15 Awesome Things To Do In The Outer Banks
If you’re in the mood for some summer fun, then you’ll find a whole list of exciting and unique things to do in the Outer Banks. These barrier islands have more than 100 miles of coastline, making it the perfect weekend getaway on the East Coast.
Whether you’re traveling with kids or just want to relax and soak in the summer sun, there’s something for everybody here on the Outer Banks. You’ll find traces of the very first English settlement in America and the site where the Wright Brothers flew their first plane right here on the islands. Surf, paddle or kayak away on the Sound or the ocean and take in all this coast has to offer. Outer Banks life is slow and breezy and locals live on island time.
So if you’re eagerly planning your summer vacation or just curious, then this article will give you an idea about these islands and make you want to head to the shores!
If you’d rather watch a video than read, check out this video of some of the best Outer Banks activities:
Our video guide to 5 fun things to do in the Outer Banks:
Sandgliding, beach driving, wild horse tours and more… Here’s our roundup of the best Outer Banks activities and places of interest:
15 Awesome Things To Do In The Outer Banks
1. Explore the lighthouses
Reigning at the top of our list of the best things to do in the Outer Banks is exploring the lighthouses. Plan a day trip to explore the 5 major lighthouses in the area. These guardians of the seas have helped thousands of ships navigate the treacherous waters of the Atlantic coast.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
If you’ve seen pictures of the Outer Banks, there’s most likely been this tall black and white candy-cane striped lighthouse somewhere within the frame. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a major icon and tourist draw. This is mainly because of two things:
- Its staggering height of 208′ ft, making it the world’s tallest brick lighthouse!
- Its history of being moved 2,900 ft inland from its initial spot of construction in 1876, making it the tallest brick structure to ever be moved!
Extensive beach erosion was the reason that the lighthouse had to be moved inland. Before the move, it had to rebuilt due to ocean damage.
The mammoth task of moving a 4,830-ton structure on a set of rails was an engineering feat back in the days of 1999. You can see the initial spot where the lighthouse stood from the viewing deck on top. The current station has a few stones from the initial lighthouse laid out on the premises for visitors to see. These stones are called the ‘Keepers of Light.’
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse’s beam travels 20 miles into the water. Ask about the special full moon tours at the lighthouse!
Views from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: Sweeping views of most of the Hatteras Island. You’ll be able to see from Avon to Hatteras Village. If you’re lucky, you may see islands forming in the distance.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
The distinct black and white stripes of Bodie Island Lighthouse have warned passerby ships along with its beam which shone 19 miles into the ocean.
At 156′ ft and with 214 steps, this lighthouse can easily be seen from the scenic Highway 12. Because of its proximity to Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, you can catch sight of lots of birds and wildlife from its boardwalk. So bring your binoculars and cameras with you while visiting.
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
This lighthouse sits out on a pier into the Roanoke Sound and is the newest of the lot. Its classic coastal look with black shutters and a red shingled roof has given many a muse for photos and paintings.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
This seasonal lighthouse attracts many due to its red brick construction. The owners of the lighthouse purposefully did not paint the exteriors so that visitors could marvel at the number of bricks used for its construction. You can climb the 220 steps to see the light which shines an 18 nautical mile beam into the ocean.
Views from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse: You can see Corolla Town and the Historic Corolla Townhouse (from where you can take great photos of the lighthouse!) along with the Currituck Sound and the ocean.
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
This lighthouse is the oldest one in North Carolina and the second oldest in the United States. Its 65′ ft body shines a beacon that you can see for up to 14 miles into the water.
2. Go hunting for shipwrecks
One of the most unique and exciting things to do in the Outer Banks is uncovering the tracks of lost ships and search for shipwrecks. There are over 1500 shipwrecks that have collected around the shores since the year 1526. The most recent one was in 2020 where the Ocean Pursuit ran into a sandbar at the coast and has been sinking there ever since.
Why is the Outer Banks called the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’?
You might be wondering which the Outer Banks has attracted such a treacherous title. Well, it’s because of its location.
The barrier islands formed as deposits of sands moved along with two opposing currents in the area – the Labrador current (cold water current) and the Gulf Stream (warm water current). The islands sit at the convergence of these two currents, giving way to high waves and ever-shifting sand formations beneath the water.
This area came to be known as the Diamond Shoals. And it has become a threat for ships passing through due to the sudden erratic changes of the sand underneath the waves. Many of the sand bars form at 20 miles offshore, making unsuspecting ships run ashore.
