We’ll end the itinerary in the Outer Banks (often abbreviated OBX), a beautiful coastal region in the state of North Carolina, in the USA. Many have discovered it thanks to a very popular Netflix series about a treasure hunt (season 3 just came out).
Part 3 of this series next week will have the logistics; here is part 2 to complete the itinerary with the 7 places to visit (with one as a bonus).
Introduction to the Outer Banks and first 3 stops on the itinerary
Start here if you missed part 1 of the Outer Banks itinerary with also the introduction to this unique region.
4 more places to visit in the Outer Banks region
Here’s the rest of the itinerary of 7 places to visit in the Outer Banks region, from north to south — with a bonus stop!
4. Northern end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore
It is at the end of the 1st long island, Bodie Island (which is not even an island anymore in fact), that the Outer Banks’ most famous attraction, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, begins. I also include the northern end of the 2nd island (or 1st real island), Hatteras Island, as a combined stop for this itinerary.
Why? Well the south end of Bodie Island and the north end of Hatteras Island are both places where there is no development, just nature. It feels different, after the (relatively) developed beginning of the itinerary.
Again, the Outer Banks are the site of a first (in addition to being the site of the 1st airplane flight and the 1st British settlement in America)!
The USA’s National Seashores, essentially national parks that protect the coastline, started right here with the Cape Hatteras National Seashore (and now there are a total of 10).
This results in beautiful beaches often rated among the best in the country (like the #1 beach in the USA in 2022; more on that later)!
Some consider this stretch one of the most beautiful roadtrips in the country as well.
The first beach is Coquina Beach, near the southern end of Bodie Island, just after the developed area ends.
(By the way, this end was also a separate island before, but as is very common in this fragile, erosion-prone natural habitat, the shape of the coastline evolved, and the island has merged with the main one that goes all the way to Virginia… which is actually now connected with the mainland, even though it sure looks like an island!)
Then there’s Bodie Island Lighthouse, which was just renovated in 2013 and can be visited if you climb the 214 steps.
(No, we haven’t made it to the tallest lighthouse in North America yet; that’s another one that’s almost at the other end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore!)
Near the lighthouse is also where the first of the visitor centers for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is located.
There are also some great swamp hikes in this area.
About 100 kilometers from the Virginia border, the 2nd island (or 1st real island) in the Outer Banks finally begins, Hatteras Island. It’s one of the longest islands in the United States by the way!
The lovely Basnight Bridge takes you there.
Right next door is the Bonner Bridge Pier if you want to get a nice view of the bridge (or the inlet between the 2 islands). Or if you want to fish.
Technically, there was also a separate island there, Pea Island. But it recently remerged with Hatteras Island.
The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a large protected area for birds that takes up most of the space at the north end of Hatteras Island. You can find 365 different species of birds here!
The old Oregon Inlet Lifeguard Station near the bridge is just about the only building in this entire section of the OBX.
It’s an area that is undeveloped and wild.
You can hike the North Pond Trail… or just enjoy a place where the beach is quiet and peaceful!
So in terms of accommodations, there’s really nothing available between the towns of Nags Head and Rodanthe; it’s just nature.
5. Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, and Avon
The next part of Hatteras Island includes 4 small towns popular with those who love the OBX and the main segment of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that continues south. Here, the Outer Banks start being really far from the mainland too!
The first village on Hatteras Island is Rodanthe.
The story of a book (later adapted into a movie) by popular author Nicholas Sparks, Nights in Rodanthe, is set there and has made the name of the town a little more well-known than the average village with a population of 213.
It’s repetitive, yes, but we’re talking about the Outer Banks after all: the beaches are beautiful.
Like the rest of the OBX, there are plenty of water activities available like kiteboarding. And you can do these even if you don’t have your own equipment, with Kitty Hawk Kites or REAL Watersports, for example.
Rodanthe has its own pier, as does almost every place (it’s the easternmost point in all of North Carolina).
The fishing is apparently particularly good from there thanks to the currents that cross here (these same currents are what make the surfing excellent here).
If you like history and museums, the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site & Museum is the most comprehensive in the entire USA on the topic of the old lifeguard service.
By the way, the boundaries of the first 3 cities are quite abstract. The 3 are close together and often considered to be one village, known as Chicamacomico.
