The Outer Banks of North Carolina - Driving Tour

Outer Banks

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The string of islands known as the Outer Banks stretches approximately 130 miles. These fragile yet enduring islands are home to some of the most pristine beaches and one of the largest estuary systems in the world. The islands that make up the Outer Banks are:

  • Bodie Island, which is pronounced like body, is the northernmost section of the Outer Banks was once an island, but today is actually a very long peninsula extending south from Virginia.
  • Roanoke Island, which lies between Bodie Island and the mainland, is surrounded by the waters of the Albemarle, Roanoke, and Croatan Sounds.
  • Hatteras Island, at approximately 50 miles in length, is one of the longest islands in the United States. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore extends the length of the island with Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge located in the northern 12 or so miles.
  • Ocracoke Island is the southernmost island and is reachable only by boat or ferry.

This tour begins in the northern communities of Corolla and Duck. To get to the starting point, follow NC-12 north. From Corolla, the tour back-tracks south for a bit and then continues the length of the Outer Banks to Ocracoke, with a side trip to Roanoke Island along the way. Be sure to adhere to the 35 mph speed limit, which is enforced along NC-12.

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Corolla and Duck

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After you have crossed the Wright Memorial Bridge, continue on US-158 to NC-12. Head north on NC-12 through the village of Duck to Corolla, about 20 miles. Along the drive, you will be able to enjoy seeing some of the stunning beach houses in the upscale areas of Duck and Corolla.

Things to Do in Corolla

  • Corolla's Wild Horses - Corolla's wild horses, descendants of Colonial Spanish Horses, which are also called Spanish Mustangs, are one of North Carolina's most significant historic and cultural resources of the coastal area. 
  • Currituck Beach Lighthouse - The Currituck Beach Lighthouse and Museum Shop are open daily from Easter until Thanksgiving. This red brick lighthouse, built in 1875 was the last major brick lighthouse built on the Outer Banks.
  • The Whalehead Club - Situated on 39 acres of sound front property, this former private residence is open to the public for tours. The newly restored museum is the finest example of art nouveau architecture in North Carolina.

Things to Do in Duck

  • Duck Research Pier - This US Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility is an internationally recognized coastal observatory. Summer tours, which begin in June and conclude in August, are conducted Monday through Friday at 10:00 a.m. only and last approximately one hour. Gates open at 9:30 a.m. and close promptly at 10 a.m.
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Wright Brothers National Memorial

Wright Brothers National Memorial
Ken Lund/CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

One of the most visited attractions on the Outer Banks is the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Located on the site of the Wright Brothers' first controlled powered flight in Kill Devil Hills, the Wright Brothers Visitor Center features exhibits, movies, and presentations as well as full-scale reproductions of the 1902 glider and the 1903 flying machine.


Wright Brothers National Memorial is located at milepost 7.5 on U.S. Highway 158, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. It can also access from NC-12 to Prospect Avenue to the Memorial.


The Wright Brothers National Memorial is open year-round, seven days a week, except Christmas day when it is closed.

  • September through May from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
  • Summer Months from 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.

Admission Fees

  • Free for Age 15 and under, National Park Pass, Golden Eagle, Wright Brothers Pass, Golden Age, and Golden Access Pass holders
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Jockey's Ridge State Park

Hang Gliding
Beadmobile/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

Jockey's Ridge State Park is a fascinating 420-acre park and a recreational area where visitors are able to explore the highest sand dunes on the entire Atlantic coast. Consisting of three peaks, this constantly shifting ridge is often referred to as The Living Dune.
At its peak, Jockey's Ridge is between 80 and 100 feet tall depending on the weather, Climbing to the top is a popular but strenuous endeavor, especially during the heat of summer. Other areas to explore include the Maritime Thicket and the Roanoke Sound Estuary. Popular park activities include swimming, kayaking, hang gliding, windsurfing, sand-boarding and more.

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Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island
T. Nakamura Volvox Inc./Getty Images

Steeped in mystery, the history of Roanoke Island is entwined with the story of America's first English settlers. Along with its fascinating history, Roanoke Island offers visitors many other things to explore and enjoy. A true blend of yesterday and today, the island has evolved into one of the most popular destinations of the Outer Banks.


