The Outer Banks (OBX) is a 200 mile stretch of barrier islands with pristine, unspoiled beaches. European settlers resided in the area by the late 1600s and early 1700s. Prior to early 1800, the area was separated from Virginia and the neighboring town of Duck by inlets and was accessible only by boat. Several communities appeared on the northern Outer Banks by the mid 1800’s with early inhabitants hunting, fishing, raising livestock, serving as guides for visiting sportsmen, tending gardens and salvaging shipwrecks to make a living.
From the North end to the south end, small towns are Carova Beach, Corolla, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devils Hills, Nags Head, Rodanthe, Avon, Buxton, Hatteras, Ocracoke.
Starting at the northern end, Corolla is a isolated historic village on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, between Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Corolla is one of the most popular beach vacations of the outer banks for numerous reasons with beautiful beachfront cottages, charming shops and restaurants.
Corolla’s beach accesses are fewer than the nearby towns of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, but they are typically less crowded and more secluded. However, many of the Corolla vacation rental homes offer access to the shoreline within walking distance.
Kitty Hawk Kites and Ocean Atlantic Rentals rent paddleboards, kayaks, surfboards, sailboats and jet skis. As well, a number of businesses offer guided kayak tours through the backwaters of the Currituck Sound.
Historic Corolla Park is home to 162-foot Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the tallest structure on the Outer Banks where you can climb to the 220 stairs to the top showcasing panoramic views. In 1874, the U.S. Lifesaving Service established what would later become the Currituck Beach Life Saving Station. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse, one of the seven North Carolina coastal lighthouses, was completed in 1875. During WWII, residents were forced to darken windows and prohibited from using headlights to avoid detection by German U-boats that came close to shore.Opened in 1975, the lighthouse saved numerous sailers lives over the years and there are numerous historical exhibits for viewing.
Across the street from the lighthouse, the Currituck Maritime Museum, a 10,000 sf building recently built in 2021, offers self-interpretive exhibits showcasing restored boats and depicting maritime history through the years.
The Whalehead Club, built in the 1920’s with over 21,000 square feet and 20 rooms, was the hunting lodge of industrialist Edward Collings Knight Jr and his wife Marie Louise LeBel. Knight was the heir to a fortune made in sugar, railroads, and steamships. The house sits along the Currituck sound connecting to the Atlantic Flyway, is a major north-south route for migratory in North America. After the Knights death in 1936, the home was used for many years: during WWII a Coast Guard recruitment base; 1959 thur 1961 a private boys’ summer school; in 1964, a testing site for rocket fuel by the Atlantic Research Corporation. In 1992, after 20 years of abandonment the property was later purchased by Currituck County and restored to its original state and now is a historic home for the public.
The Currituck National Wildlife Refuge located on the very northern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks near Carova, the refuge was established in 1984 to preserve and protect the coastal barrier island ecosystem. Carova still remains wild and untamed as it was a century ago. While other towns along the barrier islands developed over the decades and became popular vacation destinations, Carova never really changed.
Protected by several local organizations including the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, the town is a permanent sanctuary for the horses considered to be a “cultural treasure” by the State of North Carolina. I sponsored a injured horse, Brio, at the Corolla Wild Horse Recovery Farm , a colt who’s mother died and he was deathly ill – today he is thriving because of the care he received. See their website for ways to donate for hay, vet bills, sponsor a horse back to recovery or visit the gift store in Corolla Village as well as an online store. During certain times of the year, the Corolla Recovery Farm will have Open Houses where you can get up close to the rescued Corolla horses, hear their stories and learn their history. Follow their Facebook or Instagram for more details.
Meg Puckett, Director of Herd Management for Corolla Wild Horse Fund, has been recognized as a 2023 Southerner of the Year by Southern Living for her dedication to the Banker horses.
Wild mustang horses roam beaches, roads and backyards. Never approach WILD horses stay at LEAST 50 feet away, as they can be very aggressive if they want to. Many of the horses are hit by cars during the year and have to euthanized, so drivers need to be extremely aware while driving. During summer months, you can find many places for wild horse tours.
