Lots to Love about the Outer Banks


by Debbie Stone


It’s hard to imagine a world without airplanes. They are second nature to most of us when it comes to travel for leisure or business purposes. We take it for granted that in a few hours, we can be across the country, and in just a few more, we can be exploring another continent. So, when you pause to consider the contributions of the Wright brothers to the world of aviation, it’s hard not to be impressed with such a monumental achievement. It’s even more notable to see where these events transpired and learn about the challenges these men faced against all odds.



On a recent trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, my first stop was at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills. For geographical reference, the Outer Banks is a chain of barrier islands along the coastline of the state. It boasts 100-plus miles of wide-open shoreline, charming villages and towns, and plenty of historical attractions.

It was the wind and the sand that brought Orville and Wilbur from their home in Dayton, Ohio to this area. After four years of scientific experimentation, they accomplished the first successful airplane flights on December 17, 1903. It took courage and dogged determination, but these self-taught engineers did what no one thought was possible and changed our world forever.

Start your visit at the Visitor Center, where numerous interactive exhibits tell the Wright brothers’ story. Make sure to check out the replica of the 1903 flyer that made “the world’s first controlled, sustained, powered, heavier-than-air flight.” Head outside to the First Flight Boulder & Flight Line showing the spot from which the brothers first took flight and the locations where they landed. Nearby are reproductions of the brothers’ 1903 camp buildings. Then walk up to the Wright Brothers Monument that commemorates the brothers’ achievement. It sits atop historic Kill Devil Hill where Wilbur and Orville did their gliding tests.

If you have time, drive over to Kitty Hawk to see Sam Welty’s massive mural, titled “Great America XVIII. Achieving the Impossible,” featuring images of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright and their famous aircraft. It takes up an entire wall of the Super Wings, off of N. Croatan Hwy.

After visiting this hallowed ground, I was inspired to personally experience human flight, which led me to sign up for a beginning hang gliding lesson with Kitty Hawk Kites. The company operates the largest hang-gliding school in the world at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nag’s Head, where “the wind is just right, the dunes are just high enough and the sand is soft enough to ease your landing.”

First, you’ll hear about the history of hang gliding and the name Francis Rogallo will figure prominently in this brief talk. Rogallo, who is often referred to as the “father of hang gliding,” was an aeronautical engineer. He had a vision for a flexible, ultralight aircraft and with the help of his wife Gertrude, developed his ideas from a model created by a kitchen curtain. This led to the design of the wing that made hang gliding, paragliding, sport parachuting, and stunt kite flying possible.

After this intro, you’ll take part in ground school to learn the basics of the sport. You’ll be fitted with a helmet and harness, then walk over to the nearby dunes, where the fun begins. Each participant gets a total of five trials (not all at one time) along with the opportunity to watch others in action.

Standing at the top of the dune ridge, you clip into the glider, lay down to have the instructor check everything out, then stand up, and at the instructor’s “go,” you’ll sprint down the face of the dune. The wind lifts your feet off the ground and before you know it, you’re flying! The tricky part is landing on your feet. I did an ungraceful plop in the sand for the first two times before I was able to smoothly touch down on my toes. Know that you don’t fly far or high – most flights are 30 to 100 yards long and 5 to 15 feet off the sand – but the thrill is unforgettable.

After your lesson, you’ll receive a logbook, noting you have successfully completed your first step toward getting your pilot’s license. Not sure that’s in the cards for me, but I’m definitely psyched to do a tandem ride in the future. Stay tuned!

The picturesque landscape of the Outer Banks holds much allure for visitors. The pristine beaches are naturally a magnet and there are plenty to choose from within this region. Most offer opportunities for swimming, surfing, sunbathing, and strolling. But several, like the ones at Kill Devil Hill and Kitty Hawk, are especially known for their big waves and high winds, providing ideal conditions for sports like windsurfing, kiteboarding, parasailing, and more.

If you’re looking to reel in “the big one,” Jennette’s Pier at Nags Head Beach is the place to go. At 1,000 feet, it’s the longest pier in the Outer Banks. Stake your spot and cast your line for striped bass, trout, flounder, bluefish, and more. Onsite is also a mini aquarium that the kids will enjoy.

