The Outer Banks (often abbreviated OBX) is a beautiful coastal region in the state of North Carolina that many have discovered thanks to a very popular Netflix series about a treasure hunt. In my case, for many years I’ve been looking forward to exploring this unique place that I haven’t been to yet despite having visited 47 of the 50 states.
The 3rd season of the Netflix series just came out yesterday.
So I thought I’d tell you a little more about the Outer Banks region, which is known for its beautiful beaches, well-preserved nature, unique laid-back atmosphere, and popular sports activities (including thanks to the strong winds — which have enabled one of the inventions that allow us all to travel)!
Parts 2 and 3 soon will have the rest of the itinerary and then the logistics, but here is part 1, which is an introduction to the area and the 1st half of the itinerary.
Location of the Outer Banks region
Even though the logistics will be a separate post, I want to situate you with this introduction at least.
The state of North Carolina, the 9th most populous of the 50 states, is located just a little further south than the midway point of the U.S. Atlantic coast (and it’s the state with the 2nd longest coastline on the Atlantic, after Florida).
The name Outer Banks has nothing to do with the banks that give you free travel rewards (like the current Chase deal, one of the best ever in the USA): it’s the word bank as in the rising ground bordering a sea. And North Carolina has many banks; these are the outer ones.
The thing is, North Carolina has a very long series of barrier islands (long narrow islands parallel to the coast): that’s what the Outer Banks region is.
So it’s really a long and narrow region!
It’s about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from one end to the other, but it’s always extremely narrow. The generally accepted definition of the Outer Banks region is from the Virginia border (in the north) to Cape Lookout (in the south).
There are 6 main islands:
- 3 islands connected by the NC 12 road
- Bodie Island (100 km)
- Hatteras Island (80 km)
- Ocracoke Island (30 km)
- 3 other small islands without roads
- North Core Banks
- South Core Banks
- Shackleford Banks
It’s a region that’s really different from the rest of the state, with its own culture and atmosphere. As you can deduct, water is the focal point of this whole area.
The ocean is on one side, and sounds (another name for lagoons) are on the other!
Although the state is more populated than most people realize, to be clear, the Outer Banks region itself is very sparsely populated.
It’s what makes it so attractive: it consists of beaches and natural places that are undeveloped and beautifully preserved. There are only small towns. There are no buildings at all along the beaches in most places. It’s nature!
That makes the Outer Banks a very seasonal destination, though.
In fact, North Carolina has 3 metropolitan areas with over 1 million people… and none of them are particularly close to the Outer Banks.
The 7 places to visit in the Outer Banks
From north to south, here are the 7 places to visit in the Outer Banks region (well, the first ones for today at least).
1. Corolla and Currituck Beach
The remote northernmost tip of the Outer Banks is a nature lover’s paradise because it’s the quietest corner of the first islands — and some consider it the best-hidden secret in the entire region!
It’s quiet because this northern end of the 1st island is on the border with Virginia, but there is no road to get there from Virginia. You can only get there via Kitty Hawk (the next spot on this itinerary) and it’s a dead end that involves backtracking.
So not everyone goes there. It’s just an hour from the bridge leading to the Outer Banks, so it’s worth taking the time to go there, even if it means circling back to head south afterwards.
This section is known for the wild mustang horses that live on the beach, in Corolla (on Currituck Beach) for example.
It’s also one of the many places in the Outer Banks where driving on the beach is allowed, if you want to take your Ford Mustang or Toyota Corolla alongside the mustang horses in Corolla (okay, actually maybe you need an AWD car — please double-check).
In short, the small town of Corolla is also the gateway to the Currituck Banks Reserve and Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, vast protected areas full of biodiversity.
At the very end is Carova Beach, another typical beach town that’s super remote.
This whole area looks really beautiful and quiet, it reminds me a bit of my roadtrip to do the whole Oregon coast on the Pacific, which doesn’t have big cities either.
The Outer Banks area is nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic, because so many ships have run aground there.
So there are several nice lighthouses in the Outer Banks, like Currituck Beach Lighthouse, which is one of the few that is not black and white (but if you want to visit just 1, you might as well check out the tallest one in North America later on this itinerary).
