Beach Guide Sections

 

The Outer Banks is unique in that every beach community along the skinny chain of barrier islands is distinctive, with its own enticing atmosphere and long list of perks. From lifeguard stations in some of the most popular spots in town, to desolate shorelines where visitors won’t see another person for miles, it’s easy to pick a beach destination along the Outer Banks that perfectly suits a family’s vacationing style.

Find the Perfect Outer Banks Beach

The Northern OBX Beaches

The area that’s just north of US Highway 158, which is only accessible by the two-lane NC Highway 12, is known in local circles as the “Northern Beaches.” Consisting of the towns of Corolla, Duck, the 4WD area of the Currituck Banks, and generally Southern Shores, (depending on where you draw the imaginary border), this area is known for its relative isolation that’s partnered with upscale accommodations and a host of shops, restaurants, and other amenities.

Carova, which is an all-encompassing moniker for the 4WD beach communities, is found in the northernmost section of the Outer Banks and encompasses the region where the paved NC Highway 12 ends all the way to the Virginia state line. Though isolated and hard to reach, (a 4WD vehicle is indeed mandatory), these beaches are a coveted spot for vacationers due to their natural beauty and unique features. The region is home to the famed Corolla Wild Horses, which freely roam the beaches, the dunes, and the small beachside neighborhoods. Though this area has no commercial businesses of any kind – visitors will have to travel south a few miles to Corolla for essentials like groceries – it is home to a number of stunning vacation rental homes that can range from 2 or 3 bedroom cottages to sprawling 20 bedroom estates, which are perfect for large special events.

Corolla is known as one of the more upscale communities along the Outer Banks, and boasts a number of alluring attributers. The beaches are wide and relatively isolated, and the town itself has lots of pristine vacation homes that are generally divided into posh communities with amenities like community pools, tennis courts, beach transport or access, and even local spas. The town is also home to a wide variety of small shopping plazas, top-rated restaurants, shops and galleries, grocery stores, and a number of other services ensuring guests have everything they need. In addition, Corolla is home to some of the Northern Outer Banks’ favorite attractions, including the brick red Currituck Banks Lighthouse, the historic 1920s hunt club the Whalehead In Historic Corolla, and the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education.

Duck is a charming coastal town that’s known for its beaches as well as its picturesque wooded soundside area where a number of coastal shopping centers can be found. Well-known as one of the best day trip destinations for shopping along the Outer Banks, visitors here will find a fine collection of eclectic boutiques, stunning art galleries, book stores and coffee shops, watersports gear, and acclaimed restaurants. The beaches are nice and wide and relatively unpopulated, while the soundside is home to the famed local Duck Town Park which borders a long boardwalk that hugs the shoreline of the Currituck Sound. The homes are upscale and nicely diverse, ranging from 3 bedroom soundside cottages to towering oceanfront sandcastles. Visitors should note, however, that the beach access is limited, and the best way to reach the shoreline is by booking a vacation rental home in the area.

Southern Shores is a nice mix of the best attributes of the central and northern Outer Banks. Close to the busy beach amenities of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, but relatively isolated, the shorelines are generally deserted even during the peak of summer. The area is close to several local golf courses, and is also home to a wide variety of beach homes, which includes the distinctive one-story ranch style houses that are found along the oceanfront.

The Central OBX Beaches

The central OBX beach towns of Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head are the most popular areas of the Outer Banks, and are also the easiest to reach. Found in the heart of the Outer Banks, visitors will find plenty of public beach accesses in this area, as well as numerous public parking areas, which are all situated along the “Beach Road” that hugs the ocean shoreline.

Kitty Hawk is the least populated of the three central OBX beach towns, and features relatively skinny shorelines as well as oceanfront homes that are just steps away from the sand. The area does have seasonal lifeguards and patrols in the summer season, (typically Memorial Day to Labor Day), as well as a privately owned fishing pier – the historic Kitty Hawk Pier – which the public can access for a small fee when it is not being used for a special event like a wedding or private party. Other highlights of the town include the Kitty Hawk Woods Nature Reserve, and easy access to neighboring golf courses – including at least one with spellbinding ocean views.

Kill Devil Hills has one of the busiest beaches along the Outer Banks, but it also has a number of public parking areas, beach accesses, and lifeguarded shorelines and beach patrols. The beaches are fairly wide, and border a number of oceanfront vacation rentals as well as local restaurants, hotels, shops, and other services (like ice cream stands) that are found just over the dunes along the “Beach Road” or NC Highway 12. Fishermen will also find a fishing pier in the heart of Kill Devil Hills - the Avalon Pier – as well as a collection of more shops, restaurants, and plazas along the Beach Bypass, or US Highway 158. The town is also famed as the home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which towers over the landscape, and which can be visited year-round.

