One of the most popular places to visit on the East Coast during the summer is, without a doubt, the Outer Banks. These are the best things to do in the Outer Banks.
The Outer Banks, or OBX, are a 200-mile stretch of barrier islands that go from Virginia down the coast into North Carolina.
The Outer Bank beaches are famous, and you will find so many unique ecosystems along the way, including a lot of beach grass and salt marshes.
They are also home to some of the US’ earliest settlements as well as hundreds of shipwrecks, giving the islands the nickname ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’.
Nevertheless, the Outer Banks are a fantastic place to visit and should be on every North Carolina itinerary!
This guide will discuss some of the most famous beaches in the Outer Banks and some of the most iconic historical sites.
For the sake of this guide, we are only discussing the Outer Bank attractions and landmarks located in North Carolina.
Did we leave off any of the best places to visit in the Outer Banks? Let us know in the comments! Thanks!
Things to Do in the Outer Banks
Visit the Best Beaches in the Outer Banks
With 50 miles worth of fantastic beaches, the number one reason to visit the Outer Banks is to enjoy the sun, sand, and surf.
The barrier islands are the perfect place to fish, kayak, paddleboard, surf the waves, build sandcastles, or spend the day relaxing and basking in the sun.
Lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, but be mindful of posted warnings for riptides, strong currents, and tides.
Along the Northern Shores of the Outer Banks, Corolla Beach is perfect for bodyboarding since the waves are usually calmer here.
There is also a public launch at the Whalehead Club for kayaks, small boats, and SUPs.
If you have a pet with you on vacation, then head to Duck. The beach there is one of the most pet-friendly beaches in the United States! Well-behaved dogs are permitted to be off-leash.
The Southern Shores of the Outer Banks feature Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Hatteras Island Beaches, and finally Ocracoke Island. Surfers and skimboarders flock to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills for the excellent waves.
The beaches at Nags Head are great for a leisurely walk in the sand, fishing on North Carolina’s longest pier, and watching sunsets.
See the Lighthouses in the Outer Banks
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Since 1870, the spiraling black and white striped lighthouse at Cape Hatteras has protected the hazardous Atlantic Ocean waters. It is the world’s tallest lighthouse, constructed from brick.
The stunning views will reward your efforts after climbing 208 feet, or 257 steps. The climb up the 12-story tower can be stressful, but take breaks along the way. The landings make perfect break areas every 31 stairs.
In 1999, the lighthouse and outbuildings were moved inland at 2,900 feet due to erosion. The move took an incredible 23 days, and this event also set records as the tallest brick structure to be moved.
Address: 46379 Lighthouse Rd, Buxton, NC 27920
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
In Corolla, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse guides vessels along the Atlantic Ocean between Cape Henry Lighthouse in northern Virginia Beach, Virginia, and the Bodie Island Lighthouse south of Nags Head.
The light has a 20-second rotation and can be seen for 18 nautical miles. A climb up the 220 steps will feature an unpainted brick tower and an outstanding view of both the sound and the Atlantic Ocean at the top.
The landings are excellent resting points since each is full of information to read and discover about the lighthouse.
The keeper’s residence is now a small gift shop where you can find an abundance of nautical souvenirs. The North Carolina lighthouse grounds are always open, but the climb to the top of the lighthouse is offered seasonally.
Address: 1101 Corolla Village Rd, Corolla, NC 27927
Bodie Island Lighthouse
On Bodie Island, south of Nags Head’s Whale Bone Junction, visit the lighthouse on the Outer Banks that has not been rebuilt once or twice but three times.
The 156-foot-tall Bodie Island Lighthouse features bold black and white horizontal stripes and continues to flash its light beam across the graveyard of the Atlantic waters, which can be seen for 19 miles.
Besides the lighthouse, which is open seasonally and with reserved tickets, there is a museum and gift shop in the lighthouse keeper’s house.
The park rangers also offer excellent historical talks worth sticking around for throughout the day. Bird watchers will enjoy strolling the grounds and watching the various birds that call Bodie Island home.
Address: 8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head, NC 27959
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
In the Village of Ocracoke, you will find the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse, the United States’ second oldest lighthouse still in operation, and it is North Carolina’s oldest operating lighthouse.