The Currituck Banks Reserve is over 950 acres of ocean, grasslands, maritime forests, marshes, and dunes. One of the most popular trails in the reserve is the 2 mile Currituck Banks Boardwalk and Maritime Forest Trail wrapping thru swampy marshes and natural habitats. Certain areas of the reserve you may even be able to spot the wild horses.
Consider visiting the Estuarine Nature Reserve Walk found near the edge of Corolla and the 4WC access areas of Carova, with 965 acres of natural maritime habitat and trails. Deserted and protected from explorers for many years, Corolla and Carova are kept purposefully undeveloped.
The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education located directly on Currituck Sound, has interesting wildlife exhibits and short films.
The Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary located on the northeastern section of Corolla is 2,600 acres and is one of the last few pieces of land untouched in the Outer Banks. Hundreds of plant and animal species thrive here. You can explore this area by hiking a 2.5 mile trail or by kayak tours.
The town of Kitty Hawk became world-famous after the Wright brothers made the first controlled powered airplane flights at Kill Devil Hills, four miles south of the town. At 10:35 a.m., on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made history in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, when they made the first powered, controlled flight of a heavier-than-air flying machine, a craft they designed and built, simply called “the Flyer.” The Wrights traveled from Dayton, Ohio to the Outer Banks over four years of scientific experimentation several weeks each year between September 1900 and December 1903 to conduct their flight experiments. The Wright brothers flew it four times in a location now part of the town of Kill Devil Hills, about 4 miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The airplane flew 852 ft on its fourth and final flight, but was damaged on landing, and minutes later powerful gusts blew it over, wrecking it. The original 1903 Flyer resides in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The Museum of Flight’s aircraft is the third of a set of three meticulously detailed and authentic 1903 Flyers built by The Wright Experience of Warrenton, Virginia to commemorate the Centennial of Flight in 2003.
Nags Head is named due to unscrupulous shipwreckers tied lanterns to the necks of ponies (“nags”) and marched them along the high dunes to simulate the lights of boats at anchor—a ruse that tricked captains into running their ships aground on the shoals, where their cargo was seized.
At the south end of the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras. Known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, it was named after the numerous shipwrecks here. Long stretches of beach, sand dunes, marshes, and maritime forests create a unique environment where wind and waves shape the topography. A large area of the Outer Banks is part of a National Park, called the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest traditional lighthouse in the United States at 198 feet and the second tallest brick light tower in the world, has long protected passing ships from the fierce currents and hidden sand bars.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is an iconic Outer Banks landmark – its unique “barber pole” paint job is consistent with other North Carolina black-and-white lighthouses, “each with their own pattern to help sailors identify lighthouses during daylight hours.” Today, the Coast Guard owns and operates the navigational equipment, while the National Park Service maintains the tower.
Normally, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is open to the public, and you can climb the 269 steps to the top. However, the lighthouse is currently undergoing a significant renovation project and, as of the end of 2023, the re-opening date has yet to be announced. You can reach it by car fro the north on Hwy 12 or by ferry from the south via Ocracoke Island.
From Highway 12, located along the Outer Banks, the Hatteras Ferry crossing is free and takes about one hour. If you’re making a day trip to Ocracoke(see linked map for travel times here), plan to arrive at the Hatteras Ferry landing as early as possible .
Ferries bring cars, trucks, RVs, motorcycles and bicycles to Ocracoke Island. The free Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry offers multiple trips daily year-round, and the crossing takes 45 minutes. The ferry operates on a first-come, first-served basis, and reservations are not accepted.
The busiest day-tripping days are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. You can avoid waiting by arriving at the ferry before 9 a.m., or by visiting Ocracoke on less busy days—Monday, Friday or the weekend. There are three ferry routes to the island, now with both car and passenger ferry options.
Ocracoke Inlet was one of Blackbeard’s hideouts among Bald Head Island and others. Blackbeard anchored at what is now known as Teach’s Hole, on the sound side where the village sits today. One of the most notorious pirates of his time, Blackbeard was cornered by a party of soldiers hired by Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood. Blackbeard was killed in the battle on Nov. 22, 1718 – his headless body is believed to be buried in a mass grave somewhere on the island and his ghost haunts Teach’s cove. Speculation of Blackbeard’s enormous treasure might be buried on the small, quiet Ocracoke Island, but on such a small island where could you bury 12.5 million dollars worth of treasure?