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The Outer Banks area of North Carolina is a fascinating blend of old history and new development. It’s where lighthouses have warned ships of the complicated shores since the 19th century, where the Wright Brothers first took flight as the 20th century began, and where vacationers and second home-seekers have begun to flock in the last few decades.
Let’s start just inside North Carolina; if you’re coming in via Virginia on U.S. 17, check out the Great Dismal Swamp State Park, part of a large marsh in parts of southern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. What’s left of it – it used to be larger before we realized the value of wetlands – has been preserved as both a National Wildlife Refuge and a North Carolina state park.
Wetland ecosystems, George Washington, the Underground Railroad, and recreational opportunities all come together in here; the Visitors Center along U.S. 17 three miles south of the Virginia border will illustrate why and how. A little further south, dirt track race fans will enjoy Dixieland Speedway, a 3/8-mile oval with a variety of racing action from April through September.
Whether arriving to the area via U.S. 17 or Highway 168 further east, be sure to check out Elizabeth City, home to 64,000 residents and the largest Coast Guard Air Station in the nation, Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City. There are five commands here, as well as the Aviation Technical Training Center. The city grew quickly due to its location on a narrowing of the Pasquotank River, just before it widens and becomes part of Ablemarle Sound, one of the largest freshwater sounds in the world – and one reason the Outer Banks are relatively tough to get to due to geography.
Downtown Elizabeth City is redeveloping nicely with shops, restaurants, and places to see like the newly relocated Museum of the Ablemarle, which showcases much of the region’s history. A burgeoning arts community exists here, centered on Arts of the Albemarle, which offers a variety of art pieces, exhibits, and events – some of which involved wine. Elizabeth City State University has its 200-acre campus near downtown and the Khan Planetarium can have you stargazing or just learning about the universe as you plan to also learn more about the Carolina coast.
From Elizabeth City, head east on U.S. 158; it’s time to get to the coast. Near Barco, the road turns south and we wind through Currituck County, commonly referred to as the “Inner Banks”. This area is known for fresh produce stands that line the highway in some of the towns. The climate and vegetation of the area is perfect for certain fruits and vegetables to grow and you can stop and pick up a nice variety depending on the season. Of course, many of them also sell baked good, fresh pies, boiled peanuts, and other local fare.
Just past Harbinger and Point Harbor, we get to cross Currituck Sound on the Wright Memorial Bridge, just north of where the water expands into Albemarle Sound. The bridge is 5.5 miles long and is the “unofficial” welcome point for the Outer Banks. The Outer Banks – or “OBX”, as you’ll see abbreviated almost everywhere – were quite before bridges were built for easier access. Only a few adventurous, often wealthy vacationers would frequent the area prior to the 1930's. The Wright Brothers’ famous first flight put the area on the map back in 1903, so when the area suddenly became easier to access it grew quickly. On summer weekends and during spring break, don’t be surprised to find portions of the Outer Banks packed with traffic – so just be prepared.
Once you reach the barrier island, you’re in Kitty Hawk, which is of course the reason North Carolina’s license plates say “First in Flight.”
Shortly after arriving on the island, you’ll reach North Carolina Highway 12. On our main tour, we go south; you can take the “north loop” by heading north on Highway 12 where you’ll catch a few dunes, including Three Dunes, which rise to the height of an eight or nine-story building. Rising even higher than that is the Currituck Lighthouse, which offers a view for miles around if you’d like to climb the 220 steps to the top. Made of one million bricks, this lighthouse can help ships up to 18 nautical miles away navigate. The lighthouse towers above the historic town of Corolla, which was a haven for a few wealthy residents and vacationers until fairly recently; in fact, a fully paved road in the form of Highway 12 didn’t even reach the town until 1984… seriously!
Today, Corolla offers upscale specialty shops, recreational opportunities including kayaking and SUP (stand-up paddle boarding), day spas, surf shops, and art galleries. A large museum and mansion called Whalehead Club, constructed in the 1920's by a family who appreciated the seclusion of the area, is worth a tour if you want to see what many compare to the Biltmore Estate on the other end of North Carolina. The 21,000-square-foot mansion sits on 39 acres of beachfront property and went up in town thirty years before electricity arrived there.
Corolla even has wild horses, many of whom are of Colonial Spanish Mustang descent, that roam throughout a 7,500-acre area along the beach, where their ancestors have been hanging out for 500 years. Corolla Wild Horse Tours, as you might imagine by the name, offers two-hour tours of these areas. Highway 12 ends in Corolla, since north of the town sits the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, which offers beaches, marshes, sand dunes, concentrations of wildlife from waterfowl to reptiles to sea turtles, which nest there occasionally.
Since you can’t drive further north, you can loop back to Kitty Hawk via Highway 12 and U.S. 158 to continue the journey south.
In Kitty Hawk, U.S. 158 is the main drag with plenty of restaurants, antique stores, surf shops, and more, which continues as you enter Kill Devil Hills. While condos and homes line the seashore to the east through each of these towns, the area’s key historical event took place on the western side of this narrow barrier island: the site of the Wright Brothers’ first successful airplane flight... literally, where air travel was born. You’ll find it at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. This site covers over 400 acres and marks the very spots where Orville and Wilbur Wright’s plane took off and landed on four separate flight attempts; the first flight was quite short, but the fourth lasted 59 seconds and covered 852 feet.
