A visit to the Outer Banks in North Carolina is the perfect blend of adventure and relaxation. I’m sharing family-friendly adventures that you will want to add to your list during your next visit.
This story was brought to you in partnership with The Outer Banks. All opinions are my own.
Where is the Outer Banks and What is OBX?
The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a chain of barrier islands with 6 towns and 12 coastal villages that are connected by Coastal Highway NC12.
The OBX is an abbreviation by fans of the area for the Outer Banks North Carolina.
What stands out during a drive along the OBX coast is the absence of typical over-commercialized tourists traps. There is an extensive amount of natural and undeveloped coastline that has been preserved specifically for recreation and wildlife which is so refreshing and tranquil.
The barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks can shift and change over time due to beach erosion and storms which is constantly changing the beautiful landscape.
If you love to take a vehicle off-road on the beach, there are many areas where you will find year-round accessibility.
During our visit, we made so many memories by sharing unique experiences together. Several of those adventures were for the first time which was even better.
300 W Carolista Dr, Nags Head, NC
Yes, you can try hang gliding in the Outer Banks, at the tallest and largest natural sand dune in the Eastern United States… and YES, this is a bucket list adventure that I HIGHLY recommend!
Kitty Hawk Kites offers an unforgettable and unique adventure with training at the largest hang gliding school in the World with previous students ranging from ages 4 -92.
I promise that the scariest part of the whole experience is watching the safety video in the training room and learning the commands because it makes you wonder if you will remember everything that you are supposed to do.
Don’t worry, this is where the amazing instructors come in. They are basically hang gliding whisperers who say exactly what you need to do, at exactly the right time, putting you at ease, and giving you confidence in your flight. (Thanks again Nick and Jesse!)
You’ll want to allow about 3 hours for your hang gliding adventure. I would recommend wearing athletic style clothing that breathes well because there is no protection on the dune from the sun and it can get HOT.
There are leg loops for the harnesses so beware that shorts can ride up, which is why I opted athletic capris. You want to put on sunscreen before you go out on the dunes and you might want to reapply sunscreen during your lesson.
Depending on the temperatures that day, you might need to use sneakers or sand socks if the sand is too hot. Each participant is recommended to have 1-2 liters of water. After you walk back up that sand dune one time you will understand why.
There are no ATMs at the park so make sure that you bring cash if you want to purchase a water or Gatorade onsite at the vending machine and it’s also nice to have cash to tip your instructors.
After you watch the hang gliding instructors run down …and make the trek back up the sand dune with the hang glider 25+ times, you will definitely want to give them something extra.
You will go watch a demo by one of your instructors and then go through a safety check before each of your flights to make sure that you are harnessed into the rig correctly and to go over the commands as needed.
Before your flight, you will take a dinosaur stance, (you’ll understand that once you take the lesson) transition from walking to running, and then enjoy your air time before making your way back down to the ground and back up the dune.
You will do (2) sets of flights back-to-back, followed by your final flight. By doing the flights back-to-back you are able to build more muscle memory and make any adjustments while it’s fresh in your mind.
The group size is typically around 5 people which gives you some time to recover in between dune climbs.
During your flight, the instructors are holding on to a rope attached to your rig and race down the dune as you lift into the air.
The flight happens quickly but it’s an amazing feeling to experience.
And landing on the sand at the bottom of the dune is also very forgiving.
You can purchase a video package to get the perspective of your flights that also includes that footage in still frame images.
The editing company will also create a video with all 5 of your flights that is ready within a few days of your flight so that you can show it off to your friends.
I would also recommend bringing a camera with you to capture a few pictures from another perspective. You can just keep a backpack at the top of the sand dune.
After our lesson, we were given a certificate and a document that logged our training in case we want to continue taking our hang gliding to the next level.
If you want to explore after your lesson you’ll find two self-guided trails, hiking, a visitor center, museum, picnic areas, and restroom facilities if you need to change.
