Whether you arrive by ferry or via a picturesque bridge over the area’s sparkling blue waters, there is something that instantly feels special about the narrow strip of islands guarding North Carolina’s coastline. The Outer Banks has been a popular tourist destination for over 50 years, with visitors embracing the opportunity to remove themselves from their hectic day-to-day lives and slow down in a place where days are marked by the changing of the tides and each new sunrise and sunset. As with any destination, we believe the best thing to do in Cape Hatteras is to be fully present, but in this article, we will explore all that Cape Hatteras and the rest of this charming stretch of barrier islands have to offer.
When you plan a trip to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you open yourself up to an immersive adventure that can be tailored to your needs. Whether you want remote experiences on undeveloped portions of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore or are looking for more commodities in the neighboring towns of the Outer Banks, there is surely something to fulfill your travel goals for this stunning area off the coast of North Carolina.
About Cape Hatteras
Sitting at the southern end of the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras is connected to the northern section of the Outer Banks via the Basnight Bridge, while the only way to travel south to Ocracoke Island is by ferry as there is no bridge that crosses over the Hatteras Inlet. It is located at the pronounced bend in the cape of Hatteras Island and is home to shops, galleries, beaches, and charming waterfront towns, as well as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore that bares its name.
Cape Hatteras was designated the first National Seashore by Congress in 1937, although it didn’t have the money and resources to welcome visitors officially until 1953. Today it welcomes over 3 million visitors a year to its pristine beaches and wind-swept dunes.
Best Things To Do in Cape Hatteras & OBX For Nature Lovers & Outdoor Enthusiasts
While the long strip of barrier islands might look spread out, the great thing about vising Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks, is that a day full of new experiences is never too far away. In this list, we break down not only the great things to do in Cape Hatteras, but in other areas of the Outer Banks as well. This way you can experience more of all that this beautiful destination has to offer!
Map of Activities
Visit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
One of the most iconic features of the Outer Banks is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which stands at an impressive 198 feet and is the tallest brick lighthouse in the country. Visitors can typically climb the lighthouse to the top for panoramic views of the seashore and surrounding area, although it is currently closed for renovations for the 2023 season.
This being said, it is still well worth a visit! We loved wandering among the grounds and found that the quietest and most picturesque times to visit were in the early morning and late afternoon around sunset!
Visiting the Cape Hatteras Light Station:
- Location: 46379 Lighthouse Road, Buxton, North Carolina 27920
- Entrance Cost: FREE
- Climbing Cost: $8/adult; $4/ children & seniors; currently closed for the 2023 season due to renovations
- Outdoor areas around the lighthouse are open 24/7
Learn More At The Hatteras Island Visitor Center
The Hatteras Island Visitor Center is located in the heart of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and serves as a hub for visitors looking to explore the area. The center offers exhibits on the history and ecology of the seashore, as well as a bookstore and ranger-led programs. Visitors can also get information on the various activities and attractions in the area, including hiking trails, beaches, and the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
- Location: 46375 Lighthouse Rd, Buxton, NC 27920
- Hours: 9:30am-4:30pm year-round; closed Christmas Day
Get Remote While Camping on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a stunning and rugged stretch of coastline located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Protected and mostly undeveloped, the seashore is home to some of the most stunning beaches on the East Coast, as well as a variety of wildlife, including sea turtles, dolphins, and seabirds.
This makes it the perfect place to unplug and spend time reconnecting with loved ones and nature while sleeping under the stars, where even the dunes can’t muffle the sounds of waves crashing to shore. Our campsite at Oregon Inlet Campground made for the perfect remote office and “home base” to explore Cape Hatteras and the rest of the Outer Banks. Camping is a really budget-friendly way to experience the Outer Banks as well!
Cape Hatteras National Seashore Campgrounds:
Take The Ferry To Ocracoke Island
Accessible only by ferry or private boat, Ocracoke Island offers a peaceful and laid-back atmosphere. We loved exploring the island’s historic village, which features quaint shops, restaurants, and galleries, walking the nature trails, and getting a glimpse of the horses that once ran wild across the island. The island is also home to some of the best beaches on the Outer Banks, with pristine white sand and clear blue water.
The island’s unspoiled natural beauty and secluded location make it an ideal destination for those looking to get away from it all and it is made even more appealing by the FREE vehicle ferry that transports you to the island from Cape Hatteras.