Nags Head is a historic beach town, and one of the first portions of the Outer Banks to be a popular oceanfront destination for visitors. Remnants of this history can still be found along the shoreline thanks to a collection of original 1920s beach homes known as “Millionaire’s Row,” and the area remains one of the most popular beach communities along the entire OBX. There are numerous beach accesses throughout the town, as well as several seasonal lifeguard stands at the most popular access points. The town is also home to two fishing piers – the aptly named Nags Head Fishing Pier and the famed Jennette’s Pier which is managed by the NC Aquarium, and which features great fishing and views as well as a wealth of coastal exhibits. Nags Head has plenty of restaurants and shops to go around, and is also home to the famed Jockey’s Ridge State Park, where the tallest sand dunes along the East Coast reside.

South Nags Head has a similar beach scene as its northern Nags Head neighbor, but is a much quieter destination, with just a few rows of beach homes and sparse – if any – businesses. Extending from US 158 to the heart of Bodie Island, this area is a great destination for visitors who want a quieter beach scene, but who still want to be close to all the central Outer Banks amenities. A fishing pier is found in the heart of this area – the Outer Banks Fishing Pier – which has a sunny on-site bar and grill, and the area is also home to moderately sized vacation rental homes which are all just steps away from the beachfront.

Hatteras Island

Hatteras Island is prized as home to one of the most pristine shorelines along the North Carolina coastline – the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The National Seashore extends from the edge of Bodie Island all the way to the tip of Ocracoke Island, and encompasses every stretch of beach along the skinny barrier islands. Measuring roughly 50 miles from Bodie Island to Hatteras Inlet, visitors will find plenty of beaches to go around both in the varying communities as well as all along the side of NC Highway 12 – the only road that extends through the island.

There are seven villages that are sprinkled throughout Hatteras Island, and which are stocked with local grocery stores and beach shops, restaurants, services, and other amenities, and each of these communities – (the tri-villages of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo, Avon, Buxton & Frisco, and Hatteras), are bordered by miles of undeveloped beaches. Visitors can access the shoreline by booking a vacation rental home in any of the seven towns, or by heading to popular public parking areas that are managed by the National Park Service. Prime spots that feature ample parking, access to restrooms, and great beaches include Canadian Hole just south of Avon, the “Old Lighthouse Site” in the heart of Buxton, and the “Bathhouse” just south of Frisco.

Many of the shorelines within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore are also accessible and open to 4WD vehicles, and a number of ORV ramps can be spotted along the sparse patches of NC Highway 12. A beach permit and a licensed 4WD vehicle is required to drive on the beaches, (no ATVS allowed), and a permit can be obtained via the National Park Service ORV stations / Visitors Centers in Buxton and on Bodie Island, or online at https://www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/permitsandreservations.htm before a vacation begins.

Hatteras Island is also home to one of the most famous beaches on the Outer Banks, The Point, which is literally the spot that is in the middle of the south-facing beaches and east-facing beaches, and which is where the island “turns.” Best accessed via a 4WD vehicle, the Point is renowned for its exceptional fishing, especially in the prime late summer and fall months. Visitors should note that The Point and other 4WD beaches may be seasonally closed by the National Park Service for bird and / or sea turtle nesting.

Other highlights of Hatteras Island include two lighthouses – the Bodie Island Lighthouse just north of the Bonner Bridge and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton – the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, the Frisco Native American Museum, and a wealth of other historic and culturally significant attractions.

Ocracoke Island

Visitors who crave remote beaches will adore Ocracoke Island – the southernmost portion of the Outer Banks which is hard to reach, but which has 15 miles of isolated shoreline. Only accessible by a public ferry, this island is home to a small 4-square mile community – Ocracoke Village – miles of beaches, and refreshingly, not much else.

Visitors can reach Ocracoke Island by taking a free vehicular ferry from Hatteras Island, (a roughly 1 hour ride), or via two ferries that depart from the mainland towns of Swan Quarter and Cedar Island, (a roughly 2.5 hour ride for each.)

Ocracoke Island is also part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and once on the island, visitors will find a number of National Park Service beach access points to easily reach the shoreline. (Parking along NC Highway 12 – the only main highway on the island - and finding your own stretch of shoreline is also perfectly acceptable.)

