The Outer Banks defines an area of barrier islands that are located off the coast of North Carolina. The islands separate the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland United States making it a playground of adventure, nature, and history combined into one exciting destination.
The area features miles of white sand beach, three National Park Service sites, a state park, a National Scenic Byway and two National Wildlife Refuges, meaning there are more things to do in Outer Banks, NC than you are likely to have time for during your visit. (I know this was the case for our visit!)
Never fear, we are here to help you have an amazing time in the Outer Banks.
Things to do in Outer Banks – Itinerary Planning
The biggest thing we learned on our recent trip to the Outer Banks was that the area is much larger than expected. Travel times can be long, especially during high season. If you’re staying in Kitty Hawk, for example, and want to go to Manteo you are looking at a 30-45 minute drive depending on traffic.
It is essential that you plan your time wisely to maximize what you can do and see while there. We have broken down this guide of the best things to do on the Outer Banks by area including Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Mateo, Roanoke, and Hatteras.
When you’re building your itinerary, be sure to pick things that are in the same area for each day. Want to go to Hatteras Island? Plan everything there for the same day. It can take 2 hours to reach the bottom of Hatteras from Kitty Hawk.
Lastly, be mindful of the hours that place open and when they close each day. You will want to start early so that you are at your first site when it opens. This will help ensure that you get all of your itinerary done before the last site closes.
Things to do in Kitty Hawk, NC
Catch a sunrise at Kitty Hawk Pier
One of the biggest advantages of staying at the Hilton in Kitty Hawk, as we did, is the free access that you get to the Kitty Hawk Pier. The pier is located right off the hotel parking lot, meaning you can get up and walk right into sunrise bliss.
Unlike some of the other piers on the Outer banks, this pier is not as popular so you’ll have the place virtually to yourself. This is a major bonus and makes for endless photography opportunities in the morning.
Things to do in Kill Devil Hills
Wright Brothers National Memorial
It goes without saying that you cannot visit the Outer Banks without checking out the Wright Brothers Memorial. Set on the exact spot that the two brothers invented flight, the interactive museum walks you through the entire history from concept to realization.
Outside, you can visit the location where the brothers took their first flights. Markers denote the success of each attempt and you can walk the entire stretch, reading the plaques along the way.
Once you’ve learned all the history, head up to the top of the hill and marvel at the beauty of the memorial that overlooks the whole site. This is the US National Park Service site, so be sure to bring your National Parks passport for a stamp.
Things to do in Nags Head
Jockey Ridge State Park
At the time that the Wright brothers were conducting their flight experiments in the Outer Banks, there was nothing but sand dunes. Today, much of the area is covered with vegetation. That is with the exception of Jockey Ridge State Park.
This 426-acre park is home to the tallest sand dune system in the Eastern United States and is the most visited state park in North Carolina.
The dunes are easily accessed by a boardwalk from the parking lot. Once you reach the end of the boardwalk you will enter right into the sand dune area. The towering piles of sand will have you feeling like you’re in the middle of a desert.
Be sure to bring plenty of water when exploring the dunes and be sure to watch out for the hang gliders that use the area.
1902 Glider Flights
You can literally fly an exact replica of the Wright Brother’s 1902 Glider. This model is the design that paved the way for the first man controlled flights. If you have any interest in flying, the Wright brother’s story or all of the above, this is probably one of the coolest things you can do in the Outer Banks and in your life.
The flights take place within Jockey Ridge State Park and the conditions must be optimal. You’ll undergo a training course before heading out on the dunes where you’ll be introduced to the craft.
From there, you’re shown the simplicity of handling the glider and before you know it, you’re off soaring above the sand dunes.
It is a high privilege to fly this glider and only 200 people in the entire world (David and I were #199 and #200!) have flown an exact replica of the glider that laid the groundwork for flight as we know it today.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
The Bodie Island Lighthouse, pronounced body, you see today is the third that has stood on Bodie Island and was built in 1872. It stands 156 feet tall and it is possible to purchase a ticket to climb to the top. The entrance to the site itself is free.
We really loved this lighthouse because there is a beautiful boardwalk that is built to the left of it. You can walk along the marshes out onto a viewing platform.
From there it is possible to see the coastline and observe a variety of waterbirds in the marshes. It’s a great place to just enjoy being in the Outer Banks.
The lighthouse also comes with a fascinating history with the island getting its name from the large amounts of unfortunate sailors that washed up on the beach after they perished. Shipwrecks along the coast were common due to the extensive reach of the sand bar constantly changing.
