|Parks: 4||Miles: 280||Days: 7||Hours: 6|
The Outer Banks is steeped with history. While it is most known for its beautiful eastern seaboard beaches, it also is where Orville and Wilbur Wright learned to fly, and where the Lost Colony disappeared.
We also take a day to visit a lighthouse (or two!) and Jockey’s Ridge State Park, home to the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast.
There was some debate as to which airport to use. Norfolk (ORF) is the closest international airport, but Richmond (RIC) and Raleigh-Durham (RDU) are close enough (161 and 205 miles away, respectfully) to warrant at least some consideration. Coastal Carolina (EWN) is a small regional airport that is 141 miles away.
Once you land, pick up the rental car that you hopefully booked ahead of time. Trying to rent a car immediately after landing is a recipe for disaster. Many times rental companies will have little to no inventory available. Always book your rental ahead of time!
I really debated as to which airport to use for this trip. Norfolk is a much smaller one than I would ever prefer, but it is an “international” airport, and does have a decent number of airlines coming in and out of it.
I would suggest that if you live anywhere close to the Outer Banks, you should probably drive instead of fly. We drive, and we’re from PA.
Regardless of how you get here, you should head straight to the beach after arriving.
The next location is 120 miles away (~2.5 hours).
About an hour and a half into the drive to Salvo, you’ll cross over the Currituck Sound and enter the Outer Bank Islands. This will place you on route 158, just before Nags Head. The Outer Banks Scenic Byway, starts there, which stretches 138 driving miles and 38 ferry-riding miles down the barrier islands.
You’ll end up driving about half of the byway if you decide to stay in Salvo like we did.
We like the much more relaxed feel of the towns further down the island. Salvo is our favorite place to stay, but Avon, Waves, Rodanthe, and Hatteras also offer the much more slow atmosphere.
You can certainly stay further up on the islands in towns like Nags Head, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, but they are much, much busier.
For an extremely unique place to stay, consider finding a vacation rental in Duck or Corolla. Some of the homes located up here require you to drive on the beach to reach them. These areas are also known for their wild horse population.
Of course, the beaches! There are many public access points along both the ocean and sound side of the island. You’ll also find that the water and beaches are noticeably choppier once you get down towards Hatteras.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
Kill Devil Hills, NC
The Wright Brothers National Memorial is quite a large park, and was not overly crowded even on a July afternoon for us. There is a small entrance fee to enter.
The attractions at sea level offer spots to see the airport hangar used by the Wright Brothers, as well as the different test flight paths they took before their ultimately successful try.
The memorial we show in the picture above is at the top of the hill the brothers used to push their test plane off of. It is a very steep hike, but is paved. We were exhausted upon reaching the top… but the view from atop was very much worth it.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Nags Head, NC
Jockey’s Ridge State Park has the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast. From the park, you can see the whole way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Roanoke Sound. The visitor center has an attached museum that explains the history of Jockey’s Ridge.
The sand at the park can get extremely hot in the summer months. However, there is a 360-foot boardwalk with exhibits along the way that the dune’s ecology. It eventually leads to a gradual entry into the massive dune field that is the centerpiece to the park.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
The history behind the Lost Colony of Roanoke is a fascinating one if you’ve never heard about it. The best video I’ve watched on it is linked below, and does a great job of explaining how a group of English settlers completely disappeared without a trace after they landed on the island in 1587.
This National Historic Site offers plenty of trails and history lessons as you learn about the original inhabitants of the island as well as the vanishing English settlers. I really enjoyed this park because it was a great break from the sand and heat of the beaches.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is one of five across the Outer Banks. You can climb the narrow circular stairs to the top and look out across the entire island. The sight from up there is amazing.
While the lighthouse is the crown jewel of the national Seashore, the main attraction are the beaches. There are numerous beaches all the way up and down the coast here, so no matter where you find yourself (other than maybe the lighthouse), there won’t be a huge crowd of people, even in the summer months.
On the last day, it’s time to head home. For us, that means leaving at around 3AM in order to skip the major traffic congestion around the DC beltway, but for you, it may be different if you’re flying.
Just be mindful of the potential for heavy traffic going up the island, as well as on Route 168 and I95. These roads get very busy in the summer months, and area almost at a standstill at times.