The Outer Banks NC
When thinking of places to visit in North Carolina, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds is a vacation to the Outer Banks. This place is a shoo-in for our NC Bucket List. And if it’s not on yours, you definitely need to keep reading!
The Outer Banks Defined
We’ve seen a few different ideas about what actually constitutes the Outer Banks. Some definitions declared the Outer Banks only include Currituck, Dare, and Hyde Counties. Others have expanded them all the way south to the Bogue Banks (Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, etc).
Ultimately, until we see an official declaration on borders, our definition of the Outer Banks of North Carolina remains as follows: from north to south, Carova Beach to Portsmouth Island.
Outer Banks Map
Things to Do in the Outer Banks NC
If you’re looking for things to do in the Outer Banks, we’ve created a series guides on how to enjoy a week, what to do during the off-season, awesome (and kid-friendly) hiking trails, amazing restaurants, and more.
Beyond amazing rentals and NC beachside fun, the Outer Banks is an area full of interesting geographical features and history. The number of islands and inlets here always changes, due to severe storms opening some up and closing others.
Outer Banks NC Towns and Communities
The Outer Banks is home to some of our favorite small towns and a variety of communities that offer plenty to visitors and residents. Here, we’ve broken them down by specific banks and islands.
And for organization purposes, we decided to go the “geography” route from north to south, starting with Knotts Island on the NC-Virginia border.
Want to read more about our favorite Outer Banks towns?
- Knotts Island: Knotts Island is one of the few times we’ll mention Virginia (this is a North Carolina-focused site, after all!). That’s because it’s shared by Currituck County on our side and Virginia Beach on the other. It’s known for hunting and fishing, but also beautiful views of Currituck Sound.
- Carova Beach: One of North Carolina’s most isolated places, Carova Beach is only accessible for those living or staying there by boat or four-wheel drive. At the time of writing, there are no restaurants or other shops and instead, a beautiful collection of wildlife and Banker Horses roaming around.
- Corolla: Corolla is where US-12 ends, meeting the North Beach Access. Many folks come here to check out the beautiful Corolla Beach Light, wild horses, and the historic Whalehead Club. The Currituck Banks North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve is a mile north of Corolla.
- Grandy: You’ll drive through Grandy between Currituck and Wright Memorial Bridge. One of our favorite stops here is Weeping Radish, which is North Carolina’s first and oldest microbrewery. We interviewed the owner Uli Bennewitz for an episode of NC Travel Chat.
- Duck: This is the northernmost incorporated town in the Outer Banks NC and many people’s go-to place to stay. Its population booms during the warmer months. And if you’re fortunate enough to visit in early October, the Duck Jazz Festival is one of the area’s best gatherings.
- Southern Shores: Just down US-12 (or up, depending on where you’re standing) is Southern Shores. Duck Woods Country Club is here, as is ARTSpace, which features a variety of area artists in one place.
- Kitty Hawk: This is the last of the most developed towns, with a huge concentration of shopping and restaurants that begins at Nags Head. However, Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve is a nice patch of natural, undeveloped maritime forest for paddlers, boaters, and hikers.
- Kill Devil Hills: If you’re looking for somewhere close to it all when picking a place to stay, start with Kill Devil Hills. It’s home to amazing beaches, food, shopping, and the Wright Brothers Memorial.
- Nags Head: And then there was Nags Head. You pretty much have it all here, including a great assortment of beach-adjacent food and fun. Also, the iconic Jennette’s Pier is here. Jockey’s Ridge State Park is also in Nags Head, home to the most beautiful collections of dunes.
- Manteo: I know it seems like we’re working backward here because Manteo is typically the first place many visitors see. OBX Distilling and Lost Colony Brewing and Cafe are both in the lovely waterside town. NC Aquariums on Roanoke Island is another great way to spend a morning or afternoon in Manteo. That’s a fact, whether or not you brought kids!
- Wanchese: Many folks overlook Wanchese but this Roanoke Island town is nothing to sleep on. Anglers charter boats from here for a chance at catching marlin, mahi-mahi, and other big gamefish. A mile-long public trail here will lead you to views of various birds and other wildlife.
