The Outer Banks
The 200-mile stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina is known as the Outer Banks or OBX. Sitting off the shore in the Atlantic Ocean, the Outer Banks islands are well known for their historical ties, fishing communities, state parks, and white sandy beaches. During the summer months, tourists flock to the area to enjoy local activities such as surfing, shipwreck site diving, spotting wild horses, and lounging in the sun.
Things to Do on the Outer Banks
When looking into what to do on the Outer Banks, you’ll find a seemingly endless number of activities and attractions to enjoy. From traditional watersports and nature hikes to one-of-a-kind historical tours and breathtaking monuments, there’s something for everyone in the family.
These are some of the most popular activities on the Outer Banks:
Outer Banks Beaches
The Outer Banks’ sandy white beaches are a major tourist destination during the summer months. Water conditions range from safe for swimming to hazardous, so it’s important to do your research. Beaches on the west sides of the islands are more likely to have calm waters.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial
Spend the day at Kill Devil Hills, where Wilbur and Orville Wright worked on airplane designs for years and eventually achieved the first successful flight on December 17, 1903. At the memorial park, you can visit the exact location where the Wright Brothers took off as well as where they landed. You can also spend time in the reconstructed airplane hangar and camp where the two lived during their stay on the Outer Banks.
Other attractions they offer include:
- The Wright Brothers Monument
- A replica of the first plane
- Interactive exhibits describing their historic journey
- Walking Path
There are dozens of access points to public beaches along the shores, while those staying in a resort or vacation rental might have access to a private beach. Each access point provides different amenities such as a boardwalk, lifeguards, bathhouses, wheelchair accessibility, picnic tables, dog-friendly areas, access to the sound for kayaks, and paddleboards. You can find more Outer Banks information on beach access locations and amenities on the city’s website.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge, consider climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton. At just over 198 feet, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. The structure is comparable to a ten-story building with more than 200 stairs and nine landing platforms.
The Outer Banks is home to four other lighthouses you can visit as well. These include the Bodie Island Lighthouse in Nags Head, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in Manteo, the Ocracoke Lighthouse in Ocracoke, and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla.
Outer Banks Fishing
Considered one of the best fishing areas in the world, game fish are abundant in the waters surrounding the Outer Banks. The season is open all year round, with fishing opportunities available for the casual angler, the professional, and everyone in between. The islands provide the optimal conditions for:
- Fly fishing
- Pier fishing
- Charter fishing
- Boat fishing
- Brackish fishing
- Surf fishing
Expect to get nibbles from cobia, marlin, and bluefin tuna. If your day fishing is successful, many local restaurants will cook and prepare a meal for you based on what you catch!
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head is home to the highest natural sand dunes on the East Coast. People love to spend the evening on the dunes watching the sunset, offering a once-in-a-lifetime view. During the day, the dunes attract people interested in learning to hang glide, kids flying kites, and people exploring the sandy hills.
The 427-acre park offers plenty more for visitors to enjoy, including:
Towns on The Outer Banks
When looking into Outer Banks info, you’ll likely notice there are several islands, all with plenty to offer. Each town has its own unique qualities that may make them more appealing to travelers looking for specific attractions. Learn what each town has to offer before planning your trip to Outer Banks.
Corolla is a secluded upscale area ideal for families or couples looking for a luxury beach getaway. The town is located on the northernmost island and is unique for having beach access and attractions on both the sound and the ocean shores. Found between the towns of Duck and Carova, the area of Corolla offers fine dining, boutique shops, and oceanfront rental homes.
Despite being a small beach community, there’s still plenty to do in this Outer Banks destination. Visitors love spending their days driving around searching for herds of wild horses, usually found munching on some grass. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Historic Whalehead Club are also highlights of Corolla, and each provides hours of activities to enjoy.
It’s safe to say that the beaches of Corolla are the main attraction for most tourists. Having access to miles of undeveloped sandy shores tends to be a favorite among visitors. For those interested in more than lounging in the sun, there are plenty of locations to rent equipment for watersports in Corolla as well.
As the northernmost town on the Outer Banks, Duck is at the tip of the island chain. The popular family vacation spot offers all the benefits of a small beach town with the added benefits of a lively community. Beaches are private, with access granted only to residents and hotel or home rental guests.
Duck offers a wide range of restaurants, bars, and shopping along its one-mile boardwalk. Guests can expect fine dining, casual eateries, cafes, souvenir shops, and boutiques selling work made by local artists. There’s plenty to see and do on the boardwalk, which offers easy access from the beach.