Lighthouses are another draw, both for their iconic beauty, as well as their history. There are five in the Outer Banks, each one different from the others. The most famous is Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is located on Hatteras Island in the town of Buxton. It’s part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. At 208 feet tall, it’s the tallest of the Outer Banks lighthouses, as well as having the distinction of being the tallest brick lighthouse in the country.

This 1870 sentinel is easily recognizable with its black and white candy-striped design. Its light makes a full rotation every twenty seconds, which is visible up to twenty miles into the ocean, helping to protect one of the most hazardous sections along the Atlantic Coast so named the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Normally, you would be able to climb the 257 steps from the base of this lighthouse to its balcony tower, but it’s currently closed due to ongoing restoration efforts. However, you can still see the building wrapped in all its extensive scaffolding, then check out the visitor center plus the Museum of the Sea. The latter is within the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Double Keepers’ Quarters and contains exhibits on Outer Banks history and natural history.

Interesting to learn is how the lighthouse and its associated buildings were moved inland 2,900 feet back in 1999. Severe beach erosion caused by many years of hurricanes and nor’easters was problematic for the lighthouse, as it was in danger of falling into the ocean. Moving it was no easy task and proved to be an amazing engineering feat.

South of Hatteras, at the very end of the Outer Banks on Ocracoke Island, is Ocracoke Lighthouse. This island is only accessible by ferry. The lighthouse dates back to 1823 and is the second oldest lighthouse still operational in the U.S. It measures 75 feet tall and has 86 steps, but it’s not open for climbing.

If you want to climb one of these stalwart sentinels, head to Bodie Island Lighthouse and/or Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Bodie Island Lighthouse is in Nags Head. Standing at 156 feet tall, it was completed and operational in 1872, and continues to do its job. It was recently restored and is open for climbing from late spring until early October. You’ll ascend 214 steps that spiral to the top for panoramic vistas.

The 162-foot-tall Currituck Beach Lighthouse, which is located in the northernmost Outer Banks town of Corolla, is the only unpainted coastal NC lighthouse. It stands out with its red brick exterior. The beacon was lit for the first time back in 1875 and it still shines to this day. You can climb the 220 steps from the base to the lens (March-November) and be rewarded by views of the ocean and Currituck Sound.

On Roanoke Island is Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, the smallest of the Outer Banks lighthouses. At just 37 feet tall, it sports a river lighthouse design and is accessible from quaint downtown Manteo. The original structure was built in 1877, but the current building is a replica completed in 2004 after the original was unfortunately lost to the Sound in an attempt to move it to private property. Though not suitable for climbing, it’s still worth a visit, as you can step inside where there are informative historical displays.

Roanoke Island is also the site of Fort Raleigh, the scene of historical events spanning over three centuries, from the English taking its first steps towards colonizing North America in the 1580s to the Civil War when Union troops occupied the island, which also hosted a Freedmen’s Colony. Here, the formerly enslaved (over 3,000 people) found refuge and prepared for life after the war. Later in 1902, radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden made his mark in history when he was the first to transmit the human voice using wireless technology.

The Visitor Center tells these stories and more via several exhibits and a film. Most intriguing to me was the tale of the Lost Colony, a compelling mystery about the fate of the 117 English men, women, and children who came to Roanoke Island in 1587 to establish a permanent English settlement in the New World. Three years later in 1590, when English ships returned to bring them supplies, they found the island deserted with no sign of the colonists apart from a single word, “Croatoan,” carved into a wooden post.

“Croatoan” was the name of an island south of Roanoke that was home to a Native American tribe of the same name. Some say that perhaps the colonists were killed or abducted by Native Americans. Other hypotheses hold that they tried to sail back to England on their own and got lost at sea or met a bloody demise at the hands of the Spaniards. Or maybe they moved further inland and were absorbed into a friendly tribe. To this day, the mystery of what happened to these people remains unsolved.

Following this introduction to the Fort, you can walk outside to the plaza and see the Freedmen’s Colony Monument, “First Light of Freedom.” Another monument nearby acknowledges the 1587 colony established by England, as well as the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas. There’s also a reconstructed earthen fort to visit.

Don’t miss the enchanting Elizabethan Gardens, set on ten acres next to the park. I visited in spring when the flowers were in bloom, giving the place an Edenesque quality. It was a delight to stroll the quiet paths amid a marvelous array of flora and statuary.

