer Banks, it’s the beaches that most visitors mainly come for. The long Outer Banks coastline is like made for relaxing beach getaways.

In the central area around Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, you find popular beaches complemented by things to do off the beach. But if you prefer a quiet beach day, you’re never far from it on an Outer Banks trip.

As there’s more than 100 miles (161 km) of shoreline to enjoy, you can try a new beach spot every day of your Outer Banks vacation.

Beach in the Outer Banks, NC
Secluded Outer Banks beach.

2. Admire the lighthouses

The Outer Banks is home to five historic lighthouses. From north to south, Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Ocracoke Lighthouse proudly stand.

As the Outer Banks waters are known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”, their role through history can’t be overestimated. These tall attractions have guided the way for generations of seaborne travelers.

Nowadays, the impressive lighthouses provide unbeatable views for vacationers to enjoy. Especially at sunset, visiting a lighthouse is also one of the most romantic things to do in the Outer Banks.

Outer Banks black and white lighthouse pointing towards blue sky
The black and white Bodie Island Lighthouse.

3. Indulge in the history of flight

The Outer Banks is where the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight ever took place. On the historic spot (exactly where it happened) in Kill Devil Hills, the Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates the achievements of the Wright brothers.

Wilbur and Orville Wright, also known as the fathers of flight, picked the Outer Banks to take advantage of its coastal winds, vast sandy areas and peaceful isolation. With perfect conditions and after a lot of experimentation, they finally achieved that first famous flight a day of December in 1903.

When you visit the memorial on your Outer Banks vacation, it’s fascinating to follow the story of the Wright brothers. It was a rocky road from failure to success.

An appreciated feature on the extensive grounds are the flight markers. These visualize the locations and lengths of the first flights.

Markers at Wrights Brothers National Memorial in the Outer Banks, NC
Flight markers in Kitty Hawk.

4. Climb the dunes in Jockey’s Ridge State Park

In Nags Head, the playground of nature, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, is located. The state park encompasses huge sand dunes, including the tallest living dune on the Atlantic coast of the US.

A comfortable 360 feet (110 m) long boardwalk makes it easy to get a good glimpse of the park. At the end of the boardwalk, you also find an observation area.

But to take in the full beauty of the surprisingly vast sand dunes, it’s a good idea to climb them. When you reach the top of the dunes, it’s spectacular to see not only the huge dunes but also both the ocean side and sound side.

The rewarding scenery makes climbing Jockey’s Ridge State Park worth every step and one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks. With undisturbed views to the west, the park is also one of the best Outer Banks sunset spots.

5. Explore Cape Hatteras National Seashore

From Bodie Island to the southern tip of Ocracoke Island, the brilliant Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches out for over 70 miles (113 km). It’s an unspoiled area that showcases the characteristics of the Outer Banks.

No matter where along the seashore you look, you find stunning beaches to enjoy. Beautiful beaches, check.

Also home to Bodie Island Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the backdrop is as good as it gets. Towering lighthouses, check.

Surrounded by the national seashore scenery, you in addition find several towns to discover. These delightful towns go hand in hand with the fascinating seashore nature.

Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras call Hatteras Island their home. A boat ride away on Ocracoke Island, which is an Outer Banks attraction on its own, you find the one and only town of Ocracoke.

With both jaw-dropping natural scenery and cute towns, it’s a must to include Cape Hatteras National Seashore on your Outer Banks itinerary.

6. Face the Outer Banks horses

Wild Outer Banks horses descended from Spanish mustangs wander freely along the pristine North Carolina shoreline. Encountering these unlikely animals is truly a remarkable thing to do in the Outer Banks.

For hundreds of years, these wild horses have strolled the North Carolina shores. The four-legged Outer Banks attractions were brought to the area by early European explorers in the 1500s.

One theory says that the iconic Outer Banks animals swam ashore from sinking ships. Another explanation is that they for one reason or another were left behind by their owners.

