For more than 100 miles along the North Carolina Coast, The Outer Banks stretch into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. These massive sandbars are separated by sounds and waterways, connected by bridges and ferries. In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the best free things to do in The Outer Banks. Not only will they make your trip special, they’ll help you keep your costs down too -- ideal for a budget traveller! So, let’s check them out.
Visit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (and lots of other lighthouses too!)
The Outer Banks boasts several lighthouses, and there are three of them are definitely worth a visit. But let’s kick off with one of the most well known Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. This one isn’t where it was initially built – fears that it would be destroyed by the ocean meant it had to be moved. Check out the museum and visitor centre to learn more or walk the grounds admiring the country's tallest lighthouse. If you don’t mind shelling out a little bit, you can pay to actually climb 257 steps to the top of the lighthouse and enjoy the sublime views. Other cool lighthouse grounds you can visit for free are the Bodie Island Lighthouse and Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.
Explore the Beaches of OBX
Home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the USA, there are so many activities you can do on the beaches in the Outer Banks, all free to park and access. You can walk for miles along the sandy beaches or take a dip in the gently lapping waters. Beachcomb for shells to take home as a souvenir or to make a keepsake necklace. Feeling adventurous? Head to the beach at night, hunt among the sands for ghost crabs. If you’re up really early, you can watch one of the most beautiful sunrises.
There’s no end of things to on the beaches of the Outer Banks so be sure to check them all out– the Northern Beaches includes Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags head. Hatteras Island includes Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras Village. Our soundside towns on Roanoke Island include Manteo, Wanchese and the remaining Dare mainland.
Go birdwatching at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
One of the best things you can do in the Outer Banks is to visit Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, it’s around 13 miles of paths which criss-cross the park. You’ll not want to forget your binoculars or camera here as it’s an excellent spot for birdwatching and wildlife watching in general, all for free of course.
You can expect to see a plethora of wildlife including pelicans, egrets, and turtles. Visiting in summer is a chance to learn more about the area too, as there are often free interpretive walks and talks which are at no extra cost to you. Insider's tip: make sure to bring bug spray with you.
Take your canoe or kayak to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Another part of the Outer Banks that you’ll want to search for is the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This is the perfect spot if you’re into canoeing or kayaking. Bring your own, or look into renting one (for a small charge). There are more than 15 miles of canoe and kayaking paddling trails.Want a faster mode of transportation while still on the water? Take a day trip to Ocracoke Island by hoping on the free vehicle ferry in Hatteras Village or park your car at the docks and take the passenger ferry for only $2 per person. Feel free to roll your bike along or bring a picnic lunch.
If you are looking to stay grounded, there’s still plenty to offer. The National Wildlife Visitor Centre is on Roanoke Island and it’s open through the week so you can find out more about what’s happening in the area. As well as being a habitat for alligators, you’ll also get to learn more about the black bears, migratory birds, and red wolves that live here. After viewing the interactive exhibits at the centre, you’ll be able to go on refuge walks and take a tram ride around the park.
Fly a kite on Jockey’s Ridge
Jockey’s Ride State Park is the tallest active sand dune system in the Eastern United States and the most visited park in North Carolina. So, we’d definitely recommend that you head there too. As well as watching the stunning sunsets from here, it’s an incredible place to fly a kite.
Hike in Nags Head Woods
Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Jockey’s Ridge, you have Nags Head Woods. The town is a fun and entertaining vacation town but it's just as easy to slip away from that and enjoy nearby nature. The Nags Head Woods Preserve is a pristine maritime forest which is stunning to hike through. It’s a great place to take some shelter from the sun and enjoy a stroll after visiting the Nature Conservancy.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site has history galore
Last but not least on our list of the best free things to do in The Outer Banks is Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Considered one of the first of England’s attempted new world settlements, it dates back to the late 16th century. Here, you can learn about the cultural heritage of the native Americans who lived here, as well as the European and African Americans who lived on Roanoke island.
So, now you know the best free things to do in The Outer Banks…
It’s time to get planning your trip. For more inspiration, check out our 60 item Bucket List and view more itineraries for you, your family, or friends when visiting this beautiful strip of islands in Coastal North Carolina.