The Outer Banks is also home to four herds of wild horses, totaling around 400. Three of the herds live on the southern islands and the other one can be found in Corolla, up north. The horses attract visitors, who can take a guided excursion in search of these animals while learning more about their roots, their behaviors, and the steps the communities have taken to keep them safe.

I opted to do a tour with Wild Horse Adventures, which operates in Corolla. You’ll ride in an open-air Hummer through several ecosystems, including right on the beach and into the dunes, to locate these beautiful creatures. They are Banker horses, a descendant of horses brought to the islands centuries ago by Spanish explorers. This is a hardy breed that has survived hurricanes, blazing heat, and winter storms while existing on coarse sea grasses and digging in the sand for fresh water. They are very intelligent and have learned to adapt to their surroundings.

The horses stay in small groups or harems comprised of one stallion and an alpha mare, plus other mares and possibly some younger offspring of the mares. You might think it’s the stallion that’s in charge, but in reality, the alpha mare is the leader. Where she goes, the others follow. The stallion’s job is to protect his mares from other stallions “on the hunt.”

During the tour, our guide not only told us about the horses, but he also explained about their situation in Corolla. For centuries, the town existed in peaceful harmony with the animals. However, when this small village became a bustling vacation spot in the 1980s, the horses’ future was endangered. Along with condos, shopping centers, and restaurants came a new highway and more people, presenting problems for these beloved creatures.

The townspeople subsequently organized the Corolla Wild Horse Fund and put into action a management plan. They moved the herd to a less inhabited part of the island and it’s the responsibility of the group to prevent the horses from accessing the developed areas and to relocate any that stray back into town or other private sites.

We were able to spot a number of horses while on tour, some in harems, others – “the bachelors” – in pairs or on their own. They roamed the dunes ate the grasses and even hung out around some of the beach houses in the area. Our driver/guide also took us to the marshes, noting this is where the horses go to stay warm, as it’s a more protected environment.

If you’re a shopaholic, you’ll love the Outer Banks for its charming boutiques, artisanal stores, galleries, and bustling markets. You can find everything from kitschy beach souvenirs and surf and swimwear to unique jewelry, handcrafted home décor items, local artwork, pottery, and a variety of other ocean-inspired treasures.

The Waterfront Shops in Duck are a favorite of many visitors. This waterfront shopping village boasts over 27 boutiques, restaurants, eateries, and more. It’s easy to access these shops via a lovely boardwalk with views of Currituck Sound. You can poke your head into the stores, grab a bite to eat, or sit on one of the available benches and take in the easy-on-the-eyes scenery. This walkway also connects to the Town Boardwalk, which is a popular place for both locals and tourists to get in their daily steps.

When your stomach starts grumbling, culinary delights beckon from the myriads of restaurants, cafes, and markets. If you’re a pescatarian, it’s nirvana, as you’ll find the variety of fresh seafood offerings to be extensive. Enjoy coconut shrimp, crabmeat stuffed flounder, crab cakes, seared tuna, mahi mahi tacos, seafood risotto, fish and chips, clam strips, oysters, and more. And don’t forget to try Duck Donuts! You can find these made-to-order sweet and savory tasty delights at several Outer Banks locations. Go early and prepare to wait in line, as they are very popular.

There is a range of accommodations on the Outer Banks to suit every taste and budget, from hotels and motels to inns and B&Bs, condos, townhouses, vacation rentals, and campgrounds.

Location is a factor for many visitors. Some want to be centrally situated in the towns of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, or Kitty Hawk, although these spots tend to be more populated, particularly in the summer. Others choose to be up north towards Duck and Southern Shores or down south on Hatteras Island where several tiny villages lie nestled along the ocean. There’s also Ocracoke Island at the very southern tip and Roanoke Island to the west, home to the town of Manteo.

No matter where you opt for your homebase, know the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway spans 138 miles. It’s best explored in pieces to appreciate each section, so take your time and enjoy your leisurely forays.  

For all things Outer Banks: www.outerbanks.org

For hang gliding: www.kittyhawk.com

For wild horse tours: www.wildhorsetour.com  

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness, and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.

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About the Author:

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners.

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