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.

1. Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Horseback Riding on Cape Hatteras Seashore


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 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is undergoing a restoration during 2024 and climbing is not permitted however.) 

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.)

2. The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island + Jennette’s Pier

Jennette's Pier Outerbanks, NC


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.

3. Wright Brothers National Memorial

Wright Brothers Memorial Outer Banks, NC


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.

4. Donutz on a Stick & Ice Cream

Ice Cream and Donuts

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 Cream stands 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!

5. Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Hang-Gliding at Jockeys Ridge State Park

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.


6. Mini Golf and adventure parks

Go-Carting at Paradise Fun Park

Photo: Paradise Fun Park

Mini-golf courses and adventure parks are sprinkled all across the Outer Banks with with bumper cars, go-karts, an arcade, and even climbing obstacle courses. Your kids will love exploring 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 for some ice cream, snacks, and drinks before heading out again for the next round.

7. Roanoke and Albemarle Sounds

Dolphins in Outerbanks, NC


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 WatchCapt. 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.