The Outer Banks has its fair share of attractions for vacationers, including the Wright Brothers Memorial, 4 famous North Carolina lighthouses, the NC Aquarium, the Lost Colony, and enough shopping and dining to keep any family entertained for a week-long vacation. But the biggest attraction that draws seasoned Outer Banks vacationers back every year are the miles and miles of pristine beaches.
Unpopulated, unspoiled, and always open, the Outer Banks beaches have popped up on a number of National "Best Beaches" lists, including Coastal Living Magazine's list, and world renowned beach expert "Dr. Beach's" annual round-up of best American beaches.
So when planning your next Outer Banks vacation, be sure and reserve your largest blocks of time for beaching. With endless ocean views and large patches of sand just waiting for vacationers to stretch out, you'll quickly discover why the beach is the Outer Banks' best and most treasured attraction.
Outer Banks Beaches General Guidelines
- Across all Outer Banks beaches, remember these important "rules of the beach".
- Red flags = no swimming. When you see red flags flying, dangerous conditions are present and swimming is prohibited.
- No Swimming or surfing within 300 feet of a fishing pier. It is dangerous and police can write citations to offenders.
- Don't Swim alone. We recommend swimming at a beach that offers lifeguard service.
- Learn about rip currents. Don't panic! Teach kids what to do if caught in a rip current.
- Watch out for fishing lines. Surf fishing is popular in the Outer Banks.
- Stay off the dunes. Keep off the dunes and stay on designated pathways to and from the beach to maintain the dunes' structural integrity. It is illegal to walk over dunes in many locations, and it is also illegal to pick live sea oats growing on the beaches.
- Fill in any holes you dig. Holes in the sand can be a hazard. Digging large holes or mounding sand is illegal in some towns.
- Don't feed the wildlife. Feeding or interfereing with wildlife is dangerous to humans and animals.
- Be mindful of Noise. Most communities consider a violation of the noise ordinance to be any sound that can be heard from inside a nearby residence, and any load noise after approximately 11:00 p.m.
- Pick up your trash. Be sure and pick up any trash that's left behind. Littering is illegal on all Outer Banks beaches. Most beach communities have trash receptacles right on the beach, or nearby on the beach access walkways and public parking areas.
- No glass on the beach. Be mindful of glass bottles. Alcohol is allowed on all beaches, but if at all possible, stick to cans and plastic to save future beach-goers from any bare foot injuries.
- No nudity. There are no nude beaches on the Outer Banks.
- Camping is not allowed on any Outer Banks beaches except in designated campgrounds. There are a couple Oceanside (behind the dune line) campgrounds maintained by the National Park Service (NPS): One in Frisco near the Frisco Air Strip and one on Ocracoke Island. Please visit their website for camping information or call for reservations.
- Pets are allowed on most all Outer Banks beaches, provided they are on a leash. As a courtesy, please pick up after your pet.
- All beaches are open to the public. While there may not be public parking or ramps available, anyone can go to any beach on the Outer Banks.
- Take your equipment with you. While it is not generally illegal in most Outer Banks communities to leave up canopies and umbrellas overnight, please refrain from doing so out of courtesy to your beach neighbors, as well as to protect your beach equipment from theft or wind damage.
- Surf fishing is allowed on all Outer Banks beaches, with the exception of occasional seasonal closures by the NPS on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. You can visit the NPS website for current maps of beaches that are open to both pedestrians and vehicles. A fishing license is required in North Carolina and can be obtained before your vacation via the NC Marine Fisheries and Wildlife website, or a fishing license can be purchased at most any tackle shop on the Outer Banks.
- New Nags Head canopies and tents rules: Leaving equipment on the beach unattended from 8 pm-7 am each day is prohibited. Canopies and tents must be placed no closer than 10 feet apart. Tents and canopies cannot be larger than 12x12 and stand no higher than 9 feet above the sand when erected. Beach equipment cannot obstruct the line of sight of a lifeguard to the sand and cannot obstruct the passage of public works or emergency vehicles.
Driving on the beach is a favorite Outer Banks activity. During the Summer, there are two main areas that allow driving on the beach. The first is Corolla and Carova, where route 12 ends and 4x4 access begins (headed North to the Virginia state line). The other area is Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which has many access points from Nags Head, South to Ocracoke Island. A permit is required to access National Park beaches by 4x4. Below are some general rules and regulations to follow during your off-road adventure.
General Beach Driving Rules
- 4x4 access and beaches often refer to the acronym "ORV", which stands for "Off Road Vehicle".
- Unless otherwise marked, speed limits are 25mph and 15mph or slower near others/pets/wild animals.
- Watch for fishing lines and children playing.
- Stay at least 50 feet away from wild horses.
- Never drive on dunes or vegetation.
- Obey all posted signs.
- Park perpendicular to the water in the middle of the beach.
- Traffic flows near the shoreline and dunes, with parked cars sitting between.
- Tow straps, shovel, spare tire, jack and jack board are recommended, and sometimes required to be in the vehicle.
- Open containers of alcohol are prohibited in vehicles
- Drivers need to have a current, valid driver's license
- Avoid driving or parking on the wrack line. The wrack line is a line of accumulated natural debris left by a previous high tide. Wrack lines are an important food source for birds.
- Pedestrians always have right-of-way on the beach
Town-Specific Beach Driving Rules and Permit Information
- Corolla - 4x4 vehicles can access the beach at the Northern end of NC 12 where the paved road ends. 4x4 access North of this point is permitted year round. 4x4 access South of this point is permitted between October 1 and April 30. Driving at night is allowed. Overnight parking is allowed if the occupant is actively fishing. ATV's allowed for residents with permit.
- Duck - No public 4x4 access. Private access allows vehicles vehicles on the beach between October 1 - April 30.
- Southern Shores - Driving on the beach is prohibited.
- Kitty Hawk - Driving on the beach is prohibited.
- Kill Devil Hills - Driving on the beach is permitted October 1 - April 30 through designated access points. Vehicles must have current safety inspection, registration, insurance and license plate. Obtain a beach driving permit either from the Town of Kill Devil Hills or the Town of Nags Head. Through a reciprocal program, each town recognizes the beach driving permit issued by the other.
- Nags Head - Driving on the beach is permitted October 1 - April 30. Obtain a beach driving permit either from the Town of Kill Devil Hills or the Town of Nags Head. Through a reciprocal program, each town recognizes the beach driving permit issued by the other.
- Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras, and Ocracoke - The beaches of Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island are managed by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Permits are required, and can be purchased online and sent via mail, or in person at one of the following locations: Coquina Beach office, Cape Hatteras Light Station, and the Ocracoke Visitor Center. Each vehicle must have its own permit. Vehicles must be registered, licensed, insured, and have a current safety inspection if required in home state/country. Vehicles must have low-pressure tire gauge, shovel, jack and jack support board. A spare tire, first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, trash bags, flashlight and tow straps are recommended. ATV's are not permitted. Night driving is generally allowed from November 16 through April 30. See current access ramps and beach closings by visiting this page and clicking on the "daily beach access map". Obey all posted signs.
Tips for Driving on the Beach
- We recommend lowering tire pressure to