When you think of a national parks trip, you probably don’t think about the beach. But, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina (and many other places), it is easy to combine a visit to the beach with exploring the parks. First, though, you need to remember that “national parks” have many different designations. In fact, the three Outer Banks national parks are actually a National Seashore, a National Memorial and a National Historic Site.
There are currently 62 designated National Parks. But, the 422 units of the National Park System are often collectively referred to as “national parks.” I understand visiting more than 400 parks might seem overwhelming. For that reason, many people choose to focus on just the 62 National Parks. The reality is that all of the parks are worthy of a visit, even if they are National Monuments, National Seashores, National Battlefields or any of the other designations.
Now, back to the Outer Banks national parks!
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Outer Banks National Parks Basics
The Outer Banks of North Carolina begin at the Virginia border and extend south for 120 miles to Ocracoke Island. In the Outer Banks, you can enjoy the typical touristy beaches and find solitude on the shores of the National Seashore. You’ll also find plenty of hotels, campgrounds, restaurants, shops and outdoor adventure.
The three Outer Banks national parks are Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Wright Brothers National Memorial and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. With a visit to these three parks, you can enjoy the outdoors and learn a bit about the history of the region and the country.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site protects the site of the first English settlement in what would later become the United States. The park tells the history of the three voyages made to the New World in the 1580s, the relationship between the new settlers and the natives and the unexplained disappearance of the settlers.
It was this unexplained disappearance of more than 100 colonists that earned the settlement the name of the “Lost Colony of Roanoke.” Despite many theories and investigations, it is still unclear what happened to the colonists who were left here in 1587. At the Fort Raleigh NHS visitor center, you can find out more about the theories behind the disappearance and how historians attempt to uncover the truth.
Three hundred years after the English settlers arrived, Roanoke Island regained importance during the American Civil War when the US Army established a Freedman’s Colony here. The colony became a safe haven for former slaves and helped prepare them for a free life.
Fort Raleigh NHS is located in Manteo on Roanoke Island, between North Carolina’s mainland and the barrier island. You’ll only need about an hour or two for visit. You can easily stop here on your way east to the main beach towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head.
What to Do at Fort Raleigh NHS
You should definitely start your visit at the Visitor Center. Here, you’ll find exhibits and information on the voyages, the settlements, the natives and the disappearance of the settlers. We visited in November 2020, so due to COVID-19 restrictions, the park film was not playing. Still, the exhibits did a great job of telling the history of this location.
Just outside the visitor center, check out the First Light of Freedom Monument. This monument is a reminder of the importance of the Freedman’s Colony that was established here during the Civil War to assist former slaves in preparing for a new life.
A short and easy trail leads from the visitor center to the 1986 monument, a reconstructed earthen fort and the Waterside Theatre. The 1896 monument commemorates the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America, and the baptism of the Croatan native Manteo by the English.
The Waterside Theatre is the home of the outdoor symphonic play, The Lost Colony, which tells the story of the 1587 colonists. With a large outdoor stage right on the waterfront, a show here is sure to be fantastic. Alas, performances are only in the summer, from late May through late August, so we missed the opportunity to see the show.
Just off the main trail is the Thomas Hariot Trail, which takes you through a small forested area, out to the Albemarle Sound for a quick view of the water and a small beach area. This was a nice add on to the main trail.
From here, you can loop back to the visitor center.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
Located about 30 minutes northeast of Fort Raleigh NHS, the second of the Outer Banks national parks is Wright Brothers National Memorial. This park commemorates the Orville and Wilbur Wright and their first successful airplane flights in December 1903. The Wright Brothers lived in Dayton, OH and built their airplanes there. But it was at this location in Kitty Hawk, NC where they actually achieved their goal of flying.
Read more about visiting the Ohio National Parks, including the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which preserves the bicycle shop and field where the Wright Brothers worked before coming to North Carolina to test their airplane.
Wright Brothers National Memorial has a large commemorative memorial, smaller markers indicating the location of the first four flights and a visitor center.
