12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in the Outer Banks, NC
There is no shortage of things to do along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but determining where to do them requires a bit of trip pre-planning for the most efficient use of your time and to see everything on your list.
The barrier islands stretch for more than 100 miles along the Atlantic Coast, connected by a series of bridges and towns that are popular vacation destinations. Many visitors to the Outer Banks (OBX) make an annual pilgrimage to places like Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Rodanthe, and Hatteras, taking advantage of the many vacation home rentals and lodging available.
Sand dunes in the Outer Banks
No matter where you stay, take a leisurely drive up or down the two-lane North Carolina Highway 12 along the Outer Banks and explore the shops, as well as the scenery, which alternates from raging surf along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the quiet Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Learn about the significant maritime history of the Outer Banks at Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station Historic Site and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, where you can also see how the area served seafarers long before vacationers visited the islands.
"Everyone knows us for summer, and the Outer Banks checks off a lot of boxes for the classic family vacation that many Americans aspire to recapture from their childhood. If you're more interested in couples travel to a soft paced beach with nooks, crannies, and authentic culture, then you might want to check us out for spring or fall, when the best of everything is open and less crowded, and you can explore Cape Hatteras National Seashore all to yourself," said Aaron Tuell, Public Relations Manager for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
The Outer Banks Welcome Center on Roanoke Island has easy-to-read maps of the coast, which are good to keep in the car for reference. To narrow down your options, read our list of the top attractions and things to do in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
1. Historic Lighthouses
There are five lighthouses on the Outer Banks that most visitors like to check off their must-do list: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Roanoake Marshes Lighthouse, Currituck Beach Lighthouse, and Ocracoke Lighthouse. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, considered a tall tower since it stands higher then 150 feet, is the tallest brick lighthouse in North America, with spiraling black and white stripes all the way up its 208-foot tower. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse was moved back a half mile in 1999. You can walk the path to see the original location — a sandy beach that is now covered with ocean waves and is a popular spot for surfers. The Bodie Island Lighthouse, also referred to as a tall tower, is still operational, navigating boats to shore with its 19-mile beam of light. The 156-foot-tall lighthouse is identified by its horizontal stripes.
The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in Manteo on Roanoke Island is a small but fun find for those who love to visit lighthouses. It is a replica of the original 1877 lighthouse and smaller than the others in the Outer Banks. Currituck Beach Lighthouse is a tall tower at 158 feet and popular for climbing during seasonal hours, and the Ocracoke Lighthouse (75-feet) is the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the United States. Most of the lighthouses, except for Ocracoke Lighthouse, are open to climbing from April through Columbus Day.
Official site: www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/lighthouseclimbs.htm
2. Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The beach scene in the Outer Banks does not get better than along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which was designated as such in 1953. It stretches more than 70 miles along the coast. There are many roadside public pull-offs along N.C. Highway 12 with beach access. Many access areas have restrooms, changing buildings, and scenic lookouts with important visitor and swimming information posted. Coquina Beach is the first beach along the National Seashore with easily accessible public amenities, paved parking lots, an ADA ramp, and lifeguards in the summer.
The beach is a favorite spot for visitors who are combing for shells in the morning, swimming during the day, and taking advantage of water sports like kite-surfing and swimming. The towering sand dunes along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore are as popular as the white-capped water. Go ahead, be a kid again and slide your way down a wispy-sand dune or look for shells along the coast.
3. Corolla Wild Horses
Where the blacktop of Highway 12 ends on the northern tip of North Carolina in Corolla is where you will discover the grace and beauty of the wild horses on the beaches. The Spanish mustang descendants run free and are sought out by photographers, painters, and writers who come to this coastal area for inspiration. The mustangs have run free for five centuries after they were brought to this area from Spanish settlers. Seeing the wild horses is a bucket-list item for many people and one of the most unforgettable things to do in North Carolina. Experiencing the wild horses requires a bit of planning since the area where they roam is off-road. You can explore on your own by renting a jeep or you can take a guided tour with one of several companies that operate in the area.
4. Duck Town Boardwalk
The town of Duck is a walkable and bike-friendly area with shopping, restaurants, and a famous boardwalk. It is a perfect option for families with kids and for those who prefer to spend more time looking at the beach as opposed to being on the sand. The boardwalk is in the center of town, stretching about a mile with places to stop and eat or just sit and relax near the water. The best access point for the boardwalk is at Town Park, where you can also enjoy nature trails, green space, a willow swamp, and a maritime forest. Walk the boardwalk near dusk and catch one of the best sunset views in all of the Outer Banks.
5. Wright Brothers National Memorial
The Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills commemorates the birthplace of flight. It was here where the Wright Flyer lifted from the sands of the Outer Banks for 12 seconds before setting back down and forever changing aviation in the United States in December of 1903. Learn about how this first powered flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright altered transportation and see a full-scale replica of the Wright Flyer. The visitor center has interpretive programs, exhibits, and sculptures dedicated to this historic moment. Plan some time to visit all of the exhibits and explore the grounds as you make your way to the First Flight Boulder, which marks the exact location where the plane left the ground during the first flight. There is an admission fee.
