5 Surprising Things About the Outer Banks, North Carolina

   Five Things That Surprised Me About the Outer Banks, North Carolina

Despite reading a lot about the Outer Banks, North Carolina before my April 2019 trip, it took visiting this chain of barrier islands to realize all their fascinating and unique elements. From the actual tourist attractions to the islands’ ecology, I found myself constantly surprised during my visit.

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! 

Outer Banks North Carolina ocean pier

#1) Outer Banks piers are pay to play

Outer Banks surprise numero uno: you have to pay to go on the piers!

Maybe chalk this one up to regional differences, but I’m used to waterfront infrastructure being free and open to the public. In my small Great Lakes harbor hometown, people clamber over the breakwall to the lighthouse all the time with nary a passing thought of money exchanging hands. And during visits to both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, I’ve strolled down many a pier for free.

Not so in the Outer Banks. We found most piers on these North Carolina islands privately owned and requiring a small fee.

“What the heck?” we thought when we first encountered a fee of $2.00 to walk onto the Rodanthe Pier. Did they only want serious anglers out on the piers?

It all started to make more sense the next day, when we visited Jennette’s Pier. As I read the interpretative panel I learned that the North Carolina Aquarium Society purchased the historic pier in 2002 only to have Hurricane Isabel completely destroy it the next year. Now the society had a major reconstruction project on their hands and the pier remained shuddered until spring 2011.

When I realized just how vulnerable the Outer Banks’ piers are, suddenly the $2 fee felt pretty nominal. As you might suspect, a structure sticking several hundred feet into the Atlantic Ocean is particularly susceptible to hurricane damage, or in some cases like with Jennette’s Pier – total annihilation. 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.

Which leads us to . . .

#2) Nothing in the Outer Banks is permanent

In 1870, Outer Banks residents built the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 1600 ft from the water’s edge. By 1999, ocean lapped at the lighthouse base, prompting the National Park Service to carefully move the candy-cane striped lighthouse and six other accompanying structures 2900 feet into the heart of the Buxton Woods. It’s believed the beloved lighthouse will be secure in its new location for at least a hundred years before the forces behind the Outer Banks conspire to throw in the ocean yet again.

In a very (VERY!) simplified version of Outer Banks ecology, ocean currents and the influx of freshwater coming from both the Ablemarle and Pamlico Sounds work against each other to push sand together into a narrow ridge we call the Outer Banks. The islands are essentially ribbons of sand constantly pushed around by wind and waves. Without constant human vigilance, the inlets on the Outer Banks (like the Oregon Inlet between Bodie and Pea Islands) would naturally fill in with sand.

As humans, we just don’t like the idea of impermanence. We try our best to conquer natural elements and often assume we can live anywhere if we just have the right  know-how.

The Outer Banks pushes hard against that belief. Between hurricanes and the ever-shifting sands, nothing on the Outer Banks is truly permanent.

#3) Sea glass is weirdly hard to find on the Outer Banks

As three beach lovers with an affinity for sea glass, we figured we’d be rockstars at finding sea glass (aka mermaid tears, beach glass, sea jewels, insert your favorite name for sea-tumbled glass here) on Outer Banks beaches. I mean, the islands are essentially the equivalent to a 70-mile long, two-sided beach.

But woe was us! Despite pretty extensive research about finding sea glass on the Outer Banks, we struck out. We concentrated our efforts on Pea and Bodie Islands where we’d read about high sea glass prevalence. We looked. We looked hard. And found one single piece of sea glass between the three of us.

Clearly we did something wrong. Shiny, smoothed shards of seashell deceived us over and over again. We just couldn’t find sea glass to save our lives.

We guess we looked too late in the morning. Not used to stiff competition for beach treasures, we failed to hunt for sea glass right after the tide receded. As a result, the other beachcombers definitely got the jump on us. Next time . . . .

#4) The Outer Banks are busy, even in the off-season

Overall, the Outer Banks were much busier than we expected. Because we visited in the off-season (mid-April), we counted on less competition for sea glass, rental houses, and well, pretty much everything.

During our visit, many restaurants and other businesses remained closed or on their reduced off-season hours. However, the available off-season amenities felt pretty maxed out. We experienced long lines at popular eating establishments, heavy traffic, and ended up staying in Manteo on Roanoke Island instead of the actual Outer Banks because all the beach houses appropriate for our small group 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 three days out. Oh well!

