Outer Banks things to do include fun and easy adventures to thrill the family, spark a romantic moment, or kick back and relax on the North Carolina coast. These Outer Banks activities and destinations will add fun and adventure to your OBX beach vacation.
Outer Banks Things to Do: Fun on the North Carolina Coast
Over 100 miles of beautiful beaches draw visitors to the Outer Banks. This long barrier island on the North Carolina coast is home to some of the best beaches and surf in the Eastern US. On the west side, the sound offers miles of calmer water adventures.
But even water lovers need a break from the beach. That’s why we’ve also rounded up things to do in OBX that go beyond, and above, the surf. These Outer Banks adventures deliver unique vacation fun, perfect for your next OBX trip.
Play in the Sun and Surf on Outer Banks Beaches
The highlight of any trip to the Outer Banks IS the beach. Whether you swim, surf, skim, fish, paddleboard, kayak, windsurf, kiteboard, or just sit, the beach is a major OBX draw. Best news—the beaches are also FREE. There is public beach access and free public parking from many locations along the coast. Note that the towns of Duck and Southern Shores limit beach access to residents and vacationers renting property in town. Most rentals and hotels on the Outer Banks will include beach access.
Enjoy Calmer Waters on the Outer Banks Sound
The Outer Banks is a series of barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Currituck, Albemarle, and Pamlico Sounds. (A sound is a waterway between the mainland and the barrier island.) In some northern OBX towns like Duck, the ocean and sound are only a half-mile apart, so you can easily explore both coastal environments. Many water activities are popular on the sound, including kayaking and paddleboarding, parasailing and crabbing. However, the sound is not great for swimming as the water near shore is fairly shallow and murky.
Watch a Magnificent Sunrise and Sunset in OBX
Truly unobstructed eastward views will greet you from practically every Outer Banks beach. OBX sunrises are spectacular! Even though sunrise is early, make it a point to witness at least one sunrise during your OBX vacation.
At the end of your day, head to the west side of the islands for beautiful sunsets over the sound. In our opinion, OBX sunrises are more impressive than sunsets. However, most people are awake for sunset, so sunsets are more widely celebrated (as at most beachside places). The boardwalk in Duck is one of the prettiest places to watch sunset over the sound. Stay at Sanderling Resort (details below) and you are steps from both beach and sound.
See more fantastic sunrise and sunset photos.
Go Horseback Riding with Equine Adventures
Have you always dreamed of riding a horse along a beautiful beach? Equine Adventures makes those dreams come true. A relaxing ride on a shady wooded trail leads to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore beach. Enjoy the beach at a comfortable walk, or feel the wind in your hair as you canter along the shore. Expert guides and people-friendly horses make this activity ideal for first-time riders and experienced equestrians. Horseback riding on the beach is a wonderful way to create special OBX memories.
Read more about our Equine Adventures experience on Equitrekking.
Take a Biplane Flight with OBX Biplanes
Soaring in an open cockpit biplane is one of the most unique Outer Banks activities we’ve tried, and it is a blast. OBX Biplanes offers three biplane tours from the Dare County Airport in Manteo. The views are incredible, and expert pilot, Larry, narrates the journey so you won’t miss a thing. The 30-minute Deluxe Air tour combines points north and south including Bodie Island Lighthouse, the Oregon Inlet, Wright Brothers Memorial, and Jockey’s Ridge with a spectacular flight over the beach. Give Larry the thumbs up to experience a “roller coaster ride” in the sky. Helicopter tours are also available.
Private Boating with Sail the Outer Banks
When you’ve spent enough time in the waves, it’s time to head out on the water. Sail the Outer Banks offers private OBX sailing charters from the Manteo waterfront. Owners Dan and Katherine Bottjen welcome you and your group on board their 41-foot Gulfport ketch. Choose a two-and-a-half to three-hour day sail, or experience a glorious sunset at sea. Relax and soak up the sun, or don the captain’s hat and take a turn at the helm. This is a private sail with just you and your friends on board, and you can bring your own drinks and snacks. Our sunset sailing departed at 4:15 and returned about 7:00; half an hour after sunset. Perfect timing for dinner in quaint downtown Manteo.