Although the plane was damaged after landing, it was considered the first successful controlled, powered, and sustained heavier-than-air flight and of course things “took off” from there. The excellent Visitors Center includes original parts from airplane prototypes the Wright Brothers worked on, a full-size replica of their Flyer (the original is in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.), and plenty of exhibits covering the region's history as well as aviation history. After all, this flight at Kitty Hawk led to plenty of aviation history. Also look for the 60-foot pylon atop Big Kill Devil Kill just to the south, marking the location of their earlier 1902 gliding experiments. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; only on Christmas Day is it closed. There is a small fee to enter, although individuals 15 years and younger are free.
Also in Kill Devil Hills, you’ll find the Best Western Ocean Reef Suites, offering beachfront views and all the amenities you’ve come to expect. It’s located off U.S. 158, right on Virginia Dare Trail along the beach. And the beaches along the Outer Banks are fantastic. Whether you want to play in the sand and surf or check out the piers such as Avalon Fishing Pier (near Kitty Hawk), Nags Head Fishing Pier (conveniently, in Nags Head), or the Jennettes or Outer Banks Fishing Piers further south, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the beach and the water.
Next up is Nags Head, long a resort town and home to the tallest sand dunes on the east coast. These dunes, which have moved around over the years (including burying a former miniature golf course and an old hotel), can be seen, climbed, and otherwise enjoyed a multitude of ways inside Jockey’s Ridge State Park. At the park, you can check out the dunes, enjoy the recreational opportunities throughout the park, and see a view of the Outer Banks from over 80 feet up that will truly allow you to appreciate the area.
Further south on U.S. 157 at Whalebone, you can enjoy the Jennettes Fishing Pier and the Outer Banks Fishing Pier, and connect to U.S. 64 heading back inland. U.S. 64, the road considered to be the “backbone of North Carolina” and a road that leads across the country all the way to Arizona near the Four Corners, begins or ends (depending on your perspective) at this intersection with U.S. 158 (which also ends here) and North Carolina Highway 12.
For the full Outer Banks experience, we recommend continuing south on Highway 12, where you can see more of the barrier islands. We’ll call it the “South Loop.” You can also head back inland via U.S. 64, which is the southernmost bridge back to the mainland. Following U.S. 64 brings you to Roanoke Island, home to not only Native Americans for thousands of years but also one of the first English settlements in North America. From 1584 to 1590, the area was settled by colonists (with the efforts of Sir Walter Raleigh, after whom the area and eventually the state’s capital city would be named). The colony disappeared, and what really happened remains a mystery; it became known as “The Lost Colony”.
The Fort Raleigh NHS features a visitor center with plenty of exhibits and a 17-minute film on the island’s history and settlement, a restored earthworks fort, and hiking trails through the maritime forest and to the beaches complete with wayside markers to illustrate the experiences of early settlers on the island. For marine fans, the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island features the largest collection of sharks in the state. You’re not just looking at tanks here; you can touch alligators and feed stingrays while also checking out a multitude of other interactive exhibits. This is all along U.S. 64 on Roanoke Island, before you even hit the mainland.
South of U.S. 64, Highway 12 enters the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Tourist-heavy towns give way to savannas and shorelines. The Bodie Island Lighthouse rises 156 feet above the seashore area and, while as of this writing you can’t access the stairs for climbing, there are plenty of fun activities in the park surrounding it.
Past the lighthouse, Highway 12 leapfrogs the Oregon Inlet on a bridge and lands on the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, an area considered a “Birder’s Paradise.” The area is a huge nesting, resting, and wintering habitat for migratory birds and other waterfowl. Over 365 species can be seen here. It’s worth noting that portion of NC Highway 12 on Hatteras Island have been severed by hurricane activity, including Hurricane Irene in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Hurricane Isabel in 2013. While repairs and in some cases temporary bridges have kept the highway intact, be aware for potential detours and other adjustments for the highway as you go through.
Further down the seashore toward Buxton, you’ll find Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. At 210 feet high, it has the tallest operating beacon in North America. The nearby Cape Hatteras State Park offers saltwater marshes, beachfront recreation and more all within sight (or the shadow) of the lighthouse. Buxton itself is a small, laid-back resort town and fishing village. A stop at a place like the Fish House offers the opportunity to enjoy a fresh catch of the day. Further south are settlements like Frisco and Hatteras, where you can check out the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, home to detailed accounts of shipwrecks and seafaring in general from the 16th century through recent times. Here if you’d like you can continue the journey via a 40-minute (free) car ferry ride to Ocraoke Island and more cape driving to Ocracoke.
Lighthouse fans get another treat: the Ocracoke Lighthouse, built in 1823 and one of the oldest lighthouses still in active service in the U.S. Its beam can be seen 14 miles out to sea… almost the entire length of Ocracoke Island itself. Ocracoke as a community is tight-knit, some say with its own brogue of English (from the locals known as “high tiders”), and its bars and establishments host a robust music scene for place only reachable by boat. Ocracoke’s colorful history includes being the location where legendary pirate Blackbeard died in a battle with British Navy troops in 1718.
From Ocracoke, you can head back north toward Kill Devil Hills and hit the mainland via U.S. 64, or as an alternate, hit a longer ferry southwest – which serves as a continuation of NC 12 – to Cedar Island. This ferry charges a toll and runs about 2 hours and 15 minutes. If you choose to go to Cedar Island, you can follow NC 12 to U.S. 70 in Beaufort; then at Mansfield, you can follow North Carolina Highway 24 toward Swansboro, where the Best Western PLUS Silver Creek Inn awaits!
Either way, the Outer Banks of North Carolina provide an opportunity for a beautiful, sometimes touristy, sometimes remote get-away-from-it-all experience. With U.S. 17, U.S. 158, U.S 64, and North Carolina Highway 12, you have the chance to see North Carolina towns, sounds, inlets, lighthouses, parks, sharks, bridges, ferries, dunes, estuaries… and more. Enjoy!