Regardless of exactly how the Outer Banks horses first arrived, they are appreciated North Carolina inhabitants. The wild beach horses certainly add a unique dimension to an Outer Banks vacation.

To face the Outer Banks horses, popular spots are Corolla in the north and Ocracoke Island in the south. Just keep in mind that they are wild: Visitors are encouraged to maintain a distance of 50 feet (15 m).

Wild Outer Banks horses at beach on Schackleford Banks
Wild Outer Banks horses.

7. Visit the Whalehead Club

The Whalehead Club is a historic waterfront property to visit in the Outer Banks. In Historic Corolla Park, the attraction is not only an architectural masterpiece but also a museum with an interesting story to tell.

Edward Collings Knight Jr. and his wife Marie Louise built the Whalehead mansion in the 1920s. The rich Rhode Island couple used the house as a winter retreat. Far away from the hustle and bustle, they recharged with family and friends in the Outer Banks.

Including the Whalehead Club on your itinerary gives you the chance to learn more about the history behind the mansion. The well-preserved mansion appears to have frozen in time, and the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Whalehead mansion in the Outer Banks, NC
Whalehead Club in Corolla.

The Outer Banks lighthouses

From Corolla in the north to Ocracoke Island in the south, five lighthouses proudly stand. They have protected the hazardous North Carolina coast and played a crucial role throughout the years.

Today, exploring these dutiful beacons of hope is a top thing to do in the Outer Banks. Which is your favorite?

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

The northernmost Outer Banks lighthouse is located in Corolla, not far from the Whalehead Club. First lit in 1875, Currituck Beach Lighthouse is easily recognizable.

On the contrary to other brick lighthouses in the Outer Banks, it’s a lighthouse that shows off its natural color. Its unpainted red brick facade is unlike any other sight in the Outer Banks.

Red lighthouse in the Outer Banks OBX, NC
Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is not a jaw-dropping brick lighthouse like the other Outer Banks lighthouses. Instead, the structure in Manteo on Roanoke Island has a much more humble appearance.

This different Outer Banks lighthouse is not towering but rather like a coastal cabin with an attached beacon. Although very small, the building and its pier is a pleasant spot to visit.

Bodie Island Lighthouse, OBX

Bodie Island Lighthouse proudly stands at the northern end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. First lit in 1872 and in black and white, the lighthouse is one of the most iconic Outer Banks attractions.

From every angle, it’s a joy to take in the views of this magnificent lighthouse. However, make sure to take the boardwalk to the adjacent marsh. From there, the views of the lighthouse and stunning Outer Bank surroundings are even better.

Bodie Island Lighthouse at sunset, NC
Sunset at Bodie Island Lighthouse.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Hatteras Island is located in the heart of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. First in use in 1870, the current lighthouse replaced an older Outer Banks lighthouse that didn’t prove to be effective enough.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, just like Bodie Island Lighthouse, has black and white markings. However, the more southern Cape Hatteras Lighthouse distinguishes itself with its diagonal daymark pattern.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse pointing up towards the blue Outer Banks sky
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Ocracoke Lighthouse

There’s something special about each lighthouse in the Outer Banks, and Ocracoke Lighthouse also has a unique story to tell. The lighthouse on Ocracoke Island truly has history on its side.

It’s not only the oldest lighthouse in the Outer Banks, but Ocracoke Lighthouse is also the second oldest operating lighthouse in the United States. Ever since the lighthouse on Ocracoke Island first was lit in 1823, it has helped seafarers to navigate the tricky Outer Banks waters.

The white Ocracoke Lighthouse in the Outer Banks, NC
Ocracoke Lighthouse.

Where to stay

The Outer Banks is a vacation destination possessing a rare undisturbed beauty. Along the coastline, there are several secluded areas and communities to get to know.

From north to south, Carova, Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Roanoke Island, Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island are different options for where to stay in the Outer Banks.

Carova & Corolla

The northernmost Outer Banks towns begin right at the Virginia border. Carova and Corolla are remote communities that offer pure seclusion to an Outer Banks trip.

