Last updated on October 19th, 2023 at 03:56 pm
If you’re looking for a vacation spot that combines history, natural beauty, and outdoor activities, look no further than the Outer Banks in North Carolina. This stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina is the perfect destination for families, couples, and solo travelers alike. In this article, we’ll explore the geography of the Outer Banks, reveal the most popular and least crowded parts to visit, and highlight the best activities to try out during your stay.
Geography of the Outer Banks
The Outer Banks is a strip of barrier islands that run along the North Carolina coast from the Virginia border to Cape Lookout. In total, there are 200 miles of islands to explore. Some of the major islands include Bodie Island, Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island, and Roanoke Island. These islands offer a unique combination of beautiful beaches, historic landmarks, and wildlife refuges. When visiting the Outer Banks, it’s important to keep in mind that the geography and weather conditions vary from island to island.
Most Popular and Least Crowded Parts of the Outer Banks
If you’re looking for a lively vacation spot with plenty of attractions, restaurants, and shopping, check out Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head. These towns are located in the central part of the Outer Banks and offer easy access to the beach, as well as boardwalks, fishing piers, and local dining. For a quieter and more secluded experience, head to the southern part of the Outer Banks. Towns like Avon, Frisco, and Hatteras boast undeveloped beaches, wildlife refuges, and natural preserves that are perfect for hiking, fishing, and bird-watching.
Best Activities in the Outer Banks
Beaches in the Outer Banks
As you might imagine the Outer Banks is a paradise for beach lovers. From the popular ones with all the amenities to the ones that are not overcrowded, there is bound to be a beach for everyone. Here are just a few favorites (listed geographically from north to south).
- Corolla Beach: If you are looking for a beach that isn’t as crowded as most, then Corolla Beach is the one for you. It is located in the northern region of the Outer Banks and is perfect for beachgoers who want to relax and unwind.
- Kitty Hawk: Located in the northern part of the islands, Kitty Hawk is one of the most popular beaches in the Outer Banks, thanks to its picturesque views and beautiful beach. As an added bonus, the public beach access points are in close proximity to parking, dining, and family-friendly activities.
- Nags Head: Nags Head is one of the oldest towns in the Outer Banks and is known for its charming coastal vibe. From the rolling sand dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park to a fabulous fishing pier, visitors of all ages can enjoy something special. It is also an excellent spot for beachgoers who want to indulge in water sports such as surfing, kayaking, and paddleboarding.
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge: This beautiful and tranquil beach is a must-visit for nature enthusiasts. The beach stretches for miles, and its clean sand and crystal-clear waters make it an ideal spot for shelling and fishing. It also offers hiking and bird-watching opportunities, making it a perfect spot for a family picnic.
- Ocracoke Beach: If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, then you must visit Ocracoke Beach. Located on an isolated island, it can only be accessed by ferry. However, it’s worth the trip as it boasts breathtaking views and tranquil waters. It is an excellent spot for swimming and fishing, and you can also rent a bike and explore the island.
Historic Lighthouses in the Outer Banks
One of the most popular activities in the Outer Banks is visiting one (or all) of the historic lighthouses. There are five lighthouses dotted along the coast: the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse each with its own unique history and breathtaking views.
- Bodie Island Lighthouse: The Bodie Island Lighthouse dates back to 1872 and is an architectural marvel, standing tall at 156 feet. After a restoration effort, the lighthouse reopened to visitors in 2013. When visiting Bodie Island Lighthouse, you will be able to walk around the lighthouse and climb up to the top, taking in the breathtaking views of the surrounding area. We recommend wearing comfortable shoes, as there are 214 steps to climb! There is also a visitor center and museum on the premises to learn more about the history of the lighthouse and its importance to the community.
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the country. It stands at an impressive 198 feet and has been guarding the coast since 1870. The lighthouse has a fascinating history, as it had to be moved back from the shoreline in 1999 due to erosion threatening its foundation. Today, visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse and take in the panoramic views of the ocean and surrounding landscape. There is also a museum that exhibits artifacts related to the construction and operation of the lighthouse.
