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!
#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!
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