As the paved road ends in Corolla, you even need a four-wheel drive to get to the northernmost community Carova.

Some of the most beautiful spots in the Outer Banks, such as the Whalehead Club and Currituck Beach Lighthouse, are located in Corolla. In addition the area is popular for spotting the wild Outer Banks horses.

Hampton Inn Corolla – Right on the beach

The Outer Banks’ shoreline is treasured, and at Hampton Inn you stay right on the beach.

The Inn at Corolla Lighthouse – A stone’s throw from Corolla Park

Sure, it’s not on the beach. However, at the Inn at Corolla Lighthouse, you’re in the first row to enjoy some of the best things to do in the Outer Banks, including exploring the Whalehead Club and Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

Duck & Southern Shores

Further south and closer to the mainland bridges, you find the towns Duck and Southern Shores. The name of the former town gives away the area’s past as a popular region for duck hunting.

The locations of Duck and Southern Shores are convenient as they allow easy day trips both north to Corolla and south towards the rest of the Outer Banks.

Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head

Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head are the three most central Outer Banks towns. Located at the road connections to the mainland, these towns are busier and more developed.

In the more concentrated area, you find a bigger selection of restaurants, bars and shops than elsewhere in the region. If you enjoy liveliness, this is certainly the Outer Banks area for you.

Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head are also home to some of the most popular Outer Banks attractions. Top things to do in the central area include taking in Wright Brothers National Memorial and Jockey Ridge State Park.

Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island is a sheltered island that doesn’t face the Atlantic Ocean. West of Bodie Island and Nags Head, it’s home to the two communities of Manteo and Wanchese.

Hatteras Island, OBX

South of the Northern Beaches, you find Hatteras Island. With a length of roughly 50 miles (80 km), it’s one of the longest islands in the contiguous United States.

All the towns on Hatteras Island, including Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras, offer untouched environments. The scenic Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which is one of the most remarkable Outer Banks attractions, has protected the island from development.

Ocracoke Island, OBX

Ocracoke Island is with its location southwest of Hatteras Island the southernmost Outer Banks destination. Its isolation makes visiting Ocracoke Island one of the most unique things to do in the Outer Banks.

As there is no bridge to Ocracoke Island, most island visitors get to the remote island by ferry. The ferry service between Ocracoke and Hatteras connects the island with the rest of the Outer Banks.

Ocracoke Harbor Inn – Awe-inspiring harbor view

Overlooking the historic Ocracoke Harbor, the view from Ocracoke Harbor Inn adds a dimension to an Outer Banks vacation. Also with several restaurants and shops within walking distance, there’s nothing not to like about its location.

Trees and towering lighthouse in Corolla in the Outer Banks, NC
Corolla in the Outer Banks.

Outer Banks vacation guide FAQ

Where is the Outer Banks located?

The Outer Banks trace the eastern coastline of the United States. From southeastern Virginia, the ribbon of peninsulas, barrier islands and sandspits extends southward down the North Carolina coastline.

What is Outer Banks NC known for?

Since long, the Outer Banks has been known for its secluded beaches and iconic lighthouses. In addition, the Outer Banks is also the place where the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight ever took place.

How many days do you need in the Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks is a destination as good for a long weekend as for a several weeks long getaway. Although you can tick off several of the best things to do in the Outer Banks in just a few days, its extensiveness also can entertain you for a much longer time.

From Corolla in the north to Hatteras in the south, it’s 94 miles (151 km). Then you still have the outer sections, Corova in the north and Ocracoke Island in the south, left to explore.

How do you get around in the Outer Banks?

With several towns and spread out things to do, the best way to get around when you vacation in the Outer Banks is by car. Conveniently so, North Carolina Highway 12 runs along the coast and takes you to most places of interest.

But as the paved road ends in Corolla, you need a four-wheel drive to reach the very northernmost community Corova. And in the south, as there’s no road connection, you need to take a ferry to get to Ocracoke Island.

Related: Also check our comprehensive list of the best things to do in the United States. Do you think the Outer Banks is there?

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