Learn about the incredible (and totally unexpected) history and culture of the Outer Banks and plan for the trip of a lifetime!
Road trips are just a little more magical when they involve the beach. We think that means a trip along North Carolina’s Outer Banks Scenic Byway is pretty close to perfect. Traversing the state’s barrier islands, this 142.5 mile highway offers unique maritime culture, scenery and experiences. Hidden gems and fun stops are as abundant as sandy beaches in this must-visit area. Follow our guide as you plan the ultimate seaside road trip.
Your trip will head from north to south, beginning with a stop celebrating the first flight.
You may be on a road trip, but stop off and pay tribute to the very first controlled, powered and sustained flight in the world’s first airplane. The Wright Brothers, who owned a bicycle shop in Ohio, came to Kill Devil Hills on the North Carolina coast to test their flying machine. The area provided the steady winds and wide open space that was required to test the machine. And that they did. In December of 1903, the brothers made their first flights, eventually flying 852 feet down the beach. Flight advanced rapidly from that first test, and by the 1930s, the Wright brothers had their own monument built atop a hill near where they flew. There’s a visitor center with a little museum that provides background on the science and history of flight that’s definitely worth a stop.
John’s Drive-In is a lunch joint that’s as classic as they come. Serving up burgers, chili dogs, fries, and onion rings, along with shrimp, crab, and other beach staples, the atmosphere is totally old-school: you won’t find any frills here, just solid American fare and a great atmosphere. You can also stop by for a milkshake, sundae, or float if you’re looking for a quick snack.
Tip: If you bring your dog, they’ll serve them a “puppy cup” of vanilla ice cream. Aww!
You can’t visit the beach without climbing at least one lighthouse, and you won’t find a more quintessential one than the Bodie Island Lighthouse in Nags Head. It stands 165 feet tall and is painted in a classic black-and-white stripe pattern, which makes it incredibly photogenic from afar. It’s one of the few tall brick tower lighthouses left, having been built in 1872, and it still has its original first-order
Fresnel lens. You can climb the 214 stairs that spiral to the top for a panoramic view of the coast, and the old lightkeeper’s cabin is now a visitor center that has lots of information about the history of the lighthouse and the Outer Banks.
3. Grits Grill
Take advantage of North Carolina’s cuisine and enjoy some down-home Southern comfort food at Grits Grill. This classic little diner serves up breakfast and lunch staples that are just as delicious as they are decadent. Fill up on gourmet grits, seafood omelets, scrapple (a North Carolina favorite), sausage gravy, and more at the counter or in a booth. The friendly service will make you feel right at home!
Take a break from all of the exploring and driving with a stay at the Cape Hatteras KOA Resort. RV spots, tent sites, cabins, and vacation rental suites with private decks and kitchens, mean you can choose the accommodations that fit your needs. Plus, they have a pool with waterslides and a hot tub (if you should ever tire of the ocean) along with a fun train, planned activities (like Pirate Thursdays and nightly campfires) during the peak season, a great little cafe with Southern flair, and tons more. It’s bound to be a fun-filled stay!
Tip: This KOA has its own beach access, so pack towels, a swimsuit, and a beach chair!
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum dives into the hidden history of the Outer Banks: it’s all about the shipwrecks lying just off the coast. The maritime history of the Carolina coast has played an important role in the culture and story of the region. Artifacts and displays about everything from the Civil War and WWII to pirates and underwater diving make this a history buff’s paradise. It’s not a huge museum, but the in-depth information is fascinating. The best part? The museum is free to visit, but donations are welcome.
6. Teach’s Hole
Has the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum got you intrigued by the pirate history of the area? Teach’s Hole looks even more in-depth into the life of the most famous pirate to sail the seven seas: the notorious Blackbeard! Blackbeard, better known as Edward Teach, only committed a few “acts of piracy” in his relatively short life, most along the Carolina coast. He was killed in a bloody battle here in Ocracoke in 1718, and his death was the beginning of the end of the “Golden Age of Piracy”, which you’ll learn all about at the museum. Teach’s Hole has interactive exhibits, artwork and recreated artifacts that let you see what the life of a swashbuckling pirate commander actually looked like, and the gift shop is perfect for picking up kitschy pirate souvenirs.
To experience the wildlife of the Outer Banks, and see the shore how it looked years and years ago, head to the Rachel Carson Reserve. Salt marshes, tidal flats, forests, and dunes make up the wildlife reserve, which is home to some pretty incredible species. Birds, crabs, dolphins, and more can be seen here, there are incredible opportunities for clam and sand dollar digging, and, of course, there are the wild horses. Unlike many wild horses along the Eastern Seaboard, these aren’t ponies… they’re Spanish horses that come from a herd that a local doctor kept on the island in the 1940s. They’re considered “feral” (that is, non-native species that are wild and have adapted) so don’t get too close, but they’re absolutely incredible to see from afar.
Tip: You’ll need a boat to at least get to Carrot Island, where the horses are. Some places offer guided tours that can provide tons of additional info on the wild horses, but there are passenger ferries that can take you to the Carrot Island Boardwalk along the Beaufort waterfront. You can also kayak in yourself. Take the Town Marsh Nature Trails (there’s a long Outer Loop and a short Inner Loop) to find the horses. If you’re lucky, you might be able to see the horses from the Beaufort shore!
The inlet and fort have a rich history; Blackbeard sailed here, it played a role in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, as well as the War of 1812, but it was the site of the infamous Civil War Siege of Fort Macon by Ambrose Burnside. The fort was abandoned by the Army in 1903, but you can still visit the restored buildings and grounds. There’s an information center on site that puts on cool tours and activities, like musket and cannon demonstrations, and a beach where you can swim and lay out on the sand. Not a bad way to spend a day on the shore!
End your adventure with a trip to the North Carolina Aquarium for some under the sea fun. Learn about the incredible journey baby loggerhead sea turtles take once they hatch, see sharks, pet a stingray, watch river otters frolic, and more. They even have birds and a rare white sea turtle! Check in advance to see if there are any special events going on while you’ll be here. They offer everything from fishing lessons to volunteer activities to help benefit the aquatic life in the area.
This article appears courtesy of Roadtrippers.