Most visibile shipwrecks at Outer Banks:
- The Laura A. Barnes at Coquina Beach
- The Lois Joyce from the Oregon Inlet (visible at low tide)
- The Oriental near Peabody Island Wildlife Refuge
- The Margaret A. Spencer located on a beach around 1 mile north of Rodanthe
- The USS LST-471 visible from the Rodanthe Fishing Pier
- The Pocahontas at Ramp 23 on Sand Street in Salvo
How to see the Outer Banks shipwrecks?
You can see some of the shipwrecks by scuba diving, SUPing or kayaking with a guided instructor. There are shipwreck tours and dives which specialize in exploring underwater wrecks. You can book an exclusive tour to get a more personalized experience. Another way to see completely submerged shipwrecks would be in an airplane tour along the coast.
3. Relive the mystery of the ‘Lost Colony of Roanoke’
While most believe that when the first English settlers came to North America, they established colonies at Jamestown in Virginia and Plymouth in Massachusetts. But the truth is that the very first colony was set up in Roanoke the Outer Banks. In fact, the very first English child in America, Virginia Dare, was born to a resident of this colony in 1587. This was a colony of 110 residents who lived by the shore, next to a hostile native tribe.
Virginia’s grandfather John White, who was also the captain of the mission, left for Europe for 6 months to replenish supplies. But he got held up for a few years longer than he intended. When he returned, the entire colony had disappeared without a trace. All the homes and forts were abandoned and there were no signs of life. The only clues left behind were two words carved onto a tree – ‘Cro’ and ‘Croatoan.’
This mysterious disappearance has plagued historians for centuries. Did the settlement move south to a friendly Croatan tribe? Or did the native tribe kill them? Did they die by plague or starvation? Nobody knows.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Lost Colony show
After unearthing many of the settlement’s original artifacts in 1941, the settlement’s credibility was proved. And one of the settlement’s earthen forts was deemed a National Historical Site. You can see a large lumpy mound in the ground at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site which has been proven to be an area of the original Lost Colony.
With so much history, the Lost Colony captured the minds of many and an outdoor drama called ‘The Lost Colony‘ came into being. This nightly show plays out every weekend at the Fort Raleigh site, reenacting the era of the initial settlement.
4. Drive the scenic byway Highway 12
Take the road less traveled by getting on the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway (Highway 12). Highway 12 traverses through 9 barrier islands, 2 wildlife refuges (Pea Island and Cedar Island) and includes 2 ferry rides. It has a total driving distance of around 142 miles starting in the Outer Banks region and ending in the Crystal region.
What makes driving this route one of the most relaxing things to do at the Outer Banks is the scenery that lines both sides of the road – the Atlantic ocean on one side and the sound on the other. You pass by many secluded beaches, coastal habitats, marshes, wind-swept dunes and 21 coastal villages, each with its own distinct charm.
Popular places of interest along Highway 12:
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Pea Island National Refuge
- Nags Head Wood Preserves
- Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station
- Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
- Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
- Canadian Hole (a famous kiteboarding and surfing destination for people from all over the globe)
- Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse
- Jennette’s Pier
- Jockey Ridge State Park
- Wright Brothers Memorial
- Duck Town Broadwalk
5. Biolumisence kayaking – one of the lesser-known things to do at the Outer Banks
Here’s a secret not many know of! The Outer Banks is a spot where glow-in-dark (or bioluminescent) organisms team with life. That explains the mysterious blue haze that you see with the naked eye in some of the waters in the area.
What is biolumisence and how do I see it?
Bioluminescence is a phenomenon where microorganisms send out body light and glow in reaction to external disturbances. These organisms exist underwater, on tree roots, on the beach and in many other tropical and coastal areas.
If you haven’t seen these glow-in-the-dark microorganisms before, then book a bioluminescence kayak tour. At these bioluminescence kayaking tours, a guide will kayak with you into pitch dark waters. At certain locations, there are huge concentrations of such microorganisms and the guide can show you these glowing living beings by disturbing the water.
This is an experience that will stay in the mind for a while, making it one of the must-do things to do in Outer Banks.
6. Kayak with wildlife at the Alligator River National Refuge
As the name suggests, the Alligator River National Refuge near Manteo is a local habitat for the American Alligator. However, alligators aren’t the only animals there. Black bears, red wolves, waterfowl and many species of migratory birds roaming freely across the 152,000 acres of the protected area here.