The whitewashed 75-foot tower has a 25-foot diameter at the base and 12 feet at the top, with the light beacon in an octagonal lantern.
The light guides sailors through both the Pamlico Sound and the Ocracoke Inlet.
Even though the tower is not open for climbing, the grounds are well worth a visit, and rangers are often on-site to answer any questions and share information about the lighthouse and red-roofed keeper’s cottage.
Address: 8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head, NC 27959
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches 70 miles from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island.
It features a variety of beach communities, two historic lighthouses, fishing piers, a chance to drive on the beach, and plenty of opportunities for fun in the sand and water.
When visiting the nation’s first national seashore, folks enjoy spending time at one of the many well-kept beaches shell-collecting, fishing from the surf or pier, kiteboarding, swimming, windsurfing, crabbing, and surfing.
One option to explore the National Seashore is on foot, and there are plenty of trails that explore the area.
Some of our favorites are:
- the 4.5-mile Open Ponds Trail that traverses from the British Cemetery and Frisco Campground on Hatteras Island
- the 0.75-mile Hammock Hills Trail at the Ocracoke Campground, which takes you to the salt marsh and views the Pamlico Sound
- the ¾-mile Buxton Woods Loop Trail that is accessible from the Buxton Woods Picnic Area.
Bird watchers will have a field day trying to spot the more than 350 species of birds that call the seashore home.
Address: Cape Hatteras National Park Road, Nags Head, NC 27959
Go Beach Camping
When you want to stay on the oceanfront but don’t want to pay the cost of an oceanfront beach house or hotel, head to one of the campgrounds that the Outer Banks has to offer.
There are seventeen different campgrounds along the Outer Banks and in various OBX towns and areas.
You can find three campgrounds within The Cape Hatteras National Seashore and 14 other private campgrounds scattered along the coast.
The entertainment-filled campgrounds feature everything from hookups for a giant RV to a strip of nothing but a sandy beach for the backpacker with a tent.
Some favorite campgrounds are:
- Cape Point Campgrounds is close to great fishing and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
- Portsmouth Island, south of Ocracoke Island and accessible only by small boat or private ferry, offers pack-in, pack-out tent camping. There are no modern amenities, and the wild coastline will have you roughing it during your stay. The area is known for fishing and shelling.
- Oregon Inlet Campground is the perfect place to camp for those who wish to do some offshore fishing.
If you are looking for a campground with plenty of entertainment, then Cape Hatteras / Outer Banks KOA Resort will be where you need to pitch your tent or park your trailer.
The resort has a Zero Entry Pool, movie nights, a dog park, and much, much more.
Drive Your Car on the Beach
One of the most popular things to do in the Outer Banks is to drive your vehicle on the beach.
This adventure can lead you to a remote beach or community like Carova that is only accessible from Corolla along nearly ten miles of sandy beach driving or to create memories with the salty air whipping through your hair.
Before heading onto the sands, adequately prepare your vehicle by letting some air out of your tires, so they are between 1 and 20 PSI, maintaining posted speed limits, and only parking where permitted.
On Hatteras Island, the beaches are open year-round to driving; however, in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, driving on the sandy beach is only available from October 1st through April 30th during the spring.
If you choose to drive your 4×4 along the Beach Access Road, be sure to have a full tank of gas and check when high tide will be since the road becomes very narrow and sometimes impassible.
If you don’t feel comfortable taking your vehicle onto the sand, rent an ATV or join a Jeep tour group that will explore the beaches.
Visit the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site
Commemorating the work of 17th and 18th-century shipwreck rescuers, the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station is one of the Outer Bank’s top historical attractions.
The station was the first North Carolina lifesaving station and played a pivotal role in rescuing 42 soldiers off a torpedoed WWI ship.
During a visit to the station, take time to watch the station’s history video and explore the five buildings and the museum, which have detailed exhibits full of interesting artifacts, including salvaged items from local shipwrecks and antique lifesaving equipment.
Be sure to check their calendar of events to avoid missing one of their beach apparatus life-saving drill demonstrations.
