Outer Banks Cape Hatteras Horseback riding

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At times, the allure of the ocean is undeniable. It’s no wonder beach vacations hold such widespread appeal, particularly among families.

Recently, my extended family and I embarked on a week-long retreat to Outer Banks, North Carolina. The destination proved to be an ideal match for our diverse group spanning multiple generations.

Coquina Beach Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Coquina Beach Cape Hatteras National Seashore Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

Where Are the Outer Banks?

If you’re unfamiliar, the Outer Banks is a series of small barrier islands located along the North Carolina coast. Continuously sculpted by storms and winds, these islands are renowned for their pristine beaches and charming small towns. With each of its 21 coastal villages boasting its own unique personality and atmosphere, the Outer Banks offers a diverse and captivating experience for visitors.

You can drive the whole length of the Outer Banks, including the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, on the 138-mile Outer Banks National Scenic Byway. Top destinations in the Outer Banks include Duck, Southern Shoes, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head and more.

How to Get to the Outer Banks

Hatteras Island Outer Banks
Hatteras Island. Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

We flew into Norfolk Airport, which is the closest airport. It’s about 90 minutes by car, depending on the traffic. If you’re driving to the Outer Banks, there are two ferries providing car passage from the mainland. Of course, you can also get to the islands by bridge. The Wright Memorial Bridge is the most popular entry point. Using US 158 it connects Point Harbor on the mainland with Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks.

Keep in mind that traffic in the Outer Banks can be slow at times, especially on Saturdays during the summer. That’s because most visitors to the islands stay in weekly rental homes which turn over on Saturdays. If you can begin and end your trip on another day of the week, you can avoid much of this traffic.

Summer is the peak season for the Outer Banks, when the weather is best, and children are on summer holiday. You’ll find smaller crowds and better prices if you can visit in the late spring or early fall.

Best Tips & Tools to Plan Your Trip

Where to Stay in the Outer Banks

While there are resorts and hotels in the Outer Banks, the most popular accommodations are vacation rental homes. We rented a six-bedroom home right on the beach in Southern Shores. The beach was wide and clean.

The water was warm, and our family spent hours playing in the waves. In the evenings, we’d walk on the beach at sunset. When it grew dark, the kids pulled out flashlights and looked for tiny crabs scurrying across the sand.

Jockey's Ridge State Park Outer Banks NC
Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

How to Rent a Vacation Home in the Outer Banks

Several professional management companies rent vacation homes in the Outer Banks. You’ll also find homes for rent on short-term rental platforms like VRBO. The Outer Banks Tourism Bureau offers Tips on How to Rent a Vacation Home in the Outer Banks.

What to Do in the Outer Banks

There’s no doubt that the most popular attraction in the Outer Banks is the beach, but you’ll find other activities to suit any age, from mini golf to museums. Although we didn’t go fishing, the Outer Banks is a popular place for sports fishing.

Top Activities in the Outer Banks

Visit Five Lighthouses

Bodie Island Lighthouse
Bodie Island Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

The Outer Banks is famous for its five lighthouses, and the grandparents in our family had these on their bucket list. At 208 feet high, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick beacon in the nation. For more than a century, it has warned sailors of the treacherous Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras. Today, you can visit the museum and visitor center to learn about its history.

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The Bodie Island Lighthouse is 150 feet and is a favorite with photographers. It played a vital role in the Civil War when Confederate troops destroyed the former lighthouse to keep Union forces from using it as an observatory. It was rebuilt after the war.

The newest lighthouse is the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. Built in 1857, it was decommissioned in 1955. It has several exhibits on Roanoke Island highlighting its maritime heritage.

See The Lost Colony at Waterside Theater

The Lost Colony theatre in Outer Banks NC
The Lost Colony mystery production continues as the longest-running outdoor drama, each summer evening in the NC Outer Banks. Photo by Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

In 1587, 117 English men and women settled on what is now Roanoke Island. When English supply ships returned three years later, every trace of them had vanished.

No one knows for sure what happened to the colonists. The mystery of the Lost Colony continues to this day, but the outdoor theater performance of The Lost Colony, performed at the Waterside Theater on Roanoke Island, imagines their story in a full-fledged theater production.

Wild Horse Safari

Outer Banks Wild horses
Wild horses on the beach in Outer Banks, NC. Image from Canva

Horses were brought to the region in the 1500s. They were either abandoned or escaped and today, wild horses can still be found on the northern beaches of Carova and Corolla. Several companies offer wild horse safaris, and we went on a two-hour wild horse adventure with Corolla Wild Horse Safari Tours.

Riding in an open-air jeep, we explored the beaches of Corolla, learning about the area and its history from our guide. We saw many wild horses in that very secluded part of the island. One tip: Bring water to drink during the tour. It gets very hot and dry driving on the sand.

Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial

Wright Brothers National Memorial
Wright Brothers National Memorial Photo Courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright changed the world when they took the first flight. At the Write Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, you can walk the sandy hills where the brothers tested their invention.

In the museum, we learned about the Wright family and their quest to fly. There’s even a reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer, the plane that took the very first flight.

Horseback Riding

Horseback Riding Cape Hatteras
Horseback Riding Cape Hatteras Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

For our family, riding along the coast on horseback was a fun experience. Several outfitters offer horseback riding right on the beach or on trails to the beach. One good option is Hatteras Island Horseback Riding, which offers riding on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Recreation Area.

Where to Eat in the Outer Banks

 5th Avenue Grille Outer Banks
5th Avenue Grille. Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau

The Outer Banks has many good restaurants to choose from. The region is known for its fresh shrimp, crab and oysters. Softshell crabs are a local delicacy and we tried them at a popular eatery called Get Your Crabs. I thought their oysters there were even better.

Mahi Mahi’s Island Grill in Nags Head is known for their award-winning Shrimp and Grits. We also liked Sooey’s BBQ for their hush puppies and southern barbeque. And you can’t visit the Outer Banks without a visit to the famous Duck Donuts. Tip: Order ahead for pickup since there is always a line.

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Janna Graber

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