Things to do in Manteo & Roanoke Island
This is probably the most charming little village we have set foot in around the United States. Rich with history, Manteo is the center of Roanoke Island.
We enjoyed strolling along the boardwalk the wraps around the outskirts of the city before wandering down the main street. Here you can find many small shops, each with their own flare.
The city maintains a colonial feel and walking around to admire the buildings was one of the highlights from our visit to this little city.
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
While wandering the downtown area, be sure to follow the boardwalk until you arrive at the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. It is one of five lighthouses you can visit while in the Outer Banks and the only one that is not built on land.
Roanoke Festival Park
Featuring a to-scale replica of the ship, Elizabeth II, this park tells the story of the first English settlers that journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean to colonize the New World.
Our visit to the park started with a step back in time, learning about the Native Americans that inhabited the area when the settlers landed. Following the path, we arrived at the ship where you can step aboard and tour the interior.
We learned that the ship held 50 people on a 3-month voyage from London that would lead them to Roanoke Island in the early 1580s. The rest of the park features an area that resembles what the settler village would have looked like, with actors in period costumes to teach you about what life was like for the settlers when they arrived in the New World.
Back inside, there is a beautiful museum that takes you through the entire history of Roanoke Island with a focus on the English that arrived.
Fort Raleigh National Park
Chances are high that you’ve heard about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. The group of English settlers that mysteriously disappeared from Roanoke Island, leaving only the word ‘CROATOAN’ carved into a pillar on the fort entrance.
To this day, it is still unknown what happened to the 116 people that lived in the colony. Fort Raleigh is the location of the original settlement and the place to see the famed Lost Colony show.
This theatrical production brings the history of Roanoke to life. Shows play twice daily starting after Memorial Day until Labor Day. Besides the show, the Fort Raleigh site features a fantastic earth fort in the exact location of the original that is worth checking out.
There are also a couple of trails that will take you around the area. Don’t forget to stamp your US National Park Passport at the visitor’s office.
If you’re looking to add some thrill to your Outer Banks vacation, you should definitely consider jumping out of an airplane. Owned and operated by Sven Jseppi, who has 15 years of experience in the sport, we were brought to 10,000 feet during a scenic tour over the Outer Banks barrier islands.
Once we were at altitude, the door was raised, and we jumped into the stunning scenery. We’ve been skydiving in a few places around the world now and can say that this is one of the most beautiful places to jump.
If you have your heart set on being able to jump during your stay, be sure to book for early in your stay. Skydiving is highly dependent on the weather.
Scenic Flights over the Outer Banks
Wanting to get a great overview of the area is always a great way to start a visit to a new place. We love to book scenic flights to do this and our 1-hour photography flight over the islands was the perfect way to get acquainted.
We had spectacular overviews of the expansive coastline, beaches, sand dunes, Wright Brothers Memorial, Oregon Inlet, and the Bodie Lighthouse. Flights in the Outer Banks can be highly weather dependent, so try to book your flight for the beginning of your trip.
Take a Ghost Tour
I don’t know one person that doesn’t love a great ghost story, and the Outer Banks has hundreds of them. All that history you spend all day learning about doesn’t come without some serious tales of the afterlife.
Ghost tours operate from downtown Manteo, starting at dusk, and take you on a journey through the town while learning some of the best-known legends. You’ll also spend some time visiting places that are known to be haunted.
The tour also incorporates a unique offering of trying your hand at photographing any potential ghosts that may show up during your tour. We found it highly entertaining, with fantastic stories and a creepy vibe.
Alligator River Wildlife Refuge
Passing over to Manteo and then again to the mainland, you’ll enter the 152,000-acre Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. Believe it or not, this area is well-known for its incredible black bear watching opportunities.
We took a guided tour, which I recommend, as the preserve is huge and it can be easy to get lost within the boundaries. We spent 2 hours driving around the park, observing many species of birds and having some good luck with three bear sightings.
This was a very unexpected highlight during our time in the Outer Banks.
Things to do in Hatteras Island
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
There were two things that immediately stood out to us on our visit to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, there were great walking trails and there were tons of birds. These two things work together to make Pea Island on the top things to do in Outer Banks if you love nature.
Spanning roughly 30,000 acres, the refuge plays host to more than 400 species of migrating birds throughout the year. With the groomed walking paths and multiple viewing towers, it is a place you can easily spend a whole morning exploring.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Immediately after you cross onto Hatteras Island you enter the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that stretches 70 miles along the coast. This area really encompasses the true beauty that makes this area desirable and in my opinion is one of the best things to do in Outer Banks.
