The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a series of barrier islands a few miles off the Atlantic coast. Long known by seafarers as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" because of the many shipwrecks, today’s Outer Banks are famous for having some of the best beaches on America’s eastern seaboard. Between the communities of Duck and Nags Head, the Outer Banks is basically a continuous strip of beach towns, while the towns become more spread out to the north and south. But no matter what part of the Outer Banks you choose to explore, you will find more than a few great small towns!
Because it is sandwiched between the better-known beach towns of Duck and Kitty Hawk, Southern Shores (population 3,100) gets less publicity than its neighbors. That said, Southern Shores has the same sandy beaches as the other nearby towns, along with beach shops, restaurants such as Steamers and Coastal Provisions, and access to two golf courses (Kilmarlic and Duck Woods). It is also the first community north of the Wright Memorial Bridge, which reduces the time beachgoers spend in summertime traffic jams. Additionally, Southern Shores has a great multipurpose trail that runs adjacent to Highway 12, allowing joggers, bikers, and rollerbladers to soak in the beauty of the surrounding trees, sand dunes, and gorgeous beach homes.
Kill Devil Hills
While it was part of the neighboring town of Kitty Hawk back in 1903, the uniquely-named town of Kill Devil Hills contains the location of the Wright Brothers’ famous first flight on December 17 of that year. Tourists interested in history, aviation, or just a couple hours away from the beach should visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial, with its 60-foot high granite monument, recreated Wright Flyer, and other indoor and outdoor exhibits. The town itself, with a year-round population of 7,600, is the largest on the Outer Banks, and has the biggest collection of shops and restaurants in the area. But it is still easy to find a quiet spot along Kill Devil Hills' sandy beaches.
Nags Head (population 3,100) was the original tourist area of the Outer Banks, starting around the mid-1800s, and is still one of the most popular towns along the entire barrier island chain. Some of the Outer Banks’ highest sand dunes are in Nags Head, and visitors who scale the highest dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park are rewarded with spectacular vistas in all directions. While much of the forest and dunes along the sound side of Nags Head is preserved, the rest of the town is bustling with beach homes, well-known shops like Kitty Hawk Kites, and family-friendly restaurants such as Tale of the Whale. Visitors to historic and beautiful Nags Head are truly right in the heart of the Outer Banks.
One of the "Tri-Villages," along with nearby Rodanthe and Waves, Salvo is well south of the busiest tourist towns of the Outer Banks. This little gem, home to only about 200 year-round residents, offers a slower pace and more serene environment than the bigger towns up north, but still provides plenty to do and see. Salvo offers pristine beaches, great fishing, and a rustic charm that is hard to match anywhere else along the Outer Banks. Its central location along the Outer Banks also make it a convenient base for exploring both north and south, with nearby highlights including the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Corolla is the northernmost Outer Banks town on the paved part of Route 12, meaning that travelers who want to head further have to let some air out of the tires of their 4-wheel drive vehicles and drive right on the beach. Because of its role as a "last-stop" oasis, Corolla has grocery stores, fast food joints, and gas stations, but also local retailers in the TimBuck II shopping center. Corolla is renowned for its wild horses, believed to be descendants of escaped horses from early Spanish explorers. Numerous wild horse tours are available. Corolla is also just a few miles north of the famous Currituck Lighthouse, built in 1875. A spectacular view awaits those visitors who climb its 220 winding steps.
The town of Duck is centrally located in the most populated (and popular) section of the Outer Banks, about halfway between Corolla and Nags Head. Unlike most Outer Banks towns, Duck has what amounts to a "main street" corridor along a reduced-speed section of Route 12. Tourists and locals alike use cars, bikes, and golf carts to visit plazas like the Waterfront Shops and Scarborough Faire. While Duck has fantastic beaches fronted by dunes and luxurious rental homes, the west side facing Currituck Sound is also impressive. The soundside, which provides fantastic sunset views, includes the 11-acre Town Park and a 1-mile boardwalk that passes shops, restaurants, and watersports rentals.
Manteo, the seat of Dare County and home to about 1,600 year-round residents, is not a beachfront town but rather a soundfront community located on Roanoke Island between Roanoke Sound and Croatan Sound. The town itself has a nice little downtown area with a public marina, waterfront park, and a small lighthouse, but the island’s most popular attractions are just outside of town. One attraction is the long-running "Lost Colony" outdoor show, which dramatizes the unknown fate of the first attempt at an English settlement in North America in 1587 on Roanoke Island. Another popular family attraction, especially on a rainy day, is the excellent North Carolina Aquarium.
The location of the small village of Buxton, on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, marks where the Outer Banks shifts its orientation back toward the mainland. This sharp turn made the area very dangerous to sailing ships, so the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its iconic black and white spiral design, was built in what is now Buxton in 1870. Approximately one million visitors come to see the world-famous lighthouse every year, but many of them miss out on enjoying Buxton’s charms. While Buxton mostly lacks bustling beach shops and restaurants, it is a haven for those seeking great fishing and/or surfing conditions. Likewise, instead of stately beach houses, Buxton offers more modest house rentals and campgrounds.
Ocracoke, which has approximately 1,000 year-round residents, is on an island near the opening to Pamlico Sound, making it the southernmost village on the Outer Banks. No bridges reach Ocracoke, so visitors and residents have to use the ferries that come from both the north and south. While some might call it inconvenient, this isolation is a big part of Ocracoke’s charm, leaving it more pristine and less developed than other parts of the Outer Banks. Instead of having giant beachfront homes to rent, for example, Ocracoke offers a beachfront campground operated by the National Park Service. The village also contains a decent selection of restaurants and shops, such as the Ocracoke Island Trading Company.
Tiny Rodanthe, home to about 200 year-round residents, joins nearby Waves and Salvo to make up the "Tri-Villages" near the north-south midpoint of the Outer Banks. Rodanthe earned bigger name recognition from the popular book (and subsequent movie) Nights in Rodanthe, but it has not transformed into a tourist mecca. Instead, Rodanthe retains its character as a quiet beach village populated by long-time locals, surfers, and fishermen and women. Formerly the location of Chicamacomico, a Croatan Indian settlement, Rodanthe is home to the historic Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station (now a museum). Rodanthe is a great place to slow down and truly savor the unique beauty and charm of the Outer Banks.
The small towns along North Carolina’s Outer Banks really do offer something for everyone. If you prefer a quiet getaway, try a more isolated hamlet like Rodanthe or Ocracoke. For more of a classic beach town vibe, try Kill Devil Hills or Nags Head. And do not forget about the northern beach towns like Duck and Corolla! No matter whether you head north or south along the Outer Banks, you are guaranteed to find great small towns to explore.