Kayak with Kitty Hawk Kayaks and Surf School
We’ve seen lots of sea and sound kayaking during our OBX vacations. For a unique experience, join Kitty Hawk Kayaks and Surf School on a guided eco-tour through the Kitty Hawk Woods Maritime Forest. This unique forest habitat is a beautiful environment for a relaxing flat-water journey. Your kayak tour will pass under the only covered bridge on the Outer Banks; perfect for a scenic photo opp.
As you paddle the river, your expert guide shares information about the ecology and history of the area. Keep an eye out for birds, otters, and other wildlife. Kitty Hawk Kayaks offers additional kayak tours and rentals, along with surf and SUP classes and rentals.
Find more kayaking adventures: Fun Places to Kayak in the US.
Hike and Hang Glide at Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the tallest and largest natural sand dune system in the Eastern US. The 426-acre park is a beautiful landscape for a lazy stroll or a challenging hike. The dunes shift and change, so every visit is unique. Start at the Visitor Center to learn about the ecology of the park and explore two self-guided trails.
The dunes are a spectacular location for kite flying, and you can watch hang gliders taking off from the dunes. Better yet, join Kitty Hawk Kites for a hang gliding lesson and take to the air yourself.
See the Wild Ponies with Corolla Outback Adventures
A highlight for most visitors to the Outer Banks is the chance to see wild horses in the dunes at the northern end of the barrier islands. Here, a herd of wild Mustangs, protected by a sound-to-sea fence, roams the beaches, oak forest, dunes, and small towns. Corolla Outback Adventures uses open-air trucks with fantastic visibility to tour the four-wheel-drive only area. You’ll learn about the horses, history, and geology of this unique area while you take a fun and sometimes bumpy ride through the dunes. The two-hour tour is $50 per adult, $25 for children 5 to 12, and you can book a private vehicle for up to eight persons.
Bike Riding on the Outer Banks
105 miles of OBX seashore is bordered by mostly level roads and many paved bike paths. The level terrain and relaxed pace make biking one of the favorite things to do on the Outer Banks for families. Ride the paved multi-use path from north Duck to Corolla, or head south to bike paths in Manteo, Ocracoke, and more. Bike rentals are available at towns and resorts up and down the coast.
Parasail over the Sound
What combines a float in the sky with a quick cooling dip? Parasailing over the Currituck Sound. Our teens enjoyed a fun three-person parasail with Kitty Hawk Watersports in Duck, and there are several other parasailing locations up and down the Outer Banks.
Visit the Lighthouses of the Outer Banks
Five beautiful lighthouses dot the Outer Banks coast, protecting ships from the dangers of the OBX shore. The lighthouses are favorite Outer Banks attractions for a dose of scenery and history. Three lighthouses are located in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, one of the best US coastal scenic drives, and two of them are open for climbing seasonally.
Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras Lighthouses are open to visitors who want to climb from late April through Columbus Day. Tours are offered through September, with self-guided climbing access in October. Even if you don’t want to climb, all 5 lighthouses are fun to visit.
- Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head: After a major restoration project the horizontally-striped Bodie Lighthouse reopened in 2013. The 156-foot tall structure has over 200 steps—the equivalent of climbing a 10-story building.
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Buxton: The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick beacon in the world standing 210 feet tall. The black and white spiral stripes warn mariners of shifting sandbars, known as Diamond Shoals, that extend almost twenty miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can climb the lighthouse’s 257 steps (equal to a 12-story building) seasonally.
- Ocracoke Lighthouse, Ocracoke: The second oldest operating lighthouse in the nation was built in 1823. The lighthouse is not open for climbing, but it’s a pretty location for photos. A boardwalk leads to a marsh offering more great views.
- Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Manteo: Small in stature, Roanoke Marshes is known as a screwpile lighthouse because it stands on piles screwed into the sea bottom. The current structure opened in 2004, an exact replica of the original, and is open to the public seasonally.