Duck’s small-town charm offers visitors a glimpse at how Outer Banks locals live their day-to-day lives. It’s not uncommon for tourists to vacation in Duck and relocate to the area soon after.
Originally named “Chickahawk” by local Native American tribes, Kitty Hawk has developed into what is now considered the central hub of the Outer Banks. Kitty Hawk’s attractions appeal to both beachgoers and nature lovers alike. The town offers the nicest hotels and resorts on the Outer Banks, in addition to many oceanfront cottage rentals.
Tourists tend to choose this area if they plan to spend time at The Kitty Hawk Coastal Reserve. With over 1,800 acres of woodlands and swamps to explore, visitors spend hours walking the reserve’s trails with the hopes of spotting some of the area’s native animals.
Kill Devil Hills
Kill Devil Hills is best known as being the original location of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. It’s home to 7,500 residents all year round, with the population soaring to over 40,000 people during the summer months. The town offers plenty of hotels, motels, and vacation rentals for tourists, making it one of the more popular beaches on the Outer Banks.
Most who spend time in Kill Devil Hills end up visiting the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which offers a bit of history along with breathtaking ocean views. The Run Hill State Natural Area is another popular attraction with over 123 acres of dunes and forests. While the park is certainly worth visiting, the dunes have nothing on those at Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head.
Nature lovers flock to Nags Head each summer to enjoy the pristine beaches, vast wildlife, and enormous sand dunes. While there are several motels, inns, and house rentals, you won’t find large hotels or resorts along the shores of Nags Head. Instead, you’ll find boutique shops, casual eateries, outlets, and surf shops.
The result of smaller hotels is fewer people and no crowds on the beaches, a feature many guests prefer. Most appealing about the town is Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which features the largest sand dunes on the East Coast. Visitors can learn to hang glide off the dunes or relax to catch the sunset.
Located on Roanoke Island, Manteo is a historic town known for being the location of the first English colony in the United States. The town is a popular tourist destination for those determined to learn what happened to the colonists who disappeared from what is now called the Lost Colony. The mystery has inspired many attractions in Manteo, including a massive outdoor symphonic retelling each summer.
Staying in Manteo will keep you close to many historical sites such as Fort Raleigh, the Roanoke Island Festival Park, and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. The town’s downtown area is bustling with things to do, including shopping, outdoor dining, and sailing. You can even take in a film at The Pioneer Theater, the oldest single-screen movie theater in the United States.
Found on Hatteras Island, Rodanthe makes the ideal spot for a romantic getaway. The town’s secluded beachfront cottages, charming fishing pier, and massive wildlife refuge park make the perfect backdrop for any romance novel. In fact, it was when Nicholas Sparks featured it in his best-selling book and, later, the film adaptation of “Nights in Rodanthe.”
Travelers can enjoy both the white sandy beaches and the calm waters of the sound, which are ideal for watersport activities. A rampant blue marlin population attracts fishing enthusiasts from all over who are looking for their next big catch. Overall, Rodanthe offers a place for a relaxing beach getaway.
Also located on Hatteras Island, Buxton offers many of the same calming vibes as Rodanthe. In addition to the town’s serene beaches, tourists flock to the area to climb The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. As the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, it has become a must-see attraction on the Outer Banks.
Many climb the lighthouse hoping to catch a glimpse of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, which consists of hundreds of sunken boats off the coast. While you likely won’t see much without going on a shipwreck diving tour, The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum exhibits many interesting items pulled from the wrecks.
Ocracoke differs from the other Outer Banks towns as it’s only accessible by ferry or plane. Its isolation has helped the island preserve much of its natural qualities, forming an island paradise. Ferries are available to take visitors to the island, where you can stay for a few hours or overnight in one of the few hotels or campgrounds.
There’s plenty to do in Ocracoke. Enjoy the beaches, partake in water sports, bike the trails, or go fishing off the island’s shores. If nature isn’t for you, Ocracoke Village is just a short drive away, where you can shop, eat, and much more.
What Makes The Outer Banks Unique?
While there are many unique aspects of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, one of the most alluring attractions is the hundreds of underwater shipwrecks that can still be found surrounding the islands. More than 5,000 ships have sunk off the islands’ shores since 1526, many of which were recovered or washed away. Those remaining have become popular dive sites for tourists and locals alike. Likely, the shipwrecks resulted from the Diamond Shoals, which is an eight-mile stretch of shifting underwater sandbars. Regular changes to the sandbar’s shape and depth make navigating the area by boat difficult, especially prior to today’s technology.