Stroll Along the Duck Boardwalk
On the sound side of Duck, the Duck Boardwalk stretches 0.6 miles from The Waterfront Shops to Christopher Drive near the southern end of Duck is the perfect place for kids to release some energy or to watch the sunset without getting their feet all sandy.
Along the trail, take time to explore the willow swamp and maritime forest, dine at various eateries like NC Coast Grill and Bar’s fish tacos, or find a place to sit and relax and people watch. It is actually quite the romantic place in the Outer Banks!
The boardwalk is pet-friendly, so be sure to leash up your dog and go for a walk. It is really one of the best things to do in Duck!
Peruse the Elizabethan Gardens
The 10.5-acre Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo feature over 500 different plant species in a serene environment. The beautiful grounds are full of historic herbs, hydrangeas, 85 varieties of camellias, and a rose garden.
While exploring the rose garden, find Queen Elizabeth II’s rose from Windsor Castle’s 1976 royal rose garden.
Among the elaborate gardens is the ancient live oak that dates back to when the first colonists landed on the Outer Banks in 1585. The pet-friendly gardens are open year-round, except for February.
Witness History at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Along Roanoke Island’s northern fringe in Manteo is the 355-acre Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
During your visit to the site that commemorates the first United States settlement of the English colonists in the 1500s, you can explore the visitor center, watch the United States’ longest-running outdoor stage production, The Lost Colony, or walk the trails.
Spend some time in the visitor center watching the 17-minute movie about the relationships between the English and the Algonquian.
Explore the exhibits and original artifacts detailing both the Algonquians and English, along with displays on the Battle of Roanoke Island during the Civil War, Roanoke Island Freedman’s Colony, and Reginald Fessenden.
Various excellent ranger programs are offered from spring through October and are worth your time scheduling your visit around.
Take a hike along the 1.25-mile Freedom Trail that takes you through maritime forests, a chance to view the Croatan Sound, and envision the Civil War and Freedman’s Colony forts.
Explore the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
With over 2,000 shipwrecks off the coast of North Carolina, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum has a wealth of stories to share.
There are artifacts displayed from the shipwrecks and exhibits about piracy and ghost ships throughout the museum.
Explore The Graveyard of the Atlantic and the Civil War on Hatteras Island exhibits and learn more about the OBX maritime history, the Colonial America pirates, and WWII battles in the Atlantic Ocean off the Outer Banks barrier islands.
Besides the shipwreck exhibits, the museum also houses Cape Hatteras Lighthouse’s original Fresnel lens and the USS Monticello’s flag.
Have a bit of fun exploring the museum while taking part in one of their family-friendly scavenger hunts. You will even get a prize for completing it!
See the Dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park
At Jockey’s Ridge State Park visit means hours of fun exploring the eastern United States’ tallest sand dune system.
Choose between walking along the 360-foot boardwalk, trying to climb to the top of the 100-foot-high dune for spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and Roanoke Sound, or meandering through the never-ending mirage of sand.
The state park has an excellent visitor center where you can learn about the dune ecology and wildlife in the park and participate in various ranger programs.
It is best to visit Jockey’s Ridge in the morning or around sunset when the sand is the coolest during the summer. For those who want more adventure, sign up with Kitty Hawk Kites for hang-gliding lessons from the dunes.
Take Dune Hang Gliding Lessons
Since 1974, Kitty Hawk Kites has been offering beginning through advanced hang-gliding lessons for those ages four and up.
Partake in a three-hour lesson that will take you to the top of the dunes. Here you will run a short distance before taking off, as the Wright Brothers did so long ago.
Be ready to soar five to 15 feet above the sand for 30 to over 100 yards. The sand makes for soft landings when you don’t land on your feet.
Visit the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island
The Lost Colony is an outdoor historical drama that has run since 1937!
The two-hour show tells the compelling story of what became of Sir Walter Raleigh and the 117 English men, women, and children who established a permanent English settlement on Roanoke Island.
Queen Elizabeth I, Virginia Dare’s birth, and the 450-year mystery of what happened to the colonists will enthrall you during the show.
