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The Best Free Things to Do in the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Claudia has been traveling to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for over 20 years.

Not everything in the Outer Banks costs money.  Check out this list of fun and free things to do on your next OBX beach vacation.

Not everything in the Outer Banks costs money. Check out this list of fun and free things to do on your next OBX beach vacation.

Free Things to Do in the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks on North Carolina's East Coast is a popular beach destination for many people. Stretching almost 200 miles, it is a chain of narrow barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. With its fascinating history, attractions and scenery, it's a beautiful area that offers something for every visitor. Of course, as everyone knows, vacations can get pricey. The good news is that you don't have to spend a lot of money in the Outer Banks to have a good time. There are many fun and free things to do in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and with the following suggestions, you are sure to find something for everyone in your group.

Welcome to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore!

Welcome to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore!

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Cape Hatteras National Seashore is located in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and doesn't cost a thing. It is approximately 70 miles long and begins around the Bodie Island Lighthouse and ends at Ocracoke, with small towns scattered along the way. The beaches are beautiful and relatively untouched in many areas. Bathroom and shower facilities are available at various points along the seashore as well as in some lifeguarded areas. Swimming is wonderful as is the sunbathing. Kids will love gathering seashells and playing in the waves. Don't forget to bring your bike, surfboard or kayak for even more outdoor fun. On a clear night go down to the beach and take advantage of the dark skies to stargaze. Take advantage of the numerous guided and interpretive programs available that are also free of charge.

Interesting fact: In 1999, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore was named a Globally Important Bird Area because it is a major stop for birds during migration.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Snowy Egret at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Snowy Egret at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

I'm partial to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. It's great for birders, especially in the spring and fall. About 13 miles long, it's located within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. There are a limited number of paths with the main one being next to the visitor center. Walk way out on the path and you'll come to overlooks that are perfect for bird watching and photography. If you're lucky, you may see snowy egrets, turtles, sandpipers and pelicans, and that's just a sampling. During warmer months, there are many interpretive walks/talks offered that are free of charge. Make sure to bring bug spray and wear protective clothing and a hat. It can get really buggy!

Interesting fact: The Pea Island Life Saving Station was the 1st life saving station in the U.S. to have an all black crew as well as a black commanding officer, Richard Etheridge.

Pea Island LifeSavers

Pea Island LifeSavers

Jockey's Ridge State Park

Jockey's Ridge State Park

Jockey's Ridge State Park

No visit to the Outer Banks is complete without a visit to Jockey's Ridge State Park. It provides hours of free entertainment for everyone. According to their official website, Jockey's Ridge is the tallest natural sand dune ridge in the Eastern U.S. Once you get to the top of the tallest dune you are rewarded with great views of the surrounding area. Even better is running down the dunes with friends and family. Bring a kite to fly or watch all the Hang-gliders in action. An added bonus is the fantastic workout you get walking up and down these amazing dunes. Bathroom facilities and a leg/foot rinsing station are available. It's particularly lovely in the evening or early morning.

Interesting fact: The dunes are always changing, so if you go back year after year, they may not look the same.

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Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful refuge near the Outer Banks and admission is free. Bring your canoe or kayak for a fun-filled day. There are 15 miles of coded paddling trails. You'll probably run into snakes and, if you're lucky, you may see a red wolf like the one pictured. The refuge is also home to the largest population of black bears in eastern North Carolina. If you don't have a canoe or kayak there are a number of hiking trails for use.

They recently opened a beautiful new visitor center with fascinating interactive exhibits. The refuge also offers free interpretive walks and, in the off-season, free tram rides around the park. This free attraction is definitely worth a visit, especially if you need a break from the sea.

Interesting fact: The refuge is home to about 100 endangered red wolves and is actively involved in their recovery.

Ocracoke Ferry

Ocracoke Ferry

Ocracoke Ferry

Run by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the ferry system in the Outer Banks is quite impressive. There are a number of different ferry routes, some have a charge, but some do not. If you want to get to Ocracoke Island, a popular island on the south end of the Outer Banks, you'll have to ride the ferry. The ferry ride from Hatteras to Ocracoke is about 50 minutes long and you can get out of your car and walk around the boat. Best of all, it's free! There are benches to sit on and watch the sea as you sail across it. Check out the schedule for ferry departure times. In the summer they run quite frequently, but there can be a long line. Locals and delivery trucks have a pass so they get on before anyone else, but this free attraction is worth the wait.

Interesting fact: Ocracoke was a hangout for the notorious pirate Blackbeard and it was here that he died.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Lighthouses

There are 4 Lighthouses accessible on the Outer Banks. There is a fee to climb the ones that are open to climb, but there is no fee to visit the grounds.

  • Hatteras Lighthouse - This lighthouse was moved a number of years ago because of fears that it would be destroyed by the ocean. There is a visitor center and an interesting museum which are both free of charge. There is a fee to climb up the lighthouse.
  • Bodie Lighthouse - While the lighthouse is not open for climbing, there is an interesting museum and boardwalk around the grounds. There is no charge for this attraction.
  • Ocracoke Lighthouse - Not open to the public, but the grounds can still be toured for a good view of the lighthouse.
  • Currituck Beach Lighthouse - There is a fee to climb this lighthouse, but not to tour the grounds.

Interesting fact: The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick structure ever moved.

Fort Raleigh

Located on Roanoke Island, Fort Raleigh is the home of the first English settlement in the New World. It was also the site of a colony of freed slaves during the Civil War. Free of charge, it has walking and hiking trails as well as an earthen fort to visit. The visitor center highlights historical events and the Native American history of the area. It also exhibits the famous story of the "lost colony". What happened to the first colonists, including Virginia Dare, the first baby born to the settlers, is still a mystery today. Within the Fort, you'll find the Elizabethan Gardens and a wonderful theatrical rendition of the "lost colony" story, both of which charge a fee.

Interesting fact: Before the first colony of families, better known as the "lost colony", there was a colony of explorers and soldiers on Roanoke Island.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Claudia Mitchell

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