North Carolina’s Outer Banks are one of the most popular summer vacation destinations on the United States East Coast. Extending for about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from just south of Virginia Beach to approximately halfway down the North Carolina coast, this series of peninsulas and barrier islands is renowned for its spectacular beaches, historic sites and abundant birdlife.
A string of long and narrow sandy peninsulas and barrier islands, the Outer Banks lie between the North Carolina coast and the Atlantic Ocean. The largest of the many Outer Banks islands are Bodie, Hatteras, Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands and the Core Banks. However, due to storms and water currents, the number of islands and inlets in this low-lying sand-based area changes constantly.
Because the islands aren’t anchored to the ocean’s bottom as many other barrier islands are, the Outer Banks is particularly vulnerable during hurricanes and tropical storms. This is, in fact, the most hurricane-prone place in the United States north of Florida. As recently as 2003, for example, Hatteras Island was cut in half during Hurricane Isabel (the new channel was named Isabel Inlet). When visiting North Carolina’s Outer Banks, you’ll quickly notice the flat, sandy landscape and the stilted wooden houses.
There are a number of communities, including Kitty Hawk, Rodanthe (made famous by the movie Nights in Rodanthe) and Buxton. North Carolina State Highway 12 connects all these communities, a superb coastal drive past empty sandy beaches and wildlife refuges.
Notable Historic Events
The Outer Banks were first settled by the British as early as the 17th century. Many descendants of those first settlers still live in the area, their local dialect unique in North America and featuring an English accent. In the 1600’s, the Outer Banks was a refuge for pirates. Most notably, it was the last hiding place of legendary pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, who was killed on Ocracoke Island in 1718.
The treacherous waters off the Outer Banks coast have caused numerous shipwrecks, resulting in the nickname “graveyard of the Atlantic.” Established in 1874, the Chicamacomico Life Saving Station in Rodanthe was one of the first sea rescue services in the United States, one of the predecessors of the current United States Coast Guard.
The most noteworthy event in the Outer Banks, however, happened on December 17, 1903 at Kill Devil Hills. This is where the Wright Brothers first managed to successfully execute a powered and controlled flight with a heavier-than-air vehicle.
Nature and Wildlife
Parts of North Carolina’s Outer Banks are protected as the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a unit in the National Park Service system. This protected area stretches for 70 miles (110 kilometers) from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island. It excludes the communities in the area, such as Rodanthe, Buxton and Ocracoke, which do, however, make for great bases for exploring the Outer Banks.
The islands with their wide sandy beaches, wetlands, coastal dunes, ponds, tidal pools and brush offers a wide variety of habitats for wildlife. They are most known for their exceptional variety of bird species.
North Carolina’s Outer Banks Top Attractions
Wright Brothers National Memorial
The Wright Brothers National Memorial, managed by the National Park Service, marks the site where the Wright Brothers completed the world’s first-ever powered flight. The site features a visitor center with informative exhibits and a full-scale replica of the Powered Flyer.
You can walk the grounds and see the historical markers indicating the distance of each powered flight as well as camp buildings. The huge granite Wright Brothers monument on top of Big Kill Devil Hill is a major highlight as well.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Located in Buxton, the present-day Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was completed in 1870. Measuring 150 feet (45 meters) high, this is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. You can visit and climb this historic lighthouse. The climb is self-paced and once at the top, you’ll be able to enjoy fantastic views of the coast.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is a magnificent place to spend the afternoon when exploring North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Home to the tallest sand dune on the United States East Coast, it features hiking trails, picnic areas, a visitor center, museum and gift shop. This is also a superb place to go kite flying and hang gliding.
Made famous by the movie Nights in Rodanthe starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, Rodanthe is one of the main communities in the Outer Banks. It consists of a plethora of stores, outlets, eateries, beach bars, adventure parks and mini-golf courses. Numerous stilted rental houses offer accommodation right on or within mere steps from the beaches. This is a great base for exploring North Carolina’s Outer Banks and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Surfing, Fishing and Birdwatching
With its phenomenal beaches, windy weather, swamps and wetlands, the Outer Banks offers world-class surfing, fishing, birdwatching and other outdoor activities. You’re allowed to go off-road driving on the beaches—even campfires on the beach are allowed in many areas — while coastal hiking trails give you the chance to spot unique birds and other wildlife.