5 Surprising Things To Know Before Your Outer Banks Vacation
Need-to-know facts for any Outer Banks vacation
Before my Outer Banks vacation, I read a lot about this chain of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast. But when I actually visited in April 2019, I had plenty of surprises. Turns out the Outer Banks (or the OBX as you’ll often see it abbreviated) is a lot more than just lighthouses, sand, and wild horses!
We spent 48 hours on the Outer Banks as part of our Carolinas road trip. In that short time, I became absolutely intrigued by these unique, narrow islands. From the actual tourist attractions to the islands’ ecology, I found myself constantly surprised. I can’t wait to head back sometime soon now that I have better idea of what to expect.
If you’re headed to this favorite East Coast beach vacation destination soon, here are five facts about the Outer Banks I think everyone should know before their first trip.
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#1) There’s a small fee to go out on Outer Banks piers
Maybe chalk this one up to regional differences; I didn’t expect to pay to walk out on Outer Banks piers.
Here in Minnesota, the walk out to the lighthouse in my Lake Superior hometown is free and open to the public. I’ve strolled down many piers on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for free. In fact, I’d never been charged to walk out on waterfront infrastructure until I visited the Outer Banks.
Both Outer Banks piers we visited – Rodanthe and Jennette’s – required a small fee to walk out to the end. Turns out what we assumed were public infrastructure, are actually privately owned. When we first encountered a $2 pier fee in Rodanthe, we felt pretty confused. Did they only want serious anglers out on the piers? We just wanted to take a few photos . . .
The pier fees started to make more sense the next day at Jennette’s Pier near Nags Head. The North Carolina Aquarium Society purchased this historic pier in 2002. Less than one year later, Hurricane Isabel completely destroyed the pier. It took the society until spring 2011 to rebuild.
When I realized how vulnerable the Outer Banks’ piers are to hurricane damage, the $2 pier fees felt pretty nominal. By asking those who enjoy the pier to pay a couple bucks each time they use it, the pier owners can afford the continuous restoration. On the Outer Banks it’s not a matter of if, but when, a hurricane will next totally annihilate its piers.
2) The Outer Banks islands move
Did you know that every time you take an Outer Banks vacation, you’re actually going to a different spot?
In a very simplified version of Outer Banks ecology, ocean currents and the influx of freshwater coming from both Ablemarle and Pamlico Sounds work against each other to push sand together. These two opposing forces create a narrow sand ridge we call the Outer Banks. Wind and waves constantly push the Outer Banks ever so slightly west across the North Atlantic.
Only constant human vigilance keeps Outer Banks inlets like the Oregon Inlet between Bodie and Pea Islands from naturally filling with sand. It’s no easy feat keeping Outer Banks roadways and bridges open either. In fact, even the most beloved Outer Banks structures aren’t immune to Outer Banks “shiftiness.”
Why Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Moved
In 1870, Outer Banks residents built the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 1600 ft from the water’s edge. By 1999, ocean lapped the lighthouse base.
To save the candy-cane striped lighthouse and six other accompanying structures, the National Park Service carefully moved them 2900 feet into the heart of the Buxton Woods. It’s believed the lighthouse will be secure in its new location for at least a hundred years.
The plight of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse brings into question just how long any structure can withstand Outer Banks forces. For example, the only way the Wright Brothers National Memorial stays in the same spot is with strategic tree planting to anchor the sand.
#3) Outer Banks sea glass hunting is hard!
As three skilled beach combers, we planned to be Outer Banks sea glass hunting rock stars. Also known as mermaid tears, beach glass, or sea jewels, we figured where better to find sea-tumbled glass than Outer Banks beaches. After all, the Outer Banks essentially are a 70-mile long, two-sided beach.
Apparently, the Outer Banks’ Pea and Bodie Islands have the high concentration of sea glass. We focused our sea glass hunting on those two islands but walked away with one lousy piece of sea glass to our names. Whole seashells and shiny, smoothed shards of seashell litter every beach we explore. But sea glass proved highly elusive.
Do you know what we did wrong? If so, could you send me a message? Please? I suspect we’d have had better luck if we’d look on sound-facing beaches. We focused our effort mostly on the Atlantic (eastern) side of the islands. We also probably could have improved our odds by getting an earlier start. Not used to stiff competition for beach treasures, we failed to hunt for sea glass right after the tide receded.
4) Even the Outer Banks off-season is busy
We found the Outer Banks surprisingly busy during our mid-April season. Essentially a summer vacation destination, high season in the Outer Banks runs from June – August. Although our vacation fell firmly in the shoulder season, we found that didn’t necessarily translate into less competition for sea glass, rental houses, and well, pretty much everything else.
I think a couple factors exacerbated our experience. While we missed high season, our visit fell smack dab in the middle of spring break season. In addition, many restaurants and other businesses remained closed or on reduced off-season hours.
As a result, available amenities felt pretty maxed out. We experienced long lines at popular eating establishments. Traffic clogged the more developed northern Outer Banks. We even ended up staying in Manteo on Roanoke Island instead of the actual Outer Banks. Since many Outer Banks can house a crowd (and are priced accordingly) all the beach houses appropriately sized for our small group kept getting booked out from under us. On a whim, we decided to book a wild horse tour on our last day. We called three different tour companies and found the soonest we could get on a tour was in three days.
My best Outer Banks vacation advice is to book your accommodations as soon as you finalize your travel arrangements. Although we experienced everything on the Outer Banks we wanted to except for that wild horse tour, it also wouldn’t hurt to make a few restaurant and tour reservations in advance.
5) The Outer Banks have a rich human history worth exploring
Before our visit, I had no idea of the Outer Banks’ significance in Atlantic and U.S. history. I highly recommend a visit to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras for a crash course in Outer Banks human history. As you might suspect from a place nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” an astounding amount of ships, including the U.S.S. Monitor in 1862, have met their demise in the dangerous waters off the Outer Banks.
Other interesting episodes in Outer Banks history:
In 1718, English pirate Blackbeard died in a battle on the southern end of Ocracoke Island.
Hatteras Station received the first transmission from the Titanic on the night it sunk in 1912.
Let’s not forget that human flight came to fruition on the Outer Banks! In December 1903, Wilbur Wright piloted the first-ever plane flight over the sands of Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk. Today you can visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial at that site.
A note about our trip: We flew in and out of Norfolk, VA, driving down to Charleston, SC on our first day and then road-tripped our way back with stops at Wilmington NC, and the Outer Banks. This was such a fun way to see the coastal Carolinas and this four-day Charleston, SC long weekend itinerary is a great way to kick off a similar road trip!
Have you visited the Outer Banks? What surprised you about these North Carolina islands?
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