Last Updated on September 14, 2020
Last Updated on September 14, 2020
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The Outer Banks towns that dot North Carolina‘s most famous stretch of barrier islands are the perfect compliment to the beaches, lighthouses, and more iconic attractions that you’ll find. You may already know your spot and have that perfect rental lined up for that week (or more) you spend enjoying this coastal wonderland.
Even if you do, we hope you’ve ventured beyond your happy place to explore all that the Outer Banks has to offer. And a big part of that is these towns that are some of the best in North Carolina.
Each brings an interesting story, filled with great food, fun, and of course, their own patches of sand, surf, and sound. Any of these 15 Outer Banks towns will make your beach vacation a perfect one, but let’s dig into each one, see what makes them special, and understand why they belong on your bucket list.
We included them in our NC Bucket List book, in case you need further confirmation.
This post is part of our series on the amazing small towns in North Carolina and also, our focus on the Outer Banks. We’ve covered the area’s things to do, as well as the awesome restaurants you’ll find while here.
Outer Banks Towns
In this guide to Outer Banks towns, we’ve organized places from north to south, starting with Corolla and ending with Ocracoke.
We’ve also included public beach accesses (parking lots) in towns that allow them. As you’ll see, the vast majority are found in either Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, or on Hatteras Island along US-12 (the Outer Banks Scenic Byway)
We start our journey through these Outer Banks towns with Corolla. This unincorporated Currituck County community, along with Duck to the south, are the two most recent additions to the Outer Banks vacation rental scene.
Because of this, both towns are a bit more upscale. You’ll find oceanfront mansions, gated communities, and wide-open beaches. Corolla is also home to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the Whalehead Historic House Museum, and the more famous attraction—the Corolla wild horses.
These natural beauties are protected by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund and are only accessible via four-wheel drive.
Corolla Public Beach Accesses
- Bonito St
- Corolla Village Rd
- Shad St
- Sturgeon Walkway
- Perch St
- Sailfish Walkway
- Yaupon Ln
The home of Duck Donuts has seven miles of wide, uncrowded beaches and a sound side boardwalk that connects many of the town’s shops and restaurants. That boardwalk is one of the best places to catch the sunset while in the Outer Banks!
You can also kayak, paddleboard, or get a spa treatment in Duck. This is truly a chill and laidback Outer Banks town and perfect for young families and couples alike.
There are no public beach accesses in Duck, at the time of writing.
If you’re driving from the north, Southern Shores will be the first town in the Outer Banks that you’ll see after crossing the Wright Memorial Bridge.
This is primarily a residential community. So to access these beaches, you will need to live or vacation there. And as one of the first planned developments on the Outer Banks, Southern Shores is a beautiful place to visit.
Some of the most popular things to do in Southern Shores are playing a round of golf at Duck Woods, waterskiing, and grabbing a dozen bagels from one of our favorite Outer Banks restaurants, Barrier Island Bagels.
Bonus Tip: For those folks driving from northern spots to the Outer Banks, make a pit stop in Grandy at Weeping Radish. It’s North Carolina’s oldest microbrewery and they make some pretty amazing food to go along with an IPA, stout, or whatever style you like! We interviewed owner Uli Bennewitz for NC Travel Chat and learned all about his story (and more).
As with Duck, there are no public beach accesses in Southern Shores, at the time of writing.
Known for the place where the world first took flight (that’s a fact!), Kitty Hawk is one of the oldest Outer Banks communities. You can read more about the Wright Brothers below in Kill Devil Hills.
Kitty Hawk Public Beach Accesses
- Balchen St
- Bennett St
- Bleriot St
- Byrd St
- Eckner St
- Fonck St
- Hawks St
- Kitty Hawk Bath House
- Lillian St
- Luke St
- Maynard St
- Wilkins St
Kill Devil Hills
The name Kill Devil Hills comes from sunken ships during the Outer Banks’ heyday as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Rum barrels would wash ashore from those ships and it was so strong that it could “kill the devil.” and the name stuck.