4WD vehicles are also permitted on seasonal stretches of the beach, provided that a visitor uses a licensed vehicle, (no ATVS), and obtains a Beach Driving Permit from the National Park Service.

Popular beach access areas include the Lifeguarded Beach, which is located just a couple miles north of Ocracoke Village, the Ocracoke Pony Pen access area, which is in the heart of the island, and the Hatteras Inlet beach access which is next to the ferry docks.

Once on the beaches, visitors can expect exceptional shelling, fishing, and miles of fun. Ocracoke Island pops up on regular “Best Beaches” list across the country, and has also been heralded as one of the best shelling destinations along the East Coast.

Additional attractions along the shoreline include the famed Ocracoke Wild Horses, which can be best admired with a visit to the Ocracoke Pony Pen, the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse, and the Springer’s Point Nature Reserve. Ocracoke Village has a nice collection of shops, small grocery stores, and restaurants, and has just enough amenities to keep visitors entertained off the beach. Though there are a few small motels and hotels scattered throughout the village, the best way to enjoy a multi-day stay in Ocracoke is to book a vacation rental home. The homes can vary from 1 bedroom cottages to larger 5 or 6 bedroom sandcastles, and are scattered throughout the small island.

Beach equipment rentals

Once you’ve reached the Outer Banks, the first order of business for enjoying the beach is to acquire all the equipment you’ll need to have a wonderful time while soaking up hours of sand, saltwater and sun.

And one of the best ways to accomplish this goal is to head to a local beach equipment rental business when you arrive, or start searching online before your vacation begins.

Every area of the Outer Banks has local watersports and equipment companies that rent out a wide variety of gear – from paddle boards and kayaks to beach chairs and linens – and in turn, these businesses make it easier to enjoy the beach without extra effort of expenses.

Why rent your beach gear?

There are a number of reasons why many vacationers make a visit to their local beach gear rental business a first stop during their Outer Banks experience

  • Cost Savings – Beach equipment is expensive, and for many vacationers, is only used for the week or two that coincides with an Outer Banks visit. As such, it’s much cheaper to rent items that will be useful for the duration of a vacation.
  • Space and Time Savings – Rigging up a vehicle to pack along bikes, boards, and other bulky gear is time consuming, and also a massive use of space. Enjoy extra room in the car by picking up items after you arrive on the beach.
  • Opportunity to Try Something New – Visitors who’ve always wanted to try a new sport – like SUP, kayaking, surfing, or kiteboarding – can get their toes wet without a massive investment by renting equipment. Renting a board, kayak, or other gear is a great way to discover one of the Outer Banks’ many ways to have fun.
  • Enhance Vacation Fun – From 4WD beach carts that make carrying gear to the sand a breeze to top-notch chairs and umbrellas, your time at the beach can be enhanced when you have the right gear. And with so many options, and top-of-the-line items, it’s easy to make the most out of your beach time.

Rent everything you need

The types of gear you can pick up for a few hours, a day, or even a full week goes well beyond the basics. Though each specific rental company is different, expect to find these items and much more that will make your vacation even sunnier.

  • Baby needs - A wide array of baby gear can be rented on the OBX – like strollers, baby gates, high chairs, cribs, and booster seats. As a result, parents who left something behind or who don’t have a lot of room in the car can stock up on everything they need.
  • Beach Equipment – For hours on the sand, visitors can load up on a wide array of beach chairs and lounges,umbrellas & canopies, and even tents that can protect a family from the winds and sun.
  • Watersports – Visitors can try out all the watersports available on the Outer Banks with one stop at a local watersports rental company. Available gear can include kayaks, SUP, surfboards, wetsuits, life vests, skim boards, and much, much more.
  • Cottage Equipment – Enhance your vacation rental stay by stocking up on all the cottage needs you’ll require, like gas or charcoal grills, dog crates, rollaway beds, fans, extra tables and chairs, and more.
  • Special Event Packages – A rental equipment business can offer everything you’ll need for a special event, including massive tents, chairs and tables, décor pieces, and even portable dance floors.

Delivery Services

One of the most convenient aspects of renting the equipment you need is that you often don’t even have to pick it up – or even go to the store – to see what’s available and place your order.

Many rental companies throughout the Outer Banks have online ordering capabilities as well as delivery services that will drop off your requested items directly at your vacation rental home on the requested date.

