The Outer Banks are a series of barrier islands a few miles off the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. Once known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the number of shipwrecks off the coast, the Outer Banks now represents one of the top beach destinations on the eastern seaboard of the United States. While towns like Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head draw the most tourists each beach season, you’ll find numerous charming beach towns if you take North Carolina Route 12 north or south of the two main access bridges to the Outer Banks (Dare Memorial Bridge and Wright Memorial Bridge).
Corolla is the northernmost town on the Outer Banks, where Route 12 ends—to go further north, you have to drive on the beach! Corolla is famous for the wild horses that roam the area, which are believed to be descended from the domesticated horses of early Spanish explorers. As the last stop before you get to the off-road beaches and houses to the north, Corolla has numerous restaurants and shopping options. A short drive south on Route 12 takes you to the red brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse, built in 1875, which is open to visitors who are ready to take on its 220 steps in order to experience an amazing view of the surrounding area.
The town of Duck, located about 15 miles north of Nags Head and 15 miles south of Corolla, is a distinctive Outer Banks beachfront community in that it has a relatively defined downtown area. An array of restaurants and shops line the two-lane Route 12, which is speed-restricted in the area, and residents and visitors alike use bicycles and golf carts along the sides of the road. On the west side of the road, facing the Currituck Sound and the North Carolina mainland, Duck maintains the 11-acre Town Park and 3/4 mile boardwalk that offer a mix of nature trails, stunning sunset views, water sports, and restaurants and shops.
Unlike the beach towns that line the oceanfront of the Outer Banks, Manteo is a sound front community located on Roanoke Island between Croatan Sound and Roanoke Sound. Roanoke Island was the site of the first (failed) English settlement in North America in 1587, an event dramatized by the long-running “Lost Colony” outdoor show held each summer. Roanoke Island is also home to the North Carolina Aquarium, which is a great option for visiting families looking for a break from the beach. The town of Manteo itself has a picturesque downtown with a public marina, waterfront park, and a small lighthouse. Manteo is the seat of Dare County and has about 1,600 year-round residents.
Rodanthe, along with Waves and Salvo, make up the “Tri-Villages” found at roughly the north-south midpoint of the Outer Banks, around 30 miles south of Nags Head. The name is familiar to many because of the popular book (and movie) “Nights in Rodanthe,” but the community is far from being a bustling tourist destination. Instead, it remains a quiet beach village populated by anglers, surfers, and long-time locals, with charming beach houses for rent but no big hotels in sight. Once the location of a Croatan Indian settlement called Chicamacomico, Rodanthe is home to the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, which is now a museum. If you’re looking for somewhere to slow down and truly savor the natural beauty of the Outer Banks, Rodanthe is a great choice.
The village of Buxton sits at the northern edge of Hatteras Island, which marks the point where the Outer Banks take a sharp southwestward turn from their general north-south orientation. This makes for an obvious location for a lighthouse, and Buxton is indeed the home of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, built in 1870 and featuring an iconic black and white spiral paint pattern. More than 1 million visitors come each year to visit the lighthouse, but Buxton also offers great surfing and fishing, as well as campgrounds, rental properties, and shops. Buxton has a year-round population of about 1,300 and is a little over 50 miles south of Nags Head along Route 12.
Ocracoke, home to about 1,000 year-round residents, is the last village on the Outer Banks when traveling southward. Ocracoke sits near the opening to Pamlico Sound, and reaching the village requires a trip on a ferry coming from either the north or south. This isolation is Ocracoke’s major calling card, as it remains more pristine and undeveloped than nearly any other Outer Banks community. While there are homes for rent in the village itself, for instance, you will have to use the campground operated by the National Park Service if you want to stay right along the beach. Ocracoke has a nice mix of restaurants and shopping options but retains a casual vibe in both dress code and attitude.
The narrow strip of North Carolina barrier islands called the Outer Banks runs for about 175 miles and is dotted with towns and villages all along the way. Travelers can’t go wrong by visiting any of the six charming towns listed here or any of the other communities found along one of the east coast’s most popular and most beautiful shorelines. No matter what type of beach experience you seek, you can find it on the Outer Banks.