- Location: Hatteras Ferry Terminal, 59063 North Carolina Hwy 12, Hatteras, NC 27943
- Cost: FREE
- Availability is first come, first served
To read more on this charming island paradise, check out our complete guide to the best things to do on Ocracoke Island!
Check Out the Historic Ocracoke Lighthouse
Once you have traveled over to Ocracoke Island, there are a few spots you won’t want to miss! The Ocracoke Lighthouse is located on Ocracoke Island and is the second oldest lighthouse still in operation in the United States. It stands at just 75 feet tall and is the smallest lighthouse in the Outer Banks, but it is so charming. The lighthouse has a distinctive white tower and has been guiding ships safely through the waters of the Ocracoke Inlet and Pamlico Sound since 1823.
- Location: 360 Lighthouse Rd, Ocracoke, NC 27960
- Cost: FREE
Take A Walk In The Woods To Where Blackbeard Met His Match
Springer’s Point Preserve is a historic nature preserve also located on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina. Sitting on the edge of the island, it includes a nature trail that winds through a maze of maritime forest and salt marsh. Once you see the sparkling blue waters you know you are near Teach’s Hole, where Blackbeard the pirate was killed in 1718 at the hands of the British from the Virginia colony. This is a dog-friendly trail with lots of shade where you will feel fully immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of nature!
- Location: 104 Loop Rd, Ocracoke, NC 27960
- Cost: FREE
Walk the Boardwalk at Bodie Island Lighthouse
Bodie Island Lighthouse is on the Roanoke Sound side of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Built in 1872, it stands 156 feet tall and has distinctive black and white spiral stripes that are easily recognizable and have helped sailors navigate the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean for over 100 years.
The current lighthouse replaced the original lighthouse in this area which unfortunately had to be abandoned due to design flaws. Today you can climb to the top for a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding area (open seasonally), walk the surrounding boardwalk trail, and keep an eye out for deer grazing in the large grassy fields.
- Location: 8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Rd, Nags Head, NC 27959
- Entrance Cost: FREE
- Climbing Cost: $10/adult; $5 for children under 12 and Seniors (62+)
Visit Jenette’s Pier
Jennette’s Pier is a popular destination located in Nags Head, North Carolina. Originally built in 1939, the pier has undergone several renovations over the years, including a major reconstruction in 2011. Today, the pier features a 1,000-foot-long wooden deck that extends out over the Atlantic Ocean, providing anglers with a prime location to catch a variety of fish. The pier also features a tackle shop and a small indoor aquarium where you can learn more about local marine life.
With it being eastern facing, this is also a great spot for a sunrise!
- Fishing: Adults $14 Children $7
- Walk-on: Adults $2 Children $1
Learn About Grit & Resilience at the Wright Brothers National Memorial
A historic landmark located in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates the first successful powered flight by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903. It features a visitor’s center with exhibits and artifacts related to the history of flight, as well as outdoor exhibits where the flights took place.
We loved learning about the Wright Brother’s journey to achieving their dream and all of the iterations they went through while persevering through the many challenges they endured. This is a well-manicured monument with vast outside areas to explore where the first flights took place, as well as an indoor museum with additional artifacts and education.
- Location: 1000 N Croatan Hwy, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948
- Entrance Fee: $10 for Adults 16+; National Parks Passes accepted
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern United States, with dunes reaching heights of up to 100 feet. Here you can enjoy a variety of recreational activities, such as hiking, kite flying, sandboarding, and hang gliding. The park offers a variety of trails for hiking and nature observation, as well as picnic areas and a visitor center with exhibits on the natural history of the area. The park is also a popular spot for watching sunsets over the Roanoke Sound.
Walking amongst the land of dunes, with sand in all directions, reminded us a bit of our time at Great Sand Dunes National Park out in Colorado. It was so peaceful with the expansive views of the water reaching out beyond the dips of the dunes, and we saw one of our favorite sunsets during our visit to Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks.
- Location: 300 W Carolista Dr, Nags Head, NC 27959
- Cost: FREE
Take A Hang Gliding Lesson
Looking to do something unique in the area where the Wright Brothers took their first flight? Considering signing up for hang gliding lessons and feel the rush of adrenaline and freedom of the wind in your face as you fly free after taking the plunge off a towering dune. We saw this being done at Jockey’s Ridge State Park and it looked like a blast. Definitely on the bucket list for a return visit!