As a result, you can land into your vacation rental on check-in day and have all your gear waiting, (or arriving shortly thereafter), and never have to worry about how to bring along all the boards, chairs, umbrellas, and other necessities you’ll need for endless sunny days at the beach.

Lessons and Tours

Visitors who are new to the Outer Banks beach scene can pick up a lot of information by embarking on a lesson or tour, and newcomers will soon discover that there are a tons of options to choose from.

Whether a beach-goer wants to experience something new or perfect their favorite watersport, the sheer variety of activities available makes it easy to enjoy the Outer Banks beaches based on specific interests and pursuits.

Horseback riding – There are several options for horseback riding along the beach, especially in the southern towns of Hatteras Island, (Frisco and Hatteras), and Ocracoke Island, where the beaches are nicely deserted. Guided tours often last a couple hours, and riders of all skill levels are welcome to enjoy an easy stroll along the shoreline.

Surfing – Veritably every village along the Outer Banks has options for private surfing instruction, surf classes, or even full-day surf camps. Open for visitors of all ages, (especially kids and new riders), visitors can sign up for a quick 1-2 hour tutorial from a local pro, or enjoy an immersive camp that will have students riding the waves in no time.

SUP – Head to a local watersports company for an opportunity to learn one of the newest and arguably easiest watersports on the OBX – stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP. Easy to learn, this sport can often be picked up in just a 1-2 hour group class or private lesson.

Kayaking – Kayaking is an activity that every family member can learn and do, and as such, a number of watersports companies offer area-wide tours that explore some of the prettiest waters of the local sounds. Opt for an eco-tour to explore the local wildlife and learn something new, or sign up for a sunset tour for an opportunity to enjoy the best open-water sunsets on the Outer Banks.

Parasailing – Visitors in Hatteras Village and the central Outer Banks will find several local companies that offer parasailing tours of the open water and surrounding terrain. Soaring hundreds of feet above the ground, parasailing is a surprisingly relaxing way to view the Outer Banks from a new perspective. Most tours last an hour at most, and can accommodate 1-2 riders per trip.

Jet Skiing – Several watersports businesses that are stationed along the local Pamlico, Albemarle, or Currituck Sounds offer hourly Jet Ski rentals that come with safety equipment and a quick tutorial on how to ride. Easy to pick up within a few minutes, riding a jet ski through the open waters is a thrilling way to explore the coastal scene. Just note that launching a jet ski is not allowed along the majority of ocean waters, including the ocean-facing shorelines of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Sailing Cruises – Sailing is picking up steam along the Outer Banks, and several local businesses offer pristine sailing tours of the surrounding region. Contact the local marinas, like Oregon Inlet Marina, Hatteras Harbor Marina, or Teach’s Lair for more information on tours and cruises that may frequent the area.

Surf Fishing – Visitors who need a primer on Outer Banks fishing will find plenty of options for classes and instruction. The National Park Service offers special kids’ fishing programs throughout the summer months on Hatteras and Ocracoke Island, while Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head offers kids’ fishing classes and expeditions, as well as an occasional tournament. Check out local events calendars to see what fishing opportunities coincide with an upcoming vacation.

Beach Games

One of the best ways for parents to bond with their kids at the beach is a good game of catch or a friendly team competition. Today, there are many casual beach games that are easy to transport, easy to set up, and easy to learn. Check out our picks for the best beach games.

Swimwear, Surf Shops and Equipment Shops

Visitors who want to stick around the shoreline and enjoy the water for days or weeks at a time will want to check out the local beach shops to load up on everything they’ll need to make a splash.

With everything from apparel to the latest hand-carved surf boards, the Outer Banks is a Mecca for watersports fans with locally owned or chain surf shops, and boutiques found in every village.

The variety of merchandise available is impressive and far-reaching, and visitors will find everything they need to enjoy the beach scene, regardless of the season.

Surf / Watersports Shop offerings – A typical Outer Banks surf shop is a catch-all destination for anything a visitor needs to enjoy the beach. Surf shops are usually stocked with flip flops and footwear, board shorts, suits and attire, sunglasses and accessories, boards and equipment, wet suits and winter gear, and even sunscreen. As a result, visitors can usually acquire everything they need by visiting a local surf shop, and can even find purveyors that cater to their specific favorite water sport. (For example, some shops may specialize in kiteboarding – especially on Hatteras Island – while others may specialize in surfing and ocean-based sports.)