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Currituck: The red-brick Currituck Lighthouse is open from mid-March through November. Visitors can climb the 220 winding steps daily for a $10 admission fee.
Explore Outer Banks History
History may not be the first thing on most vacationer’s minds, but the North Carolina coast has interesting stories to tell. The first British settlers landed in America here in 1587, and you can learn about them at Lost Colony. This is also the birthplace of Virginia Dare, the first British child to be born in America. Dozens of shipwrecks and pirate encounters, including with the infamous Blackbeard, took place in OBX.
Learn Aviation History at Wright Brothers Memorial
The Wright Brothers National Memorial honors the Birthplace of Flight, where Wilbur and Orville Wright famously achieved man’s first flight. That flight did not come easy. The brothers honed their piloting skills in over 1,000 glides from the top of Kill Devil Hills, where a monument now stands. Explore the first flight paths, reconstructed camp buildings, and a life-size sculpture of that momentous flight. The Visitor Center reopened in 2018 after a major restoration with new exhibits including full-size replicas of the Wright Brothers 1902 Glider and 1903 Flyer.
Sample Local Craft Spirits
Tours and tastings have been a hit at Outer Banks Distilling since they opened their Manteo facility in 2014. The team lovingly produces barrel-aged Kill Devil Rum from top quality Louisiana molasses. The rum’s logo is based on a universal shipwreck symbol, but with Carolina Flare. Rum was once called kill devil, and the OBX town Kill Devil Hills was named for the rum barrels that popped up after a shipwreck. Clever townspeople would scavenge the barrels and hide them in the dunes. Tours at the distillery share the history and process of rum making and include tastings of both flagship and seasonal rums. We loved the special rum flavored with pecans and honey. Tours are available by reservation Tuesday through Friday and can get very busy in the summer months.
If beer is your preference, Lost Colony Brewery and Cafe, also in Manteo has you covered. They have a nice line-up of craft brews and a full menu in their downtown location.
Where to Stay During Your Outer Banks Getaway
Rental homes are a popular choice for families planning to vacation for a week or more on the Outer Banks. For OBX vacation rentals tips, see our article Outer Banks Vacation Rental Tips For Your North Carolina Beach Getaway.
But for a long weekend, or couples getaway, we highly recommend Sanderling Resort. Sanderling is luxurious, yet relaxed, and has an ideal sea to sound location in Northern Duck.
OBX is very narrow at Sanderling, which means you can easily watch sunrise on the beach, and sunset over the sound just steps from your room. Hotel rooms are spread among three buildings—the Beach House, South Inn, and North Inn—and all have private balconies or patios. The North Inn is geared to families, and it fronts the resort’s family pool. The South Inn is couple-oriented, and it overlooks the adult tranquility pool. We stayed in the Beach House, which is home to the resorts bar, and overlooks a fun fire pit.
Check Sanderling Resort reviews and availability now.
Whichever Sanderling Resort room you choose, you’ll have a comfortable place to relax and sleep, and quick access to a beautiful stretch of OBX beach.
Another lodging option is a vacation rental, usually a condo, apartment, or house. These are perfect for family gatherings or multigenerational vacations.
When to Visit North Carolina’s Outer Banks
The barrier islands of the Outer Banks are a very popular summer destination. Families like ours return every year for vacation fun in the sun. But OBX is also a great destination in the offseason. September and October are fantastic times to visit the Outer Banks. Crowds are gone, the weather is mild, and you can still try all of the Outer Banks activities on our list. Whenever you visit, you’ll find plenty of fun and easy adventures both on and off the OBX beaches.
Visit the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau web site for more OBX information.
Disclosure: We were guests of the Dare County and Outer Banks Visitors Bureau and Sanderling Resort for some of the experiences included here. As always, all opinions, photos, and text are our own. Our list of Outer Banks things to do is also based on our 16 years of family OBX vacations.
Article by Julie McCool, whose Northern Virginia travel site FuninFairfaxVA.com helps locals and visitors find fun places to explore, dine, drink, and play in the Virginia, Washington DC, and Maryland area.
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This article was published in 2019 and updated in 2020.