Claudia has been traveling to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for over 20 years.
For me, the beach is pretty much the best vacation destination ever. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy visiting other places as well, but when summer starts rolling around, I can just feel the sun in my hair and the sand in my toes.
As a family, we like to take different vacations each year, so we try to alternate between the beach and the mountains.
Every other year we start planning our beach vacation and we research various beaches we might want to visit. Inevitably, every single time, we decide to go back to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. We've gone since we've been married and both my husband and I went separately before we even knew each other.
It's an absolutely spectacular place to visit, and for us, it feels like we are going home, especially as we drive down the highway and get closer and closer to all of the familiar landmarks we love so much.
After years of visiting the Outer Banks I've come to realize that there are definitely some pitfalls that visitors can avoid with a just a little bit of research.
I hope these recommendations will help you if you are planning to visit.
Mistake #1 - Staying in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills or Nags Head
OK, this tip might cause a little discussion because this area is where most people stay, but check out the small towns south of this area, along highway 12. Towns like Avon, Waves, Frisco, Hatteras and Ocracoke all have beautiful vacation homes, but it's almost like a different world.
Sure, it takes extra time to get down there, but it's well worth the drive. There are far less people and the natural beauty is incredible. Miles and miles of empty beaches along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore await the visitor.
If you are looking for those traditional beach things like board walks or putt putt, you won't find it them in these more distant areas, but that is ok. We've never missed any of these glitzy beach amenities.
So if you want less crowds, beautiful natural scenery and the incredible serenity that an empty beach offers, then stay away from the more popular touristy areas like Nags Head, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills.
Even if you do stay in one of the more populated areas, take a day and drive down the coast. You won't regret it.
Mistake #2 - Visiting During the Height of Tourist Season
This mistake is pretty hard to avoid when you have kids and honestly, we go in the summer along with everybody else because our daughter is still in school. But if you can go in the off season then I highly recommend it.
It is pretty unbelievable how much cheaper the house rentals are, and how empty it is, both before summer gets into full swing, and when it is starting to end. Our favorite time to go is in the fall. The weather is ideal, unless a hurricane is on the horizon, the prices are right, and the crowds are practically nonexistent.
Mistake #3 - Driving on the Beach Unless You Have the Right Equipment
All along Highway 12 are beach access ramps for people to drive on to the beach, and it's really tempting to do it. Who wouldn't want to take a ride on the the sand?
Well before you do, make sure that you have:
- the right kind of vehicle
- that it is properly prepared
- that you have the right permits
You can't just jump on the first ramp you come to and cruise out to the ocean. We've seen many visitors stuck in the sand. And if you get stuck too close to the ocean, you run the risk of your vehicle getting wet.
The tow truck companies down there make a decent living off of all of the tourists who get stuck and believe me, it's a lot harder to drive on the beach than you might think.
But it sure is a lot of fun. We pack up our truck with everything we need for the day and easily find a parking spot on what is arguably the most beautiful parking lot in the world.
Mistake #4 - Not Visiting the Sound Side
The Outer Banks are a chain of barrier islands essentially in the Atlantic Ocean. On the one side is the ocean and on the other is the sound.
The sound is not to be missed. There really aren't any waves to speak of and the water is clear. Along the highway there are a number of access points where you can swim, wade, kayak, and kite board. The wildlife you can see is fascinating.
From hermit crabs to shore birds, it's a treasure for kids and adults alike. The national park service and other organizations offer canoe and wildlife viewing tours throughout the summer.
Lots of people I've spoken to didn't know about all of the fun to be found in the sound.
Mistake #5 - Missing the Sunrise
This one is kind of a no-brainer, but honestly, when I was younger I hated getting up early, so I never did.
Even if it's just one time during your visit, get to the beach before the sun comes up and enjoy the show. You won't regret it. If the weather forecast is good, I go out there every morning. I'm usually one of the only people out there, and the it's probably the most peaceful place I have ever been.
Where are the Outer Banks?
Uh Oh, It's Raining!
If it were up to me, the skies would always be clear at the beach, but sometimes it's just not meant to be.
