National Travel Guide: Outer Banks, North Carolina
Outer Banks, North Carolina—specifically Duck, NC
Information on the location:
The Outer Banks is an area in northeast North Carolina known for its beaches on the ocean side, and calm water and gorgeous sunsets on the sound side.
How to Get There:
I only live a few hours away in Virginia, so I drive. If you wanted to fly into a close airport, you could fly into Norfolk International Airport. The airport code for Norfolk is ORT. From Norfolk, it’s only a couple of hours to the Outer Banks on a pretty easy drive. Hop on VA 168. There is a toll as you get close to the Virginia/North Carolina border. Stay on 168, which will become NC 168, and follow the signs towards Kitty Hawk. 168 will become 158, but stay straight on the road. Once the road turns left, and goes over a bridge, you’ll need to get into the left lanes to turn left on route 12 to head to Duck. The road will go down to one lane in each direction, and during the summer this can get backed up pretty easily, so be patient. Once you make the turn, you’re not that far from my recommended place to stay.
Recommended Places to Stay:
Barrier Island Station in Duck. I’ve stayed here every time I’ve visited the Outer Banks since I was a kid. They are in the process of renovating the rooms. For the ones they haven’t renovated, they will look and feel dated. There are different sizes. The place we stay is usually on the third floor of the building. The steps are on the outside of the buildings. This can be quite a hike to the top while unloading the car. Our room also has a loft for two of the beds. The complex has security at the entrance. Once you check in you’ll need to put your car tags in your front windshield so they can see it, and open the lift bar. There’s a rather sizable pool in the middle of the complex that I usually walk through on the way to the beach.
Recommended Places to Eat:
Sunset Grille. It is right across the street from Barrier Island Station. In the summer, crossing the road can be difficult, but they did just put up a crosswalk between the two. The last time I was there was a little easier. It sits on the sound side.
If you need a grocery store, Tommy’s Market is just down the street. They have a small deli where you can get freshly made sandwiches if you’re driving out of the area and need lunch on the go. They’re pretty good. The boardwalk starts right next to Tommy’s Market.
Hawaiian Island Snowballs is a great place for ice cream. It’s the only place we’ll go when we’re in Duck. Their reviews aren’t as good, but I’ve never had an issue with them. I love mint chocolate chip in a waffle cone, and theirs is really good. It’s hard not to go every day to get one. After you get it, you can walk out on the boardwalk and sit on the benches overlooking the sound. It’s a perfect afternoon snack.
There are plenty of other restaurants to choose along the boardwalk. The Blue Point is good. Every time I go back their menu has changed, but they used to have a really good grilled cheese sandwich, with apples on top. Roadside Bar and Grille is also really good. It’s not on the boardwalk and a bit further down, but it’s got some good selections.
Top Five Things to Do:
There’s a lot to do there! From water sports, to relaxing on the beach. I love nature, so most of mine are active outdoorsy things. I will not include walking on the beach, but it is something I’ll do every day while there.
- Jockey’s Ridge: This is a park that’s south of Kitty Hawk. I think it’s only a thirty minute drive or so to get there from Duck. It’s the largest natural sand dune on the east coast. It’s constantly shifting and changing, so the dunes aren’t always lined up in the same places over many years. I have been fascinated by this place since I was a kid. I would recommend not going barefoot. It is just open sand with no protection from the sun, and even when it’s cooler, that sand gets hot. Bring shoes and then bang them out before you get back into the car. It is so cool to see. It’s huge. You can walk over by the sound side near the water, or explore the dunes in the middle. There are often hang gliders jumping off one of the dunes to the valleys below. My brother and I used to wrestle each other down a dune, and then race back to the top. It only took a handful of times of going down and back up before we were exhausted. It’s a very cool area, and absolutely at the top of my list. Great for hiking, but it will get hot.
- Nor’Banks Sailing and Watersports: The people here are incredibly nice and helpful. You can rent a wide variety of things to take out on the sound. You can sail, jet ski, or rent a pontoon boat. I have sailed and rented a pontoon boat. I’d recommend the pontoon if you want to explore. You can take that boat out to some of the islands in the sound, and then hop out and explore the islands. Just make sure you have watershoes and swim wear for that. If the weather looks like it’s turning bad, they’ll radio you to come back. If you’re in a sail boat, they’ll come out to let you know. It’s a great experience.
- Currituck Banks Reserve: This area is a very cool park. It’s a long drive up from Duck, but it’s worth checking it out. There are tons of nature trails you can walk. It’s a huge area. The trees are all twisty and wind up in interesting ways—a result of being in a sandy region. The access for this park is at the end of a long drive north, right where the road makes a sharp right turn. If you continue on the road, it will end at the beach very shortly after. You can drive on the beach here, but only if you have a four wheel drive. We usually pass by the park, and then do a u-turn at the beach, and come back to turn into it. It’s a small parking lot. It is absolutely worth taking a day and exploring the area.