You can climb the 220 steps, as is often the case with lighthouses.
It will give you a nice 360-degree view!
Right next door is Historic Corolla Park, which offers free admission to its lovely sound front site. It has a few attractions, including hiking trails, kayak launches, and fishing.
You can find the Currituck Maritime Museum, the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, and the Historic Whalehead Club, a large house you can visit.
If you like to climb and throw axes, there’s also Corolla Adventure Park.
On the way back, you can stop at Southern Shores Beach.
Or walk on the very original boardwalk on the sound side in the small village of Duck.
The Hampton Inn & Suites Outer Banks Corolla is a Hilton hotel, which is actually one of the few hotels in this area, if you want to stay more than a day in the north end (and prefer chain hotels or earning Hilton points). Otherwise, The Inn at Corolla Lighthouse seems like the only option for more authentic hotels.
2. Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk
If you’re coming from the north, the neighboring towns of Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk (pretty unique names) are the gateway to the Outer Banks region on Bodie Island. It’s just an hour and a half from Virginia Beach, a popular roadtrip destination for many Canadians.
If you want to change the order by visiting Corolla and the northernmost section after visiting Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, you can obviously do that, and it won’t be a much longer detour.
(After that, the rest of the Outer Banks is just a straight line, so it’s pretty much the only thing you can change in terms of the order in the itinerary because of the particular geography of this area — besides obviously going from south to north instead!)
The town of Kill Devil Hills has just 7,000 inhabitants… and it’s the most populated in the entire Outer Banks region! That being said, the entire region sees its population increase significantly in the summer, obviously.
Many like to use one of these cities as their base to explore the OBX.
Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills have great beaches like everywhere else in the Outer Banks.
They are not in an all-natural environment with no development around them like others, but they are still beautiful, no doubt.
The only downside is that sometimes it’s really windy on the beaches here.
As in most of the region, on the beaches, surfing and kitesurfing are therefore almost as popular as relaxing.
Almost every town in the Outer Banks has a fishing pier, and in Kill Devil Hills, there is the Avalon Fishing Pier where you can spend some time.
Nags Head Woods Preserve protects one of the largest maritime forests in the eastern U.S. and has hiking trails as well. It straddles Kill Devil Hills and the next place in the south.
You can also go hiking at Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve or Sandy Run Park, which has wooden boardwalks over the wetlands and is full of turtles and other wildlife, including birdwatching opportunities.
If you like vintage Americana, you can go to Sam’s Diner, a small restaurant dating back to the 1940s that is also classified as historic. You don’t have to take Route 66 for this type of atmosphere!
As an aviation enthusiast, I must mention that it’s in the Outer Banks area that the first flight in history took place!
You may have previously noticed this from the First in Flight mention on North Carolina license plates or the state’s commemorative coin, if you go to the States sometimes.
In short, it’s pretty major. It’s what makes it so easy for all of us to travel and explore the world!
The Wright brothers flew their airplane in the Outer Banks in 1903, just 2 months after the New York Times actually published that it would take “1 to 10 million years” before humans could create a flying machine.
(3 lessons: as with the pandemic, don’t blindly trust the “experts” of course; never let someone convince you that something is not possible; predicting the future is very difficult!)
It was in Kill Devil Hills, but the city didn’t exist yet, so sometimes people say the first flight took place in Kitty Hawk (which was the closest city that existed 120 years ago).
You can check out the Wright Brothers National Memorial, to have at least one thing that isn’t beach, nature, or outdoor related on your trip.
It’s also the highest-rated attraction on the Outer Banks. There’s a visitor’s center where you can learn about all of this, along with a full-size replica of the plane, the world’s first-ever airplane hangar, etc.
Also, just as you enter the Outer Banks in Kitty Hawk, the Monument to a Century of Flight commemorates it all as well, but that one is just a series of sculptures.
The Wright brothers were not from Carolina, but they specifically chose this location to test the first flight because it was known to have good winds to lift an airplane and soft sandy surfaces (and they enjoyed the privacy of the quiet location).
Finally, this is where you’ll find the only Marriott hotel in the entire Outer Banks region, the TownePlace Suites Outer Banks Kill Devil Hills, if you want to earn Marriott points (or maybe use them, but since it’s an expensive country, it’s not often a good redemption to maximize your free nights).
