Road Trip: North Carolina's Outer Banks

This chain of barrier islands has six towns, and 12 coastal villages -- and no two of them are alike.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a magical chain of barrier islands with undeveloped beaches, six towns, and 12 coastal villages -- and the Outer Banks Scenic Byway offers road trip enthusiasts miles of off-road beach driving accessible year-round to explore coastlines, wildlife, fishing, surfing and more.

Outer Banks
Sunrise as seen from the sand dunes at the Outer Banks, NC around Corolla Beach RickSause/Getty

"If a person gets bored down here, it's their fault," said Bill Vangura, who has lived in the Outer Banks for 21 years. "You've always got something to do."

He left Baltimore for the Outer Banks after falling in love with it while on vacation. "I looked up and down the beach and I was the only person here, and I said 'this is for me,'" he said.

Many tourists descend upon the Outer Banks during the summer. But the fall is just as good a time to go, perhaps even more so. The crowds are gone, the weather is warm, and travelers can get great value for their money.

Visitors can rent homes in one of the towns or villages. Dining options are plentiful from the apple uglies people line up for at Orange Blossom Bakery and Café on Hatteras Island to made-to-order Duck Donuts in Nags Head to fresh seafood at historic Owens' Restaurant, also in Nags Head, to fine dining at the Sanderling Resort in Duck.

Here are a few highlights for an Outer Banks road trip.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took turns piloting the airplane they had built, the Wright Flyer, on a secluded spot in Kill Devil Hills. The plane ascended and descended four times. A plaque at the memorial proudly declares it to be the first successful flight of an airplane.

North Carolina has claimed the right to say it was First in Flight. (The Wright Brothers were from Ohio and made many of their plans there, so Ohio says it is the Birthplace of Aviation.)

The Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center re-opened last October after an 18-month restoration and upgrade. Inside are interactive, family-friendly exhibits plus a replica of the Wright Flyer.

Outside are reconstructed buildings showing the camp that the brothers set up, which included a wooden hangar. There are large stone markings on each of the four spots where the plane landed. Orville piloted the first flight, which lasted 12 seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet. The second flight, piloted by Wilbur, lasted 12 seconds and traveled 175 feet. Orville took over the third flight, which went for 15 seconds and 200 feet. The fourth flight was the longest at 59 seconds and 852 feet. Wilbur was the final pilot.

For an Instagram-worthy moment, visitors can climb onto a bronze and steel sculpture of the plane located on the outside grounds.

Cape Hatteras Light Station

Cape Hatteras
The 129-year-old Cape Hatteras Lighthouse rests at its new location 2,900 feet (870 meters) from the Atlantic Ocean 11 July 1999. The lighthouse was moved from its original location because beach erosion had moved the shoreline too close to the structure. Getty

At 210 feet, this spiral-striped structure is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. Construction was completed in 1870. The beacon warns mariners of the Diamond Shoals, a shifting sandbar that extends almost 20 miles off Cape Hatteras into the Atlantic Ocean.

The area earned the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic for the number of shipwrecks that occurred there. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, located in Hatteras Village, tells the history of those shipwrecks.

In 1999, beach erosion forced the National Park Service to move the lighthouse 2,900 feet in 23 days. It now sits 1,500 feet from the seashore.

Visitors can climb the lighthouse from mid-April to Columbus Day for expansive views of the beach. Be warned: The climb is steep and winding but there are spots to take breaks along the way and gaze outside the window.

STAR at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island

On a recent day, Amber Hitt, manager of the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center, was treating a sea turtle that had been found on a fishing pier looking too skinny. His blood sugar was low, and he was dehydrated. She was giving him glucose and fluids.

"The first 24 to 48 hours are crucial," she said.

Sea turtles are endangered for a number of reasons, including plastics in the ocean, over hunting and overdevelopment on beaches.

Five of seven sea turtle species live in North Carolina waters: the loggerhead, the green, hawksbill, Kemp's ridley, and leatherback

This winter, 60 to 70 injured sea turtles were brought in to be rehabilitated. One winter, they had as many as 600.

The center has managed to rehabilitate and release 800 turtles in the last few years.

Outer Banks Distilling Company

Years ago, four friends met while working at a local brewery. Over beer and rum, they decided that the Outer Banks was in need of a craft distillery. They found a historic building in the town of Manteo.

The distillery now makes three types of Kill Devil Rum—kill-devil is what rum was referred to in the 1600s. Their production level has reached 7,500 cases a year. They also have a limited edition Shipwreck series.

"We do everything here from raw ingredients," said Scott Smith, one of the founders. "We don't do anything pre-made."

Visitors can take tours of the distillery, and there's a tasting room decorated in a shipwreck theme.

"We've been trying to turn this place almost into a mini shipwreck museum," he said.

Hatteras Saltworks

Brian and Shaena McMahon have studied the art of salt-making all over the world. But when it came time to start their own salt farm, they settled on Hatteras Island. The warm Gulf Stream and the cool Labrador Current give the location a source of high mineral content and high salinity ocean water.

They created solar ovens with reused materials. The ovens evaporate the water while maintaining the mineral content. They then hand pick the sea salt in their packaging facility, breaking down the crystals before drying them once again in the ovens.

The couple sell their salt online and at farmer's markets. "The local support is what keeps us going," Brian McMahon said.

He said the salt making community is growing around the country. "There are more and more popping up because it is something you do need," he said.

Jockey's Ridge State Park

Head to Nags Head to tour this 426-acre park, which has the tallest natural sand dune system on the Atlantic coast. Visitors can see the ocean all to the way to the Roanoke Sound.

Jockeys ridge
Jockey Ridge State Park, North Carolina, the tallest natural sand dune on the East coast located in Nags Head, North Carolina. Buyenlarge/Getty

The park is a popular spot for hang gliding, kite flying, hiking, and picnicking. A visitor center with a museum and a 360-foot boardwalk explains the dune's ecology.

There is also access to the park from the sound, where visitors can sunbathe and paddle. A one-mile nature trail opens up into wetlands and grassy dunes.

Exploring the water

There are a number of ways to experience the water in the Outer Banks.

For the more active and adventurous, Equine Adventures offers guided horseback riding to the beach. The horses take riders along the south end of Hatteras Island through the Maritime forest of Frisco. Once they hit the beach, they can either take a leisurely stroll along the water or race down the beach with their horses.

Private sail charters are also widely available. Sail Outer Banks can fit six people in a 41-foot Gulfstar for sunset sails of up to three hours from the Manteo Waterfront. The sails can be interactive. Captain Dan Bottjen lets his guests take turns at the helm or adjust lines.

During a recent sunset, the boat was cruising with the engine turned off. It passed an osprey nest. There was silence. "This is therapy," Dan's wife Katherine, the co-captain, said.

For those who want to get to know the crabbing and fishing community, they can book an adventure through OBX Crabbing. (OBX is what the Outer Banks is often referred to as.)

Captain Marc Mitchum of OBX Crabbing took a group out for crabbing on a recent afternoon.

Crab season was ending but Mitchum managed to catch some blue crabs. He had to throw quite a few back in, though, because they were smaller than five inches.

"You have to give them a chance to grow," he said.

The crabs had a beautiful combination of blue, copper and orange coloring. And the cruise was pleasant with pelicans flying over the boat.

Fishing is a way of life in the Outer Banks. Back on shore at Oden's Dock, Tony Olivis, who lives in Baltimore, had just returned from a fishing trip. He was happy with the fish he caught.

"I'm a fisherman at heart," he said. "I love the environment down here."