Roanoke Island, surrounded by sound waters, lies between Bodie Island and the mainland. It connects to Bodie Island via US-264 / US-64, which also loops around Roanoke Island.

Things to Do

  • Explore Historic Manteo
    Manteo is a charming coastal village and the seat of government for Dare County. Wander along quaint streets, explore unique shops and dine on the waterfront in this delightful village, located on the eastern side of Roanoke Island. From April through December, First Friday celebrations each month provide a festival-like atmosphere with entertainment and more.
  • Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
    The site of the original settlement known as the Lost Colony, the grounds of Fort Raleigh include history and nature trails, the Waterside Theater where The Lost Colony outdoor drama is performed and the Elizabethan Gardens.
  • Roanoke Island Festival Park
    Located on Iceplant Island near Manteo, this festival of living history offers interpretive programs, performances and The Elizabeth II, a reproduction sailing ship and more.
  • The North Carolina Aquarium
    Featuring indoor and outdoor exhibits, hands-on activities and a variety of special programs, the North Carolina Aquarium at Manteo more than one million visitors annually. Plan to spend about two hours on exploring the aquarium.
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Cape Hatteras National Seashore - Hatteras Island

Through the Lens/Getty Images

Cape Hatteras was the first National Seashore established in the United States. Administered by the National Park Service, it encompasses 24,470 acres, including the 5,880 acres of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge located within the Seashore boundaries. Entry to Cape Hatteras National Seashore is free.


There are two entrances to Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

  • The northern entrance is on Bodie Island in Nags Head at the junction of US-64 and NC-12 South.
  • The southern entrance is located just north of Ocracoke on NC-12 North. Ocracoke Island is accessible from Hatteras Island by ferry.

Visitor Centers

There are three visitor centers located within Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Hours are 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. from mid-June through Labor Day and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the rest of the year.

  • Bodie Island Visitor Center is located in the Bodie Island Lighthouse Double Keepers Quarters building across from Coquina Beach.
  • Hatteras Island Visitor Center is located in Buxton, adjacent to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
  • Ocracoke Island Visitor Center is located in Ocracoke Village near the ferry terminal.

Things to Do

Cape Hatteras is popular for swimming, fishing, exploring nature, camping, boating, windsurfing, hunting and more. Popular attractions include:

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Cape Hatteras Light Station and Lighthouse

Robert Loe/Getty Images

The entrance to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located off of Highway 12 in the village of Buxton. Signs mark the entrance.

Sometimes called America's Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the nation's most recognized landmarks and one of the most popular attractions along the Atlantic coast. The grounds are open year round (closed Christmas) and climbing tours are offered seasonally.

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Ocracoke Island

Ocracoke Lighthouse
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Ocracoke Island, the Pearl of the Outer Banks and the location of America's Best Beach for 2007, is known for its miles of clean beaches, abundant wildlife, quaint village and connection to Blackbeard. Except for Ocracoke Village, the entire island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore owned by the National Park Service.


Ocracoke Island can be reached by ferry or private boats and planes. From Hatteras Island, follow N.C. 12 to the Hatteras Ferry Terminal at the southern tip of Hatteras Island. The 40-minute ferry crossing to Ocracoke Island is free.

Once on Ocracoke Island, continue driving south on N.C. 12 to Ocracoke Village. Many visitors prefer to explore the village area by bike or on foot since traffic can be very congested during the busier seasons and the speed limit is 20 to 25 mph.

Things to Do on Ocracoke Island

A good place to begin exploring is the National Park Service Visitor Center, located at the end of N.C. 12 where the road enters the ferry terminal.

  • Ocracoke Lighthouse - Although not open for climbing, the picturesque Ocracoke Lighthouse may be visited daily. It is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the United States with a history that reaches back to 1823.
  • The Ocracoke Ponies - As early as the 1730s, Banker Ponies have been recorded on Ocracoke Island. At times as many as 300 ponies roamed free, although today the herd numbers about 30 and the ponies are under the care of the National Park Service. A roadside platform about five miles north of Ocracoke Village on N.C. 12 provides a place to view the ponies.