Equipment for sale – Several companies on the Outer Banks produce and make their own boards, and visitors can often find hand-crafted surfboards, kiteboarding gear, and other watersports equipment that’s brand new and straight out of the workshop. In addition, a number of watersports companies offer used gear for sale, especially at the end of the season. The best way to find a deal is to stop by a local surf shop that has lessons or classes or a watersports rental company after Labor Day. When fall rolls around, the discounts traditionally heat up.

Swimwear shops – Visitors who don’t necessarily need a new board or beach gear but who want to look the part of an Outer Banks beach fan will also find a wide variety of boutiques and shops that are dedicated to swimwear, and other apparel outfitters that fit right in with the beach scene. The Outer Banks is therefore a great place to load up on trendy swimsuits of all varieties, sundresses and casual “evening out” attire, board shorts, T-shirts, and all the accessories that celebrate the beach life.

From amazing watersports rental companies and surf shops to a shoreline that stretches for miles, it’s no wonder that the star attraction on the Outer Banks is, and has always been, the beach.

No matter where a visitor lands, there are miles of shoreline waiting just outside their door, and plenty of purveyors who can help turn a beach vacation into a celebration of fun in the sun.

What to Bring

  • Most beach-goers will remember the basics: towels, coolers, and lots of toys and gear to fill up a pleasant beach day, but there are a few things that any Outer Banks beach fan should be sure and include on their "Must Bring" list.
  • Sunscreen is essential, particularly in the summer months, although the fall and spring shoulder seasons can be deceptively cooler but still sunny enough to warrant regular doses of sunscreen. Remember that the sun is much stronger off the water, so be sure and bring at least a 30 SPF bottle (waterproof is optimal), and to keep applying throughout the day, especially when getting in or out of the water.
  • Chairs, umbrellas, and wind blocks can help make you spot on the beach a comfortable second home. Don't have room to bring all your beach gear to the Outer Banks? There are a number of local rental companies that can provide you with chairs, canopies and umbrellas for the length of your stay.
  • Boogie Boards, surf boards, and skim boards are a must for families with active kids who love the water. Boogie (or Body) boards and skim boards can be picked up at local beach shops for a relatively small cost, and larger sporting equipment, like surf boards, kite boards, or ocean kayaks, can be purchased or rented through a number of local chains and / or independent surf shops. Lessons are also available all along the Outer Banks for folks who are itching to try a new watersport, but would like a little seasoned local guidance first.
  • Bug Spray, though not always necessary, may occasionally come in handy during the summer months, particularly if you have a longer walk to the beach that meanders through wooded or marshy areas. Bug spray can also come in handy for blackheads or greenheads, large flies that are generally quite uncommon, but if present, can leave a very itchy bite.

Jenette's Pier in the late afternoon

 

Activities

On the Outer Banks, there's no shortage of activities to do on the beach, from just dozing with a book and your feet buried in the sand to paddling out on a surfboard to catch a ride or two. Kids find endless hours of entertainment rummaging through shell piles, splashing in the surf, and just all around enjoying the sun and the water.

New visitors to the Outer Banks, while well aware of the everyday beach activities that can keep everyone in the family entertained, may not know of some of the more unique beach activities, which are not only readily available regardless of the season, but are specific to the Outer Banks beaches.