I like to curl up with a good book on a covered porch in the house we rent and read the day away. If it's not raining too hard it's lots of fun to walk on the beach.
But sometimes you just have to get out of the house. Here are a few ideas to stay dry.
Some Things to do on a Rainy Day
Visit the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
Visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Hatteras
Visit the Wright Brothers National Monument's Visitor Center in Kill Devil Hills
Visit the Frisco Native American Museum in Frisco
If You Have Ever Visited the Outer Banks in North Carolina I'd Love to Hear From You
© 2017 Claudia Mitchell
Claudia Mitchell (author) on September 14, 2020:
I've not been those 2 months, so I can't help you out. I do know that things start shutting down in the fall, but not sure what it's like in the winter.
Kelsey on September 02, 2020:
Whats it like the end of December- Early January. Too cold to do anything? We are looking for a quiet vacation spot.
Adrienne on September 21, 2019:
My husband and I are currently driving back from OBX as I type this. We have been going for many years now. We love the natural beauty of this place. It truly is special and must be experienced to fully understand. I would like to say I completely agree with all your points in this post. We stay in the same house every year in Rodanthe in September. We love staying in the "middle" of the island because we can easily head North or South from our house. There are ni crowds there and the beaches are so beautifully untouched! This place is so magical and I love hearing how much other people love it!
Claudia Mitchell (author) on September 07, 2019:
I would not know that. You'd have to speak with the people you rented with. I hope everything works out with your beach rental.
Dennetria Wilmore on September 07, 2019:
We have a house rented in nags head on the beach week of Oct 5-13. I was wandering if there is a chance our rental will not be available due to hurricane that just hit?
Claudia Mitchell (author) on August 04, 2019:
I've never come up to the Outer Banks from the south, so not sure about the route you would take. As far as seeing everything, there is a lot to see and it depends on what you are interested in. So keep that in mind when planning. Also, depending on where you are staying, it can take a while to get to various areas, and if you are planning any ferry travel, that adds on a lot more time. Have a nice trip.
Catina Gray on August 03, 2019:
Trying to plan a trip and wonder what your suggestion would be. Driving up from Pawley's Island and not sure what's the best way to see everything. Sept 8-14, 2019. What are your suggestions?
Claudia Mitchell (author) on July 26, 2019:
Chris K - After this was published I realized I forgot to add Rodanthe. We've stayed there too! I need to go back and add it.
Chris K on July 25, 2019:
Why do you not list the first town after the Mainland, Rodanthe? That is where we’ve stayed every year we’ve been able to go.
Claudia Mitchell (author) on July 09, 2019:
Well, we've never camped so not sure about that. I can't help you with respect to the rain, but there are always mosquitos. I think their severity also depends on the rain. The mosquito population is different every year we go. Have fun!
Franco on July 08, 2019:
Hi Claudia thanks for the info. I have a question for you, what about camping in OB third week of July? is any problem with the mosquitos or rain?
Claudia Mitchell (author) on April 10, 2019:
You are so right OBX Visitor 100x's over. If we didn't have a school aged child, we'd go every fall. It's wonderful and so much cheaper at that time. Thanks for reading!
OBX VISITOR 100x's over on April 09, 2019:
To the "Empty Nesters" looking for an affordable place, let me STRONGLY suggest going in May or especially September or even October. The weather is still great and you can get a nice place that you can afford by yourself. My wife and I have done this for the last 10 years or so and places rent for as low as 25% of their mid-season rate.
Claudia Mitchell (author) on October 31, 2018:
The rental agencies usually have all sizes of properties available. Good luck.
Melissa on October 27, 2018:
When I looked for places to stay I find very large houses, can you suggest a place if it’s just a couple of empty nesters?
Claudia Mitchell (author) on October 19, 2018:
I imagine it's extremely difficult for locals to get around at the height of the season. Hopefully people will take your advice.
