Stretching 200 miles across four barrier islands that separate mainland North Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean, the Outer Banks (also known as OBX) offers a diversity of landscapes, from pristine protected beaches to marshes to stunning gardens to seriously large sand dunes. In addition to one of the oldest and most mysterious histories in the United States, there are a plethora of things to do in the Outer Banks, North Carolina — for couples, families, solo travel, and girls’ getaways!
Oh, and don’t forget this is the place on which the Netflix hit series “Outer Banks” is based.
13 Climb Hatteras Lighthouse
Located in the town of Buxton, the iconic black-and-white spiral striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stands over 200 feet tall and is the tallest brick beacon in the world. Built in 1970, the lighthouse is one of the most popular tourist attractions in OBX and often referred to as “America’s Lighthouse.”
We climbed the 257 sweat-producing steps to get to the top. It was well worth it – the panoramic coastal views are stunning. And…the breeze was so appreciated!
12 Horseback Riding
A casual ride on horseback is a great way to explore the OBX coastal habitat. Guides lead tourists at their desired pace, allowing ample opportunity to take in the natural beauty of the coastline, the maritime forest, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the trail.
The horses are gentle and no experience is required. Riders are matched to horses based on their size, experience, and comfort levels, and as young as ten years old can participate. The horses know the way and what to do, so all you have to do is sit and enjoy the sight, smell, and sounds of the beach.
11 Lost Colony Amphitheater
In the charming open-air amphitheater, the story of The Lost Colony has been told each summer since 1937. English Roanoke Colony is where Virginia Dare was born, and the entire colony vanished from Roanoke Island in 1587. The original colony was led by Sir Walter Raleigh on this very site in 1587, but the entire colony mysteriously abandoned with no survivors found.
The Lost Colony is the second longest-running outdoor drama in the United States; the play is an exciting family-friendly adventure commemorating the original pioneers. The amphitheater is a cultural focal point for much of the Outer Banks.
10 Dolphin Watch
To meet the real locals, hop on a two-hour cruise in the protected waters off the Outer Banks. Finding bottlenose dolphins in the shallow Roanoke Sound is a great family activity and a big hit with small children. Since the lagoon is close to where the dolphins live and play, the large pontoon boats have over a 98% success rate of seeing dolphins thriving in their natural habitat.
Our Naturalist, Waverly, was a big hit with the many small children on our cruise. The perfect combination of sweet and knowledgeable, the children flocked around her like the Pied Piper as she made facts even more interesting by getting them involved with activities.
Waverly was able to identify two of the well-known dolphins, Rake and Cola, by the shape and markings of their dorsal fins. The friendly mammals bobbed and weaved through the calm water alongside our vessel.
9 Nags Head Nature Walk
Nags Head Woods Preserve is a fascinating ecological diversity of ponds, marshes, swamps, and 1,400 acres of pristine deciduous forest. There are seven pedestrian-only hiking trails of different lengths and difficulty from which to take in the unique habitats and view 300 species of plants and more than 50 species of indigenous wildlife.
The Preserve also hosts a rich Outer Bank’s cultural history. From the mid-1800s until the 1930s, Nags Head Woods was a thriving village community with 13 homesteads, two churches, a school, a store, farms, a gristmill, and a shingle factory. Artifacts remain of village life: a home foundation, cemeteries, and other signs of previous human habitation in the forest.
The Outer Banks is known for its delicious seafood, especially blue crabs. Crabbing is popular on OBX beaches, from May through July and you can hire a boat with a crabbing captain to take you out into the sea to find the delicious creatures.
After your crabbing excursion, head to the O’Neal fishery to see first-hand how the blue crabs are processed.
Keeping with the seafood theme, nearby Oden’s Dock is area of frenetic activity. It’s a constant flurry of fishermen offloading their catch of the day from their boats. You never know what you’ll see, and it’s a great photo op.
7 Jockey’s Ridge Sand Dune
Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head is home to the tallest living natural sand dune on the East Coast, fluctuating between 60 and 100 feet tall and encompassing some 30 million tons of sand for a total area of 426 acres. Visitors flock to Jockey’s Ridge to fly kites, go sandboarding, try hang gliding lessons, or simply just catch the spectacular sunset over the dunes.