Expect to spend an hour or two visiting this site.
What to Do at Wright Brothers NM
Since the grounds open earlier than the visitor center, we started our visit by walking up to the large monument. While the path is paved, it is a short but moderately-strenuous uphill climb. The monument and views of the surrounding area make it well worth the effort, though!
At the top of the hill, take time to enjoy the monument from the various viewpoints, look out over the large field where the brothers camped, worked and flew for the first time and take in the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. It really is a fantastic view!
Just outside the visitor center, you’ll find the First Flight Boulder, indicating where each flight took off. Four smaller markers note the distance and time of each flight on December 17, 1903. Unfortunately, a gust of wind damaged the plane beyond repair after the fourth flight.
Adjacent to the flight markers are two reconstructed buildings. This first is the hangar where the Wright Brothers’ kept the plane, the other is the cabin where they camped.
Inside the visitor center, you’ll find a reproduction of the brothers’ 1903 airplane overlooking their first flight location. There are also exhibits on the Wright brothers, their work on learning to fly and the history of manned flight. This really is a nice visitor center with some great exhibits so don’t rush through the visitor center!
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
As you’re driving to the Outer Banks from the mainland on US Highway 64, turning north on US 158 takes you to the touristy area. This is where you’ll find Wright Brothers NM and the hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. If you turn south on NC 12, however, you’ll find the mostly undeveloped Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The difference between the two areas really is staggering.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches for more than 70 miles. There are a few small villages nestled along the highway through the park. Mostly, though, you’ll just find unspoiled beaches, three iconic lighthouses and plenty of opportunities for enjoying the great outdoors!
What to Do at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
The most obvious thing to do at Cape Hatteras NS is to just enjoy the beach. If you want to be a bit more active, though, there are a few options. My number one suggestion is to visit each of the three lighthouses that are found in the park. These are found at Bodie Island on the north end, Cape Hatteras in the middle and Ocracoke on the south end.
You will also find a few short nature trails and you can always enjoy the typical beach activities like fishing, kayaking, surfing, crabbing or wind boarding. If you’re interested in driving along the beach, there are several Off-Road Vehicle access points. Check the park website for more information, including how to get the required permit.
For us, the best part of Cape Hatteras NS is the solitude and lack of tourist traps. This really is where you go to get away and just enjoy being outside.
Featuring black and white stripes, the Bodie Island lighthouse still has it’s original 1st-order Fresnel lens. Adjacent to the lighthouse, there is a short trail to a platform over the marsh where you can look for birds and other wildlife.
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse has diagonal black and white stripes and is the tallest lighthouse in the United States.
Both the Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras lighthouses are open for climbing from late April to mid-October. Of course, in 2020 COVID-19 canceled the “climbing season.” Hopefully, both will be open again soon. Check the park website for more information.
The Ocracoke lighthouse is located in the small town of Ocracoke and is North Carolina’s oldest operating lighthouse. The all-white brick lighthouse is not open for climbing.
Whether you are interested in climbing or just taking pictures, visiting the lighthouses of the Outer Banks is a great way to spend a few hours.
The southern end of Cape Hatteras NS lies on Ocracoke Island. In fact, the entire island is part of the national seashore, other than the small village at the southern tip.
To get to Ocracoke Island you’ll have to take a ferry from Cape Hatteras or from the mainland. The ferry from Hatteras runs year round, is free and the commute takes about an hour. As you drive south along Hwy 12 just continue until you see the lanes for the ferry. Seriously, the highway dead-ends right into the ferry staging area.
What to Expect on Ocracoke Island
If you’re arriving from Hatteras, the drive south across the island takes you past several beach access points, the Ocracoke pony pen and the Hammock Hill Nature Trail. There are several places throughout the Outer Banks where you’ll find wild horses. In fact, you’ll find wild horse tours advertised throughout the islands.
Historically, the ponies roamed freely on Ocracoke Island. Residents eventually built a corral to keep the ponies out of their gardens and away from the freshly-hung laundry. Today, you can visit the pony pen, which is located about seven miles north of the village. As you might expect, the fencing prohibits visitors from petting the ponies.
