Your Guide to an Outer Banks Road Trip
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Whether your pilgrimage is inspired by the teen drama on Netflix, the Nicholas Sparks' novel, or you're simply drawn to miles of sandy beaches, start with our guide to an Outer Banks road trip.
Reachable from nearly every point along the eastern seaboard, an Outer Banks road trip is a perfect family vacation. Located at the northern edge of North Carolina, just south of Virginia Beach and Norfolk, and 200 and 170 miles from Raleigh and Richmond respectively, the Outer Banks, a string of peninsulas and barrier islands, offers up miles upon miles of sandy Atlantic Ocean beachfront or sound front R&R. Those beaches are a large part of the reason why this slim sliver of land has been a beloved destination for nearly 100 years. It has inspired TV shows, including the new Netflix series of the same name and Nights in Rodanthe, the Nicholas Sparks’ novel-turned-movie.
Outer Banks road trip
For most visitors making an Outer Banks road trip, the journey really gets going at the famed town of Kitty Hawk, just as Rt. 158 deposits you onto OBX, but there’s a stretch above that you’ll absolutely want to gallop up to for one very specific reason (keep reading!)
The full 128-mile Outer Banks road trip experience will take your carload of family and friends along the National Scenic Byway from the majestic wild horses on Carova Beach all the way down to Ocracoke Village. We know how the drive starts and ends, let’s now take a look at some Outer Banks rentals, restaurants, and attractions to stay, taste, and see in between during your Outer Banks road trip!
What to do in the Outer Banks
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As you research what to do in Outer Banks, one nugget leaps out like no other: Wild horses! On the beach! Make your way to the very top of the Outer Banks to harken back to a different time, before the Outer Banks (and America) was developed, when animals ruled more of the land and the sea, by enjoying and photographing the famed Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs on Carova Beach.
Drive your car right onto the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry to explore Ocracoke Island, which is considered one of America’s most beautiful beaches, and is only accessible by the ferry which makes daily runs 365 days a year. Now you can officially slap one of those oval OBX magnets on the back of your car! Here are some beaches that are even better in the fall.
Outer Banks lighthouses
National Geographic notes that four lighthouses dot the main stretch of the Outer Banks (there are five total here), adding that, “All were built during the 1800s and still cast their beacons today—guiding white-knuckled seafarers through famously ornery waters where thousands of ships have perished, earning the Outer Banks the moniker Graveyard of the Atlantic.” You must see the tallest brick lighthouse on the continent, the 162-foot tall Currituck Beach Lighthouse, and climb the 214 stairs to the top of the drop-dead gorgeous Bodie Island Lighthouse. These are more of the most beautiful lighthouses in America.
Experience the wonder of flight
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The Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates the wind, the sand, and the dream of flight that brought Wilbur and Orville Wright to Kitty Hawk on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It was right here where the brothers achieved the first successful airplane flights on December 17, 1903, making the area the spot of one of the oldest airports in the world.
Beaches in the Outer Banks
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a marvelous, 74-mile stretch of sand and the main Outer Banks attraction for nature lovers and R&R seekers alike. “When you enter Cape Hatteras National Seashore, strip malls and traffic lights give way to a landscape resembling an African savanna set down in the ocean,” National Geographic writes. That alone is a reason to make an Outer Banks road trip. Not every drive features the sights and smells of a national seashore, but here are the 50 best road trips in America.
Birding and hiking in the Outer Banks
beklaus/Getty ImagesWhen you consider what to do in Outer Banks, save one morning of your Outer Banks road trip to go hiking and looking for birds in the 11,000 acres of protected marshland and woodlands at the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Outer Banks rentals
Of course, there are hotels and motels on the Outer Banks but, before Airbnb and Homeaway were popular accommodation options, the Outer Banks was a home rental hotbed. No OBX road trip is complete without an epic Outer Banks rental home. These properties are usually massive three-story homes, with hammocks, pools, home theater rooms, and more, on or near the beach, and with ocean views for days. Outer Banks rentals provide the ideal spot for family reunions or simply a relaxing vacation where social distancing comes naturally. Discover the 50 best beach rentals.
Outer Banks restaurants
While you can—and should—buy groceries to cook meals in your Outer Banks rental home’s kitchen or on the deck grill with the saltwater breeze blowing through your hair; there’s no shortage of casual and classy restaurants to enjoy during your Outer Banks road trip when you want someone else to do the work for you. Here’s a tasty trio of dining options to consider:
You’ll want to blow into the Outer Banks Brewing Station brewpub in Kill Devil Hills during your Outer Banks road trip. The Outer Banks Brewing Station is the first wind-powered brewery in the United States and was the first business to produce wind power on the Outer Banks. Because you’re on the ocean, start with the crab dip before moving on to the fish and chips.
If you have plans to dress up and celebrate a special occasion while visiting the Outer Banks, Kimball’s Kitchen, a fine dining restaurant with sweeping sunset views is the spot. Located inside the equally lux Sanderling Resort in Duck, North Carolina, Kimball’s Kitchen cleverly allows children to order half portions of regular menu items, allowing them to feel grown-up and expand their growing palate while cheering for the anniversary, birthday, or just-because occasion!
Surfin’ Spoon, a sweet treat brainchild of a pro surfer and an artist, promises more than just froyo. This is an experience, with cookie sandwiches, chaco-tacos, and a frozen yogurt bar that will cool the family down properly after a memorable OBX beach day.
The best time to visit the Outer Banks
While just about any time of year is beautiful in the Outer Banks, including the fall, the area is fully alive in the summer months. Follow these 15 road trip planning tips for a perfect journey, no matter where you’re headed.
For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.
Some sites listed here may not be open or may have limited hours or other restrictions due to COVID-19. Please check with them before you go.
- National Geographic: “Road Trip: North Carolina’s Outer Banks”