If you want to get a birds-eye view of the marshes, beaches, and coastline of the OBX, try soaring on a parasail tethered to a motorboat. You are strapped into a harness and as the boat speeds up and the already windy atmosphere swiftly lifts the parachute up into the sky. As the boat skims the shore, the changing coastline gives a magnificent view.
Oh, and don’t be surprised if your captain also treats you to a bit of a splash! It was a great wake up call for our early morning parasail adventure!
5 Duck Boardwalk
The one-mile-long wooded boardwalk is nestled in the heart of the town. Meandering along the Currituck Sound, the footpath offers stunning Sound views along with souvenir shops, art galleries, ice cream, and fudge shops, and cafes. The Duck Town Park itself features 11 acres of natural beauty, trails, children’s play area, and an event amphitheater.
4 Elizabethan Gardens
Located on Roanoke Island, the Elizabethan Gardens are part of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, because it’s here that Sir Walter Raleigh sought to colonize the New World under Elizabeth I. History, mystery and fantasy are combined in the beautiful Elizabethan Gardens. The gardens are a memorial to the courageous English colonists who came to Roanoke Island in 1584 and walked “away through the dark forest into history” as the Lost Colony in 1587.
The gardens are delightful and elaborate, with over 500 different species of plants. When we visited in June, the hydrangeas were exploding throughout the 10.5-acre gardens, exhibiting every degree and mix of blue, pink, magenta, and white imaginable. Simply gorgeous!
3 Kayak the Marshes
One of my favorite pastimes in OBX is renting a kayak in the morning for a journey through the Manteo marshland. We rented a tandem kayak right on the Manteo boardwalk and launched just a few steps away. You can take a tour, but it’s also very easy to do your own paddle at your own pace.
We started our leisurely paddle by ducking under the bridge in Manteo Sound, then up and down some of the shallow cattail-lined canals. We glided through waters as calm as glass and let the serene, peaceful vibe engulfed us. From there we paddled around the Roanoke Island Festival Park – a tiny island directly across from downtown Manteo. We passed by the colorful Elizabeth II, a replica of the 16th sailing vessel that brought the first European residents to the Outer Banks.
We floated by the charming Roanoke Marshes Light, a beautiful reproduction of the small lighthouse that once guided sailors in the sound. As you approach town again, it’s a different and quite pretty perspective to see the quaint port village from your kayak.
2 Hang Gliding
I experienced my first, and most memorable, hang gliding in OBX.
There are two ways a novice can hang glide. One is to take a lesson and then strap on a small pair of wings and jump off the dunes; the other is to fly tandem with a trained pilot at heights from 2,000 ft. up to one mile over the earth, no experience necessary. I chose the second option.
A small ultralight plane towed us up into the atmosphere. When we reached our mile-high altitude, the tow rope was released and we began soaring, untethered, over picturesque Currituck Sound. My favorite part was having the opportunity to steer the glider myself!
A hang gliding experience is more surreal than adrenaline, and I highly recommend it for just about anyone.
Read my full hang gliding adventure here!
There can be no doubt that the biggest draw to the Outer Banks is the miles of pristine beaches and windswept dunes. The four barrier islands form a golden sand oasis beckoning all to come and enjoy. Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a regular on many top beaches lists, including “America’s Top 10 Beaches” by renowned expert, Dr. Beach.
My favorite beaches are along the protected Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Stretching over 70 miles from Bodie Island in the north to Ocracoke Island in the far south, it includes the infamous “Graveyard of the Atlantic” area, named for its deadly currents and storms.
Where to Eat in OBX
There are a ton of places to find great dining experiences in the Outer Banks. Here are some of my favorites:
- Kill Devil Grill, Kill Devil Hills
- Tortugas Lie, Nags Head
- Pier House, Nags Head
- Avenue Waterfront Grille, Manteo
- Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar, Manteo
- Lost Colony Brewery & Café, Manteo
- The Blue Point, Duck
- Breakwater Restaurant, Buxton
- Pangea Tavern, Avon
- Trio, Kitty Hawk
- Jolly Roger, Kill Devil Hills
- Duck Donuts, Nags Head
- Café Lachine, Wanchese
- Lifesaving Station, Duck
- Café Pamlico, Pamlico
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Most of the photos in this article were taken by Kary Kern.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Visit OBX during her stay, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.