On North Carolina’s Outer Banks — a ribbon-thin strip of barrier islands covered in sand and maritime woods and stretching for more than 100 miles — active getaways are king. There are lighthouses and dunes to climb, forests and boardwalks to stroll, trails to tackle, and shores to wander. With so many options to consider, with so many landscapes to choose from, where do you start?
* Easy. Almost as relaxing as napping in a hammock.
** Moderate. No more difficult than an active day at the beach.
*** Strenuous. Stretch or you’ll be sore tomorrow!
Whether you’re triathlon training or in search of some shade, strap on your hiking sandals, boots, or running shoes — here’s how and where to get moving.
Nags Head Woods Preserve
On the soundside opposite the Nags Head Fishing Pier, Nags Head Woods protects 1,400+ acres of forested dunes, interdune ponds, and plenty of wildlife. The forest and terrain here provide hikes that feel more like something you’d find on the mainland — maritime forests like this are truly few and far between.
A pair of trails join to make a long scenic loop, while two other trails lead to Roanoke Sound, giving those with mobility issues the opportunity to explore. Here’s the rundown:
Center Loop Trail (*) – A quick .25-mile loop by the visitor center, this kid- friendly route gives a good idea of the trail ahead. Signage helps you name the trees and other flora, and the ponds you see are home to some 100+ species of birds. The loop connects to…
Sweetgum Swamp Trail (***) – This two-mile lollipop trail ascends the wooded dune ridge and follows the terrain up and over rises, down a sandy sway, and along the flanks of interdune and seasonal ponds. A few steep-ish sections and some stairs, combined with the length of the trail, make it one of the area’s more strenuous hikes.
Roanoke Trail (**) – This flat, 1.5-mile trek leads to Roanoke Sound and back, and along the way an audio tour (triggered by QR codes scanned with your smartphone) tells the story of families who lived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
ADA Trail (*) – A half-mile loop circling an interdune pond and passing through a maritime swamp forest. The mix of concrete path and wooden boardwalk makes it a good choice for hikers of any ability.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the first in the country to receive such a designation, stretches for more than 70 miles along the narrowest section of the Outer Banks. A prime spot for surfing, kiteboarding, fishing, and birdwatching — and seal watching come winter! — Hatteras draws outdoors lovers of all stripes, not just those on two feet. Apart from wandering the sand, check out these trails:
Buxton Woods Trail (*) – Looping through the Buxton Woods Preserve for .75 mile, this is a gentle trail surrounded by a scrubby maritime forest. It’s an easy way to stretch your legs before you stop by the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse or head out on a longer hike — for example…
Open Ponds Trail (***) – 4.5 miles one-way, Open Ponds Trail takes you among the dunes, along interdune ponds, and into the maritime forest. Between the length of the trail, the sandy terrain, and the lack of shade, it’s certainly a challenging hike, but the reward is you’ll likely have it to yourself.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Home to the tallest active sand dune in the eastern US and a paper airplane’s throw from where the Wright Brothers first took flight, Jockey’s Ridge is a sight. The towering sand — topping 60 feet — is surrounded by two trails that lead to Roanoke Sound:
Tracks in the Sand Trail (**) – Marked with easy-to-spot trail posts that lead across the sand to the sound, this trek clocks in at 1.2 miles round-trip. The sand can be extremely hot (don’t go barefoot!), and you should bring water and a hat and slather on the sunscreen before you go. Pamphlets near the trailhead outline the different animal tracks found on the dunes.
Soundside Nature Trail (*) – This .6-mile loop wanders through the dunes and scrubby woods on the west side of Jockey’s Ridge State Park. A spur trail leads to a secluded beach on the shallow and lovely Roanoke Sound.
You can go off-trail to explore as you wish, too, stopping to sled down the steep, sandy faces or even going hang-gliding off the tallest dune (contact the folks at Kitty Hawk Kites for that one).
