The Outer Banks, a 130 mile stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina is perhaps best known for its endless beaches and luxurious vacation homes for rent for those craving a beach vacation in the heat of the summer. However, there are many other amazing things to do in the Outer Banks when you visit off peak and best of all, the hordes of crowds have long gone home.
My husband and I took our two children to the Outer Banks in the middle of October and it was a magical time to visit. First of all, I hate crowds so having stretches of beach all to ourselves was delightful. Second, I am not a person who likes to lay in the sun. If I’m on a beach, I need to be doing something active and it is just too darn hot in the summer to be very active. If we had visited in the high season of summer, we would have had an entirely different experience and perspective of the Outer Banks. October in the Outer Banks was magnificent!
We stayed in the quaint, less developed seaside town of Duck. After much research, we found a wonderful home to rent that was less than a five-minute walk to both the beach for sunrise and the Sound for sunset. Duck is more upscale than the other popular hyper-developed towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills which were developed long before Duck. Those towns felt like row after row of enormous vacation rental beach homes looking out at ugly strip malls and lacking character and charm. The only advantages I saw in staying there is you have close access to the beach and also many of the restaurants in Duck shut down for the season in October. We found ourselves doing at least a thirty minute drive to dinner each night but staying in Duck was worth it given its unique charm and character.
If you go off-season, here are some of the highlights of wonderful activities you can do.
Go on a Wild Horse Tour
Off in the last frontier of Corolla, a herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs roam freely along the northernmost Currituck Outer Banks that leads for 12 miles to the border of Virginia Beach. These wild horses date back over 500 years and are an amazing sight to see! We booked a tour with Wild Horse Adventure Tours and it was one of the highlights of our trip. We drove on the beach in an old Hummer, cruising up sand dunes, and weaving in and out of the forest and mystical habitat of these amazing creatures. Best of all, Wild Horse Adventure Tours works to help preserve these horses and a percentage of your tour goes to the Wild Horses Fund.
Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial
Located in Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk is the place where the Wright Brothers launched the first successful airplane flight on December 17, 1903. When you visit the area, you can instantly see why it was chosen. At the turn of the century, the tiny seaside town of Kitty Hawk offered the perfect conditions to attempt to fly: A steady wind, high sand dunes to glide from, limited trees and obstructions and relative isolation. The Wright Brothers National Memorial and Visitor’s Center (which unfortunately was temporarily closed when we were there due to remodeling) is a fantastic place to witness history of flight.
Explore the tallest sand dunes in the East Coast at the Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is located in Nags Head, NC and is the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States. When you arrive at the visitor’s center, a short trail leads to the massive sand dune which will take your breath away. We felt like we were on another planet or somewhere in the Sahara Desert as the sand stretches as far as the eye can see. It is an excellent place for children too as ours loved rolling around in the sand and making sand angels. For the adventurous ones, you can go hang-gliding in the park or take a short hike too.
Kayak through the beautiful Alligator River Wildlife Refuge
Nestled by the Alligator River in the west and the Intracoastal Waterway in east of North Carolina, lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. With an area of over 152,000 acres of protected and preserved wetland habitat, the refuge is home to black bears, red wolves, snakes, birds, and American alligators. It is an amazing place to explore on kayak and wind through its immense labyrinth of narrow creeks and lakes. If you are lucky you may even see a black bear or a rare red wolf. We did an afternoon kayak with Coastal Kayak Tours, and they were fantastic.
Spend time at the beach
One of the most unique things about the Outer Banks is the endless 100 miles of shoreline and beaches. In Duck alone, there are nine different beach accesses and over 34 in Nags Head. In Duck, access to the beaches are provided for town residents, renters and their guests only. There are also plenty of public beaches for all to enjoy.
The beach was only a block away from the vacation house we rented so it was pretty easy to jump out of bed at the crack of dawn and watch the sunrise. Then for sunset, I would walk the same distance over to the Sound. I have never ever been anywhere that I can see both sunset and sunrise over a body of water so close together. It was pretty spectacular!
It was also fun for the kids to play in the waves and make sandcastles. Given the time of year, we had the entire beach to ourselves. The water was too cold to swim in, but still offered hours of excitement.
Go to the Boardwalk in Duck to watch the sunset
Although all of the shops and restaurants along the boardwalk in Duck were closed for the season, it is still the best place to go to watch the sunset and best of all, we had the entire boardwalk to ourselves! The lovely trees and piers gave way to some stunning photo opportunities.
Enjoy the many fabulous surf restaurants and bars for delightful dining
We found so many amazing restaurants ranging from fine dining to the laid-back casual fair with delicious food. Best of all, there were hardly any chain restaurants and most were unique. Two of our favorite places included Tortuga’s Lie and Hurricane Mo’s where I ate fresh fish tacos two nights in a row and homemade chicken curry for lunch. We also enjoyed the Lifesaving Station in Duck as well as the local favorite Duck Donuts where you can get “made to eat” donuts fresh every day. If you want fancy, foodie places there are plenty of options as well. Since we had our kids with us, we chose the more relaxed places yet the food was absolutely spectacular. I was very impressed.
Tour a Lighthouse
If you have time, visit one of the many lighthouses that grace the shores of the Outer Banks. We didn’t get around to it but wish we had. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest in America and there is also the lovely Currituck Beach Lighthouse near Corolla that you can climb to the top and get a bird’s eye view of the Sound. It was windy and raining on the day we were planning on visiting lighthouses, so perhaps that is a minor disadvantage of going in late fall. Some colder weather blew in but at least it offered some excellent sunrises and sunsets.
All in all, we were pleasantly surprised with our visit to the Outer Banks and it was especially wonderful going off-peak to avoid the crowds that flock to its pristine beaches and shores to take in the summer fun.
If you go:
Check out the links in this post above and also the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau has an excellent website. www.outerbanks.org