Even if you’re not from the East, you’ve probably heard of The Outer Banks of North Carolina, be it from Blackbeard or Nicholas Sparks, the Lost Colony of Roanoke or the Wright Brothers. Today, these picturesque barrier islands are well known as a romantic destination — what with their seemingly endless miles of unspoiled beaches — but you’ll be surprised at what you can find here for the youngsters, too. Awesome state parks, national seashores, and (get ready!) donuts on a stick are just a few things on this list the entire family can get behind.
This federally protected coastline stretches along more than 70 miles of the island chain, and it’s always open for you — and the fam — to explore. The most iconic landmark here is the spiral-striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and many people who return to The Outer Banks year after year never miss a climb to the top.
The beach and waves offer plenty to do, too. If your kids are younger, they’ll love searching for seashells and sea glass between sessions playing in the sand and splashing at the water’s edge. Older kids may want to give surfing a go, as The Outer Banks are widely considered the best place to surf in the East. Then there are the horseback rides on the beach, the shoreline kayak trips, and the leisurely paddleboard adventures — no need to worry about equipment, as rentals are readily available.
If you have a 4WD vehicle, you and the crew can also traverse some off-the-beaten-path parts of the national seashore. And don’t forget the ultimate way to cap a long day exploring: a beach bonfire, allowed on different parts of the shore throughout the year. (Permits are required for both fires and off-roading. Get yours online or at one of the national seashore’s visitor centers, which also host exhibits on the history and ecology of The Outer Banks.)
The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island gives you an up-close view of many of the marine animals living in the waters around The Outer Banks: sharks, river otters, alligators, stingrays, turtles, and tons of other fish species. Join shark and stingray feedings, walk through a sunken ship, watch movies about marine life, hear shipwreck tales — the list is long. Perhaps the coolest part: If you have a group of 12+ (or want to cover the equivalent cost), you can plan an experience your kids will never forget — your own overnight slumber party in front of the 285,000-gallon Graveyard of the Atlantic tank, filled with fish large and small.
Add-on adventure: At nearby Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, also operated by North Carolina Aquariums, you and the fam can cast your lines into the Atlantic and see for yourself what swims in the waters below.
More than a century ago, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the world’s first successful heavier-than-air powered flight on a tall sand dune right here in The Outer Banks. Today, your family can walk in their footsteps and learn about this world-changing innovation.
Climb up into a sculpture of the famous Wright Flyer and walk along the path of their first flight. Hands-on exhibits teach the kids all about the science and history of aviation, and you’ll come away with a better understanding of this historic achievement.
Photo: David Williams for Donutz on a Stick
You can find several fresh donut bakeries and ice cream joints along The Outer Banks, but Donutz on a Stick & Ice Creamstands out for its creative recipes, unique presentations, and endless topping combos. After the kiddos scarf down their tasty treats, let them grab selfies with the six-foot duck and load up on mix-and-match candy. Come on, it’s a vacation!
Photo: Kitty Hawk Kites
As the home of the tallest natural living sand dune on the East Coast, Jockey’s Ridge State Park offers a ton of fun possibilities for kids. Throughout the year, you can sign them up for hang-gliding lessons or just enjoy flying a kite here — the winds are known to cooperate beautifully.
From October through March, the young ones (and you!) can give sandboarding a try, zipping down the slopes of the dunes. And year round, there’s a quieter and more relaxed atmosphere on the sound side of the park, where you can wade or paddle in the water, picnic on the sand, or hike the mile-long nature trail.
Photo: Pirates and Pixies
Whether your kids like stuffed animals, board games, puzzles, arts and crafts, musical instruments, dolls, books, or building blocks, something will strike their fancy at this exte-he-hensive toy store in Nags Head. You’ll recognize popular brand names like Melissa and Doug, Klutz, Mattel, and Calico Critters — but you’re pretty much guaranteed to discover tons of innovative creations you won’t find back home, too.
Photo: Paradise Fun Park
Mini-golf courses are sprinkled all across The Outer Banks, but Paradise Fun Park ups the ante with bumper cars, go-karts, an arcade, and even one of those crazy bungee-cord trampoline contraptions that will let your kids do high-springing flips. They’ll love exploring all 36 holes of the park’s two pirate-themed putt-putt courses that wind through dark caves, a pirate ship, waterfalls, and other ultra-impressive features. Between activities, take a quick break onsite for some ice cream, snacks, and drinks before heading out again for the next round.
8. Roanoke and Albemarle Sounds
The vastness of the ocean is a lot to take in, especially for young ones with wide eyes and vivid imaginations. Let them experience a taste of its wonder while staying comfortably within sight of land by going on a soundside dolphin-watching excursion.
Nags Head Dolphin Watch, Capt. Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours, and Paradise Dolphin Cruises all provide memorable tours with nearly 100% sighting rates. That’s the beauty — and the guarantee — of a family trip to The Outer Banks.