The park offers special programming throughout the year that you can learn more about here.
7517 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, NC, 27959
Confession: I love controlled adventures. Strap me in a harness and I feel secure which is why I get a little more nervous on a jet ski. I think that they are really FUN…when I’m the one driving.
When I’m not driving, it’s hard for me to give the control over to someone else for fear of falling off into the water. Yes, I’m a bit of a control freak.
During our jet ski tour, I had two options because I wanted to get pictures during our ride: I could ride behind my 16-year-old son or my husband. (You must be at least 16 to drive with a valid drivers license ) I opted for my husband.
I will fully admit that I’m a bit of a wimpy driver because I tend to slow down on the really big waves.. when I should go faster.
Our ride ended up being equal parts FUN + therapy…because I finally fully trusted my husband to drive something after 20+ years.
He handled the big waves like a champ and the only mishap was almost losing my hat when we were going really fast…and my phone when I discovered that the lanyard around my neck wasn’t secured properly.
Before we began our guided tour, we rode around the course to make sure that everyone felt comfortable on the jet ski. The water in the bay where you get on your jet ski is shallow which makes it a great temperature.
We had our boys follow directly behind our guide so that we could watch them in front of us. My older son did a great job of driving his younger brother with no incidents. I was kind of surprised that he didn’t try to throw him off.
Our jet ski guide Morgan led us out into the bay followed by going under several bridges, marsh areas in Roanoke Sound, and the waterfront near Manteo.
I really liked that this jet ski tour was very diverse. It gave us a great mix of ride experience in scenery and speeds from fast to laid back.
The minimum age for a passenger to ride on the tour is 10 years old. You can have 1-2 passengers on the jet ski and you need a minimum of 2 skis for a tour.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
46379 Lighthouse Rd
Enjoying the scenic views of the Outer Banks from the top of the tallest brick beacon in the world, at 210 feet, is definitely another adventure to experience during your visit.
This is actually the second location for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. In the summer of 1999, it took 23 days to move the lighthouse almost a half-mile from its original location constructed in 1870. The lighthouse needed to be moved due to beach erosion that put it too close to the ocean.
Tips for Climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Before you climb up the 257 steps at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, you need to be aware of a few things. The inside is not air-conditioned and you will be traveling up a narrow spiral staircase with two-way traffic that only has a handrail on one side.
There is no elevator inside the lighthouse, so what goes up, must go back down. The views are worth it, I promise!
There is a landing every 31 steps which is a great time to enjoy the view out the window and catch your breath before your next 31 steps.. until you reach the equivocal of a 12 story building. The climb up the lighthouse is self-paced.
You can bring bottled water with you in a sealable, non-glass container and kids must be at least 42″ tall and able to walk up the stairs on their own. No one is allowed to be carried or lifted.
You can climb to the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from mid-April to Columbus Day. Whether you get to step out on the balcony at the top depends on the wind conditions that can change frequently.
We climbed to the top of the lighthouse and the park ranger measured the wind gusts and said that they were too high for guests to go out on the balcony.
We were able to look out the opened door at the top and ironically the winds were safe enough for the group after us. The ranger did tell us that the winds were unsafe before we made the climb up and we chose not to try to wait it out for a later time that day.
Beach near Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
If you go to the nearby beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you will most likely discover surfers near the site of the original lighthouse.
Rip currents are common in this area so use extra caution if you choose to swim at this beach and try to stay away from the breakers.
59200 Museum Drive
The perfect adventure for a rainy day, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum highlights the maritime history and shipwrecks in the Outer Banks.
Admission to the museum is free but donations are always appreciated. Make sure that you check out the events page before you go to take advantage of special programming.
To get your family more involved in your visit, I would suggest taking advantage of the youth-friendly scavenger hunt at the front desk.
