When it comes to the best vacation destinations in the United States, the Outer Banks of North Carolina consistently earns a spot on the lists compiled by various travel companies, publications and blogs each season. In 2017, Southern Living magazine ranked the Outer Banks as the “South’s Best Island,” and the picturesque sliver of sand has also found a spot on Dr. Beach’s list of the “Top 10 Beaches in America” every single year for the past decade.
The popularity of the Outer Banks has grown exponentially since some of the area’s first vacation homes were constructed here nearly a century ago, with tens of thousands of visitors venturing to the 120-mile-long string of barrier islands each year to spend a week in paradise. Although the vast majority of people who visit the Outer Banks are drawn to the region in search of opportunities for relaxation and recreation by the sea, the shifting shoals that comprise the North Carolina coast offer far more than just fun in the sun.
Whether you’re planning your first-ever vacation on the Outer Banks or you’ve been visiting the OBX for decades, the following are the top 10 Outer Banks activities and attractions you can’t afford to miss the next time you’re in town.
1. Climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
No Outer Banks vacation is complete without a trip to Hatteras Island to see the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in person. The 193-foot-tall, black-and-white spiral structure is situated in the tiny town of Buxton and has been an iconic Outer Banks landmark since its construction was completed in 1803. Visitors can take a tour of the historic lighthouse keepers’ quarters to learn more about the men who were responsible for fueling the lamp and maintaining the light that served as a guide for mariners sailing along the dangerous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic decades ago. And if you’re searching for an unforgettable Outer Banks experience, climb the 257 steps that lead to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, where you’ll be treated to stunning, 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound, the converging currents at Cape Point and the village of Buxton below.
2. Take a Wild Horse Tour in Corolla
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse might be the most famous attraction on the Outer Banks, but the wild horses of Corolla are certainly not far behind. Believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs that swam to shore after the vessels they were being transported on were shipwrecked off the coast of North Carolina five centuries ago, as many as 6,000 horses once roamed the beaches of Corolla and the four-wheel drive area of Carova to the north. Today, the herd consists of approximately 100 wild horses that can be spotted running along the seashore, splashing in the surf and foraging for food among the sand dunes and salt marshes. Visitors with off-road vehicles are welcome to scour the shoreline in search of the horses on their own; however, embarking on a tour with a local company whose guides are knowledgeable about the horses’ whereabouts is highly recommended.
3. Tour the Historic Whalehead Club
While you’re in Corolla searching for sightings of the wild horses of the northern Outer Banks, head to the historic Whalehead Club for a unique trip back in time. Located just a short walking distance from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the Whalehead Club is a 21,000-square-foot mansion that sits on the western edge of the barrier island and overlooks the Currituck Sound. The 12-bedroom, four-story residence was constructed in 1925 as a lavish hunting lodge for a wealthy couple who frequently visited the Outer Banks to hunt the wide array of waterfowl that inhabited the towns of Duck and Corolla in the early 20th century. Today, the Whalehead Club is best-known as being a prime venue for Outer Banks weddings and receptions; however, the property can be toured by those interested in learning what life would have been like on the Outer Banks when the structure was built and seeing lavish examples of the Art Nouveau style of architecture that was popular during its heyday.
4. Hike to the Top of Jockey’s Ridge
Whether you’re a wildlife enthusiast hoping to encounter some of the unique species that call the Outer Banks home, or you’re looking for a place you can experience one of the best views on the islands, heading to Nags Head to hike to the top of Jockey’s Ridge should be on every vacationer’s bucket list. The largest living natural sand dune system in the eastern United States, the dunes cover a 420-acre area along the edge of the Roanoke Sound and stand as tall as 100 feet in some spots. The views from the top of the ridge can’t be beat—you’ll not only have a stunning view of the sound and the ocean, but also the town of Nags Head below and Roanoke Island in the distance. Embark on a journey along one of the many nature trails that wind their way through this popular North Carolina state park, where you’ll likely spot a variety of animals ranging from white-tailed deer and rabbits to foxes, lizards and luna moths. And if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, sign up for a hang gliding lesson to discover what it feels like to soar over the sand dunes while taking in a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon.