A scattering of sand dunes, grass, short trees and wildlife, this protected area features a stunning beach highway. You can purchase permits at the National Park office when you cross to Hatteras Island and then enjoy your drive right on the water’s edge.
Be sure you have a 4×4 vehicle and that you follow all the rules. In addition, there are several trails, boardwalks, and quiet beach areas to enjoy. It’s a great place to get away from the rush of the towns and enjoy the natural beauty.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
We’ve seen a lot of lighthouses in our travels, we even have several in our hometown area on Lake Superior, but the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was truly impressive.
Standing at 203 feet, it is officially the tallest lighthouse in the United States. The site is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and entrance into the site is free. There is a nominal fee if you wish to climb to the top of the lighthouse.
The grounds feature the old keeper house, which is set up with a nice museum that shows the history of the lighthouse and area.
Horseback Riding on the Beach
If you love horses, as I do, there are few things more fun than going out for a ride in a new location. Especially when you get to gallop along the beach and play in the waves.
Equine Adventures in Frisco has been operating beach rides since 2001. We found the whole operation to be perfect. The horses were well cared for, well-fed and well-groomed. They were also exceptionally well-behaved. Not something you always come across.
The farm is located 2 miles from the beach and the total experience takes 2 hours. We rode through thick forest before reaching the dune system, where we crossed the top and onto the beach.
Experienced riders then had the option to gallop along the ocean, if they wanted, while the others ambled behind.
We did not have time to visit Ocracoke during our trip but every time we asked people for local recommendations, they mentioned this island.
At the southern tip of Hatteras Island is a ferry station that operated a first-come, first-served ferry transport over to Ocracoke. The return is operated in the same manner and both routes are free.
Everyone raves the town, the history and just the overall vibe of the island and it is definitely on the list for our next visit.
Plan Your Trip to Outer Banks, North Carolina
Best Time to Go: The high season operates from the beginning of June to the end of August. This is when you’ll have the hottest weather but also the most crowded sites, beaches, and restaurants. Shoulder season is shorter, April-May and September-October. The weather may be a little cooler but you’ll enjoy the luxury of fewer people. We visited in late May and while many businesses were still on off-season hours, we really enjoyed the smaller crowds.
Transportation: Unless you are road-tripping from another destination, we highly recommend renting a car when you fly into the area. The Outer Banks covers a long stretch of land and things are not within walking distance.
Where to Stay in the Outer Banks
The options are endless when it comes to accommodation. The most popular thing is to rent a house near the beach for your week in the Outer Banks. That said, there are plenty of other choices available.
We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk and loved the hotel. It is set right on the beach with access to its own private pier. They have both an indoor and outdoor pool as well as an onsite restaurant, bar, and fitness center. The rooms are large and comfortable.
The location of the hotel was great but it was about a 2-hour drive to the southern end of Hatteras Island. Most other major things to do in Outer Banks were around 30 minutes away from this hotel by car.
Any accommodation options in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head will work as a comfortable central base for exploring the Outer Banks.
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Places to eat in the Outer Banks
The dining options in the Outer Banks are quite literally endless. There is a wide range of options for all budgets, including local favorites and chains.
The seafood is phenomenal, so be sure to enjoy the soft-shell crab, shrimp, oysters and tuna during your visit. Below are some of the places we ate at during our stay in Outer Banks.
- Duck Donuts: Founded in the Outer Banks, this little shop makes made to order donuts. Each one can be custom made depending on your preferences. We recommend trying a 6 pack with 6 different flavors.
- Coastal Provisions: This place is all about the oysters. They have a laid back atmosphere and a fantastic wine bar.
- Black Pelican: This restaurant resides within the original location of the United States Lifesaving Station that was constructed in 1874. They serve a fantastic array of local dishes and of course, seafood.
- Lost Colony Brewery: Home to the #1 distributed locally crafted beer in the Outer Banks. You can visit their café and enjoy their beer on your visit to Manteo. They have a great menu with burgers, salads and local favorites.
- Avenue Waterfront Grill: Also located in Manteo, this waterfront grill has amazing seafood options. The atmosphere is great, overlooking the Manteo harbor. Order the Tuna sushi, trust me.
Our trip to the Outer Banks was sponsored by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. All opinions, awesome experiences and recommendations are based on our personal experiences, as always.
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