Kids will be on the search for objects located throughout the museum and they can even receive a special prize afterward.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was the display of underwater cameras. It was really interesting to see so many different styles and types of underwater cameras over the years.
History buffs will enjoy learning more about war history in the Outer Banks.
There are even some exhibits with details about some unique modern shipwrecks, one of which included thousands of bags of Doritos.
There is a lot to take in during your visit so make sure that you take your time to appreciate all of the incredible artifacts.
1854 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel Lens was another one of my favorite pieces at the museum. It’s amazing to see how large the lens is up close.
The museum also introduces a new exhibit annually which gives you a reason to come back each year.
Did you know that you can take a trail ride through the woods that takes you out to the beach by horseback at the Outer Banks????
Another first! I had never ridden a horse on the beach or on sand dunes before our visit to the Outer Banks.
Our guided trail ride went through the dunes in the Maritime forest of Frisco and took us out to the beach.
The horses could basically do this trail in their sleep which makes it a great experience for all levels of riders.
My few of my highlights along the way were when we traveled through a few feet of water during several sections on the trail and the views of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the distance before we crossed the final dune over to reach the beach.
Riding a horse on the beach was definitely magical. Once we reached the beach we were allowed to run our horse on the beach if we wanted to.
It’s totally up to you and your comfort level. Experiences riders will love the freedom to race their horse down the beach.
The horses always have to run in the direction away from the barn and you never try to run your horse on the way back to the barn because they are already highly motivated to get back for treats.
Our tour was about 3 hours so my tip for you, if you don’t ride horses very often make sure that you keep your heels down to help relieve the pressure off of your knees. It also helps your posture. I didn’t do that the first half so I learned that the hard way.
Horseback riders can be as young as 10 and can weigh up to 200 pounds. Depending on the season, the trail rides are available twice a day during the morning and afternoon.
374 Airport Road
Manteo, NC 27954
Another adventure that’s perfect for a rainy day, but beware, you won’t be the only one with that idea. The NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island is definitely worth a visit during your vacation regardless of the weather outside.
During your visit, you’ll learn more about marine life in the area. There are several opportunities for you to encounter sea life at the stingray pool and touch pool areas. You’ll be given instructions prior to putting your hands in the water so that you and the sea life both stay safe.
The sea turtle conservation efforts by staff and volunteers are truly inspiring there. It was definitely one of my favorite areas during our visit.
The Roanoke Island’s Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center is housed inside the NC Aquarium.
They rescue, rehab and release the sea turtles that are healthy enough to go back into the wild. The care is truly a labor of love.
Every year the names of the incoming sea turtles are themed which makes for some creative and clever names. The turtles in care during our visit were named under a Harry Potter theme.
Younger guests can experience hands-on play with a rehabilitation area set up for them to learn more about sea turtles as they role-play being a staff member.
The aquarium also offers several behind the scenes tours for guests throughout the year providing access to areas not open to the public to learn more about the aquariums daily operations.
Wanchese Marina and Landing Grill
4457 Mill Landing Rd., Wanchese NC.
Looking for a unique charter experience during your vacation?
There are plenty of chartered fishing options when you visit the Outer Banks but OBX Crabbing is the only charter where you can try crabbing or shrimping in the OBX from a full-time commercial fishing family.
The experience is really hands-on and you get the opportunity to see crabs up close and learn the difference between a male and a female.
You’ll learn more about how crab traps are set and how to measure a crab to determine if they are the size you can keep.
The boat holds a max of 6 passengers per charter which gives you an intimate experience and the primary season is from Memorial weekend through the month of October.
All legal catches are yours to keep during your charter and you have the option of a 2 or 4-hour charter.
307 Queen Elizabeth Ave
Enjoy a relaxing boat ride before you safely ascend several hundred feet in the air for an awesome aerial view of the Roanoke Sound while parasailing with Kitty Hawk Kites in Manteo.