Local Companies Offering Hang Gliding Lessons
- Kitty Hawk Kites: This company offers a variety of hang gliding lesson options, including beginner and advanced lessons. Prices start at around $129 for a single beginner. Packages and group rates are also available. Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the most popular place in the Outer Banks for hang gliding lessons to take place
Oregon Inlet Life Saving Station
The Oregon Inlet Life Saving Station is a historic site located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Built-in 1897, the station served as a crucial rescue point for shipwrecked sailors along the treacherous waters of the Atlantic coast. The station was decommissioned in 1988, but now holds a spot on the US National Register of Historic Places. This is a nice spot to walk around and reflect on the dramatic maritime events that took place along the Outer Bank’s treacherous shoals known as the “graveyard of the Atlantic.”
- Location: North Carolina Hwy 12, Rodanthe, NC 27968
- Cost: FREE
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pea Island Wildlife Refuge is a nature lover’s paradise located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This 13-mile stretch of protected land is home to over 370 species, including migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors, as well as other wildlife including sea turtles and otters. The refuge offers a variety of recreational activities, such as bird watching, hiking, fishing, and wildlife photography, but is also a great place to enjoy a few quiet moments away from some of the more popular beach areas.
We found the refuge to be the perfect spot for some peaceful moments to sit with our binoculars and really appreciate and connect with nature.
- Location: 14500 North Carolina Hwy 12, Rodanthe, NC 27968 (Visitor Center)
- Cost: FREE
- Visitor Center Hours: Daily, 9am-4pm
Bonner Bridge Pier
Recently renovated, the Bonner Bridge Pier is a great place to fish, appreciate the architecture of the Basnight Bridge, watch for Osprey feeding in the waters below, and see jellyfish floating on by. This 1,046 foot pier is a remnant section of the Bonner Bridge, which was the original bridge that connected Hatteras Island to the rest of the Outer Banks.
Even on a stormy day, we had a great time watching boats navigating the shoals, looking for wildlife and marine life, and appreciating the great views of the Oregon Inlet Life Saving Station and Pea Island Wildlife Refuge. It was also really convenient to our campground at Oregon Inlet, only a few minutes away over the bridge.
- Location: QF99+2W, Rodanthe, NC 27968
- Cost: FREE (if you will be fishing, an NC fishing permit is required)
- Note: No pets are allowed on the pier
Check Out Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse & Visit Charming Manteo
The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is a historic lighthouse located in Manteo, North Carolina. While different than the other lighthouses on the Outer Banks, this “in-shore” lighthouse is a great destination to add to any Cape Hatteras Vacation or Outer Banks lighthouse road trip.
We loved the laid-back, quaint atmosphere of Manteo with its shops, restaurants, and galleries, seeing the unique lighthouse, and walking around the waterfront boardwalk. From the marina, you can even catch a glimpse of the Elizabeth II Pirate Ship across the way at Roanoke Island Festival Park! This is a great spot for dinner and a scenic walk!
- Location: 104 Fernando St, Manteo, NC 27954
- Cost: FREE
Go Off-Roading on the Beach
There are several designated areas where you can drive a 4WD or other off-road vehicle onto the beach if you have the proper permit. This can be a great way to enjoy an epic sunset or sunrise, a delicious waterfront picnic, or select the perfect spot for some surf fishing.
Up on Corolla, you can even take your own vehicle out on an adventure to see the wild horses that call the northern tip of the Outer Banks home. They share similar folklore and history to the horses further south in the Outer Banks on Shackleford Banks of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Beaches with 4WD Access:
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore: ORV permits are required for driving on the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, including those on Ocracoke Island. The permit cost is $120 for a yearly pass, or $50 for a 7-day pass. The beach is open year-round, but there are some seasonal restrictions in certain areas.
- Corolla Beach & Carova Beach: 4WD vehicles are required to have a permit between the last Saturday in April and the first Saturday in October. Permits are $50/week and there is a limit of 300 issued per week
- Here is a beach access map that shows the ORV areas for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore
It’s important to note that regulations and access to these beaches can change, so it’s always a good idea to check with the National Park Service or local authorities for the most up-to-date information. Additionally, it’s important to follow all posted rules and regulations when driving on the beaches to ensure safety and protect the natural environment.