    • Beach Games: One of the best ways for parents to bond with their kids at the beach is a good game of catch or a friendly team competition. Today, there are many casual beach games that are easy to transport, easy to set up, and easy to learn. Check out our picks for the best beach games.
    • Surfing: Forget Hawaii and California - on the East Coast, the best place for surf is on the Outer Banks, and this region is renowned as one of the best surfing destinations from New York to Florida. Surfers from all over the country and the world flock to the Outer Banks for the annual ESA tournament, or just after a storm swell, to paddle out to the Atlantic and enjoy some of the best waves on the coast.
    • Fishing: Little equipment is needed for beach fishing, but you'll want to be sure you have a surfing rod available for long casting and to hold up in the ocean waves. Surf fishing can be a tricky venture as any passing current might give the line a tug and send you reeling. Look for quick rapid movements as a telltale sign that some sea critter is actually on the line.
    • Kiteboarding: The sport has exploded on the local beach scene, and thousands of visitors from America, Canada, and around the world flock to this little stretch of North Carolina beach for the best kiteboarding conditions in the country. After all, the Outer Banks consists of hundreds of miles of beaches, consistently breezy conditions, and plenty of local accommodations and amenities. No wonder so many kiteboarders pick this remote coastal location as the perfect spot to soar.
    • Kayaking: For kayakers who crave a bit of a rush, ocean kayaking might be just the ticket. Ocean kayaks are generally lighter, longer, and more narrow than their sound kayak counterparts, with a slightly indented seat for easy boarding. Ocean kayaks also come in one and two seat varieties, but in a pinch, any sort of kayak will work for ocean kayaking, although the lighter variety is much easier to navigate through the waves.
    • Windsurfing: Some windsurfers in seek of a thrill will hit the Atlantic Ocean, particularly across from the Canadian Hole, and at the small nearby beach access just a mile north known locally as "Old Road." Be warned that windsurfing across the ocean is not for beginners, although for an advanced rider, it can certainly be a challenge and a lot of fun.
    • Beach Bonfires: A number of Outer Banks towns from Carova to Ocracoke allow beach bonfires at night, provided that the bonfires are below the high tide line, are relatively small, and are extinguished before the sun rises. In fact, it's not unusual to spot "beach firewood" for sale at local convenience and grocery stores. For a nighttime beach activity that can bring the whole family together, a beach bonfire is a must for any Outer Banks vacation.
    • 4x4 Driving: One of the reasons so many vacationers flock to the Outer Banks is the thrill of driving on the beach, a rare privilege that few East Coast beach vacation destinations can offer. On the Outer Banks, beach driving enthusiasts will find miles of shoreline to explore, from the uninhabited shoreline along Ocracoke Island to the solely 4WD accessible beaches of Carova, north of Corolla.
    • Ghost Crab Hunting: Need another way to stay entertained after dark? Grab the kids and a flashlight and go ghost crab hunting. These pale yellow, almost iridescent fist-sized crabs are quietly camouflaged against the sand during the day, but come out in full force at night. In peak summer months, it's not unusual to spot dozens of these crabs scuttling across the beach during a nighttime walk. Ghost crabs are pretty much harmless, and will only cause a small nip at the toe at worst, but it's best to enjoy these critters with just a camera and a flashlight, to ensure the Outer Banks ghost crabs keep thriving.
    • Sand Digger / Coquina Hunting:For a little daytime hunting, encourage your kids to get in the ocean wash, right where the waves lap up to the shore, and start digging. Hidden beneath these top layers of wet sand are a world of new critters to explore, predominantly sand diggers, or "sand fleas," and Coquina clams.

Sand diggers can range from 1/8" - 2" long and are miniscule gray or beige crabs that dig furiously into the sand when a wave approaches. Completely harmless and common throughout the Outer Banks, many giggles have been produced from a sand digger frantically trying to dig into the palm of someone's hand.

Coquina clams make brief appearances in between waves, but can also be found by digging into the wet surf line. These colorful 1/8" - 1" arc-shaped clams are striking due to their colorful exteriors. Coquina shells come in a variety of patterns and colors, from brown stripes to bright neon yellow to hues of green, blue and violet. Pretty on their own, and absolutely beautiful when discovered in a shore break cluster, coquinas are one of the Outer Banks smallest but most beautiful attractions.

  • Shelling / Sea Glass Hunting: The Outer Banks is one of the best shelling and sea glass hunting spots in coastal North Carolina. With shifting currents, (including the two major East Coast Currents, the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current just miles offshore,) and with seasonal storms that whip up the ocean floor, shelling on the Outer Banks can be a very rewarding venture.

The best times to go are after low tide to ensure "first dibbs" on the shells or sea glass that just washed up, or right after a fall storm or Nor'easter, after the ocean has had a chance to settle. Under these conditions, it's not unusual for shell collectors to find all sorts of treasures, including whelks, moon snails, scallops, olive shells, starfish, and even sand dollars.

Wild Spanish Mustangs of Corolla

Where to find Wild Horses:

Visitors come from miles around to catch a glimpse of the wild mustangs that have roamed the Outer Banks since they were famously shipwrecked in the 1500s by passing ill-fated Spanish ships. While at one point these horses were supposedly roaming along just about every stretch of the Outer Banks, the only beaches to spot them in their wild habitat now are the deserted beaches just north of Corolla, collectively called by locals as "Carova."

These beaches are only accessible by a 4WD vehicle, however a number of local businesses offer wild horse tours of the area for vacationers who want to visit the Outer Banks' native residents. For folks lounging on the Carova beaches, wild horse spottings are not uncommon, as the horses are prone to dally down the beach, not too far from beach-bound families.