- Ocracoke Island Lighthouse: The Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is the oldest and smallest of the three lighthouses on the Outer Banks. Built in 1823, it stands only 75 feet tall. Unlike Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is not open for visitors to ascend to the top. However, visitors can enjoy the view of the lighthouse from the nearby beach and learn about its history at the Ocracoke Island Visitor Center.
Outdoor Adventures in the Outer Banks
For outdoor enthusiasts, the Outer Banks offers some of the best kayaking, surfing, biking, and walking opportunities in the country. The islands also host several festivals and events throughout the year, including the Outer Banks Pirate Festival and the Hang Gliding Spectacular.
- Kayaking: Kayaking is a great way to explore the peninsula and its diverse habitats. There are many guided tours available, but you can also rent a kayak and venture out on your own. One of the top spots for kayaking in the Outer Banks is the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge boasts over 150,000 acres of pristine habitat, which includes cypress swamps, salt marshes, and pocosins. As you paddle through the refuge’s winding waterways, you’ll see a range of wildlife, including alligators, black bears, and a variety of waterfowl.
- Surfing: If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, then surfing may be the activity for you. With its consistent waves, the Outer Banks offers some of the best surfing on the East Coast. Beginners can take lessons in popular surf towns such as Nags Head or Kitty Hawk. For advanced surfers, the northern beaches such as Corolla and Carova offer great opportunities to catch larger waves.
- Parasailing: For a truly unforgettable bird’s eye view of the Outer Banks, try parasailing. A parasailing ride will take you to heights of over 400 feet above the water, where you get a spectacular view of the coastline and numerous landmarks. There are several parasailing companies located on the Outer Banks, including Kitty Hawk Watersports and OBX Parasail.
- Hang Gliding: Gusty Atlantic winds and 100-foot-tall sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park create the perfect environment for hang gliding. Kitty Hawk Kites offers classes for hang gliders of all ages and skill levels. Beginner lessons include 30-minute ground school, a 10-15 minute walk up the dunes, and 5 solo flights. They also offer tandem flight packages over the Currituck Sound.
- Sand Boarding: Think snowboarding, but on the sand and in wonderful warm weather. That’s what you’ll get at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This fun activity is available during the off-season, typically Oct 1 – Mar 31 each year. If you think you’re up for it all you need is a permit from the park and a board.
- Biking and Nature Walking: For those who enjoy land adventures rather than water ones, the Outer Banks offers 100 miles of bike paths and nature trails. Some of the most popular places to bike or walk include the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. Aside from these spots, you can find many other opportunities to bike or walk along the seashore, sand dunes, and maritime forests throughout the islands.
State and National Park Sites in the Outer Banks
The Outer Banks in North Carolina is not just known for its stunning beaches and towering lighthouses, but also its state park and numerous national park sites that offer visitors an opportunity to experience and explore the natural beauty of this coastal region.
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park: Jockey’s Ridge State Park is another highlight of the Outer Banks, known for its massive sand dunes that tower over 80 feet high. The park is located in Nags Head and is perfect for those who love outdoor activities like kiteboarding, hang gliding, and sandboarding. Visitors can also go hiking on the trails that wind through the park’s dunes, which offer breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. Jockey’s Ridge State Park also hosts a variety of events throughout the year, such as kite festivals, live music concerts, and educational programs.
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore: Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a must-visit for anyone who wants to experience the beauty of the Outer Banks beaches. The national seashore covers more than 70 miles of coastline, stretching from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island. Visitors can enjoy swimming, sunbathing, or surfing on some of the most pristine and unspoiled beaches in the country. The national seashore also contains three historic lighthouses, which are open for visitation and offer breathtaking views of the coastline.
