“From the northernmost portion of the Outer Banks to the southern tip of Hatteras, the Outer Banks Scenic Byway is something like a dream. The majestic drive transports you from untouched nature to eclectic small towns all from the comfort of your own car. While there’s plenty of must-do drives in the United States, this certainly makes a Top 10 slot.” –Only In Your State
Who’s ready for a road trip? Take the scenic route of N.C. Highway 12 as it winds you along the coast, and be escorted through the history, calming beauty, and relaxed culture of the Outer Banks. Shaped by its rich past, the Outer Banks survives by preserving its local spirit and traditions. Driving along this 148-mile, two-lane highway will allow you to absorb this unique culture. We summarize a few of the can’t-miss activities and sites to participate in here:
The journey begins on Carova Beach, where if you have access to a proper vehicle, you can drive along the shore to spot wild horses. These Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs were left stranded nearly 500 years ago and are carefully observed and protected each year!
Following N.C. 12 down to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, this is the first of four lighthouses to see on your drive. Left unpainted, the Outer Banks’ northernmost lighthouse delivers a birds-eye view of the area you’re about to explore. Next door, the Whalehead Estate will educate you on its past as a Shooting Club. Take a tour and hear about its haunted history!
Heading just a few miles south to Duck, drivers will find a slew of locally-owned boutiques and restaurants along its narrow path. The culture of the Outer Banks remains familiar and operates as a community through its small businesses and local restaurants. Show your support by stopping in at one of these like Lifesaving Station, Roadside Grill, or Coastal Cravings.
Navigate to Kill Devil Hills to access the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Truly embrace the achievement of the famous flyers with an interactive tour of where it all took place!
As you pass through Nags Head, follow the signs to merge onto the Outer Banks Scenic Byway and back onto N.C. 12, where the Outer Bank’s beauty is truly on display. Prepare to see desert-like scenery, wide-open beaches, and historic landmarks. On one side of the road, quiet marshes and the Pamlico Sound, on the other, high dunes and clear ocean waves- you won’t know which way to look!
As you travel through the Bypass, veer right to turn onto Bodie Island Lighthouse Road and make a stop at the Bodie Island Lighthouse. The structure seen today is actually the third version of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. Originally torn down because of its insufficient foundation, it was re-built and then blown up by the Confederate troops in the Civil War!
Another hotspot to check out as you wind along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Beginning in 1937, this 13-mile stretch was created to serve as a sanctuary for migratory birds and other wildlife. Explore the serene nature trails or kayak along the shore for some guaranteed scenic views as hundreds of thousands of birds make a “pit-stop” on their journey.
Cast a line at the famous fishing spot, Cape Point. A favorite pastime, locals will tell you this is one of the best spots on the Outer Banks for a good catch. As the island begins to bend westward, the waters of the Gulf Stream meet the Labrador Current. The intersection of these warm and cold currents attract a wide variety of fish. With a permit and 4WD vehicle, this is another can’t-miss opportunity!
The third lighthouse on your drive, the Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the biggest attractions on the island. Built in 1803, this lighthouse was later demolished and eventually perfected as the one you can visit today. With 269 steps to the top, it’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S.!
*Fun Fact: One of the issues in the first Hatteras Lighthouse was that it’s unpainted bricks caused it to blend into the background. It was eventually painted with contrasting colors (black and white), so that sailors could see it more clearly in the night. The structure was moved from its original position in 1999 due to fears of erosion.*
Hop onto an hour-long, free ferry ride from Hatteras to your next destination: Ocracoke. This spot has been a popular one since as early as the 1530’s, when European explorers would stop to make repairs. After its main operation as a shipping port began to wane, small restaurants and shops sprouted to boost tourism. Today, the island’s intimate and rustic charm attracts thousands of visitors each year. One of its biggest attractions to visit is the Ocracoke Lighthouse, which is sure to give you an appreciation for these lifesaving landmarks.
*Fun Fact: The Ocracoke Light is the longest operating lighthouse in the U.S.!*
Take advantage of the uncrowded beaches on Ocracoke and watch the waves roll in on your last stop on this scenic drive.
We hope these ideas have you packing up your car for an unforgettable drive through the Outer Banks!
Carova Beach | Currituck Lighthouse | Whalehead Estate | Duck | Lifesaving Station | Roadside Grill | Coastal Cravings | Wright Brothers National Memorial | Bodie Lighthouse | Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge | Hatteras Lighthouse | Ocracoke | Ocracoke Lighthouse