We spent the 2020/2021 New Year celebrating in the Outer Banks, NC. The beach in the winter is always a good idea! (Like Myrtle Beach). Bring your jacket, and enjoy less crowds. It was nice to bring in the new year here, and forget about the horrible 2020. Our vision of 2020 prior to it hitting was so much different than what we imagined, as it was for everyone. We definitely would have been in Brazil and who knows where else. But 2020 was not completely bad, and better days are hopefully coming.
The Outer Banks, many times abbreviated as “OBX” are a long stretch of barrier islands along North Carolina and part of Virginia coast. These barrier islands are not anchored with reefs so it suffers quite a bit of beach evolution from storms and hurricanes. The islands are rich in American history with the Roanoke Colony that vanished, the first documented English child born, Virginia Dare, and the Wright Brothers’ first in flight.
We spent most of our time in the central part of the Outer Banks in Nags Head, Kitty Hawk,and Roanoke Island. You can drive up north and further down south for different towns and villages on the island. Nags Head is probably the most touristic of the places. The legend of the name “Nags Head” came from the days of piracy when a lantern would be tied around a horse’s neck (a.k.a. “nag”) and walked along the dunes. This would trick ships into thinking it was a safe place for harbor, and the land pirates would get their treasure from their shipwrecks.
We put together a 3-day itinerary that can be done in winter or any time of the year. These can easily be done in less than 3 days but traveling with a toddler, we now cram less activities into a day! A morning and afternoon are how we layed out the days.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
The Outer Banks are home to 5 of the 7 North Carolina lighthouses. (Here’s a trip to NC’s Bald Head lighthouse) On this trip, we visited the Bodie Island lighthouse (apparently I’m finding out later when writing this, it’s pronounced “body”). Built in 1871, its features are black and white horizontal stripes. The grounds are free to explore around with a path to a marsh observatory. You can climb the lighthouse in the summer months for a fee. The light still shines at night, and can be seen up to 19 miles off shore! It’s really a beautiful place to visit.
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
Who doesn’t enjoy an aquarium? This aquarium is on Roanoke Island in Manteo, very close to Nags Head. It covers aquatic life in the Outer Banks! The aquarium is set up with different galleries according to the type of water and land the animals inhabit. They have a sea turtle rehab. Outside is a walking trail that’s along the edge of the Croatan Sound, and a fossil pit to hunt for sharks teeth. My favorite were the otters.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
On most of NC’s license plates and driver’s license is a backdrop of a plane with the words “First in Flight”. Kitty Hawk in OBX was the location for the first powered flight on December 17, 1903 by the Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville. The monument is in Kill Devil Hills. There is a museum, and a 60 foot monument on top of a hill that can be walked up. I actually remember taking a field trip here and to Jockey’s Ridge sand dunes when I was in the 4th grade. Inside the museum is a full scale reproduction of the plane used. The memorial is one of the national parks and there is a fee when you enter. Lovely place to visit for history.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge are the tallest natural sand dunes in the eastern USA. You can enter the visitor center and museum when you park, or go straight to the dunes. Looks like a sea of desert! It’s a free place to have fun. On the other side of the dunes is the Roanoke sound with access to the water with a few nature trails. Sandboarding, kite flying, and hanggliding are some sports that can be enjoyed here.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Fort Raleigh, on Roanoke Island is the location of the first European settlers in America called the Roanoke or “Lost” Colony. It’s still a mystery today what really happened to the colonists. All that was found engraved in two trees when they returned was “CRO” and “CROATOAN”. In the park is a mound indicating the place of the original forts. The museum has artifacts that were recovered from the site and plenty history of the place.
Continuing past the mound is the Waterside Theater which holds performances in summer nights of The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama. The sound is visible from here. It’s ok to walk around and explore the Elizabethan style theater. It’s quite impressive.
Nature trails are present too for some more exploration.
Nags Head Beach
There are public beach accesses up and down the Nags Head strip with parking and some with restrooms and showers. The sand is clean and the waves are big. Driving is allowed on the beach during the off season with a permit from the town. A few public fishing piers are available. The hotel we stayed on our trip had a beach view from our balcony and the hotel was oceanfront. Highly recommend finding a place on the ocean!
The Outer Banks have so many little towns that are unique and special that we want to explore upon returning. We really enjoyed getting to know the sights and towns near and around Nags Head this time though!
Please let us know in the comments are other activities in the Outer Banks that we shouldn’t miss!