Even if you’ve never been to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, you might be able to picture its most iconic scenes and characters: Horses galloping along the shore, towering black-and-white lighthouses, the Wright Brothers and Blackbeard. This playground of beaches and dunes, this 100-mile chain of barrier islands separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Pamlico Sound, has always been about adventure.
Adventure — and the sun. This is where North Carolina sees her first sunrises every morning and her grandest sunsets every evening. Here’s where to catch the colorful action just above the waves — and where to make some waves of your own.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
For a century and a half, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse — North America’s tallest brick lighthouse — has stood vigil to help ships navigate the shallow, treacherous waters of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The black-and-white-striped behemoth makes for amazing sunrise and sunset photos, either as your backdrop or from the tip-top. You’ll need to climb more than 250 steps for the elevated, 360-degree view, but your eyes will thank you even if your legs don’t.
Word of advice? Get here early. Mornings are best for combing the beach to see what treasures the tides deposited during the night, and shelling is a great way to explore the first national seashore with your own hands. Beyond stooping and shuffling, you can keep your hands busy via a horseback ride along the shore or stand-up paddleboarding in the protected waters of the sound.
For the day’s fuel, try the chocolate-banana-swirl french toast at Cafe Pamlico for breakfast, shrimp tacos at The Buxton Munch Co. for lunch, and — to wrap up your day — an unforgettable Pamlico paella at Rusty’s Surf & Turf.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
On paper, Jockey’s Ridge is a relatively small state park — 426 acres. But that’s only if you’re considering distance in two dimensions, as it’s also home to the tallest sand dune system on the East Coast, reaching as high as 60 feet. It’s basically one giant sandbox to play in, and a free one at that.
After enjoying that perfect sunrise (or before admiring the sunset), there’s plenty to do in addition to climbing the colossal mounds of sand. Walk the park’s nature trails, fly a kite (the reliable winds keep even the biggest contraptions afloat), or book a hang-gliding afternoon with Kitty Hawk Kites, using the dunes as your launchpad.
Traipsing up sand mountains is hard work, though — two steps forward, one step back — so you’ll need sustenance sooner rather than later. Nearby Owens’ Restaurant has been welcoming guests for over 70 years. For amazing views come sunset, The Tale of the Whale overlooks the Roanoke Sound.
Kill Devil Hills
Quite a name, huh? Legend has it that a ship wrecked off the coast, and several barrels of rum — often referred to as “kill devil” or “strong enough to kill the devil” — washed ashore, inspiring the town’s vivid moniker.
Whether that’s true or not, here’s a verifiable fact: This is where the Wright Brothers made their historic flight over a century ago. Today, the area is paradise for outdoor lovers and sunset-chasers — the endless beaches Orville and Wilbur utilized provide ample opportunity for strolling at the water’s edge, cruising the waters in a kayak or atop a surfboard, or ‘gramming at the Wright Brothers National Memorial (you may not hit new heights, but your IG could).
When hunger hits, take a break from the sun and sand to grab a bite at Kill Devil Grill. And of course, no visit to Kill Devil Hills would be complete without a stop at Outer Banks Distilling — to get a taste of Kill Devil Rum yourself.
Stretching for two-thirds of a mile along Currituck Sound, the Duck Boardwalk lets you walk on water. In the early morning, the sun peeks over the horizon, and the only distractions are the lapping of the waves, the woosh of the wind, and the birds that share the sky with the pinks and oranges. The walk’s northern point lies near the Waterfront Shops, and it winds above and along marshes, maritime forests, Duck Village, and the excellent Duck Town Park, 10+ acres of green space with trails for biking and walking.
It can get busy at sunset, but that’s for good reason. Arrive early, shop around, dine at The Paper Canoe or The Blue Point, and nab your spot on the boardwalk. For those looking to cast a line, pier fishing is available, and the kids will love crabbing (all you need is a net and some bait).
Outer Banks Fishing Pier
At 600 feet long, this popular fishing pier in Nags Head has been attracting anglers, early risers, and sunrise- and sunset-catchers for over 50 years. This is the closest pier to the Oregon Inlet, with some 40+ species of fish frequenting the waters below, including blackfin tuna and oyster toadfish. It’s got serious old-school vibes, and it’s lit and open for exploring and angling 24 hours a day.
The onsite pier house is your one-stop shop for all your fishing needs — and before you ask, no fishing license is required to cast a line from the pier. Garry, Mary, and their staff will show you the ropes if you’re a first-timer (Garry even runs a mini-podcast about the day’s fishing action).
That bustling, umbrella-dotted patio you walked by on your way down the pier belongs to Fish Heads Bar & Grill. Pop in for breakfast as early as 7am, and when your casting is done for the day, saunter back over for dinner and a pint. A few steps from your rod with 33 different brews on tap and outrageous sunset views, it’s the place to recount the day’s fishy tales.
Lying at the easternmost point in the state gives this tiny hamlet the distinction of being the first to greet the sun each morning. It’s one of the more isolated locations along the Outer Banks, though maybe you’ve heard of it — the romantic location was the setting for Nicholas Sparks’ Nights in Rodanthe.
When you’re here, get up early. Grab your binoculars and checklist as you head to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge to catch over 350 bird species waking up with you. This is truly a birder’s bucket-list location, but if someone in your party needs a bit more adrenaline, know that it’s a kiteboarding hot spot, too.
Stay the day and make it a two-fer: Grab a glass of wine and a spread of crab-stuffed mushrooms and lobster claws as you watch the sun set over the water from Good Winds Restaurant at Waves Village Resort.
Often claiming the title of “First in Flight” thanks to the Wright Brothers — Kitty Hawk is about four miles north of Kill Devil Hills, and it was the nearest settlement at the time — this famous area is now an outdoor lover’s sanctuary, just like its neighbor.
The first spot you escape to should be Kitty Hawk Woods Reserve, one of the largest tracts of unspoiled maritime forest along the Outer Banks. Explore this area by sea and sky, as well as on foot: You can ply the waters of Albemarle Sound in a kayak or on a stand-up paddleboard (especially lovely at sunset), and hang with the birds on a parasailing adventure for an unbeatable view, morning or evening.
Lunch or dinner at Barefoot Bernie’s Tropical Grill & Bar will give your taste buds a turn at the thrills. And at some point, head over to TRiO Restaurant & Market and grab important provisions — wine, beer, and cheese — for your next picnic.
Accommodations for your OBX adventure
You won’t find high-rises along the OBX. You will find the accommodations you’re dreaming of:
- The Hatteras Island Inn, The Inn on Pamlico Sound, and Nags Head Beach Inn all provide that classic, cozy boutique hotel experience.
- Bed & breakfasts are the perfect alternative for those seeking even more solitude and intimacy — the Pier House Bed & Breakfast and White Doe Inn B&B are excellent options.
- If you’re looking to enjoy some family fun resort-style, the Sanderling Resort and aforementioned Waves Village Resort both fit the bill.
- To have everyone under one roof, rent a house for the entire family from Resort Realty or Outer Beaches Realty.
There’s no wrong way to do it. Where will you find yourself?