It should be noted that Ocracoke Island also has a wild pony pasture, which houses Ocracoke's population of wild horses and is open to the public. But for an oceanfront wild horse encounter, Carova is the spot to be.

The Best Shelling Spots:

The best shelling beaches can change overnight with a new current, a shifting sandbar, or the onslaught and quick departure of a seasonal storm. However, there are a number of Outer Banks beaches that seem to have decent shells regardless of weather, and die-hard beachcombers are encouraged to check out as many as they can. After all, the same shells that wash up on the Northern Outer Banks may be completely different from the shells that appear on the southern barrier islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke.

Carova and Northern Corolla can offer a wealth of great shells, especially at low tide, and along beaches that have a long, shallow sandbar, (not a "drop-off" with waves breaking close to shore.) Carova is distinctive because it is literally off the beaten path, so there are fewer beachcombers to compete with. On these beaches, you'll want to keep an eye out for smaller gems, such as augers, murex, oyster drills and olive shells. Collectively, these are intricate, tiny shells that are perfect for small craft projects.

Further south, Hatteras Island beachcombers flock to Cape Point and South Beach in Buxton, particularly in the winter when beaches are deserted, to take advantage of the array of different shells that the shifty Diamond Shoals wash up on a daily basis. Beachcombers are encouraged to go early, as this stretch of beach is one of Hatteras Island's best known shelling locales, but the rewards for early birds are well worth it. Beachcombers can expect to find large, showpiece shells such as lightning whelks, knobbed whelks, channel whelks, helmet conchs, moon snails, and more.

One of the most renowned beaches for shelling, however, is Ocracoke Island. In fact, in a recent Coastal Living Magazine ranking of best beaches for shelling, Ocracoke came in second, as a runner-up to Sanibel Island, Florida. The reason is a combination of unpopulated and desolate beaches that are seldom picked over, proximity to both the Hatteras and Ocracoke Inlets, and gentle sloping beaches that allow shells to glide to the shore. The biggest draw here is the frequent appearances of Scotch Bonnets. Officially the state shell of North Carolina, the Scotch Bonnet is surprisingly rare, but this conical egg-shaped brown and white speckled shell washes up regularly on the beaches of Ocracoke Island - It's just a matter of lounging on the right beach at the right time.

Kiteboarding mostly happens sound-side.

Best Kiteboarding Spots:

When it comes to Kiteboarding on the Oceanside, any stretch of beach with wind and waves will do, but in recent years more and more kiteboarders have flocked to soundside "Kite Point" in between Buxton and Frisco on Hatteras Island, and its ocean counterpart just across NC Highway 12. If you park at Canadian Hole on a windy day, a public parking area in this area of Hatteras Island, and walk across the highway to the sandy path to the beach, you're likely to spot a half dozen kiteboarders cruising across the ocean or rigging up their gear on the sand. While most beaches can function well as a kiteboarder's playground, the local and visiting kiteboarding community can always be found in spades at Canadian Hole and Kite Point.

When it comes to Kiteboarding on the Oceanside, any stretch of beach with wind and waves will do, but in recent years more and more kiteboarders have flocked to soundside "Kite Point" in between Buxton and Frisco on Hatteras Island, and its ocean counterpart just across NC Highway 12. If you park at Canadian Hole on a windy day, a public parking area in this area of Hatteras Island, and walk across the highway to the sandy path to the beach, you're likely to spot a half dozen kiteboarders cruising across the ocean or rigging up their gear on the sand. While most beaches can function well as a kiteboarder's playground, the local and visiting kiteboarding community can always be found in spades at Canadian Hole and Kite Point.

 

Best Surfing Spots:

There are a number of beaches from Carova to Ocracoke where surfers have laid claim as the best spot to find waves on the Outer Banks, but a few tried and true locales have surfers from all around the country coming back year after year.

Kitty Hawk and Nags Head are both popular surf spots, and a number of local surf shops on the Bypass and on the Beach Road cater to these areas, allowing vacationers to stock up on boards, rentals, and lessons during their vacation. On these stretches of beach, it's not unusual to find clusters of surfers in either direction, particularly in the ocean waters close (but not too close) to the area's piers.

Further south, surfers come from miles around to the infamous S-Curves, just north of the town of Rodanthe on Hatteras Island, where waves are consistently good and where local surfers have been catching waves for years.