But officially, continuing along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, there is then the small town of Waves.
With a name like Waves, you know that the waves are very good there (yes, the name of the city really comes from that)!
If you’re interested, what makes surfing so excellent in the OBX is the convergence of 2 strong currents: the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream.
Just after Waves, there is Salvo.
Like the other 2, it’s very small, but it’s very pretty.
It’s another beautiful place to just relax, especially at Salvo Beach.
In addition to the beaches, the Salvo Day Use Area is another park on the sound side that is popular for kiteboarding but also for stargazing!
You can rent dune buggies at Island Cruisers if you want to have some fun.
Otherwise, the village was famous for its post office, one of the smallest in the country (it was closed in 1992).
If you’re lucky (depending on how the sand has moved), you can also see a shipwreck on the beach, the G.A. Kohler that’s been there since 1933, near ramp #27 (there are a few others all along the Outer Banks).
After Salvo, there’s one of those long stretches with beaches entirely in their natural state, with no development around.
You can go to the beach anywhere, and some of them have names: Bald Beach, Kinnakeet Beach, or Black Pelican Beach.
Then there’s the village of Avon, which has a few more amenities than the first 3 spots. More choices in terms of restaurants and stores like Island Spice & Wine for groceries or Sandcastles for souvenirs.
And Avon obviously has its own beautiful beach.
The Avon Fishing Pier provides a particularly lovely view of the ocean; it’s about as Outer Banks as you can get!
You can rent all the equipment you want to do any activity at Ocean Atlantic Rentals.
Or hit the spa or beach club at Koru Village. Or just chill on the beach.
Finally, just past Avon, there’s a place with a great name, Canadian Hole. It’s one of the best places in the world for windsurfing and is one of the most beloved spots on the Outer Banks.
It’s really called that way because so many Canadian windsurfers go there! The other name of the site is Haulover and it’s well indicated on the road, but with the number of sails there, it’s apparently very hard to miss!
There is also ample parking so it’s one of the most accessible locations for both the sound side and the ocean side, on both sides of the NC 12 road.
6. Cape Hatteras
Still on Hatteras Island, there is the cape that the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is named for. The barrier island changes direction abruptly here. This is probably the most popular stop on this entire itinerary!
Around Cape Hatteras, it’s the widest point of the entire Outer Banks region (it’s still very narrow). It’s also the closest point to Bermuda.
Here, there are 3 small towns named Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras.
In Buxton, the most populated of Hatteras Island (it’s still tiny of course), there’s the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in all of North America and the 2nd tallest brick lighthouse in the world.
It’s one of the most famous, with its rather unique black and white striped design. It’s probably the most popular symbol for the entire Outer Banks region.
It offers a pretty impressive view after you climb the 257 steps.
Fun fact: the lighthouse was moved in 1999 because the infamous coastal erosion made it become too close to the water. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty complex operation to move something that high.
It was moved really far away, as you can see here, with the town of Buxton right behind (and in the distance, there is Avon, from the previous stop on the itinerary).
Right next door is Old Lighthouse Beach, named the 2nd best beach on the Outer Banks!
(I’ll get to beach #1 at the next stop!)
The seawall was built to try to slow down the erosion and to avoid having to move the lighthouse, without success.
There is Cape Point Beach which is on the tip of the cape, as you inferred from the name.
The beach and the park there is another popular spot.
If you get tired of the roads, there are plenty of trails to explore with all-terrain vehicles!
It’s really a place that has something for all types of travelers.
Buxton’s beaches are popular for surfing. There are classes offered, like Sunnie’s Surf Lessons.
It’s actually one of the best places to surf on the entire East Coast.
The SS Lancing wreck is another opportunity for wreck diving. A Nazi U-boat sank the ship during World War II.
You can look for shells if that’s ever an activity you like. The Outer Banks area is known as a great place to find beautiful ones.
Continuing always on the same NC 12 road from the beginning, you arrive in Frisco.
Frisco Beach is another very nice one.
I’m very partial to the ocean side over the sound side for obvious reasons, but one thing only the sound can have in the Outer Banks is a sunset over the water.
The mainland is so far away at this point of the OBX that the sound looks like an ocean too though!
The best fudge in the area is apparently at Scotch Bonnet Fudge & Gifts. And to switch things up, the Frisco Native American Museum allows you to learn about the history of the native peoples of the area.
