The Outer Banks of North Carolina came up several times while planning this trip. Several friends suggested the area with enthusiasm over the beaches, lighthouses, and natural areas. We were close by while in Virginia Beach, but held off planning a trip to the Outer Banks until we could get a weather forecast for just a few days out. The day or so before we left Virginia Beach the forecast for “OBX” was favorable with a few daytime highs in the mid 60’s to low 70’s so we made preparations to go.
The first puzzle was where to stay. It looks like North Carolina shuts down it’s state and national forest camping areas at the end of October, so those were all out. Many of the private campgrounds in the OBX area were amazingly expensive (looking at you Mr. $83/night even in the off-season Cape Hatteras KOA). MsBoyink managed to find another private park that was part of the Passport America plan for just under $30/night all told).
We left Virginia Beach on a Sunday morning (late, this was after the Karaoke night with neighbors) so the drive down was nice with sunny skies and light traffic. As we entered the Kittyhawk & Kill Devil Hill area, however, we started to get a taste of what proved to be one of the main two OBX experiences - which is rampant consumerism.
The highway was crammed full of t-shirt shops, antique stores, kite stores, hammock stores, and restaurants. The commercial corridor backs up to the residential areas which consist of very tall houses that dominate the horizon wherever possible.
We stopped at the Wright Brothers Memorial for a late lunch, investigated the museum and book shop, but passed on the hike up the hill to look at the actual memorial (I think we got our fill of monument-viewing in Gettysburg).
We appreciated seeing the hill where the “first flights” took place and the markers of how far they went, but that was good enough.
We pressed on, anxious for the scenery change once out of the commercial areas. What we found is that for the majority of our drive through the OBX area, the views of either the sound or the ocean are obscured by either dune berms (on the ocean side) or low tree-lines (on the sound side).
With little to no traffic on the road we had vast stretches of straight flat roads with not much to look at. There are spots where either the road rises up high enough or the scenery breaks enough to catch glimpses of the water but overall it really amazed us that for a stretch of land so narrow and far out from the mainland we were able to see very little of the water surrounding us.
Once in and with camp setup we ventured out in search of our other goal for this area - sampling some fresh seafood. We found a small local diner and ordered two seafood samplers with shrimp, tuna, crab cakes, scallops.
Dinner was great - our waitress noticed us struggling a bit to peel our shrimp so came over to give us some tips. A local family walked past our truck coming in, found us, and asked us questions about our trip. With fully bellies we went back to the trailer for an early bedtime in preparation for a full day the next day.
Ferry Rides, Islands, Dolphins, “Wild” Ponies, and Lighthouses
Our next day we decided to head further into the OBX area for a trip over to Ocracoke Island. After buying some gas at $0.45 more than mainland prices we made the drive down. The trip over to the island involves a free 40 minute ferry ride - a new experience for our kids.
Once on the island we stopped just short of the village - it was lunchtime and we wanted a dining spot with a view. We found parking at one of the beach access points and carried canned soup and a campstove over to the access stairs and cooked lunch while looking at the ocean and the surf fishermen.
At some point while prepping the food I noticed some large dark shapes out in the water, and what I thought looked like dorsal fins. I got the family to see them as well and we finally confirmed that they were dolphins. I had to go back to the truck to get my telephoto lens and was able to get a few pictures of them.
We loved spotting the dolphins on our own and not as part of some for-hire “dolphin viewing excursion”.
We noodled around this spot for a couple hours enjoying a mild day with Miranda doing another round of beachcombing. The seashells were much more abundant here than in Virginia Beach and it made her task of choosing a few “keepers” much harder. Even Data found and kept a few.
I Miss My Jeep!
OBX does allow 4WD vehicles to drive on many of the beach areas - so we were really feeling the lack of having a 4WD truck. I would have loved to have just driven onto the beach and cruised all day.
I almost think we could have aired down and done it - our truck does have a posi rear end and all-terrain tires. I also have an onboard air compressor for airing the tires back up. But without company to yank me out if I got stuck I didn’t want to take the risk. I’d hate to see what the local towing places get for a beach rescue.
After packing back into the truck we drove into the village of Ocracoke, and found no particular reason to stop seeing just another round of small mostly-closed tourist shops and restaurants. We circled back for the ferry, stopping off to see the “wild ponies” that the island is somewhat known for. Their history is interesting in that they used to run free on the island. We also found it interesting that they have some actual physical differences from their mainland counterparts with fewer ribs, etc. They no longer run wild though, so took about as long to consider as any penned-up horses (that you can’t touch or feed) would anywhere.
After taking the ferry back to Hatteras Island we stopped off at the lighthouse long enough to take a couple of pictures and for Miranda to buy herself another book from the bookstore (this one on local mysteries and legends). The lighthouse was closed for the season, but I’m not sure we would have spent $25 as a family to climb it even if it had been open.
On the way back to the trailer I stopped off for another sample of seafood - crab legs this time. I got a half-order of snowcrab legs to go, and we each tried some. I really liked them (possibly even better than the shrimp) but Miranda was having none of it. For some reason chicken legs are fine, but crab legs - not so much!
We pulled out the next morning with a destination of Raleigh, NC.
Overall, OBX was an interesting place where we enjoyed a beach visit (and dolphin spotting!), but not a spot that we’d necessarily hurry back to (especially in the peak season). I think part of it is that being from West Michigan we’re a bit spoiled. We have - just a few miles from home - great beaches, lighthouses, and scenic drives with views of Lake Michigan.
Maybe we’re beach snobs? ;)