Fun Things to do in the Outer Banks with Kids
Sitting along the mid-Atlantic shores of the US, the collection of small barrier islands most often referred to as the Outer Banks (OBX) is a popular destination for family vacations with most people renting houses along the shores. While OBX is rarely more than a mile wide, it stretches more than 130 miles long, beginning in the state of Virginia and ending in North Carolina.
Visitors must access the barrier islands by car, which means a bit of a road trip is inevitable, and a car is necessary once on the island. Its entire length is dotted with small towns and fishing villages. Don’t let the size of these towns and villages fool you though, there’s more than enough things to do in the Outer Banks with kids to keep even the most restless family members busy.
Here’s a rundown of our top activities in the Outer Banks for kids.
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Best Beaches in the Outer Banks
It goes without saying that the beach is the perfect place to spend some family time. The beauty of the Outer Banks is that the beaches are never overcrowded, so there’s plenty of room to spread out. But the true beauty of the beaches at OBX is that there is such diversity between them. Families can find public beaches with conveniences such as bathhouses and nearby shops, or families can get to the beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a more untouched beach best accessed by a 4×4 off-road vehicle. There are beaches best known for surfing and skim-boarding (Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills) and beaches known for how pet-friendly they are (Duck).
Located in Nag’s Head, Jennette’s Pier is a 1000 ft long pier that was first built in 1939 (it has had to undergo some repair work after hurricanes). Most use the pier as a fishing spot, which welcomes both seasoned fisherman and newcomers. There is a bait and tackle shop where a rod and reel can even be rented for those just visiting the Outer Banks. Others can walk the length of the pier, soaking in the view. And before they do, they can stop at the educational centre with seasonal programs for all ages, young and old alike, including a Giants of the Sea exhibit.
Duck Soundside Boardwalk
A great way to get off of the ocean but stay on the water is to head over to the village of Duck in Northern Outer Banks. This boardwalk, perched above the Currituck Sound meanders behind the town’s commercial district and can be accessed throughout. This boardwalk gives visitors a chance to see the Sound and its environment, a lovely change from the beach. It’s just a bit over a half a mile, so an easy walk for tired little feet, and when all else fails, it’s surrounded by restaurants and shops, including ones to find sweets and treats.
Horses on Outer Banks – Wild Horses of Corolla
In addition to the 4WD beaches of Cape Hatteras, there can be found the 4WD beaches of Carova, which are the Northern-most beaches of the Outer Banks. In this area, separated by a sea of sand and on these beaches visitors can find Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs. These horses on the Outer Banks have been stranded for nearly 500 years, with a number of stories swirling regarding how they originally got there. The horses roam free, through backyards and beach alike, but there are strict rules in place to protect the horses, including a minimum distance people must keep from the horses and a strict speed limit on the beach and dunes. There are a number of tour companies that offer 4WD tours through the area. They are generally open air and run for approximately two hours. (Visitors are also allowed to drive their own 4WD vehicles onto the beach.)
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
The recently renovated North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is a nonprofit organization with ten permanent exhibits, including one focusing on sea turtle conservation called the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center. In conjunction, it has the Sea Turtle Rescue exhibit, which is interactive and loved by all the family. At the aquarium, visitors can learn about all types of animals, from sharks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit (where anyone over 15 and open water SCUBA diver certified can dive with sharks) to river otters and alligators in the Wild Wetlands exhibit. Beyond seeing the animals, there are a number of daily (usually free) events that happen at the aquarium, including animal feedings and storytelling.
Since OBX has a long history with pirates (these were the famous Black Beard’s waters), there’s a not-so-subtle nod to pirates throughout the area. One of the ways to best invest in this pirate world is to actually become a pirate or mermaid and set out to sail the Roanoke Sound. Dressed as pirates, kids set out to find treasure and battle a rogue pirate with their water cannons. Seriously the kids are going to love this one!
Dolphin Spotting on the Outer Banks
There are two great ways to spot dolphins in the OBX. The easiest and cheapest way with kids is to just stand on the shores. Not far offshore, it’s easy to spot little pods of dolphins playing in the waters. The other way to spot dolphins, and ensure you do, is to go on a dolphin cruise. These cruises stick to the more brackish waters of the sound and the bay, easily finding dolphins at play. The pontoon boats manoeuvre through the waters and slow when dolphins are near, eventually cutting off all engines. Because of strict rules, they can only stay with a pod for a short amount of time before moving on in search of others.
Lighthouses on the Outer Banks
There are five lighthouses on the Outer Banks, each of them historic and memorable in their own right: the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the world’s tallest brick lighthouse, is one of the most famous lighthouses in the world with its black and white candy cane striped pattern. Visible over 20 miles away, it looks out over Cape Point. The Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina and the second oldest in the United States. This lighthouse is the only one of the five that you cannot climb or go into.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
This 60-foot granite monument is part of the US National Park Service. It was built at the location in Kill Devil Hills, where Orville and Wilbur Wright first successfully flew. The memorial does a great job of putting the importance of the flight, albeit small, in perspective by identifying, with markers, where both the launch and the landing of the 59 seconds, 852-foot flight occurred. There’s even a life-sized model of the 1903 Wright Flyer used in the famous flight.
Learn about the History of the Outer Banks
Roanoke Island, in the middle of the Outer Banks, is the site of the first attempted English colonization of America. More than 400 years ago, men, women, and children from Plymouth, England landed on this island and attempted to settle it, but just two years later they had vanished. The tale of these travellers is told in a play, “The Lost Colony” that is performed in Manteo on Roanoke Island. The show, with its epic battles scenes and over 100 actors, singers, dancers, and technicians, has been running for over 70 years. It’s both educational and entertaining. Beyond the learning about the lost colony, families visiting OBX can also visit historic Corolla, where they can visit Whalehead, a 1920s era Art Nouveau “mansion by the sea.”
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
The waters off the Outer Banks are often referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because of the numerous shipwrecks that have taken place. In homage to this, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum was created, which is run entirely by donations and volunteers. Here, families can learn about the history of the islands, including its connection to pirates, role in the wars, and the general importance of the area.
They host events, most of which are free, such as pirate-themed crafts. seafood cooking, and recounting tales of Blackbeard. They change often and can be found on the museum’s website. To keep all members of the family entertained, the museum also has a daily scavenger hunt with a museum-trinket prize upon completion.
So many things to do in the Outer Banks with kids
Within these 130 miles, a whole host of family-friendly activities can be found. Visitors can always find those activities expected in beach vacation towns: parasailing, kayaking, mini golf, and ropes courses. But an Outer Banks vacation offers more than this because of its rich history and unique ecosystems. It’s easy to find amazing things to do in the Outer Banks with kids, but with those beautiful beaches, it’s just as easy to soak in the sun and surf.
Author: Jen Coleman from Three Kids and a Car
Jen is a frequent traveler and SAHM mom to three little people that she likes to drag around the globe with her (and who are pretty happy to go along). Formerly an English teacher and poet, she now writes about her adventures traveling with her family on her blog, Three Kids and a Car. And when she is traveling, she likes to collect blue and white art from the places she visits (which she still hasn’t gotten around to displaying but will…one day).
Follow Jen’s travels on Instagram and Facebook.