Daytrips, Lighthouses, and More!
I’ve been going on vacation to the Outer Banks beaches of North Carolina for more than forty years. Yet, only in recent years have I truly appreciated all there is to offer while vacationing at the gorgeous North Carolina shore. When I was growing up, you couldn’t pull me away from playing on the beach all day-God forbid I should miss an hour of precious sun and surf. These days, tanning is out, and exploring is in. Here are my top ten travel tips for things to do on your next Outer Banks vacation.
1) Wright Brothers Memorial-A huge part of the heritage of the Kitty Hawk area is tied to the making of aviation history by Wilbur and Orville Wright. You do need to spend at least two-three hours of your vacation at this National Park Service Memorial. The actual spots of the first flight(s) are marked on the ground (beginning and end), and there are exhibits and displays in the impressive visitor center. There is an entrance fee of $4.00 per person. Annual National Park passes are accepted at this site.
2) Jockey’s Ridge State Park-We always visit Jockey’s Ridge State Park at least once or twice during our vacation. Jockey’s Ridge is the site of the largest sand dunes on the east coast. Arrive about an hour before sunset. Bring your camera, wear comfortable clothes, flip flops, and take a kite. The views of the sound and the ocean are spectacular from the top of the dunes. Try to catch the nightly talk by the park ranger-they have an interesting lecture about the geological history of the dune.
3) Day trip into Manteo Island-If the weather is somewhat questionable or you need a break from a full day in the sun, take a day trip across the sound to Manteo Island. You’ll see signs for the causeway to Manteo just south of Nags Head. Manteo offers plenty to see and do from walking through the Elizabethan Gardens (gorgeous), to the Aquarium (small, but great for the kids), to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. I also recommend attending the famous Lost Colony Play which you’ll see advertised in every beach newspaper and magazine. There are also quaint shops and eateries in downtown Manteo.
4) Currituck Lighthouse-Head north one morning or afternoon to the town of Corolla where you can see the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Climb the winding steps to the top for a dizzying view. A small entrance fee is required. It’s open from 9am to 5pm nearly every day of the year.
5) See Wild Horses/Rent a Jeep for Off Roading-While you are up north in the Corolla area, there are several four wheel drive rental companies that provide you with GPS guided tours. It’s expensive, but a blast. We rented a Jeep two years ago and saw plenty of horses up close, plus I got great experience learning how to drive in deep sand.
6) Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve-Miles of trails await you in this beautiful wooded park. There is a nature center and short nature trail if you just want a tiny taste of the park. Otherwise, several trails are long enough to offer a one-two hour hike.
7) Take a Kayak Tour-several local companies offer tours of inland waterways between Whalehead and Pea Island. Thus far, we’ve only been able to take the marsh tours (which are excellent) because on previous trips the winds were too high to be paddling in more exposed areas. On our next trip, I’d love to book the Pea Island kayak tour, where the waters are supposed to be so clear you can see to the bottom.
8) Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Lighthouse-I’d be very disappointed if your Outer Banks vacation did not include an excursion down to see the famous Cape Hatteras Light House. This is part of the National Park’s system and fees apply for climbing to the top. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is actually located in the town of Buxton-which is a few miles north of the town of Hatteras. The beaches are gorgeous, there is camping here, fires are permitted on the beach, and beach driving is also permitted, providing there aren’t temporary restrictions due to nesting wildlife.
9) Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge-On your journey south down to Hatteras Lighthouse, you’ll cross the 13 mile long Pea Island. This is a pristine national wildlife refuge where lovers of birds and wildlife will be thrilled. In addition to having unspoiled beaches (no buildings, just sand!), there are salt flats, fresh and brackish ponds, and nature trails for observing the wildlife up close and personal.
10) Ocracoke Island-Going to Ocracoke Island requires a full day trip commitment if you’re staying in the more populated areas up north such as Nags Head or Duck. My best advice is to go very early and be at the ferry parking lot before 9am, otherwise the wait to board the car ferry might take hours. The ferry ride is a huge part of the entire experience. The trip across the sound last about 45 minutes and takes you between Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. Once you land on Ocracoke Island, you’ll drive about ten miles until you arrive at the town of Ocracoke. There are parking lots and restroom facilities along the way where lifeguarded protected beaches await you. For several years in a row, Dr. Beach has classified the beaches here as the most beautiful in America. Within the town of Ocracoke are shops, restaurants, bicycle rentals, kayak rentals, walking tours, and a pirate museum. I recommend heading directly to the town first, shop, grab lunch and some snacks for the beach, then on the way back to the ferry, spend a few hours playing in the surf.