Pea Island to Salvo
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge: While not a town or community, we think you’ll want to know about Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. A variety of migratory waterfowl (including snow geese), shorebirds, and multiple other species pass through this birder’s paradise.
- Rodanthe: This awesome town is primarily known as the setting of the Nicholas Sparks book Nights in Rodanthe and the movie that it inspired. It’s full of beautiful rentals, gorgeous beaches, and a lovely, picturesque pier.
- Waves: Rodanthe also begins the Tri-Villages, which includes Waves and Salvo, which we’ll mention shortly. Waves is known as the home of both Kitty Hawk Kites and REAL Watersports. Both are major players in the watersports industry.
- Salvo: Salvo sits at the end of the Tri-Villages and is mostly known as a stop for anglers and drivers to load up before a day out. There are also rentals here and beaches that are much less crowded than others you’ll find in the Outer Banks.
Note: Pea Island is included with Hatteras even though the two are sometimes connected. The former is also sometimes connected with Bodie Island. That’s a testament to the changing nature of these barrier islands.
Avon to Hatteras
- Avon: Because of its location and for having Hatteras Island’s only chain grocery store, Avon is regarded as the center of the island. Koru Beach Club, Avon Pier, and Kinnakeet Village are a few of the main attractions here. However, you’ll still get the solitude and quiet offered by most places on Hatteras.
- Buxton: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is probably the best-known thing to see in Buxton, but there’s more to do here. Cape Point is also a popular spot for fishing. And finally, Canadian Hole brings surfers from all over to windsurf and kiteboard its waves.
- Frisco: Just before the end and Hatteras Village is Frisco. There are multiple ways to access the beach here and Frisco Woods Campground is a very popular place for families.
- Hatteras Village: Stop at the end of the line before venturing onto Ocracoke and explore Hatteras Village. It’s well-known for fishing on the beachside and watersports on the Pamlico Sound side. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is here and is a wonderful tribute to the area’s maritime heritage and culture.
- Ocracoke: You’ll arrive at Ocracoke by boat and likely might never want to leave. North Carolina’s oldest lighthouse is here, standing tall over Ocracoke Village. Enjoy a meal along Silver Lake and try to not relax too hard, okay?
- Portsmouth Island: Even further away from the beaten path is Portsmouth Island, the final place in the Outer Banks NC we’ll mention. This beautiful island is only reachable by private boat or ferry from Ocracoke. There are no amenities here, aside from some National Parks Service cottages.
If you’d like to learn more about the area before planning your next trip there, this section offers some interesting history. We’ll uncover how this was once a secluded land, the site of a lost colony, home to pirates, and where America first took flight.
Prior to the first European arrival here, the region we now know as the Outer Banks were occupied by various Native American tribes and bands throughout history.
The Croatoan Indians are thought to have inhabited Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands when Europeans arrived near the end of the 16th century.
After various scouting efforts and a couple of failed attempts, an English settlement known as Roanoke (today’s Roanoke Island) was established in 1587. Virginia Dare, whose namesake is you’ll recognize when entering Dare County, was the first English child born in America.
Unfortunately, not much more is known beyond her baptism because she and her fellow colonists disappeared. The wake of this mystery, also known as The Lost Colony of Roanoke, continues to perplex people even to this day.
You can learn more about the Lost Colony at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. It sits just a few miles from Manteo on Roanoke Island.
Graveyard of the Atlantic
The fate of Roanoke played heavily into the delay for returning to the Outer Banks. It’s also due to the notorious danger of the waters surrounding this area.
Following the Civil War, a series of lifesaving stations were built all along the Atlantic Coast (including Bodie Island) to aid sailors and offer rescues for wrecked ships. These are known as a modern forerunner to today’s’ Coast Guard.
Before all that, there was a colony to settle! However, it did take some time for Europeans to arrive.
The Carolina Charter and Division
Some colonists did “overflow” from Virginia in the 1650s but this area was largely left alone by English and European settlers. Of course, an official Carolina Charter would change things.
Another thing holding back colonization of this area was the Royal Court back in England. Long story short, a charter was originally granted in 1629, rescinded due to disagreements over which religious group would go, and indefinite postponement due to Interregnum.
Following the monarchy’s restoration in 1660, the second Carolina charter was issued in 1663. Even then, it took decades for large-scale settlement to take place.