Two boardwalks at opposite ends of the Outer Banks provide a taste of what feels like age-old tradition. The first, at Hatteras Village, is mainly a good distraction from shopping and grabbing lunch, though you can find some pretty Instagram shots on the short boardwalk. The second, in Duck, is an absolute gem:
Duck Boardwalk (*) – Picturesque at any time of day — but positively gorgeous around sunset — the .62-mile Duck Boardwalk traces the shore of Currituck Sound, passes through several small shopping areas (stop and grab a bite from the original Duck Donuts), and wanders along the edge of a maritime forest and willow swamp. Allow more time for this one than you might anticipate!
If you’re a sucker for a “long walk on the beach,” be careful what you wish for. Here in the OBX, you can start in Duck and walk all the way to Nags Head, a 30- mile shoreside trek — or take on the whole Cape Hatteras National Seashore for another secluded 70 miles.
For something a little shorter than a thru-hike, joggers and walkers opt for the paths along NC-12, aka “Beach Road” — though stepping out on the sand near your hotel and going for a stroll works, too. Here are a couple tried and true ways to pound the beachside pavement:
NC-12/Beach Road (* to ***, depending on distance) – Walking and biking paths lie parallel to this old oceanfront highway through Duck and Southern Shores and from Kitty Hawk all the way down to Nags Head. The path varies in terms of shade, terrain, and width — the best, shadiest stretches are found in Duck and Southern Shores.
Hatteras Island NC-12 Path (* to ***, depending on distance) – This multi-use path connects the villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo with a roadside biking/walking path and fun over-water sections of elevated boardwalk.
Any visit to the Outer Banks should include time to see its lighthouses, long- standing reminders of the area’s wild seafaring history. But you can do more than “see” them — both the Bodie Island Lighthouse and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse are open for climbing at certain times of the year. Plus, they’re crazy photogenic, from both the bottom and the top.
**The lighthouses have climbing restrictions, please check their website for updated COVID info.
Bodie Island Lighthouse (**) – The 214 steps to the top of this lighthouse make for a fine climb. With its distinctive horizontal black and white stripes, the view from the base is great, but the view from the top is jaw-dropping. Hold tight to your hat and camera up there, it’s windy.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (**) – You’ll climb 257 steps to the top of North Carolina’s tallest lighthouse. The barbershop spiral of its black and white stripes has made it the most recognizable as well, and — fun fact — it’s also the tallest brick lighthouse on the continent!
To climb either lighthouse, tickets are required and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
A little R&R is easy to find on the Outer Banks, a place known for its undeveloped stretches of shoreline and quiet, laid-back vibes. Accommodations range from grand oceanfront vacation homes, to soundside stays with sunset views, to resorts and well-known hotels. Here are just a few favorites:
Seaside Vacations and Southern Shores Realty have homes along the entirety of the Outer Banks, fronting both the ocean and the sound. Shoulder season rates tend to be less expensive, but get a group together and your wallet can live it up even in high summer.
RV resorts and campgrounds
For more time well-spent outdoors, Frisco Woods Campground is right on Pamlico Sound, part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. They can accommodate you whether you’re the RV, tent, or cabin type. Camp Hatteras RV Resort and Campground has 1,000 feet of ocean and sound access, plus a number of amenities you wouldn’t expect — like mini-golf, a jacuzzi, and a food truck onsite.
Hotels you know
First Colony Inn puts you in Nags Head, with excellent guest rooms and luxury suites with wet bars, small kitchens, a few screened porches, and a handful of hot tubs. Your front door will be a hop and a skip away from Jennette’s Pier and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The Tranquil House Inn is a boutique hotel in Manteo, on Roanoke Island. Twenty-five rooms — think four-poster beds and 19th-century charm — overlook the historic Manteo waterfront and Shallowbag Bay. Beaches, boardwalks, and breweries are all steps away, and wine and cheese will be waiting when you return from the day’s adventure. A reward for all that footwork!