5. Tour the Wright Brothers National Memorial
On Dec. 17, 1903, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright made history when they successfully completed the world’s first powered flight in their 40-foot, 605-pound Flyer from the top of a large sand dune on the central Outer Banks. The brothers made four flights on that fateful day, and the fourth and final time the pair took to the air their glider stayed aloft for 59 seconds, soaring a record-breaking 852 feet. A colossal monument atop a huge hill in the heart of Kill Devil Hills commemorates the Wright Brothers’ historic achievement that forever changed the face of aviation, and visitors can walk up to the top of the hill for exceptional views of the surrounding towns, ocean and sound, or take a tour of the on-site Wright Brothers museum just a short distance away from the base of the monument. Four large stone markers on the grounds of this national monument in Kill Devil Hills indicate the landing spot of each flight attempted that December day, with the fourth stone showcasing the one that made history and put the Outer Banks on the map more than a century ago
6. Visit the Site of the Lost Colony
History buffs who visit the Outer Banks will never be disappointed during their stay, as the barrier islands have been ground zero for an assortment of historical events that have taken place here over the course of the past several centuries. One such event continues to puzzle historians more than 430 years after it occurred: the disappearance of the men, women and children of the infamous “Lost Colony.” In the summer of 1587, a group of settlers recruited by Sir Walter Raleigh made the long and arduous journey from the coast of England to the shores of Roanoke Island, where they constructed a fort-like settlement in the present-day town of Manteo. Among the settlers were a man named John White, as well as his pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare, and her husband, Ananias Dare.
On Aug. 18, 1587, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Virginia Dare, who became the first English child to be born in the New World. Less than two weeks after his granddaughter was born, John White embarked on a journey back to Britain to procure additional supplies for the colonists of the brand-new settlement. When he finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, he found the fort completely deserted and no signs of the 117 settlers he had left behind just three years earlier. The tale of the Lost Colony still intrigues historians and archaeologists, who have yet to determine exactly what events transpired in the 16th century and resulted in the disappearance of the colonists. Today, tourists vacationing on the Outer Banks can visit the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to see the spot that members of the Lost Colony called their home for a short time before they mysteriously vanished from the barrier island more than four centuries ago.
7. Stroll through the Elizabethan Gardens
The Outer Banks may be most well-known for its beautiful ocean beaches and pristine stretches of soundside shoreline, but one lesser-known attraction that every vacationer should visit during their stay is the Elizabethan Gardens. Featuring over 500 different species of plants and flowers, the picturesque gardens stretch across 10.5 acres on the northern tip of Roanoke Island, in the soundside town of Manteo. The origins of the Elizabethan Gardens can be traced back to the 1950s, when a group of vacationers visited the nearby Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and learned the story of the so-called “Lost Colony” that had briefly settled on the Outer Banks in the 16th century and then abruptly disappeared without a trace.
Inspired by the story of the 117 colonists who disappeared centuries ago, the group of visitors sought to create a place that would permanently pay homage to the settlers from the Lost Colony. On Aug. 18, 1960, the 373rd anniversary of the birth of colonist Virginia Dare—who became the first English child born in the New World when she was born on Roanoke Island—the Elizabethan Gardens officially opened to the public. The site has remained a popular Outer Banks attraction since its gates first opened, and each year thousands of tourists take a leisurely stroll along the pathways that weave throughout the gardens to view the wide variety of botanical collections that change with the seasons as spring and summer give way to fall and winter.
8. Visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
With its converging currents, shallow waters and constantly shifting shoals that make navigating the coastline a difficult task for mariners, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are commonly referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Despite the presence of four lighthouses along the coastline from Ocracoke to Corolla—whose purpose was to help sailors navigate the treacherous shoals that lie just offshore from the barrier islands—thousands of vessels have become shipwrecked on the Outer Banks. To aid sailors whose vessels ran aground in returning safely to the shoreline, crews of surfmen were historically stationed at spots along the North Carolina coast—including the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station—and rowed large wooden surfboats past the breakers and into the Atlantic Ocean to save those who were stranded at sea as the ships went down.