This is also where there are the most chain hotels:
- Hilton Garden Inn Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk (Hilton)
- Comfort Inn On The Ocean (Choice)
- Quality Inn Carolina Oceanfront (Choice)
- Days Inn by Wyndham Kill Devil Hills Oceanfront Wilbur (Wyndham)
- Days Inn & Suites by Wyndham Kill Devil Hills-Mariner (Wyndham)
- Travelodge by Wyndham Outer Banks/Kill Devil Hills (Wyndham)
In terms of more local hotels, the Outer Banks Inn seems like the best value.
3. Nags Head and Roanoke Island
Nags Head is really just past Kill Devil Hills, but it is one of the most popular spots on Bodie Island and deserves its own section.
It’s another place with both beaches and parks, in this case the main attraction is Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
You’ll find the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern United States. What’s unique is that the landscape and landforms here change every summer.
So it’s the most visited state park in North Carolina, and it’s free too! The temperature of the sand can reach 60 degrees (that’s well in celsius, unfortunately), so it can get hot in the summer!
The park also has the largest hang gliding school in the world, kitesurfing, and many other activities, such as zip lines.
Speaking of adventure, you can also get in the water to dive and explore the wreck of the USS Huron, a very old American military ship that ran aground at Nags Head.
The beach in Nags Head is also a great place to stop after all these activities.
The typical wooden beach house style is very pretty; you can admire it at the Nags Head Beach Cottages Historic District if you like architecture.
Jennette’s Pier also provides one of the most beautiful views of the beach and the colorful houses.
It’s not just aviation history: British settlement of the United States also began in the Outer Banks.
The Roanoke Colony was the very first permanent settlement, on Roanoake Island. It’s a smaller island in the sound on the mainland side, along the main island (the bridge is almost in a straight line from Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head).
It’s where the first child born in America to British parents was born, in 1587. A supply ship caused the colony’s disappearance. More specifically, all the inhabitants disappeared and were never seen again (your delayed flight isn’t that bad now, is it?). Historians assume that they all assimilated into the indigenous peoples in the area.
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves the history of the first colony and is worth a visit for those who love to learn. Those who love botanical gardens can find the Elizabethan Gardens created to honor the lost colonists.
For those who love theater, there’s The Lost Colony, a play that has been presented there every summer for over 80 years.
It’s in a beautiful amphitheater overlooking the sound.
Elsewhere on Roanoke Island, you can visit Island Farm, which is also inspired by the first settlement.
So is a 16th-century replica ship at Roanoke Island Festival Park.
Roanoke Island also has Outer Banks Distilling, the area’s first distillery, in the town of Manteo. They offer tastings of their small-batch rums.
Right next door is a funny lighthouse that looks more like a regular house, the Roanoke Marshes Light, and the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum.
The North Carolina Aquarium can be an indoor activity option. And if you cross another bridge to the mainland, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is nearby as well.
For lodging, in Nags Head you can combine the practical element and the historical one.
You can stay in 2 establishments that have been classified as historic. The First Colony Inn opened in 1932 and is now a luxury hotel, while the Sea Foam Motel dates back to the 1940s (with a neon sign to match) and is a more affordable option.
Otherwise, in terms of chain hotels, you have:
- Holiday Inn Express Nags Head Oceanfront (IHG)
- Comfort Inn South Oceanfront (Choice)
- Ramada Plaza by Wyndham Nags Head Oceanfront (Wyndham)
Hotels that are more local on Roanoke Island can be more affordable since they’re further from the ocean, like the Scarborough Inn.
4. South of Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras National Seashore
At the end of this first long island, the Outer Banks’ most famous attraction, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, begins.
Again, the Outer Banks is the site of a first! The United States’ National Seashores, essentially coastal national parks, started here with Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The result is beautiful beaches that are often rated among the best in the country, so don’t miss part 2 of the itinerary to discover them.
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The Outer Banks region of North Carolina looks wonderful for those who love the laid-back atmosphere of small beach towns and all the activities that come with a preserved natural place. Check back for the rest of the itinerary and logistics.
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Featured image: Outer Banks (photo credit: Clay Banks)