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge: This is a bit of a drive south from Duck. It’s much further south than Jockey’s Ridge. It’s a cool area, though. You can walk the Charles Kuralt Trail, which takes you in between several lakes where birds will congregate. We don’t always see a lot of wildlife when we come, but there’s always a few. This is an easy walk that ends at a little observatory with binoculars. You can walk along the beach with interesting shore lines where vegetation meets sand meets water. It’s a good place to appreciate birds, nature, and the outdoors.
- Historic Corolla Park and Whalehead Club: This is a pretty little spot north of Duck. There’s a lighthouse, a gazebo out on a pier, a 1920s mansion with guided tours, and just an interesting area to explore. Behind the club is a lake with a bridge going over it where you can watch for fish and other wildlife. There’s quaint bridges, and a big lake in the middle. Strolling along the edge of the property, by the water, makes for a nice little walk. It’s a pretty area. It’s not very big, but it’s a cool place to explore either way.
Tips and Bonus Things to Do:
If you can, I recommend visiting with a four-wheel drive. I have written this travel guide assuming you don’t have one, and therefore have not included some of the cool things you can see with a four-wheel drive. I have been both with, and without, so I can offer a view of both. If you bring a four-wheel drive, you can drive on some of the beaches around the area—just make sure you let some of the air out of the tires, and then fill them back up once you leave the sandy beach. I’ve seen trucks get stuck when they haven’t let their air out, so be sure to do this. Be mindful of how much air to let out—you don’t want flat tires, but you don’t want them as full as they are to ride on the road.
- Corolla Wild Horse Tours: This is a bonus item that you do not need a four-wheel drive for. I think they can fit twelve in their vehicle. It has four-wheel drive, and it’s got bench seating with a roof. They will take you up the beach in Corolla, and through some of the sandy areas to spot the wild horses. This is a cool thing to do if you do not have a four-wheel drive. It would be in my top five if I hadn’t decided to include it as a special thing to do in this section. There are wild horses all over the beach there. I have never been when they are not there. I can’t express how cool this is, especially when you don’t have your own four-wheel drive.
- Drive on Corolla Beach—Four-Wheel Drive Necessary: This is technically a road. North Beach Access Road takes you all the way up to the Virginia/North Carolina border. This isn’t all that far. You’ll know you’re at the border when you see the road/beach is blocked off to cars. You can’t drive any further north on the beach at that point. If you have a Four-Wheel Drive, you can skip the Corolla Wild Horse Tours, and do this on your own. There will be wild horses playing in the water, or walking on the beach. You have to stay fifty feet away from them. There are little stumps of trees that the ocean has swallowed that you can see sometimes scattered on the beach poking out. Be careful where you’re driving. There will also be people out just enjoying the beach, as well as tons of other vehicles, so just be careful. You can turn in to any of the little sandy roads that take you back into Carova, where there are houses, more horses, and nothing but sandy roads needing four-wheel drive. While up there, you should explore Carova Beach Park and Boat Ramp. It’s a small little park where we’ll usually sit at the tables and have lunch on a day we’ve driven up there. It’s very cool.
- Cape Hatteras—Four-Wheel Drive Necessary: This is a very long drive south from Duck, but we made a full day of it. You don’t need a four-wheel drive to see Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—which we did first. It’s huge, and just cool to take a moment there. Then we drove onto the sandy roads near the beach. There are tons of areas of beach access along these sandy roads. We just drove around exploring. We found a couple of spots where only one vehicle could really fit, and it ended in this little private area that was basically our own beach. The water is shallow for a good distance out, and as the high tide was coming in, it was creating a sandy island. We walked around, we drove around, and we got to places we never could have gone or seen without a four-wheel drive. This is definitely a spot you should explore. In some places, the sand was so soft we sunk right down as we were wading through ankle deep water. It was amazing.
I usually visit in May—the week before tourist season kicks off. It’s a little slower. A lot of other people are starting to catch on, and it’s getting busier and busier that time of year. It’ll be hot and humid there usually. Every few years or so it’ll be cold instead. But in the middle of summer and tourist season, it will be hot and humid. I have seen dolphins while walking along the beach here—which is very cool. You can see them from the beach—I noticed several fins popping up out of the water in a circular pattern. That’s all I could see of them. There’s a little gazebo area right before you head down the steps to the beach at Barrier Island Station where you can see them better. I don’t always see them out there. I’ve gone entire trips not seeing any, and other times I’ve seen them on multiple days as several pods of dolphins swim by in various directions. It’s a cool place to visit! I would definitely recommend it.