A visit to Ocracoke really is a unique part of any Outer Banks trip. Due to its remote location, this is a very small village that retains much of its historic charm. You won’t find any chain hotels or restaurants. The lighthouse is its most popular destination but you can also enjoy plenty of outdoor activities.
When we visited, in November 2020, many attractions were closed due to the season and COVID-19. The weather also was cool and rainy the afternoon we were there. So, other than a quick stop to visit the ponies, we just enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at our hotel.
Find more information on getting to and from Ocracoke Island, visit the North Carolina Department of Transportation website for ferry schedules, fees and reservations.
Where to Stay
We only had a few days for our visit to the Outer Banks national parks so we moved hotels frequently.
On the north end, near Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, you’ll find a wide variety of chain and independent hotels, along with plenty of beach houses if you need something bigger. Once you enter Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you’ll find a few campgrounds within the park. There are also several private campgrounds and small hotels in the small towns sprinkled throughout the park.
We spent our first night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk. The hotel is right on the beach and just about 10 minutes from Wright Brothers NM. While we didn’t spend much time in the common areas, due to COVID-19, we did enjoy a great breakfast at the on-site restaurant.
For our second night, we stayed at the Ocracoke Harbor Inn in Ocracoke. This small hotel is located just across the road from Silver Lake Harbor. Our room had a balcony and a small kitchenette. It wasn’t anything fancy but it was comfortable with plenty of space for two people.
Where to Eat
Since we were visiting during the pandemic, we looked for restaurants with outdoor dining and takeout. We also kept everything we needed for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on hand so we could have a picnic. For this reason, we didn’t find as many restaurants as we normally would have but we still have a few recommendations.
If you’re a regular reader, you know how much we like a local brewery. We certainly hit the jackpot with Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills. With plenty of outdoor seating and interesting brews, it was exactly what we were looking for! In terms of beer, Grant particularly enjoyed the Naughty & Spiced Christmas Ale. As for the food, I found the Mahi Sandwich to be an upscale and interesting twist on a traditional fish sandwich.
For lunch, we stopped at the Pamlico Deli in Frisco, where we picked up a couple of sandwiches to enjoy during our wait for the ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke. We both opted for the Route 12, which included smoked turkey, jalapeño cheddar jack, banana peppers and red pepper aioli. The sandwiches were tasty, if a little under-filled. We also found a nice selection of wine here, available by the glass or bottle.
In Ocracoke, there were only a few restaurants open but we enjoyed dinner at Howard’s Pub. The large menu will appeal to those looking for fresh seafood, burgers or chicken. Grant was thrilled to find conch fritters on the menu. The locally-caught fresh fish was Mahi, which is always a favorite of ours. And the hush puppies were on point!
Final Thoughts on the Outer Banks National Parks
A trip to the beach in November may not be the most popular time to visit, but it was perfect for us. Since our primary focus was to visit the Outer Banks national parks, we found exactly what we were looking for. Thanks to mild temperatures we still got to enjoy some outdoor fun!
The mix of historical sites and the beach provides for a nice balance of education, outdoor adventure and relaxation. We also like that within Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you’ll find mostly undeveloped, unspoiled land. At the same time, you can still find all the comforts and fun of a tourist destination on the northern end of the Outer Banks, near Wright Brothers NM.
Getting to Ocracoke Island takes a little time, but it isn’t difficult and certainly provides a unique experience. We just love the charm and remoteness of the small village.
While not officially part of the Outer Banks, you can continue your beach vacation with a visit to nearby Cape Lookout National Seashore. Many areas of the park are only accessible by ferry from the mainland. You can visit the historic Portsmouth Village from Ocracoke, though. Stay tuned for Grant’s upcoming article on Cape Lookout NS and Moore’s Creek National Battlefield.
Whether you are just looking to escape to the beach or are working on visiting all the national park sites, a visit to the Outer Banks is a great trip, providing any different opportunities for adventure and exploration!
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