Address: 1005 N. Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
6. Jockey's Ridge State Park
Take off your shoes and plan an unforgettable walk along the tallest active natural sand dune on the East coast at Jockey's Ridge State Park. The mammoth dune reaches up to 100 feet high, depending on the gusts of wind. The expansive landscape seems otherworldly as you walk higher and farther into a mirage of never-ending sand. You will likely see people hang-gliding from the dune as it is home to the largest hang-gliding school in the world. From the peak, you can see the ocean on one side and Roanoke Sound on the other, with an ever-changing scene in between. Everyone experiences the grand dune in their own way, with picnics, walks, twirls in the wind, or a romantic kiss at the top. The visitor center explains how the natural dune formed over the years, and the adjacent boardwalk is an educational way to learn about the dune's ecology and wildlife. Plan to take water and sunscreen with you if you walk out to the dune field.
Address: 300 W. Carolista Drive, Nags Head, North Carolina
Official site: www.ncparks.gov/jockeys-ridge-state-park
7. Jennette's Pier
Jennette's Pier in Nags Head is one of the must-visit piers during your stay, although there are several that will likely call your attention with unique features. Jennette's Pier is a stand-out because it is powered by the wind, as evidenced by the windmills on it. The massive pier stretches 1,000 feet into the Atlantic and is a popular fishing pier and aquatic educational center operated by the North Carolina Aquariums with regular public demonstrations.
The other Outer Banks piers worthy of a visit or sunset viewing spot are the Nags Head Pier, where you will see 4x4 off-roading beneath the pillars; Rodanthe Pier, which is popular for fishing and offers fishing equipment rentals; Avalon Pier; and Avon Pier.
Address: 7223 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, North Carolina
8. Boat Tours of the Outer Banks
Most visitors to the Outer Banks cannot wait to get on the water in some way, which is why boat tours are popular. From adventure tours and sunset sails to air boat rides and even fishing charters, there is a boat excursion for just about every interest. One of the most popular boating excursions is deep sea fishing since Hatteras is one of the top fishing departure locations on the North Carolina coast. The best departure points for any of the boat tour excursions are Pirate's Cove, Oregon Inlet, and Hatteras. If you depart from the Hatteras Marina be sure to grab dinner first at Dinky's Restaurant at the docks, where you can taste the day's freshest seafood. You will find local operators in each of those towns or you can stop by the Outer Banks Welcome Center to pick up pamphlets on regional operators.
9. Eco Tours
Eco-minded OBX (Outer Banks) vacationers and those who enjoy digging deeper into the natural scene will enjoy taking one of the many types of eco-tours available. Many Eco-tours take place out of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, in the northern part of the Outer Banks, in Manteo near Manns Harbor. Kayaking and canoeing through the refuge is popular, since the water trails are visibly marked. The 150,000-acre refuge is free to visit, and you can explore on your own or take a guided tour. A fee is charged for guided kayak tours. Other tours include red wolf howling tours, black bear tours, and refuge tours.
10. North Carolina Aquarium
The Outer Banks caters to outdoor activities, but it is nice to have an indoor option like the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island in case of rainy weather or to cool off from the sun. See rescued sea turtles currently being rehabilitated in the STAR center and learn about their habitats along the Atlantic coast. Explore the many exhibits and educational research taking place by aquarium scientists or plan to catch one of the free daily animal feedings and programs. For a unique visit, you can schedule a dive with the aquarium sharks...if you dare. While you are on Roanoke Island, stop for lunch at O'Neal's Sea Harvest, where you can taste seafood fresh from the boat. O'Neal's supplies seafood to local restaurants but has a small dine-in area where you can try a mahi-mahi basket and maybe even see vessels arrive out back to unload their catch of the day.
Address: 374 Airport Road, Manteo, North Carolina
Official site: www.ncaquariums.com/roanoke-island
11. Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site
The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe is one of the top treasures of the Outer Banks. This top attraction is also a historical site and museum that will truly alter your perspective of place and provide important context to your visit. The life-saving station was one of 271 around the country, created in 1871 with a single mission to search for and save seafarers in distress. This form of maritime rescue was eventually replaced by the Coast Guard when helicopters made ocean rescue easier than manual rescue by boat.
The Chicamacomico complex has several buildings to visit with actual life-saving relics and tools on display. The site was saved from demolition by a local grass-roots effort, and it accepts donations to keep it running. It is now one of the only such life-saving stations that remain standing and the only one in North Carolina that operates as an educational museum. The best time to visit is on a Thursday at 2pm to experience a life-saving drill demonstration.
Address: 23645 NC Highway 12, Rodanthe, North Carolina
Official site: www.chicamacomico.org
12. Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
Just off the coast of the Outer Banks were thousands of shipwrecks over the centuries, and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum eloquently tells the stories of what happened to some of them. The museum displays artifacts from more than 2,000 shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast. Exhibits cover topics like ghost ships and piracy. Two of the top things to see in the museum include the original Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which was lost for more than 140 years and was one of the first distress telegraphs sent by the Titanic to the Hatteras Weather Bureau in 1912.
Address: 59200 Museum Drive, Hatteras, North Carolina
Official site: www.graveyardoftheatlantic.com
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Explore More in North Carolina: Couples trying to plan a short trip can gain inspiration from our article on the Top Romantic Getaways in North Carolina, and anyone planning a trip to the state should have a look at our list of Top Resorts in North Carolina.Fishing is a popular sport here, both along the coast and in the mountains. Don't miss our piece on Deep Sea Fishing in North Carolina and our comprehensive article on Trout Fishing in North Carolina.