The North Carolina Outer Banks: A Road Trip Illuminated By Lighthouses
I love geographically unique places. If you ask me how I choose my travel destinations, there are a number of obvious answers: cost, feasibility, whether friends want to go along, etc. But geography is another huge factor for me, especially for solo trips. When I decided to take a road trip through the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I was looking forward to seeing sandy beaches, billowing clouds, and long stretches of land with water on both sides.
The Outer Banks (often abbreviated as OBX) are a long and narrow island chain off the North Carolina coast that are connected by Highway 12 and a couple of ferry routes. Separating these islands from the mainland is the Pamlico Sound, which is extremely shallow (with an average depth of only 5 to 6 feet). The sound is about 15 to 20 miles wide in many areas, which means that you won’t be able to see the other side from the OBX.
In fact, these islands are so far from the mainland that you can actually watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean and the sunset over the Pamlico Sound from the exact same location. There’s only a handful of places along the East Coast that offer sunset views over water, and this is probably the best one. Just take a look at this amazing sunset that I was able to capture from this location:
Watching that sunset was quite an experience, but my favorite part of the trip was visiting the lighthouses. The Outer Banks have a fascinating history of shipwrecks going back to the earliest days of colonial exploration due to treacherous ocean waters. No wonder the region is nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Lighthouses were an absolute necessity and are now a major tourist attraction.
There are three lighthouses you’ll encounter if you travel the route I did (more on that below). They are the Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and Ocracoke Lighthouses. Of those, you can climb up the first two for some breathtaking views.
1. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
This lighthouse looks like it belongs in a painting, doesn’t it? It offers some great views from the highest lookout point in the Outer Banks.
After making the climb, I learned from an employee at the top that the lighthouse was actually moved away from the shore in 1999 because waves were hitting the structure. As you can see, the spiral stairs in this lighthouse look fairly sturdy and are bolted to the wall.
Entrance costs $8. Hours of operations for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse can be found here. Keep in mind that both lighthouses are only open for climbs during the summer months!
2. Bodie Island Lighthouse
I actually like the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse more than this one for its swirling black and white façade and red base, but the view from the top of Bodie just can’t be beat.
Bodie Island Lighthouse is not as tall as Cape Hatteras, and it contains a floating staircase with grated steps. This might be a little freaky, but there are landings on each level where you can rest if you need to.
Entrance here costs $10. Bodie Island Lighthouse is located about 45 miles north of Cape Hatteras. You can check their opening hours here.
3. Ocracoke Lighthouse
Unfortunately, Ocracoke Lighthouse is not open to the public. You can walk right up to it, but the door is closed (the lighthouse is still functional today and operated by the United States Coast Guard). Even though this is a bit of a disappointment, a lot of postcards and souvenirs feature all three lighthouses, so you might as well check it out to be able to say you’ve seen them all. More importantly, Ocracoke Island is an interesting place that’s still worth a visit. Read on to learn why.
Two Towns Worth Exploring
Even though lighthouses are super cool, towns along the Outer Banks have other unique offerings. The two I ended up exploring most were Ocracoke and Hatteras. I spent a bit of time in some other villages (dinner in Buxton, lunch in Avon, etc), but it seemed like these two towns had the most attractions.
This long, narrow island is only accessible by ferry, but it’s definitely worth the extra effort to check it out! The only town on the island is on its southwest corner, on a piece of land that juts out into the Pamlico Sound. If you take the ferry from Cedar Island or Swan Quarter, you’ll disembark right into town; there’s free public parking and the town is small enough that you can walk around. If you’re coming from Hatteras, you’ll need to drive the 14-mile length of the island since that ferry terminal is on the other side.
My favorite part of my visit was a restaurant called Dajio. They had an absolutely amazing chicken and biscuit breakfast. Their elderflower mimosa was also really tasty!
I’d never pass up a family-owned coffee shop; Ocracoke Coffee really hit the spot. They have a ton of space to sit down and relax if you’ve been walking around town for a while.
Don’t forget about the lighthouse! It’s about a 10-minute walk from the main road into town. Other than that, there is an interesting little British cemetery as well as a free museum.
I came from Cedar Island, which meant my next stop was Hatteras. Along the main stretch of the island is a two-lane road with a number of beach access points.
My favorite thing about the town of Hatteras is all the beach houses sitting up on stilts. I just loved the aesthetic and the bright colors!
Hatteras also had a really cute family-owned coffee shop. The Dancing Turtle had a large yet cozy area to sit and relax.
After visiting the lighthouse here, head towards the beaches due east of the Cape Point Campground. They’re open to the public and offer some cool views of the lighthouse from a distance.
Getting Here & Making the Drive
The OBX are surprisingly far from any big cities and are most accessible to residents of Virginia and North Carolina. If you live farther away, consider flying into Norfolk or Newport News, VA and renting a car. From my home in South Carolina, I had to drive about 400 miles just to get to the coast. If you’re coming from the south like I was, you can cut off a few hours of driving by following the route I took from Jacksonville to Nags Head.
This journey involved taking two ferries with a “layover” on Ocracoke Island, but crossing the Pamlico Sound by boat was definitely part of the experience. The following section tells you what you need to know for a successful ferry ride.
The North Carolina Ferry System
This road trip involved two ferry rides:
- From Cedar Island to Ocracoke. Cost if reserved online is $15 for a normal-sized vehicle. Travel time was 2 hours and 15 minutes.
- From Ocracoke to Hatteras. Cannot be reserved in advance, but ride is free of charge. Total travel time is about 1 hour.
For the first ride, I’d highly recommend booking online as early as you can. Schedules for 2018 can be found here. Even though all the vehicles waiting in line did make it on board for the 7:00 a.m. departure, I’ve heard that this time of year (early June) isn’t peak season yet, and it might get more crowded if you depart later in the morning or in the afternoon. You don’t want to be sitting in line at the Cedar Island Ferry Terminal all day!
The second ride from Ocracoke to Hatteras was on a much smaller ferry. You can’t reserve a spot, but since Ocracoke serves as a choke-point for traffic, you should be able to make it onto the first boat that docks after you arrive to the terminal. There isn’t much of a check-in process since the ride is free.
Where to Stay
Since I started driving from South Carolina right after work on Friday, I spent my first night at an Airbnb in Jacksonville, NC. This was still about a two-hour drive from the Cedar Island Ferry Terminal, but it was the closest Airbnb I could find.
Early Saturday morning I made my way to the dock (be sure not to speed here, especially in the towns you’ll pass through along the way). I ended up spending the morning and afternoon in Ocracoke, but I wouldn’t recommend staying here overnight; after you’ve spent a few hours here (or as long as you like), take the ferry over and spend the night in Hatteras. There were only a few Airbnb options in Hatteras which seemed to fill up quickly, so I stayed at the Sea Gull Motel which cost about $140 for one night but was comfortable and conveniently located.
This road trip ended up being quite involved: according to my phone I drove for 9 hours on Sunday to travel from Hatteras up to Nags Head and then back home. I obviously stopped for meals and breaks, but I don’t think I’ve ever driven that long in one day.
However, the North Carolina Outer Banks didn’t disappoint! I’m really glad I got to check them out before I move. I got my fill of unique geography on this trip, but the islands of the OBX are much more than that: they’re a place of rich history, a string of towns that are welcoming and laid-back, and a destination for travelers who want more than just a beachside getaway. Consider them for your next trip! Until next time, fellow Excursioners!