Kiteboarding is popular in many places along the coast, but especially in this part of Hatteras Island.
Another activity is kayaking in Pamlico Sound, between Hatteras Island and the mainland.
Finally, almost at the end of the 2nd long island of the Outer Banks, there’s the town of Hatteras (sometimes called Hatteras Village to distinguish it from the entire island).
You can find the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum here if that part of the region’s history interests you and if you’re in the mood for a rare indoor activity in the OBX.
The town of Hatteras is considered the blue marlin capital, so fishing is a popular activity. The Pamlico Sound is one of the largest marine estuaries in the world and is an excellent place for that!
If you like to go boating, whether to fish or just to enjoy the water, it’s a place where there are boats available.
After the village of Hatteras, you can make a slight detour to a dead end at the very tip of the island.
It’s a protected area.
In terms of accommodations, there are no chain hotels here, like on the rest of Hatteras Island. The Swell Motel in Buxton and the Sea Gull by Kees Vacation in Hatteras seem to be the best options in terms of price if camping isn’t your thing.
7. Ocracoke Island
More than 170 kilometers from the beginning of the region, the road stops at Hatteras Village. Or rather the road is interrupted at Hatteras Village. You have to take a ferry — completely free of charge — to get to the next island, Ocracoke Island.
The trip on the North Carolina Ferry takes just under an hour, which is probably about twice as long as it would take if the boat was going in a straight line.
You may have noticed the really indirect route on the map — the ferry takes quite a detour around the Hatteras Inlet Crab Spawning Sanctuary!
The boat ride itself is a fantastic experience, especially at sunrise or sunset.
Ocracoke Island is less than half the length of the previous 2 islands; it is less than 30 kilometers long. It is called the Pearl of the Outer Banks.
Because of its smaller size, geographic location, and accessibility by boat only, many find Ocracoke Island much quieter than the rest of the Outer Banks. This gives it something very unique.
Ocracoke has secluded beaches for all tastes, including one named the most beautiful in the United States.
The island is very sparsely populated and has just one small village, which is very beautiful, by the way. So almost the entire island is just beaches and protected areas.
Like many places in the OBX, you can drive on the beach (with a permit).
But before you get to the most beautiful beach (it’s at the end of the island), there are beaches all along the island!
You can visit Pony Pastures Beach (also called Pony Pen Beach).
Like all the beaches in Ocacoke, there’s nothing around! Pure bliss.
Pony Pen Beach’s name comes from the Ocracoke Pony Pens next door, a place where there is a herd of wild ponies that you can go see.
One of the places you can go for a hike is the Hammock Hills Nature Trail.
Also, like in many of the Outer Banks’ protected areas, there are turtle nesting areas!
Just before you get to the village of Ocracoke at the end of the island, there is Ocracoke Lifeguard Beach (also known as just Ocracoke Beach).
This is the one that was voted the #1 beach in the entire country as recently as 2022, by the Dr. Beach ranking.
Not in Hawaii, not in Florida, not in California! On Ocracoke Island.
The village of Ocracoke is where you can access Springer’s Point Preserve.
It’s even the highest-rated attraction on the island.
It wouldn’t be an Outer Banks island without a lighthouse, of course! Let me remind you that the area is nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic!
The Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is less imposing than the other 3 on this itinerary… but all lighthouses have a certain charm. This one is the oldest still in operation in North Carolina.
Okracoke is a very nice little village on the edge of a harbor, on the sound side.
The 1718 Brewing Ocracoke brewery and all the restaurants on the island are located there!
You can find the Over the Moon Art Gallery, the Down Creek Art Gallery and quirky little stores like the Village Craftsmen, Island RagPicker, and Pirates Chest. There’s also the Deepwater Theater for summer theater and the Coyote Music Den for concerts.
There are a few vendors for water activities as well, such as Ride The Wind Surf & Kayak store, Ocracoke Adventures tours, Restless Native boat rentals, Coast & Go bike rentals, and Ocracoke Island Golf Carts (they’re popular to move around the island).
Without spoiling anything from season 3 of the Outer Banks show, it was revealed that season 4 would revolve around the story of Blackbeard, the famous pirate. By the way, the town where the show is set, Kildare, is entirely fictional!