In addition to shipwreck divers, the Outer Banks also attracts those interested in investigating one of the country’s greatest mysteries. Roanoke Island is the site of one of the earliest European settlements in the United States and home to the first English child born on American soil. However, often its history is overshadowed by the unexplained disappearance of over 100 people.
After the English’s first attempt to build a colony on Roanoke Island failed, English colonial governor John White led an expedition in 1587 to try again. The result was the formation of the Roanoke Colony, later known as the Lost Colony. White returned to England to gather supplies, but his return got delayed by The Anglo-Spanish War for nearly two years.
By the time White made it back to Roanoke Island, the colonists had mysteriously vanished. There is no evidence of what happened to them, and to this day, we can only speculate about their fate. Some believe they traveled to another island, while others are convinced nearby Native American communities adopted them.
Pop culture would have us believe the colonists were all massacred, as the Lost Colony has since become somewhat of a ghost story. The mystery has inspired books, television shows, and films, including season six of AHS American Horror Story: Roanoke and The Last American Vampire by Seth Grahame-Smith. References to the colony have also been made in the shows Supernatural, Mind Hunters, and Haven.
Outer Banks History
The Outer Banks has a rich and diverse history that has helped forge these islands into what they are today. Before the English colonized the area, smaller divisions of the Algonquin and Secotan Native American tribes inhabited the islands. Historians believe the tribes would fish off the eastern shores facing the Atlantic Ocean during warmer months and move inland or even to the mainland during winters.
European explorers discovered the islands long before forming a colony on Roanoke Island. While initially, Native Americans welcomed the visiting foreigners, those sentiments didn’t last. The initial Roanoke Colony was founded by Ralph Lane in 1585, two years before the territory known as the Lost Colony was created.
Due to a poor relationship with local Native Americans and a lack of necessary supplies, the colony didn’t survive. Those who had inhabited the first colony went up north where the English had a colony in present-day St. John’s, Canada. Despite the issues the English had with their first attempt, a second colony was built on Roanoke Island soon after.
Unfortunately, this colony didn’t survive either, and the inhabitants went missing in what is considered one of the biggest mysteries to this day. One of the colonists who disappeared was Virginia Dare, the first child born in the “New World” on August 18, 1587. Despite being a major historical figure, most of her life is a complete mystery.
Several decades later, the waters surrounding the Outer Banks islands were claimed by the famed pirate Edward Teach. Better known as Blackbeard, Teach was recognized by his thick dark beard and intimidating demeanor. He gained notoriety after taking over a French slave ship, renaming it, and replacing the crew with 300 of his own men.
Queen Anne’s Revenge
With his new ship, renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge, Teach sailed around for a year, seizing any ship he came across during his journey. After building a sizable fleet, Blackbeard and his crew headed back toward the Outer Banks. Teach built a base on Ocracoke Island, where his criminal activities progressed.
Blackbeard managed to blackmail the British government into giving him a royal pardon for his crimes. He even changed his career path and began labeling himself a “privateer,” which legalized his crimes as an act on behalf of the government. However, after creating a blockade at the port of Charlestown for over a week, the English government was ready to fight back.
Blackbeard’s fleet refused to let ships leave the port and held them captive until someone brought him medical supplies. The standoff destroyed nine ships, which led to Virginia’s Governor Alexander Spotswood’s decision to arrange a crew to capture the notorious pirate. They attacked Blackbeard’s ship off of Ocracoke Island on November 22, 1718, leading to a battle that resulted in Teach’s death.
He was ultimately shot five times and endured over 20 stab wounds. Most of the pirates who survived the battle were eventually hung for their crimes. An Outer Banks vacation provides the opportunity to visit the battle site, see where Blackbeard is thought to have lived, view artifacts from Queen Anne’s Revenge on display in museums, and even get a glimpse of the shipwreck up close.
The Outer Banks in Popular Culture
Over the years, Outer Banks events have inspired many writers to set their novels and scripts on the islands. In 2020, Netflix released a mystery drama called The Outer Banks, which follows a group of teenagers as they try to find out what happened to their friend’s father. A National Geographic Channel reality show, Wicked Tuna, also features the islands as it follows the lives of tuna fishers.