Outer Banks, North Carolina is a road trip enthusiast’s dream. This iconic chain of barrier islands linked by coastal highway NC 12 is home to some of the largest tracts of undeveloped beaches on the East Coast. There are endless undeveloped coastlines, preserved wildlife, great fishing and historic landmarks.
Known collectively as the “OBX,” the four islands are home to six towns and 12 coastal villages – all with very different personalities ranging from quintessential beach towns to traditional fishing villages. If you are unfamiliar with OBX, it can be hard to decide where to start your journey and what all to explore! You can spend as little as 4 days if you want to just get a feel for the OBX, or stay for a week in each of the four islands and get a taste for the local life.
However, if you are planning a quick summer road trip, here’s what you must include in your itinerary…
Relax at a Resort in Duck
Check into Sanderling Resort in Duck, a relatively quieter part of OBX, occupied by large beachfront holiday homes. Sanderling is an upscale hotel with a North Carolina bungalow charm that spreads across a large area, so families can enjoy private time. Here you can walk along secluded beaches, dip in one of the swimming pools, relax at the spa, or simply watch dolphins playing in the Atlantic right from your balcony.
The Lifesaving Station at Sanderling is not just one of the best restaurants in Duck, it is also one of the original rescue stations from 1870s. You can see the many pictures and memorabilia of wayward passengers and crew aboard shipwrecked vessels along the Atlantic shores, while dining on Carolina delicacies – blue crab and corn chowder for dinner or crab Benedict for breakfast.
For breakfast, bike or walk along the tree shaded sidewalks to Downtown Duck to eat some of the best cake donuts in the world! This is the birthplace of the famous donut chain – Duck Donuts. Made to order, hot and fresh, you can create any kind of decadent concoction you want, or choose from some of their fan favorites. My personal favorites include Hynoduck, Pina Colada, and Blueberry Pancake, but the expression on little kids faces digging into their boxes, is priceless!
Spend the afternoon exploring the Town of Duck which features 11 acres of trails through the maritime forest and willow swamp, and shops and restaurants located on the Duck Boardwalk. This is also a good place to watch the sunset over the Bay while dining outdoors at The Blue Point. The restaurant prides itself in featuring local farmers, fisherman and independent suppliers on its menu.
Take a Lesson in Aviation History at Kill Devil Hills
This is where you want to come for a history lesson in aviation. The most famous landmark in Kill Devil Hills is the Wright Brothers National Memorial which is the spot where the Wright brothers achieved the world’s first heavier than air, powered, controlled flight in 1903.
Stop for drinks and lunch at the Outer Banks Brewing Station, the oldest wind powered brewery in the US! You can also take a tour of the brewery and watch how wind energy is harvested to make beer.
Stop for an Adventure in Nags Head
Continue your road trip to the adjacent town – Nags Head, known for the towering sand dunes, salt marshes and quiet beaches. This OBX town is the entertainment hotspot, dotted with souvenir shops, fast food restaurants, mini golf courses and fishing charters.
For a unique experience that can be enjoyed by adventurers of all ages, try Hang Gliding at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, a 426-acre park with the tallest and largest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States. The Kitty Hawk Hang Gliding school offers a chance to safely experience flying over soft sand dunes with the assistance of two instructors. You get 5 attempts to perfect your landing and you don’t even have to worry about falling. This sport is super fun and easy!
For other thrills, try jet skiing, kayaking or parasailing. Kitty Hawk is the largest adventure company with locations all over the OBX, offering a wide range of bike and paddle rentals, surf and kite flying lessons, to scenic bi plane and full moon kayak tours.
Dreamy lighthouses make for picture perfect backdrops and climbing up the towers offer great vistas. Note: Some lighthouses are currently closed due to Covid-19, but you can still visit them from outside with social distance and face covering. At the tip of Nags Head, visit the 156-foot tall horizontally-striped Bodie Island Lighthouse. It is not the tallest in the area, but the marsh walk around it makes for good wildlife viewing as well.
Soak in Nature’s Beauty in Hatteras
The drive from Duck to end of Hatteras Island is about 83 miles, and is highly recommended. Along the way, you can stop at the islands mentioned above, or just spend an entire day exploring the rugged natural beauty of Hatteras Island. Most people who live in this rustic villages of Hatteras have fishing boats. You can charter a sport fishing boat here or watch one of the professional fishermen and women bringing in their fresh catch each afternoon to the Hatteras Harbour. Needless to say, this is also a great place for seafood lovers! All the restaurants you will find in Hatteras offer daily caught shrimp, crab, tuna, grouper and mahi mahi on their menus.
Pack your walking shoes and a hat and prepare to spend couple of hours at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (around mile marker 31). The Refuge is a great spot to spot 365 species of local wildlife, including birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians. Explore on your own walking along one of the trails, or join refuge staff for programs on topics ranging from sea turtles to life in the sound, to bird adaptations.
Continue on to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (also known as America’s Lighthouse), because it is the tallest brick beacon in the world, standing at 210 feet, and originally constructed in 1870.
Another unique way to explore the southern end of Hatteras Island is on horseback. You will find families of all ages, coming for generations for Equine Adventures Horseback Tour. The guided trail ride goes through the thick maritime forest of Frisco, crossing deep water pools (specially after a good rain), and the beaches of the Carolina coast. You have a chance to gallop your horse on the wide open beaches, or leisurely stroll with your experienced guide. Prepare to get wet and have a memorable adventure!
Slow Down The Pace in Manteo
The town of Manteo located on Roanoke Island is a charming North Carolina coastal town, where you can enjoy history, shopping, dining and a quieter pace. Stroll around the downtown near Manteo waterfront to soak in its unique architecture, local boutiques, and coffee shops. Learn about the first English colonies on North American soil at Roanoke Island Festival Park, or watch the seasonal blooms at The Elizabethan Gardens.
Because sunsets in the coastal barrier islands of North Carolina are spectacular on most days, book yourself a private sunset sail on a 41 foot Gulfstar. Captain Dan will sail you from downtown Manteo Waterfront into the Roanoke and Albemarle Sounds, while spotting dolphins and birds, and telling you lots of interesting stories. For dinner, head over to BlueWater Grill for the best tuna tartare and crab cakes in Manteo!
Travel Sustainability in OBX
There are not many fast foods or big retailers in Dare County. Most businesses have signs at the door stating which local charities they donate portion of their proceeds too. You are likely to only see locally caught seafood at restaurants, which is generally fresh, tasty and a lot more sustainable.
Due to COVID-19, businesses are mandating keeping social distance indoors and at public parks and beaches, wearing a mask indoors, especially when entering restaurants and retailers. Many of the hotels have reduced capacities, though a large majority of the accommodations found in the OBX are holiday rentals.
To get to OBX, start your road trip in Raleigh, NC or Norfolk, VA if you want to save a few hours.