Located on Hatteras Island, in the small village of Rodanthe, the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station was commissioned on Dec. 4, 1874, and its crew of surfmen became the first life-saving service in North Carolina. For years, the surfmen who staffed the Chicamacomico Life-Saving played a pivotal role in saving the lives of distressed sailors whose ships had begun to sink after striking the unseen diamond shoals. In November 1921, crew members from Chicamacomico were awarded gold life-saving medals by the British government for their incredible efforts to save the lives of three dozen soldiers who were tossed into a fiery sea when their ship, the Mirlo, struck a mine that had been dropped by a German U-boat, causing a series of massive explosions—and resulting in one of the most dramatic rescues in maritime history. Today, visitors can tour the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station to view a variety of artifacts, photos, interviews and rescue equipment, including an original surfboat used by the surfmen who staffed the station until it was decommissioned in 1954.
9. Cast a Line at Jennette’s Pier
Whether you’re an avid fisherman or you just want to find a stellar spot for sightseeing, taking a trip to Jennette’s Pier is an absolute must on your next Outer Banks vacation. This popular pier in Nags Head stretches 1,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, offering some of the best opportunities for pier fishing from Corolla to Ocracoke. Originally constructed in 1939, Jennette’s Pier became increasingly popular among anglers from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, who traveled to the barrier islands of North Carolina just to cast a line for the catch of the day. As the pier’s popularity grew, a series of bare-bones cottages along the oceanfront—which had formerly housed U.S. Civil Works Administration employees who spent time on the Outer Banks building a line of protective sand dunes during the Great Depression—were transformed into a camp for fishermen looking for affordable accommodations near the pier.
As the decades passed, Jennette’s Pier took several beatings from hurricanes and nor’easters, and in 2003 a large portion of the structure succumbed to the massive power of Mother Nature when Hurricane Isabel hit the Outer Banks and took 540 feet of the original 754-foot-long wooden pier with it. The pier was forced to shut down operations for several years due to the damage, but the North Carolina Aquarium Society—which had purchased the pier from surviving members of the Jennette family shortly before the hurricane hit—started construction on a new pier in its place. In May 2011, the new version of Jennette’s Pier, which is made of concrete rather than wood to ensure the structure can withstand the force of coastal storms, officially opened to the public. Today, Jennette’s Pier is one of the longest fishing piers on the East Coast, and its pier house features a 3,000-gallon aquarium, a series of educational exhibits, a retail store, snack bar, event space and tackle shop. The staff of Jennette’s Pier also offer a variety of summer camps where kids visiting the Outer Banks can learn to fish, surf, paddleboard and hang glide, and veteran on-site anglers are available to offer family fishing activities and private lessons with a pro.
10. Explore the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Unlike other popular vacation destinations along the country’s coastline—which boast bustling boardwalks, crowded beaches and high-rise hotels—the Outer Banks are characterized by pristine stretches of shoreline and plenty of natural habitats home to a wide array of wildlife. And perhaps the best spot to experience the unparalleled beauty of the barrier islands and to encounter an assortment of unique species of wildlife up close is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife refuge was established in 1938, when the U.S. government sectioned off this portion of the island so it could serve as a nesting and resting habitat for migratory birds and waterfowl, and to provide a safe haven for threatened and endangered species.
Located on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge spans 13 miles, from Oregon inlet to the north to the village of Rodanthe to the south. Comprising 5,834 acres of land and 25,700 acres of boundary waters, the refuge is home to more than 365 species ranging from shorebirds and snow geese to piping plovers and sea turtles. Visitors can explore the refuge on foot via two nature trails—the North Pond Trail and the Salt Flats Trail—or launch a canoe or kayak from the boat ramp that provides paddlers easy access to the shallow, brackish waters of the sound, salt marsh and a series of wide canals along the margins of the refuge. Stretching from the waters of the Pamlico Sound on its western border to the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Pea Island National Wildlife refuge offers incredible opportunities to enjoy a wide array of recreational activities on the Outer Banks, including birdwatching, surfing, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and searching the shoreline for seaglass and seashells.