- Fort Raleigh National Historic Site: Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is another national park site that is steeped in history. The park is located near Manteo and is the site of England’s first attempted colony in the New World, which was established in 1587. Today, visitors to the park can explore the remnants of the lost colony, including the famous “Croatoan Tree” where a message was carved indicating the colonists’ departure to Croatoan Island. The park also hosts live performances of “The Lost Colony,” a play that portrays the story of the settlement and its mysterious disappearance.
- Wright Brothers National Memorial: Wright Brothers National Memorial is a must-visit for aviation enthusiasts as it marks the site where Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, powered flight in human history. The memorial is located in Kill Devil Hills and contains a museum that showcases the history of aviation. Visitors can also explore the Wright Brothers Memorial Tower, which offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape. The park also hosts a variety of events throughout the year, such as kite festivals and historic reenactments.
Where to Camp in the Outer Banks
The Outer Banks offer several lodging options for travelers, ranging from hotels to vacation rentals. However, one of the most popular ways to experience the islands is through camping.
If you don’t want to pitch a tent and don’t have an RV there are still many options available from cabin to RV rentals. On our last trip to the Outer Banks, we got an RV rental for our adult kids through Outdoorsy. The owner delivered it to the campsite and set it up. At the end of our trip, the owner picked it up.
There are plenty of RV resorts located throughout the area that offer full hookups, Wi-Fi, swimming pools, and even laundry facilities in addition to their stellar locations. Whether you’re a solo traveler or vacationing with your family or friends, you’ll find plenty to enjoy at these comfortable resorts. Many offer organized activities, beach volleyball, bike rentals, and mini-golf courses.
One of our favorites is the Outer Banks West / Currituck Sound KOA Holiday. As the name implies, it is on the Currituck Sound, west of the Outer Banks. Since it is not on the islands, it is actually very quiet. They have a lot of scheduled activities and when we were there they even had live music. The campground also has five fishing piers, kayak & SUP rentals, nature trails with two fishing ponds, a huge dog park, a very nice playground, and an arcade. They also had a very large camp store that sells food, local beer & wine, and souvenirs.
If you want to be beachfront, the Outer Banks / Cape Hatteras KOA Resort is a fantastic choice! In addition to the full hookup RV and tent campsites with covered picnic areas, they have glamping tents and beach cottages for rent. They have a huge playground with a pirate ship for the kids, a large pool with a hot tub, and a nice dog park. The biggest draw is its central location close to local attractions, historical sites, and dining.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
For a more rustic camping experience, you may want to consider staying at one of the campgrounds at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. There are four campgrounds to choose from for tent and RV camping that provide close access to the beach either by walking through the dunes or on a boardwalk.
- Oregon Inlet Campground: Located just south of Nags Head, Oregon Inlet Campground is a great choice for RVs, trailers, and tents. It has 107 campsites, 30 of which are tent-only. Electricity and water hookups are available at 47 of the sites. This campground is the only one that features hot water shower facilities, but they are winterized between the end of November to the first week of April. Open Year Round.
- Cape Point Campground: Cape Point Campground is located at the end of the Outer Banks near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The campground has 202 sites and provides tent and RV camping with no hookups. There are cold water showers and a dump station. The draw here is that the campground is within walking distance of the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Hatteras providing easy access to fishing, kayaking, and exploring the beach. Open Seasonally: Early April thru November.
- Frisco Campground: Situated south of Buxton, Frisco Campground offers 117 campsites (3 are tent only) with no hookups and no dump station. There are flush toilets, cold shower facilities, and potable water. Nestled between sand dunes and shrub thicket, It boasts a boardwalk that provides easy access to the beach. While you’re at Frisco Campground, be sure to visit the Frisco Native American Museum, which is just a mile away. Open Seasonally: Early April thru November.
- Ocracoke Campground: If you’re looking for complete seclusion, then Ocracoke Campground is your ideal destination! This campground is only accessible via ferry, and that makes it somewhat of a lesser-visited location. It has 136 campsites with no hookups but does provide access to potable water, cold water shower facilities, and a dump station. Open Year Round.
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