Family Time at the Outer Banks

There are good reasons why vacationers flock to North Carolina's Outer Banks year after year. The beaches are expansive and largely unspoiled, the weather is vacation-friendly, the locals are gracious and, perhaps most importantly, there's plenty to do when the beach gets old.

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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cathy Ashby (Carolina Parent staff writer)
NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Vacationers from the Triangle know they're almost to the Outer Banks when they cross the bridge over the Alligator River. Mere mention of the river's name puts an abrupt end to travel-weary bickering and dramatic "I'm bored" sighs. For a few mercifully quiet minutes during the bridge-crossing, all eyes are scanning the water for signs of reptile life, and the only sounds you hear are the hushed whispers of your children: "Are there really alligators in there?"

From that point onward, your surroundings evolve quickly — from monotonous marshlands to the familiar trappings of oceanside communities. Wherever your final destination along the Outer Banks, you know you've arrived the moment you start to smell the salt water.

There are good reasons why vacationers flock to North Carolina's Outer Banks year after year after year. The beaches are expansive and largely unspoiled by commercial interests. The weather is vacation-friendly for seven — sometimes eight — months a year. The locals are gracious. And, perhaps most importantly, there's plenty to do when the beach gets old. Because, let's be honest, the beach does get old. A person can take only so many hours of boogie-boarding, sandcastle-building and kite-flying before the need for shade and a change of scenery becomes overwhelming.

From northern tip to southern toe, the communities that dot the Outer Banks welcome tourists with museums, historic sites, family attractions and, of course, four famous lighthouses. Whether you're renting a house in Duck or a motel room in Buxton, there are plenty of educational and recreational activities to keep you occupied while you're taking a break from the sand and the surf.

To the North

At the northern-most point of the Outer Banks, just a few miles before the main highway ends and four-wheel drive access begins, you'll find the village of Corolla. There, spotted easily above the lush tree line, the red bricks of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse welcome visitors for a vigorous climb or a stroll around the surrounding shady compound. This lighthouse, built in 1875, is one of two on the Outer Banks that allow visitors to climb. The lighthouse is free for children 8 and under. Call 877-OBX-4FUN to verify lighthouse hours and ask about group rates.

After a 20-minute drive south — past palatial, multi-family oceanfront homes and through the upscale village of Duck — you'll find yourselves in Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers National Memorial awaits. This monument to Orville Wright's first manned flight in 1903 offers a unique overview of the principles and history of flight. A visitor center and a reconstruction of the Wright brothers' camp flank the spot where the first airplane flew. The monument itself sits atop 90-foot Kill Devil Hill. Prep for your visit with downloadable information and lesson plans from the park's Web site. Children's programs are available. Call 252-441-7430 or visit for more information.

In nearby Nags Head, Jockey's Ridge State Park attracts visitors and hang gliders by the thousands. And with good reason. The tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern United States, Jockey's Ridge offers spectacular sunset views, interesting nature trails and great opportunities to watch gliders in action. Bring water, sunscreen and closed-toe shoes for everyone—the sand is too hot for unprotected feet. Stop by the visitor center to locate picnic areas and restrooms and to learn about swimming, sail-boarding and sand-boarding options. The park is free. Call 252-441-7132 or visit for details.

To the South

Although the Bodie Island Lighthouse isn't open to the public, it's worth a quick stop on your drive from Nags Head to the southern reaches of the Outer Banks. This 156-foot lighthouse, built in 1847, is still in operation. A visitor center and bookstore are open year round. The site is free. Call 252-441-5711 or visit for information.

Bird lovers flock to the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge hoping to catch glimpses of the 6,000-acre refuge's winged and feathered inhabitants. Throughout the year, more than 360 species of birds, including ducks and geese, call the refuge home. A series of walking trails and observation decks make bird-watching fun and easy. Call ahead to ask about canoe tours and interpretive programs. The site is free, although there is a charge for some programs. Call 252-987-2394 for more information.

The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site in Rodanthe is one of the country's first and most well preserved coastal rescue stations. A precursor to what is now the U.S. Coast Guard, these life-saving stations along the East Coast saved hundreds of lives following shipwrecks, sailing accidents and other maritime mishaps. Restored buildings, museum programs, artifacts, exhibits and a museum shop bring stories of bravery, tragedy and near-tragedy to life. Call 252-987-1552 or  visit for details.

Arguably the most recognizable brick lighthouse in the U.S., the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is also the tallest. At 208 feet, the majestic, spiral-striped lighthouse is open for climbing seasonally and offers unparalleled opportunities for coastal viewing and photography. Be prepared for tight quarters and a steep climb, and don't forget your camera. Call 252-995-4474 or visit for information.

Ocracoke Island, once home to Blackbeard the Pirate, is easily a day trip of its own. The lovely 14-mile island is accessible from the north via the free Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry, a 40-minute crossing that is neither too long nor too short for young sea travelers. After a quick drive to Ocracoke Village, visitors will find charming shops, art galleries, restaurants and recreational activities. The Ocracoke Lighthouse, built in 1823, is the oldest working beacon in the U.S. It's not open for climbing. Call 252-928-6711 or visit for details.

To the West

After passing through Roanoke Island on your way to the Outer Banks, you might be surprised to learn that the small strip of land houses quite a few family-friendly attractions, including one of North Carolina's finest aquariums.

The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island contains freshwater and saltwater exhibits, including the 35-foot "Graveyard of the Atlantic," which houses sharks, sea turtles and hundreds of fish, an otter exhibit where three, playful otters keep visitors entertained, and several large touch tanks that delight visitors young and old. Call 252-473-3494 or visit for information.

Nearby, the Elizabethan Gardens offers a cool, shady alternative to the afternoon sun. Wander along the garden's paths, surrounded by lush foliage and fragrant flowers. Relax in the sound-side gazebo. And search for hidden topiary animals. Ask about self-guided tours and children's scavenger hunt activities. Call 252-473-3234 or visit for details.

While you're on the island, plan to enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner on the Manteo waterfront, where small shops, galleries and restaurants line narrow streets and children's happy shrieks can be heard from the public playground beside the docks.

The tragic story of Roanoke Island's first English settlers comes alive at Fort Raleigh with reconstructions, family programs, nature trails and a seasonal outdoor drama. The grounds and visitors center at Fort Raleigh are free and open year round. Call 252-473-5772 or visit for details. The Lost Colony productions are staged seasonally, Monday through Saturday at 8:30 p.m., in the Waterside Theatre. Call 252-473-3414 or visit for ticket information.
Travel Tidbits

• Drive time from downtown Raleigh to Nags Head is just under four hours, with two short stops. Add time for travel along the island if Nags Head is not your final destination and for traffic if you're arriving during peak check-in hours.

• The Outer Banks Welcome Center is located on the right, just as you cross the Virginia Dare Bridge onto Roanoke Island. Ask for directions and gather information about local family activities, golf, lodging, restaurants and more. To plan the details of your trip in advance, call (877) OBX-4FUN or visit

• Beach-worthy weather extends well into the fall on the Outer Banks. Enjoy off-peak rates and less crowded beaches when you plan your vacation in September or early October.

Home rentals are available to fit every budget—from totally affordable to completely outrageous. Start your search with these popular companies or log on to the Internet and investigate on your own:

• Village Realty, 800-548-9688,

• Carolina Designs, 800-368-3825,

• Sun Realty, 800-334-4745,

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