This place is also the site of some debate for lovers of history. The Wright Brothers first took flight in Kitty Hawk, but Kill Devil Hills was the site of their first powered flights.
That’s why the Wright Brothers Memorial sits in Kill Devil Hills. There, you can find markers and exhibits to learn more about North Carolina’s contributions to aviation history.
Beyond that fun history, Kill Devil Hills is the largest town in the Outer Banks. It’s centrally located with plenty of chains and locally run businesses.
If you are wanting to spend some time in the maritime forests, start with Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, which is located in Kill Devil Hills.
Kill Devil Hills Public Beach Accesses
- 1st St
- 2nd St
- 3rd St
- 4th St
- 5th St
- 8th St
- Arch St
- Asheville Dr
- Atlantic St
- Avalon Dr
- Calvin St
- Carlow Ave
- Clark St
- Carlton Ave
- Chowan St
- Ferris Ave
- Glenmere Ave
- Helga St
- Hayman Blvd
- Lake Dr
- Martin St
- Ocean Bay Blvd
- Oregon Ave
- Pinehurst Ave
- Prospect Ave
- Raleigh Ave
- Sutton Ave
- Walker St
- Woodmere Ave
Nags Head is one of the most popular vacation spots on the Outer Banks as its oldest resort area. Plenty of water sports outfitters, mini-golf, and the largest concentration of public beach accesses make Nags Head one extremely popular Outer Banks town.
One of the most popular things to do in Nags Head away from the ocean is Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This is the largest sand dune on the East Coast and you can hike the trails or see if you can find the mini-golf castle that’s buried under the sand, across from Kitty Hawk Kites.
Nags Head is also home to three fishing piers (including Jennette’s), which are all perfect for vacationers to stare out into the ocean or back at the beach. You can also catch something fresh for dinner!
Bodie Island Lighthouse sits south of town on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but it has a Nags Head address. Standing 156 feet tall on the Roanoke Sound, visiting this lighthouse is one of the most popular things to do in the Outer Banks.
Nags Head Public Beach Accesses
- Abalone St
- Admiral St
- Albatross St
- Bainbridge St
- Baltic St
- Barnes St
- Bittern St
- Blackman St
- Bladen St
- Bonnett St
- Conch St
- Coquina Beach
- Curlew St
- Enterprise St
- Epstein St
- Forrest St
- Gallery Row
- Glidden St
- Governor St
- Gray Eagle St
- Grouse St
- Gulfstream St
- Gull St
- Hargrove St
- Holden St
- Hollowell St
- Huron St
- Ida St
- Indigo St
- Isabella St
- Islington St
- Jacob St
- James St
- Jay St
- Jennette’s Pier
- Juncos St
- June St
- Limulus Dr
- Loggerhead St
- OB Pier
- Surfside Dr
- Town Hall
If you drive to the Outer Banks from the south or west, you’ll pass through Manteo before driving on to Nags Head.
This town has been the Dare County seat since 1870 and before that, was the site of the Roanoke Colony that disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Lost Colony commemorates this each year and Fort Raleigh preserves the areas that we know housed those first colonists.
Today, visitors come to Manteo in search of a quieter, small-town feel. There are plenty of bed and breakfasts here, as well as quaint shops and a beautiful waterfront boardwalk.
While you’re in Manteo, stop and say “hello” to our friends at Outer Banks Distilling and pick up a bottle of their delicious Kill Devil Rum! We featured them among our favorite North Carolina distilleries for quite a few reasons!
Now, Manteo gets lumped in with all of Roanoke Island, but that’s because it’s the only incorporated town on the island. On the other end of the island is Wanchese, known for its seafood and boat building industries.
Hatteras Island Towns (and Beach Access)
Until we reach Ocracoke, these towns sit on Hatteras Island. You can access beaches via numbered ramps along Highway 12, also known as the Outer Banks Scenic Byway. This is one of our favorite scenic roads in North Carolina, by the way!
