When I think of the Outer Banks, I think of its National Scenic Byway. When you get south of Nags Head, suddenly the scenery changes from shopping malls and gas stations and way too many Sunsations to wild, rugged barrier island, tall grass and sand dunes, the Atlantic Coast to your left and the sound to your right. The first time I drove that road, I was on my way to Frisco. It was dusk, and I was in awe.
This year, I spent three weeks in the Outer Banks, exploring the islands from Duck all the way south to Ocracoke in search of some good nature. The only limit on seeing beautiful, natural sites at the Outer Banks is how much time you have to explore. While camping there, I discovered places that were some of the most breathtaking on the East Coast.
Here are my picks.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Put this must-see at the top of your list. It’s surreal. Jockey’s Ridge is the highest active dune system on the East Coast, 100 feet tall at its highest point. The state park is comprised of these mountains of sand, as well as small, wooded areas and the Roanoke Sound.
According to staff at the information center — which is a cool min-museum in and of itself — said that scientists estimate Jockey’s Ridge contains 30 million tons of sand … an amount that would fill about six million dump trucks, if you want a visual.
There are some paths, but you are free to walk anywhere on the dunes — a nice luxury that you don’t often find at the Outer Banks. This allows you to explore the wilderness however you’d like.
A word of advice: bring plenty of water and a good pair of shoes or sandals (preferably closed-back sandals). The sand gets extremely hot during the day. The wooded areas and sound are a great place to cool down before heading back across the dunes to the parking lot.
A nice touch, there are a few picnic tables in the parking area, under the shade of trees. Perfect for a little picnic before or after your hike.
Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve
Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is a great place to get intimate with the land at the Outer Banks and all its variations. This park has seven hiking trails through forests of dunes, swamps and marshland. The area boasts more than 500 plant species, such as dogwood trees, live oak and sassafras.
It’s another picturesque spot for sight-seeing and picnicking as you’re exploring the wilderness areas of the islands.
National Wildlife Refuge
Peaceful hiking trails allow you to wander through this coastal barrier island refuge and take in the sound’s wildlife — birds, flowers, fireflies and lush marsh land.
You can also go on guided canoe tours around the sound, getting an intimate perspective of the water and land and seabirds overhead. Coastal Kayak Touring Company offers kayak eco tours during sunrise, sunset and the full moon,.
It’s easy to make a day of it, however camping is not allowed on the island.
If you’re feeling like hitting the ocean, public access beaches are just across the street from the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, and there are several places where you can park your car off N.C. 12 and hit the beach wherever you’d like.
While not a wilderness area, per se, Ocracoke is remote because it’s only accessible by ferry, providing a less-populated alternative for shopping, dining and enjoying the beach and sound.
Plus, the ferry ride to and from the island is a gorgeous experience in and of itself, as you pass by sea-weathered trees, barrier islands, and passing ferries and ships.
Trips take about an hour each way, and you have the option of taking your car on the traditional ferry or taking a passenger ferry. If you choose the latter, you can explore Ocracoke by renting a bike or golf cart once there.
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
This is a gorgeous wilderness area to hike through, but even driving through it is wonderful. It’s best known for its red wolf population, but it’s also home to black bears, swans, otters and a number of birds. And, let’s not forget, alligators!
An interesting historical anecdote: the small town of Buffalo City once stood in this area, but now there is barely a trace of it. It was a logging and bootlegging town in the early 1900s and was known for having some of the best moonshine on the East Coast.
But when prohibition ended, the town slowly did, too. Now it’s become part of the vast wilderness.
There are so many campgrounds to choose from, I won’t list them all here. Suffice it to say that you can go rugged and camp at a place such as Oregon Inlet National Park Campground or sites on Diamond Shoals, near the historical Hatteras lighthouse. Or you could find something more family-friendly at the many campgrounds all along the Outer Banks that offer swimming pools, playground and pet areas, even wifi. It’s best to check ahead of time to know what the conditions will be like so you know how to prepare. Are fires allowed? Is there any shade? How far is it from the beach? How far is it from the nearest gas station, grocery store, etc.?
Be warned: The Outer Banks are known for their strong winds, no matter where you camp, but it can get especially rugged in wilderness areas like Oregon Inlet Campground. That said, if you choose one of the sound-side campgrounds, the weather might be a bit milder, but you’ll have a farther walk or drive to the beach, and you’ll need to load up on bug spray. Adventure awaits — but come prepared!
Another word of advice. Several campgrounds offer wifi onsite, but at some of the wilder areas, you’ll need to find wifi — and possibly even cell phone service — elsewhere. During my stay, I tried several coffee shops throughout the Outer Banks that offer wifi. My pick of the bunch is Front Porch Cafe. It’s homey and roomy enough to find a good spot to hang out for a while to catch up on life out in civilization. Sometimes you just need to connect.
There are so many fun and beautiful ways to work your body and get some exercise while you’re at the beach: swimming, surfing, boogie boarding, body boarding, paddle boarding, biking, hiking, the list goes on. The Outer Banks offers some other options beyond the obvious.
Guided horseback rides, for instance, are a great option for all ages and are offered through private companies throughout the area. There’s just nothing like trotting through the wind-swept terrain, onto the beach, and seeing the ocean by horseback.
You can also learn to hang glide at the awe-inspiring Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. They offer beginner lessons that run about three hours, and within that one lesson, you’ll learn how to fly a hang glider.
Another popular sporting option is kiteboarding — a surfing/hang gliding hybrid of sorts, where you steer a kite attached to a board in the water and let it pull you and occasional lift you into the air. Jockey’s Ridge is a favorite spot for that, over the Albemarle Sounds. On a Sunday when I was there, you could see nearly a dozen kiteboarders soaring across the water.
If you’re looking to escape the heat or a rainy day, there are tons of options for things to do. The Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills area offer a lot more in the way of beach shops, restaurants, art galleries and tons of thrift shops. If you’re looking for unique souvenirs, try Something Fishy in Nags Head, a fun and funky little beach shop, both inside and out. Think nautical nets, mermaids and seashells from floor to ceiling, with a fish pond out front.
The southern Outer Banks has some great options, too. One of my favorite treasures is the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum at the southern tip of Hatteras. Inside, you’ll find an exhibit of sunken pieces from shipwrecks and miscellaneous items from sailors and pirates and armies aboard ships in the Outer Banks throughout history. Graveyard of the Atlantic is a nickname for the Atlantic coast of the Outer Banks, and the heart of the turbulent waters Diamond Shoals, where two ocean currents collide — the Labrador Current from the north and the Gulf Current from the south — making the waters infamous for shipwrecks. It creates such a dissonance found nowhere else in the ocean, according to museum staff, that it has caused thousands of shipwrecks. It gives you a great sense of the mystique that surrounds Outer Banks history, including stories and information about the legendary pirate Blackbeard. After all, what’s a trip to the Outer Banks without learning a little about Edward Teach and his buried treasure?