Take A Guided Tour To See the Wild Horses in Corolla
Don’t have an off-road vehicle, but want to see the famous OBX horses? There are plenty of services offering tours in the area!
Here are some local tours offered:
- Corolla Outback Adventures: This company’s wild horse tour lasts 2 hours and costs around $55 per person.
- Bob’s Wild Horse Tours: Bob’s was the first to offer open-air tours in the area. Tours last around 2 hours and cost around $55 per person.
- Wild Horse Adventure Tours: Open-air tours in a customized Hummer. Tours last between 2-2.5 hours and cost around $65-$70 per person.
- Back Country Safari Tours: One of the top-rated tours in the area. Tours last about 2 hours and cost around $50-$55 per person.
Corolla Beach is about 2 hours from Cape Hatteras, so this can make for the perfect day trip when combined with a visit to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and exploration of nearby beaches and towns, such as Duck.
Climb Currituck Beach Lighthouse
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is another historic landmark located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Built in 1875, the brick lighthouse stands 162 feet tall and offers stunning views of the surrounding area from its observation deck. You can typically climb the 220 steps to the top of the lighthouse, but the observation deck was closed due to wind on the day of our visit. The grounds were still fun to walk around and it is an easy walk to explore the Historic Corolla Park as well!
- Location: 1101 Corolla Village Rd, Corolla, NC 27927
- Cost: $12/person to climb the lighthouse (observation deck may close on windy days)
Stroll Through Historic Corolla Park
Historic Corolla Park is a great place to walk around by the water’s edge after visiting the Currituck Beach Lighthouse while enjoying the sights and sounds of a well cared for green space. Talk a stroll over the unique footbridge, keep an eye out for wildlife, and watch people catching some serious air while kiteboarding in the breezy bay.
- Location: 1160 Village Lane, Corolla, NC 27927
- Cost: FREE
Another historic site in Corolla Park is Whalehead, a 21,000-square-foot Art Nouveau-style mansion that was built in 1925. Visitors can tour the mansion and learn about its rich history (including its time as military barracks) and unique architectural features.
- Location: 1100 Club Rd, Corolla, NC 27927
- Tour Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for students, and free for children under 8 years of age.
Visit The Outer Banks Center For Wildlife Education
The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education is a fascinating destination for nature enthusiasts and those interested in learning about the diverse wildlife found in the North Carolina coastal region. Located in the same area as the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and Historic Corolla Park, the center offers visitors a chance to explore the surrounding marshes, forests, and waters through interactive exhibits and educational programs.
- Location: 1160 Village Lane, Corolla, NC 27927
- Cost: FREE (donations accepted)
- In-Season Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9am-5pm
Take A Walk In The Woods At The Currituck Banks Reserve
If you’re looking to get out and explore more of the natural beauty of the area that exists beyond the beaches, the Currituck Banks Reserve is a great place to add to your itinerary. The reserve covers over 1,000 acres of protected land and features a variety of ecosystems, including maritime forests, wetlands, and sand dunes. Visitors can enjoy a variety of recreational activities, such as hiking, bird watching, and wildlife observation
- Location of the Maritime Forest Trailhead: N Beach Access Rd, Corolla, NC 27927
- Cost: FREE
Look For Rare Finds While Shelling
Shelling is a popular activity on the Outer Banks, as the area is home to a wide variety of seashells that wash up on the beaches. Some of the most common shells found on the Outer Banks include whelks, conchs, scallops, clams, and sand dollars. The best time to go shelling is during low tide, when the water is at its lowest point and more of the beach is exposed. While you can bring a bucket or bag to collect shells, it’s important to remember that it’s illegal to take live shells or other living organisms from the beach.
Some of the best shelling spots on the Outer Banks include Ocracoke Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Corolla Beach, and further south on the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Not only did we find some great shells on Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s beach near Oregon Inlet Beach, we also saw large pods of dolphins feeding and jumping just offshore!
Marvel at the Pamlico Sound
While a major draw of Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks is the mighty Atlantic Ocean crashing to shore to the east, don’t forget to appreciate the sparkling water of the Pamlico Sound that sits between OBX and North Carolina’s coast.