Wayvs on October 17, 2018:
By all means, come visit and enjoy yourselves. But please remember that some of us live here and have the misfortune of having to drive to Corolla to work every day. Winter time, no problem...summer time, pure misery. Please, please, PLEASE drive the speed limit. The biggest problem besides the sheer amount of people on the two lane road is far too many tourists driving well under the speed limit. The speed limit has just recently been changed to 45 pretty much all the way from Southern Shores to Corolla, save for Duck. And yet nary a work day passes that I don't get stuck in a line of cars behind someone driving 10 MPH or more under the limit. Pretty much every car has GPS these days, along with just about every phone, so trying not to miss a turn is not an excuse. Again, we welcome you with open arms and fully realize our livelihoods depend on you visiting repeatedly. We are not on vacation though and most of us are fortunate if we ever do get to take one. We just want to get to work on time and get home to our families after work so please be mindful and aware of those of us who live here and please drive 45...or 5 miles over if you really want to fit in ;)
Claudia Mitchell (author) on May 27, 2018:
Have a great trip. Dreaming of the beach right now.
Flopper on May 22, 2018:
We've been there 27 times and are set to go again in a couple of weeks. Have always stayed on Hatteras Island. Used to stay at Avon, which is nice, but for about 10 years have stayed in Rodanthe and love it there. Still have the quiet laid back feeling of the island but not too far from Nags Head or Kitty Hawk.
Mike olaughlin on March 20, 2018:
you didn't put Rodanthe on this list! I always stay there!
kelly on March 02, 2018:
I totally agree with you on all your points. I would never stay north of Buxton - the Sound is a underapreciated treasure, Fall (minus hurricanes) is awesome. Driving on the beach isn't my thing, I don't think beaches are for driving, I think they're for lying on the sand. But, your comment on not being prepared is on the money.
Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on February 24, 2018:
My mother is from North Carolina and I did my postdoc there but never got to the Outer Banks. I still have dreams of going there though some day. Thanks for the article and for all the great tips.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 01, 2018:
Thanks for your photos and tips about visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I have been to that state but never to the Outer Banks. It sounds like it would make for a wonderful vacation.
Leah Lefler from Western New York on January 16, 2018:
Thank you, Glimmer! I will look into the Avon/Waves area. We are planning a multi-generational trip so I am very excited to visit the area.
Claudia Mitchell (author) on January 16, 2018:
Hi Leah Lefler - Thanks for the comments! It is very time consuming to head up to Roanoke If you stay on Ocracoke but if you stay the whole day it's worth it. One of the big issues if you stay in Ocracoke is that you'll have to get the ferry there and back. The ferry adds a couple of hours each way and I'm not sure what the schedule is at certain hours. If you stay down in Avon/Waves/Salvo area (or even further south) it's more feasible to do the play and visit Manteo (the play is loads of fun!) for the day. Hope you go and have a wonderful time.
Leah Lefler from Western New York on January 15, 2018:
We still haven't been to the Outer Banks and it is on my list for this summer. Excellent article, Glimmer! I was originally eyeing the Kitty Hawk area, but I think that might be a little too crowded for our tastes. Perhaps we'll try Ocracoke instead! We did want to see the Lost Colony play on Roanoke Island. Is it difficult/time consuming to drive from one of the more remote locations back up to Roanoke for a day?
Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on December 08, 2017:
Hi Glimmer. Great look at the Outer Banks. We had never been until Sept of 2016 when we had a wedding in Corolla. It was a week long event so we had a chance to get to the Wright Brothers Memorial and to see the Spanish Mustangs. As you pointed out it's a beautiful area. Would love to return some day. Great job, loved the photos.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2017:
The scenes in your photos are so lovely. The area looks like a beautiful place to explore. Thanks for sharing all of the tips as well as the photos.
Claudia Mitchell (author) on November 26, 2017:
Hi Bill -
Happy Holidays to you as well and I'm sorry your traveling days are over. It's a great place to visit. I'm slowly trying to write more here than I have in a while. Thanks for reading.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 26, 2017:
I offer one more way to avoid those mistakes: I've never gone there and most likely never will. Not because they aren't fascinating, because they are, but I think my traveling days are over. Thanks for the abbreviated tour and Happy Holidays to you.