For the best OBX experience, I’d definitely recommended booking your accommodations almost as soon as you finalize your travel arrangements and be prepared to go without if you don’t plan tours in advance.

#5) There’s rich local history on the Outer Banks

Until I toured the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, I really had no sense of the significant role the Outer Banks have played in Atlantic and U.S. 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 shores of the Outer Banks.

Other fun Outer Banks, North Carolina history facts:

  • In 1718, English pirate Blackbeard died in a battle on the southern end of Ocracoke Island. (Hence the name “1718 Brewing” for the Ocracoke Island brewery . . . )
  • Hatteras Station received the first transmission from the Titanic on that fateful night in 1912.
  • Oh, and a little thing known as human flight came to fruition on the Outer Banks! Back in December 1903, the first plane soared across the sands of Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk. Today you can visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial at the site. And going back to the Outer Banks’ impermanence, the only way the memorial stays in the same spot is with strategic tree planting around it.

Have you been to the Outer Banks? What surprised you about these North Carolina islands?

Let me know in the comments below!

We visited the Outer Banks as part of a road trip up the Carolina coast. Read about our day in Charleston! 

About:

Hi! I’m Ada, a travel writer who believes “there’s no place like home.” I started Beyond the Yellow Brick Road to share my travel experiences and lessons learned from the road to help fellow travelers have the best travel experiences possible.

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12 Comments

  1. We just returned from there!! We found the Outer Banks in December completely quiet. We had beaches to ourselves, where we found sea glass and coal! Our airbnb was deeply discounted and we received one on one interaction at all of the museums we went to. Clearly OBX is all about timing, as I think it would be over crowded in peak season. We found the ocean temp in December the same as Lake Superior in the summer, so of coarse we went in!!

    • I saw that! Did you find that a lot of the restaurants and shops were closed for the season?

      I’m super jealous you found sea glass. Not to humble brag, but the three of us are pretty good beachcombers and we were bummed it’s wasn’t more prevalent during our visit. I think we hit it right at spring break time though so there was stiff competition for it.

      • Wow there’s so much history in this small place! It’s seems so unique, I would definitely love to visit

  2. This was very insightful! I’ve been hearing a lot about the Outer Banks lately and nice to finally hear more of what it’s all about. It’s been a real hotspot and the fact that it’s pretty much busy year-round confirms that. I live in the northeast and we deal with similar beach erosion issues and the need to move lighthouses away from the coast on Cape Cod. I didn’t realize Cape Hatteras Lighthouse faces a similar plight. We want our man-made structures to last forever, but clearly, Mother Nature has other ideas.

  3. Oh no, you have to pay to go on the piers? Where they empty? And no beach glass too! I love finding that while walking the beach so I would be disappointed too!

    • You do, but the money helps keep them in good repair since they’re very susceptible to storm damage.

  4. I was surprised too by the charge for visiting the piers. Our hotel had breakfast vouchers for a restaurant at the pier and from there we somehow got on the pier for free. It wasn’t really anything special, so we didn’t go on any other pier.

  5. I’ve never heard of paying to walk on a pier. Sounds like The Outer Banks are popular even in the off-season and businesses should consider staying open.

  6. We’ve been to Outer Banks a couple years ago and love the Wild Horse tour. I like the beach area where the horse is located compared to the center of Outer Banks. I still plan to visit this place and visit historical sites. When we went, the weather is crazy, and the kids just wanted to lounge and play with cousins all day. The boardwalk in the center of Outerbanks is free, and it is a beautiful area to walk around for Sunset and Sunrise. I love it there. I agree that you have to book at least one year in advance to get the best price and days of the year. It can be costly, especially during the summer. My in-laws aren’t fun of planning and booking ahead. I did the same for the wild horse tour, but glad we’re able to do it, and we were there for 7 days, which it works for us. But not for people who only visit for less than 3 days.

  7. I see what you mean about the piers. $2 isn’t so much if it will help keep them looking amazing for years to come. I wonder if you’d find more sea glass after a big storm? Maybe it’d had just been too calm when you guys looked??

    • I bet you’re right. We were lucky to visit during very nice weather!

  8. The OBX were one of my favorite weekend trips when I lived in Columbia, SC. That is too bad to hear that you have to pay to visit the piers, but at least there are almost endless stretches of beaches in the area to enjoy for free. The history of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is fascinating, and a visit to learn about it is a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing, this post is making me nostalgic!

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