But Ocracoke is where Blackbeard took refuge at the end of his reign — and where he was killed. Blackbeard’s Lodge is an accommodation option that pays homage to this story.
While we’re on the subject, in terms of accommodations, it’s pretty limited as well outside of Airbnb and Vrbo again. There are no chain hotels, and the Ocracoke Harbor Inn seems to have both the best rating and the best price (which is still awfully high, obviously), a pretty rare combination.
And there’s camping, of course.
Much like the end of Hatteras Island, you can actually continue past the village of Ocracoke to a quiet, secluded spot at the tip of the island.
It’s called Sunrise Point at the end of South Point Drive, at beach access ramp #72.
At the end of Ocracoke Island, it’s the end of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore… but there’s another protected coastline that begins. And there are other islands officially considered part of the Outer Banks, but which are really special.
Bonus: Cape Lookout National Seashore
After the main islands of Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke… the Outer Banks region is not over! There are still 3 main islands (and 1 smaller island), but they are entirely protected and wild! There are no inhabitants, not even a road! It’s the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Yes, there are just 10 National Seashores in the entire country… and North Carolina has a 2nd one that is right next to the other.
The Cape Lookout National Seashore is also sometimes called the Crystal Coast.
It’s 90 kilometers of protected coastline and nature. The islands of North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks are truly a place for those who love nature in its purest state.
Not only are these islands accessible by boat only, you even have to go back to the mainland first because you can’t get there directly from Ocracoke Island (i.e. you have to take 2 boats to get there if you’re coming from the rest of the Outer Banks).
To get to Cape Lookout National Seashore, the first ferry from Ocracoke Island takes you to Cedar Island (on the mainland). It takes more than 2 hours and costs 15$US per vehicle.
Then, after a 20-minute drive, you can take another small ferry to one of the 3 islands of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
There are actually a few different ferry options, considering the vastness of these 3 islands. It all depends on where exactly you want to go. This official National Park Service map can help you find your way.
In fact, there is a 4th island that is small and is right next to Ocracoke Island, Portsmouth Island. That one can be visited by boat from Ocracoke directly, for example with Portsmouth Island Boat Tour. Portsmouth is a small island where a town was founded in 1753, but it is no longer inhabited since it was abandoned in 1971. You can see the Portsmouth Village Historic District with its 21 preserved buildings and a nice secluded beach, but it’s pretty much all there is on the island.
Depending on the tide, you can sometimes continue to the 1st of the 3 main islands of the Cape Lookout National Seashore from Portsmouth Island, because the islands sometimes become connected (it doesn’t seem like that at all on Google Maps). But it’s not guaranteed and not very convenient either. You won’t have your car and will be far from the central part of the main island.
Nature is really the main attraction of these islands. There are all kinds of flora and fauna, including wild horses here too.
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is another lovely lighthouse with a unique diamond pattern design. The different patterns of each lighthouse in the area are obviously made on purpose to distinguish the lighthouses from one another easily.
The pattern of this one has another purpose: the center of the white diamonds points precisely to the East/West, while the center of the black diamonds points precisely to the North/South. Useful when the lighthouse is on the tip of a cape that is quite abrupt.
Once again, the panorama from the top of the lighthouse is sublime, but this one is temporarily not accessible anymore, because of repairs that should last until 2025.
The museum at the lighthouse’s base is open; it’s just the climb to the top that is closed.
If you like architecture, Cape Lookout Village is a historically preserved village, much like Portsmouth Island above. It includes the Cape Lookout Lifeguard Station, and that’s pretty much all there is on these 3 islands in terms of buildings.
On the rest of Cape Lookout National Seashore, there are no services of any kind, not even garbage cans. It’s nature!
You can go to the beaches, swim, hike, bird watch, fish, etc.
You can even camp on the islands, and there are some rustic wooden cabins on the beach for lodging, which the National Park Service rents.
But it’s truly nature in its wildest state on the islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore at the end of the Outer Banks region.
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North Carolina’s Outer Banks region looks terrific for those who love the laid-back atmosphere of small beach towns and all the activities that come with a preserved natural place. Come back for the final part of the series, the logistics of a trip to the Outer Banks.
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Featured image: Cape Hatteras (photo credit: Cape Hatteras National Seashore)