The play runs each year during the summer from May through August at the Waterside Theater. Make sure to leave room in your itinerary to participate in this Manteo tradition.
Check Out the OBX Piers
While visiting the Outer Banks, walk out above the ocean waves on one of the seven piers. From the far end, you will get a terrific view of the coastline and even have a chance to enjoy a delicious meal.
The Avon Fishing Pier on Hatteras Island is 600 feet long and was the first pier built on Hatteras Island.
Home to Fish Heads Bar and Grille, the Outer Banks Fishing Pier in Nags Head at milepost 18.5 is a favorite for fishermen since the lighted pier is open 24 hours a day.
Nags Head’s 1,000-foot-long Jennette’s Pier at milepost 16.5 is a must-visit stop on your journey through the barrier islands. This pier is wind-powered and features an educational center and some of the best East Coast fishing.
The pier also makes a great location to take sunrise pictures and panoramic views of the ocean. The pier is a great spot to watch for dolphins in the summer.
Explore Roanoke Island Festival Park
When visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, head across the Sound to Manteo and explore the 1500s settlement in Roanoke Island Festival Park.
The kids will enjoy exploring the replica ship Elizabeth II and dressing like a sailor while playing games and swabbing the deck.
Continue exploring the park by visiting the American Indian Town to find re-enactors and Algonquin exhibits. Then explore the interactive Adventure Museum and watch the Legend of Two Paths film.
Visit the Whalehead Club
A visit to Corolla wouldn’t be complete without exploring the bright yellow 39-acre Whalehead museum along the Currituck Sound.
The 1920s mansion and grounds were the former winter hunting retreat of Edward Collings and Mary Louise Knight Jr. During your time at Whalehead, you can explore the Art Nouveau mansion and grounds through a self-guided audio tour and step back in time.
Throughout your travels, you will see period décor, original Tiffany light fixtures, an antique grandmother clock, and a Steinway piano.
You will learn a bit about the Outer Banks’ history, the Knight family, and even a ghost story or two through the audio tour. The grounds are beautifully manicured and offer stunning waterfront views, especially at sunset.
Check Out the Wright Brothers National Memorial
Whether you learn to fly at Jockey’s Ridge or not, a stop at the Wright Brothers National Memorial is necessary for any first-timer to the Outer Banks.
Visit the place where air travel first began on December 17, 1903, with Orville and Wilber’s first successful flights. Choose between taking a ranger-led tour or strolling the grounds and exploring the museum at your own pace.
During your exploration, view the sand dune where the Wrights began their four successful flights, as well as the First Flight Boulder markers depicting where each flight landed.
Take a hike up to the 60-foot airplane tail monument, then visit the restored Wright home and hanger.
The Wright Brothers Visitor Center showcases a variety of interactive exhibits and a timeline of the Wright brothers’ successes and failures.
If you have a National Parks Pass, be sure to show it for free entry.
Where to Stay in the Outer Banks
You will find plenty of places to stay in the Outer Banks. While most opt for renting a beach house, here are some hotels worth looking into!
- Island Motel OBX (Manteo)
- Captain’s Quarters (Frisco)
- Hilton Garden Inn Outer Banks (Kitty Hawk)
- Saltaire Cottages (Kitty Hawk Beach)
What are your favorite things to do in the Outer Banks? Let us know in the comments! Thanks!
More Coastal NC + Outer Banks Travel Guides
- Best beaches in the Outer Banks
- Outer Banks in winter
- Things to do in Duck NC
- Towns in the Outer Banks
- Best things to do in Beaufort NC
- Best things to do in Emerald Isle NC
- Best things to do in Jacksonville NC
- Small towns in North Carolina
- Things to do in Hatteras
- Places to visit near Raleigh
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Laura Gray is a travel blogger and retired teacher. She is from Western Pennsylvania but has lived in Virginia for the past 30+ years. During the summer months, you will find her enjoying the beach in her hometown when not out on an adventure. Laura thrives on creating itineraries to make the most of each place she visits. She enjoys exploring National Parks (Laura has explored 1/3 of all the US National Parks), waterfalls, and beaches. Her travel blog posts have been featured on nearly a dozen sites.