The unique ecosystem of the refuge comprises a wetland bog with poorly drained soil with deep peat deposits, brackish swamps and saltwater ponds. This makes it what is called a ‘pocosin.’ And this type of ecosystem makes a certain type of flora and fauna thrive in its midst.
Visitors can stroll along the brushy and woodsy areas under tall pines on gravel roads. You can find giant black gum trees with trucks the size of tractor tires when exploring deeper into the refuge. The dark brown and murky water creates an intimidating setting that is worth exploring if you want to get off the beaten path.
How to explore the Alligator River National Refuge
- Drive through the Murphy Peterson Wildlife roads
- Check out the Creef Cut Wildlife Trail and Fishing Area
- Get on the water on the Milltail Creek Canoe and Kayak Trail
- For a deeper and more intense hike, check out the Sandy Ridge Wildlife Trail
7. Stroll along the Duck Town Broadwalk
The Duck Town Boardwalk or Soundside Broadwalk offers a relaxing 0.62-mile walk by the Currituck Sound. A great place to catch a sunset, the Duck Town Broadwalk begins at the southern end near Christopher Drive and continues all the way to the waterfront shops. This is a great option if you want to be near some good eateries and shopping options.
The Duck Town Broadwalk forms a part of the Duck Town Park where four distinct vegetative communities (a maritime deciduous forest, a maritime evergreen forest, a willow swamp and a marsh) all coexist over 11 acres of land. You can enjoy watching birds and other wildlife roam about freely through the wooded areas.
Children will find this park entertaining, especially on weekends and holidays where the amphitheater lights up with events and shows. Duck Donuts is an Outer Banks specialty and its original outlet in Duck Town is worth a try.
8. Build a boat in a day at the Maritime Museum
At the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Manteo, you get a chance to learn how to build a boat in just a day! You can register in advance as a team and assemble a prepared kit for a flat-bottom plywood paddle boat. What’s better is that you can take it home with you on the same day.
These classes are a great option for kid-friendly things to do in the Outer Banks as the center takes children aged 8+ for the course. The boat assembly takes place at the Harvey W. Watercraft Center. You will have to make advance registrations to attend the classes.
9. Go on a wild pony chase
Another interesting thing to do in the Outer Banks is go looking for the wild Corolla horses that have roamed the land since the 1500s. It is believed that these horses survived a Spanish shipwreck and came onshore back then. These wild colonial Spanish mustangs have been thriving ever since in the obx ecosystem.
Park rangers constantly monitor these herds of wild horses. The Corolla Wild Horse Fund has been the organization that takes care of the maintenance of the animals. You are not allowed to be within 50 ft of the horses if you encounter them on the beach.
Hummer tours with knowledgeable guides are a good option if you’re out looking for these wild ponies. You can otherwise drive up on any of the 4×4 beaches to see them.
Where to find the wild horses of Outer Banks:
- Northern beaches of Corolla and Carova
- Shackleford Banks near Cape Lookout
- Ocracoke Pony Pens (where you can see a more domesticated version of their wild cousins)
10. Reel in some fish
Outer Banks is a paradise for sport fishermen. With many yesteryear piers jutting out hundreds of feet into the waters, you will be in for a ‘reel’ treat all throughout the year.
Whether you are an experienced fisherman or a newbie trying to hook some fish, Outer Banks has something for everyone. You can try your hand at fly fishing, sound and head boat fishing, surf and pier fishing, offshore and inshore charter fishing and brackish fishing in the wide variety of coastal waters in the area.
Fishing piers in the Outer Banks area:
- Kitty Hawk Pier
- Avalon Pier
- Jennette’s Fishing Pier
- Nags Head Fishing Pier
- Outer Banks Fishing Pier
- Hatteras Island Fishing Pier
Each fishing pier gives a diverse experience each season. Some of them have tackle and bait shops, eateries and free parking.
The bountiful waters of Outer Banks team with yellowfish tuna, cobia, spanish mackerel, spot, white marlin, sea bass, bluefish, flounder, wahoo and even stingrays and sharks. You need a Coastal Recreational Fishing License to fish at these shores.
One of the fun things to do at the Outer Banks with kids is to explore the aquarium at Jennette’s Pier. Take your little ones on the charter excursions as well so they can try their hand at reeling in some fish. June, July and August are the peak months for charter fishing at the Outer Banks. So make your reservation well in advance.