Each ramp will indicate whether an off-road vehicle is necessary. Check here for a map of the ramps along Hatteras.
Rodanthe and Waves were once one village and today, they’ve split in two. The former lies on the northern end of Hatteras Island, Rodanthe was formally known as Chicamacomico. It’s an Algonquin word mean “sinking down sand.”
A popular area for camping, there aren’t any large grocery stores but plenty of locally-owned fishing tackle shops and seafood markets.
Notable places in Rodanthe include the Chicamacomico Station, which was the first life-saving station on the Outer Banks as well as the famed Nicholas Spark’s Nights of Rodanthe house.
Much of the movie adaptation was filmed in and around Rodanthe, and today the house have transformed into an inn where vacationers can stay.
As mentioned above, Waves was once a part of Rodanthe and only became its own town in 1939 when a post office was erected here. And as the name might suggest, Waves is popular for surfing.
Kiteboarding is also a popular activity along the shore as the southern winds here are perfect.
Salvo is mostly residential, but you can still book a rental here. And other than beautiful homes, you have relaxation and quiet beaches in this Outer Banks town.
The sound side is a great spot for families because the water there is relatively calm and shallow.
The largest and most populated Hatteras Island town is Avon, historically known as Kinnakeet. There are plenty of shops, art galleries, and outdoor sporting retailers to enjoy here.
Windsurfing and kiteboarding along the shores of Avon are popular, particularly at a spot known as The Haulover (or Canadian Hole).
Buxton is where you’ll find Hatteras Lighthouse, the largest lighthouse in the United States. Each year, it brings thousands of tourists to Buxton.
Just around the corner from Hatteras Lighthouse is the oldest and largest maritime forests in the Outer Banks, Buxton Woods. It’s a lovely spot for a hike or walk, especially in the morning.
Of course, we can’t talk about Buxton without mentioning those Apple Uglies from Orange Blossom Bakery. They serve other things for breakfast but these huge, doughy, and sweet apple uglies alone are worth the wait in line!
Another primarily residential area of Hatteras Island is Frisco. This is a largely quiet, undisturbed strip of land.
If you want to stay in Frisco, your only real options are the campgrounds, and they’re very popular in the summer!
For things to do, the Frisco Native American Museum is a great start. It tells the story of Native American life and culture on the island before Europeans arrived.
Hatteras is one of the largest ports in the state and still known for its offshore charter fishing. In fact, fishing (offshore and inshore) is one of the major outdoor sporting draws to Hatteras.
Duck hunting is also very popular and if you’d like a beautiful spot to escape for a walk, check out the Sea Breeze Trail at Hatteras Village! It’s one of our favorite kid-friendly hikes in the Outer Banks.
Hatteras is also home to the North Carolina Maritime Museum, also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. Here, you’ll learn the history of the ocean around these barrier islands, as well as the shipwrecks and pirates that have made this area so intriguing.
If you want to keep moving beyond Hatteras, you can catch the free ferry to Ocracoke!
The only way to reach Ocracoke is by boat, either privately owned or via the FREE ferry. Ferries leave from Hatteras (One Hour), but also Swan Quarter (2 Hours 40 Minutes) and Cedar Island (2 Hours 10 Minutes).
And when you arrive, you’ll find pristine beaches, untouched maritime forests, and an overall magical destination. Grab a bike to explore the village, visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse, hang out a safe distance from wild horses, and hike the trails.
Ocracoke’s laidback and quiet vibe in one that you won’t find on the other barrier islands.
Which of these Outer Banks Towns is Your Favorite?
Every time we start toward the coast, we’re always looking forward to the beach, but also the food and fun found in these Outer Banks towns. As we mentioned at the beginning, you might already have your favorite and we’d love to know about it. Let us know in the comments section.
And if you’ve never visited the Outer Banks, we want to know which one you plan to visit the first time you come!