And in 1712, Carolina is divided into two separate colonies (North and South).
Pirates, Proprietors, and Royals
From 1712-1729, North Carolina remained a Proprietary Colony which meant its people answered (mostly) to Lord Proprietor. That gave a select group of men (eight to start) extended powers over the region, even though the King back in England held sovereignty over the colony.
The proprietors of North Carolina struggled to attract settlers (especially along the coast), due to the former’s inability to promise safety in the wake of Indian attacks, piracy, and other dangers. Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, lived in Bath and terrorized much of the southeastern coast until his death in 1718.
The Proprietary Era ended in 1729 when King George paid those in control to make North Carolina a Royal Colony. While this move brought more stability to the region, the Outer Banks remained remote until the mid-20th century.
Both sides used parts of the Outer Banks during the Civil War. It was also here where the Union launched its official campaign against the Confederates on August 27, 1861.
After the war, the Outer Banks returned to its seclusion and use for fishing and, on rare occasions, as a vacation destination for wealthy planters of the Inner Banks.
After the War: Rediscovering the Outer Banks
The completion of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal just before the Civil War (1859) was a huge player in connecting the Outer Banks to the rest of North Carolina. It led to a shift to more commercial fishing and visitors seeking hunting lands and those seeking a peek at the beautiful beaches of Nags Head and elsewhere.
The 20th Century: Wright Brothers
The Outer Banks got off to a quick start during the 20th Century, and the achievements of Wilbur and Orville Wright shine brightest. Thanks to the winds and sands of the Outer Banks, the two men were able to launch and safely land multiple gliders.
On December 17, 1903, the first motor-powered airplane flew for 12 seconds. Each December, the Wright Brothers National Monument celebrates their “First Flight” along with activities held throughout the day.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Many of us would still not know the Outer Banks today if not for donors and the New Deal. During the 1930s, Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the first authorized by Congress (1937). The Government-led Civilian Conservation Corps worked to preserve the area’s beaches and sand dunes.
However, the funds for purchasing much of its 28,500 acres were provided by philanthropist Paul Mellon.
As a result of Mellon’s generosity and the hard work of so many people, we have a beautiful stretch of land and a ferry-connected road (Outer Banks Scenic Byway) to drive through much of it.
Today’s Outer Banks
If you visit the Outer Banks today, you’ll notice concentrated development around Nags Head and further north. Duck is one of the most popular spots for vacationers. Also, the Corolla Wild Horses are a beautiful sight absolutely worth seeing.
Drive south and you’ll see smaller towns and huge stretches of protected land within Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A couple of our favorite places to stop include Bodie Island Lighthouse, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the towns of Rodanthe and Avon.
Ferries will take you from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island (more info at NC DOT), where one can easily spend an entire vacation. 16 miles of beaches accompany a wonderful community that’s perfect for any visitors.
Getting to the Outer Banks NC
There’s no major airport in the Outer Banks, which means commercial air travel isn’t a possibility. However, booking a private air charter or helicopter to get you there is definitely something doable.
Getting to the Outer Banks depends on the direction you’re driving from. Of course, GPS tells us all what to do these days (me included!). However, here are the ways you’ll typically arrive.
From the north, many folks will come in via I-95, then I-64, and Route 168. Folks driving from the south will also spend time on I-95. Around Rocky Mount (and the awesome Rocky Mount Mills), you’ll hop on US-64 for the remainder of the trip. And if you’re like us, you’ll come in from the West via I-85 or I-40 until meeting I-95, followed by US-64.
Searching for Something Specific?
As we continue checking out more Outer Banks beaches and beyond in North Carolina, we’ll keep sharing our discoveries with you.
If there’s something else you’re looking for, please use the search box above. You’re also welcome to contact us and tell us what you’re trying to find.
Our Facebook Group is another great place where you can ask a question or connect with like-minded North Carolina travelers.
Either way, we hope you find what you need and enjoy your upcoming trip to the Outer Banks NC!
Frye, Jason. Moon Carolina Coast: With the Outer Banks. Berkeley: Avalon Travel, 2019.
Powell, William. North Carolina: A History. Nashville: The American Association of State and Local History, 1977.
Stick, David. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, 1584-1958. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958.