Buxton is another hotbed of surfing activity, from the narrow beaches in front of the small, northern Buxton hotels to the old Lighthouse location, just a few hundred yards away from where the new lighthouse stands. In this area, the currents and sandbars that churn up the good waves can change at a moment's notice, so just look for the cluster of cars with surf racks on the side of the road, and chances are, you've found a good surf spot.

Best Fishing Spots:

Like most water sports, the beaches of the Outer Banks have always been renowned for surf fishing, no matter what area you're staying in, so it's easy to pick any beach, cast a line, wait, and enjoy the rewards.

For die-hard fishermen who want to explore every inch of the Outer Banks fishing scene, a trip to Cape Point is a must. Located in Buxton, Cape Point is the area where the Outer Banks begins to curve west, and offers close proximity to the Labrador and Gulf Stream currents. The result is phenomenal fishing, arguably the best surf fishing on the East Coast, during any time of year. The Point is occasionally and seasonally closed by the NPS to vehicles and / or pedestrians, so it's best to check with the NPS ahead of time to ensure it is open for fishing.

Lifeguarded Beach List:

The central Outer Banks communities of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk are some of the best beaches for families. These areas have a number of lifeguard stands in place, strategically placed along the 15+ miles of beaches, and the towns also work hard to maintain a red flag system, warning visitors of rip current threats and other storm warnings in the area.

Further north, vacationers in Duck, Southern Shores, and Corolla can also find a number of lifeguarded beaches along the areas' major community hubs, such as Buck Island, Whalehead, Corolla Light, and Ocean Sands.

In the southern Outer Banks, there is a lifeguarded beach in Buxton at the old lighthouse location, and one on Ocracoke Island, approximately 4 miles south of the village.

Lifeguard stations and stands in all Outer Banks areas are all open seasonally, generally between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and close for the winter. (It should be noted that rip current flags may not fly in the off-season months either, making it imperative for vacationers to be aware of rip currents and other dangerous swimming conditions.)

Best Secluded Beaches:

Pick a beach! One of the biggest draws of the Outer Banks is the fact that thousands of visitors can vacation on the beaches, but still feel like they have a large swath of sand all to themselves. Even in the most populated areas, vacationers are never fighting for beach space, and everyone can enjoy their own unobstructed view of the ocean.

For beach lovers who relish the feeling of having the beach all to themselves, there are a couple locations that earn the distinction of being the Outer Banks' most unpopulated of the unpopulated beaches.

Carova is a great place to enjoy a little privacy, simply because you need a 4WD vehicle to get there, thus limiting the number of beach-goers willing to make the trek.

South Nags Head is another great vacation spot for beach lovers who like peace and quiet, as this area is still close to the central Outer Banks' wide array of amenities, including great shopping, dining, attractions, and entertainment, but is separated by the 2 lane beach road and as such is home to just a handful of rental homes, a small fishing pier, and secluded, unpopulated beaches.

On Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, where the beaches are owned and governed by the NPS, any stretch of NC Highway 12 can act as a gateway to your own private beach. Simply pick a stretch of sand along the side of the highway, (not too deep so you don't get stuck), park, and enjoy your own bit of seclusion. Just note that with over 70 miles of shoreline from the Bonner Bridge to Ocracoke Island, getting to the beach may entail a small trek through a little brush and overgrown beach paths.

For an easier trek, try "Old Road," a small Oceanside stretch of pavement in between Avon and Buxton that features a relatively hidden gravel driveway to almost oceanfront parking, or the first parking area just south of the ferry docks in Ocracoke - relatively unnoticed by vacationers in a rush to check out Ocracoke Village.

No matter what patch of the Outer Banks you pick to spread out a beach blanket, you'll be rewarded with mile-wide ocean views, warm sunny days combined with crisp sea breezes, and plenty of room to spread out and enjoy your own private oasis.

The Outer Banks is characterized by its seclusion and its ready availability of unpopulated and undeveloped beaches, and for purist beach bums of all ages, there's no better place in the world to kick off the flip flops, listen to the ocean waves, and settle in for a long day at the beach.

Beach Photos

 A view of Kitty Hawk from Kitty Hawk pier  A view of the Nags Head beach from Jenette's Pier

Some oceanfront homes along the beach in Carova Colorful chairs look over the beach at Avalon Pier The beach in Rodanthe Soundside beach at Canadian Hole (south of Avon) 

 

Paradise Dolphin Cruises
Darrell's 2 Restaurant Nags Head
The Paper Canoe
En-Route to the Outer Banks
Sun Fish Grill
Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
Henry's Restaurant
Corolla Wild Horse Fund
Black Pelican