11. Moongaze from the whimsical ‘Nights at Rodanthe’ Inn
If you’re looking for vacation rentals in the Hatteras, then consider staying in a home that was once a movie location! The ‘Inn at Rodanthe’ was the movie location of the 2008 movie and Nicholas Sparks’ popular novel ‘Nights in Rodanthe.’ The charming single-family house featured in the movie has been a real draw for people visiting the barrier islands.
Because of the popularity of the movie, the owners of the property wanted to recreate the interiors of the house to match what was shown on film. The blue shuttered windows and floral wallpaper were painstakingly tracked and restored on the property to mirror the film set. Many furniture pieces such as the lamps and desks were also kept from the movie set.
Did you know that the Inn at Rodanthe has a history similar to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse?
It was moved as a whole from its earlier location due to beach erosion. The same company which moved the lighthouse jacked up, shored and positioned the inn onto beams and moved inwards on a set of powerful wheels.
You can see this restored property at 23288 Beacon Rd E, Rodanthe and even book a stay there.
12. Walk in the infamous Blackbeard’s footsteps
If you’re looking for some chills and thrills, then plan a trip to explore the legend of the notorious pirate Blackbeard. The island of Ocracoke was Blackbeard’s final resting place. It was here that he was killed and thrown overboard all the way back in 1718.
Stories of Blackbeard’s legendary exploits still rumour throughout the islands. So eerie his presence and death that its said his body circled his enemy’s ship 6 times. Locals celebrate by reenacting his death at Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree, a show depicting his final battle and encampment.
You can see the waters where his flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, sank and even try to locate the wreck just 20 feet offshore from Fort Macon State Park.
You can also see the home he lived in while on the island along with his collected artifacts at the Van der Veer House and the North Carolina Maritime Museum. There are ghost tours that search for the burial place of Blackbeard’s headless body. So if you’re in the mood for some chills, then this is one of those must-do things in the Outer Banks!
13. Hang glide over the East Coast’s tallest sand dunes
The Jockey Ridge State Park at Nags Head comprises 427 acres of the tallest living sand dunes on the East Coast. Sand dunes that are around 80-100 ft’ tall greet visitors when entering the park. Some engulf the boardwalk at certain points. This breathtaking landscape reminds visitors of Saharan deserts and barren lands descending into the ocean waters and is a unique experience for all ages.
Hang gliding school
Constantly reigning among the top 10 unique things to do in Outer Banks is the hand gliding experiences at Jockey Ridge State Park. The Kitty Hawk Kites institute teaches visitors to hang glide in just a day. You can practice hand gliding along with guided instructors on the park’s dunes. Classes are offered for all ages and require reservations.
Other activities at the Jockey Ridge State Park include sandboarding, hiking through the nature trails and flying kites (especially at their various kite festivals). Children will enjoy the animal-track identification programs provided for free at the park while adults can enjoy the glorious sunset views from high up on the dunes.
The Jockey Ridge park dunes get blazing hot at midday. So bring along your cap, sunscreen and enough clothing to protect against the scorching sun.
14. Visit Wright Brothers Memorial
All of mankind’s aviation history began at Kitty Hawk in the Outer Banks. This is where the Wright Brothers stayed, created, tested and flew their first flight. This memorial is worth a visit for anyone who is an aviation or history buff.
At the Wright Brothers Memorial, you can see the replica of the original flight they flew made in stone. You can also see their landing bases where each of their flight attempts landed and their living areas. There is also an impressive 60′ ft granite monument erected at the park with sweeping views of the entire park and the ocean beyond it.
Being at this monument makes you feel proud of the achievements of man. This educational monument is huge in terms of areas, so take your time to explore this place. Bring a cap along while you do so.
15. Drive your 4×4 across the Outer Banks beaches
Indulge in some 4×4 driving fun on the beach! For many, this is one of the most exciting things to do in the Outer Banks because of the uncrowded beaches and sheer amount of shoreline.
Many of the Outer Banks beaches allow you to go all-in with your AWD vehicle. You can drive along Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head and Cape Hatteras if you have the required permits. No permits are required to drive along the Corolla beaches.
In your adrenaline rush, make sure you don’t go near the wild ponies or encroach upon their feeding area.
More fun things to do in the Outer Banks?
Want to check out more fun things to do in the Outer Banks? Check out our YouTube channel for guides and more beach information – Travel and Trots on YouTube.
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