You’ll need to arrive 30 minutes before your flight so that you have time to fill out waivers and watch the safety video. The staff at Kitty Hawk Kites takes safety very seriously and will also go over additional boat safety information before your parasailing adventure.
Participants sit on the back of the platform of the boat and you don’t have to worry about getting wet. The process to and from the platform is very gradual and the experience in the air is very peaceful.
My biggest tip if you are scared of heights is to just trust the equipment and enjoy the view. Kitty Hawk Kites does offer a photo package if you don’t want to risk getting your camera wet.
The scheduled flights last about 10-12 minutes and you will spend about an hour out on the boat.
If you don’t want to go up in the air you can purchase a ticket as an observer. There are observer spots guaranteed on the first boat ride of the day in Manteo, every day.
If you have a larger group you might want to visit the Manteo location because they can carry up to 12 passengers during the May-Sept season.
The minimum age to fly is 2-years-old and their oldest flyer was a 98-year-old woman. Kids under 10 years old have to ride with an older flyer.
The weight limits will depend on several factors including, wind and sea conditions.
During our ride, we needed to be under 400 pounds due to the wind. The minimum weight is 150-175 and it’s definitely more fun to share the experience with another person.
Depending on the combined weight of the people in your party and the weather conditions, you could have the option to do a double or triple ride.
9. Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial
1000 North Croatan Highway
Kill Devil Hills, NC
No trip to the Outer Banks is complete without visiting the site where aviation history was made. At this site Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful powered airplane flight on December 17th in 1903.
Inside the visitor center, you’ll learn more about the Wright brothers with exhibits that highlight their life and their work. There are also reproductions of the 1902 glider and 1903 flyer and they even have artifacts from the original 1903 Wright Flyer. I recommend starting inside and then working your way outside.
Outside of the visitor center, you can walk the path with markers for the four flights by the Wright Brothers.
The path is flat and wheelchair and stroller friendly.
And you walk the flight path you can walk the path up to Big Kill Devil Hill that has a monument that honors the Wright Brothers and offers an incredible view.
If you don’t want to walk straight from the visitor center you can drive to a closer parking lot at the base of the hill.
The National Memorial to the Birthplace of Flight will definitely make you appreciate the perseverance that these brothers had to pursue in making their dream of flying a reality.
Make sure that you stop at the flyer statue for a creative photo op before you leave the park.
10. Explore Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a great stop on your way to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. There is a Visitor Center on-site where you can learn more about the area and you can also hike on two scenic trails, North Pond Wildlife Trail and Salt Flats Wildlife Trail.
If you take the trail make sure that you put on lots of bug spray before you hike the trail and be on the lookout for all types of wildlife.
There are 25 species of mammals, 24 species of reptiles and 5 species of amphibians at the refuge made up of 25,700 acres of Proclamation Boundary waters and 5,834 acres of land. I even discovered a snake near the fencing of the trail during my hike located near the visitor center.
The refuge is a very popular birding spot with over 365 species and the best times to visit in fall and winter. This is definitely worth a stop.
Bonus: Observe Beach Hang Gliding or Fly a Kite
If you are lucky, you might be at the beach when some of the experts are catching air to hang glide right on the beach. We recognized one of our instructors who was joined by other past and present hang gliding instructors taking turns in the air.
The winds by the beach are also great for flying a kite if you are looking for an adventure that you can participate in without a permit.
Where We Stayed
201 N Virginia Dare Trail,
Kill Devil Hills, NC
During our visit, we stayed at the Days Inn Wright Brothers by Wyndham. The property is centrally located on the Outer Banks with direct access to the beach.
Our shared balcony gave us views of the ocean and the swimming pool. Breakfast is included with your stay and there is a sand volleyball court, and grill onsite.
Our room also had two double beds, a seating area, mini-fridge, microwave, and coffee maker.
The Outer Banks is definitely the type of destination that will have you dreaming about how soon you can return the moment that you have to leave. I can’t wait to go back!
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