From water sports to fishing, wildlife viewing to relaxation, Pamlico Sound has something for everyone. Its calm waters and consistent wind make it ideal for kayaking, kiteboarding, and windsurfing. If you take the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry you will enjoy a trip through the Pamlico Sound. Be sure to keep an eye out for dolphins and other marine life! Navigating the shoals of the sound is stunning and the water color makes it hard to take your eyes away from the water.
Museums & Learning Centers
Museums and learning centers are perfect for discovering more about the history of the Outer Banks and the people who have lived here, and using your travel as an opportunity for growth and development! They are also great options for any rainy days!
Here are a few located right in Cape Hatteras:
- Frisco Native American Museum: The museum features exhibits and artifacts related to the history and culture of the Native American tribes that inhabited the area, including the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Outer Banks.
- Graveyard Of The Atlantic Museum: Located in Hatteras, North Carolina, the museum features exhibits and artifacts related to the area’s rich maritime heritage, including shipwrecks, lifesaving operations, and commercial fishing. (Currently closed for exhibit renovations through Fall of 2023)
- Hatteras Island Ocean Center: Located in Hatteras Village, the center features exhibits and educational programs related to the local flora and fauna, as well as a variety of recreational activities, such as kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and birdwatching.
Other Outdoor Activities
Hatteras Island is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, with a wide variety of activities depending on what your interests are.
- Surf fishing is a popular activity for those looking to catch their own dinner, with plenty of fish species available in the waters off the island.
- For those looking for a more epic experience, deep-sea fishing charters are available for hire. The Oregon Inlet Fishing Center would be a great place to go for more information on fishing in the Outer Banks (or to marvel at the impressive charter boats), and sits directly across from the Oregon Inlet Campground.
- Water sports such as kayaking, windsurfing, and paddleboarding offer the chance to get out on the water and enjoy the island’s stunning coastal scenery.
- Buxton Woods Trail: A 0.8-mile trail that offers scenic views of the maritime forest, marshes, and sound.
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Trail: A 6-mile trail that takes you to the original site of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Open Ponds Trail: 8.9 mile out and back trail that winds its way through dunes and maritime forest
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Trails: Several trails of varying lengths great for exploring the coastal habitats and viewing a variety of bird species.
Fulfilling Travel Tips
Our trip to the Outer Banks surprised us in so many positive ways. We visited in April during the shoulder season and were able to enjoy the islands without crowds, which allowed us to even more deeply appreciate these unique surroundings. Our greatest tip for visiting Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks is to explore beyond your itinerary. Don’t just check off the places or items, allow yourself moments to pause and fully immerse in the experiences you have.
Some of our favorite memories are from the nights we walked out to the beach from our campsite by flashlight, to listen to the ocean waves, watch the stars, and spend time marveling at the whole world that exists out of sight down in the depths of the ocean. A trip to Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks is a pleasant reminder of the wonder and life that makes the world so awe-inspiring.
Give yourself permission to be curious and find wonder and amazement in all that you do during your trip!
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO CAPE HATTERAS & THE OUTER BANKS NC
Closest Airports to Cape Hatteras & The Outer Banks:
- Norfolk International Airport, Norfolk VA (about a 2-hour drive)
- Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Raliegh NC (3.5-4 hour drive)
- Coastal Carolina Regional Aiport, New Bern NC (2.503 hour drive)
Cape Hatteras National Seashore Campgrounds:
Camping is a great way to live in harmony with nature and bring the outdoors right outside your door!
Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks are full of great campsites, ranging from RV resorts to no-frills dry camping in the National Seashore campgrounds. If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks, campgrounds, and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.
RV Rentals: If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through RV Share. We used this service when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!
Other Area Accommodations
If you are looking for other accommodations, you can find plenty of great stays not far from the pristine beaches in this area. Booking.com is a great resource that allows you to compare prices easily and lock in the best rates for stays ranging from hotels to private rentals! Some spectacular coastal areas to consider for your stay include:
- Hatteras, NC
- Ocracoke Island, NC (requires ferry (free) from Cape Hatteras)
- Kitty Hawk, NC (where the Wright Brothers National Memorial is located)
- Corolla, NC (where the wild horses are located)
- Nags Head, NC (just north of Cape Hatteras National Seashore)
- Manteo, NC (off the beach, charming downtown)
- Rodanthe, NC
- Avon, NC
- Frisco, NC
For more adventure check out: Best RV Trips On The East Coast