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28 Nov 2023
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Vacation Planning

The Outer Banks is a stunning stretch of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast, offering families tons of affordable entertainment. Whether you’re looking to relax on the beach, adventure through nature reserves, explore a bit of coastal history, or experience local culture, there’s something for everyone. In this blog, we’re covering some of the best fun and free activities in the Outer Banks so you can make your vacation unforgettable.

Explore Historic Lighthouses

The Outer Banks is dotted with six beautiful lighthouses that are open year-round for you to visit, each with its own unique history and connection to the area. When you visit the Outer Banks, consider a lighthouse scavenger hunt where you have to uncover unique facts about each one. Whether it’s the number of bricks it took to build the Currituck Beach Lighthouse (over 1 million!), or which one is the only river lighthouse (Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse), you’ll have hours of fun learning and exploring. Check out this local’s resource for more information on the Outer Banks lighthouses, and start planning how you can incorporate them into your Outer Banks vacation!

Relax on the Beach

No visit to the Outer Banks is complete without dedicating time to relaxing and unwinding on the beach. With miles of sandy shoreline and calming waves, it’s the perfect fun and free activity the whole family can enjoy. From serene Rodanthe to family-friendly Nags Head, you'll find the perfect stretch to build sandcastles, swim in the water, enjoy a good beach read, or just bask in the sunshine, all without spending a dime. 

See New Heights at Jockey’s Ridge

Climb to the top of the Eastern United States’ tallest natural living sand dune when you visit Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This activity is not only a great way to incorporate a workout into your vacation, but the views from the top are some of the most exquisite in the Outer Banks. Be sure to pack water and snacks, and if the weather cooperates, bring a kite so you can soar it through the steady breezes.

Hunt for Shells, Sea Glass, and Ghost Crabs

Anyone who has spent time at the beach knows the weather can change on a dime, often leading to frequent rain showers and occasional thunderstorms. While this puts a damper on beach lounging, it makes for excellent shelling once the weather passes. A great way to have some free fun in the Outer Banks is to hunt for unique seashells and sea glass after a storm. Don’t forget the flashlights, nets, and buckets so you can scope out the ghost crabs at night, too!

Visit Downtown Manteo

From free events to beautiful waterfront strolls, there’s always something to do in downtown Manteo. Located just 10 minutes from Nags Head, this charming town is a great way to spend a day during your Outer Banks vacation. For a small fee, you can head to the Roanoke Island Festival Park, but you’ll have just as much fun checking out the marshes and nature trails as you wander through paved paths and along the quaint boardwalk.

Unique Travel: Bikes and Ferry Boat Rides

Explore the Outer Banks in a fun way—by bike or ferry. Many areas are bike-friendly, allowing you to enjoy the coastal scenery at your own pace. There’s also a bike path from one end of the island to the other located in Manteo! Additionally, the free ferry rides to destinations like Ocracoke Island offer a delightful way to see the area from a different perspective. The ferries run every 30 minutes, and the ride takes approximately 45 minutes, giving you a beautiful way to spend a few free hours in the Outer Banks. Depending on where you departed, once you dock, take time to explore Hatteras or Ocracoke!

Wander Through a Downtown Market

While any purchases will be on you, window shopping at some of the area’s farmers' or seasonal markets is a great way to mingle with locals, check out artisan-made products, and see a side of the Outer Banks often missed by tourists.

Check Out the National Wildlife Refuges

For an educational, fun, and free activity in the Outer Banks, spend a day at the Alligator River or Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges. Home to wintering migratory flocks, Pea Island is a birdwatcher's dream as the species list boasts over 370 unique species ranging from bald eagles to tundra swans. At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll have more than 154,000 acres of wetlands to explore. From wood ducks and alligators to bears and wolves, the refuge gives visitors a chance to learn all about the extensive list of animals native to the Outer Banks. Venture out in kayaks or canoes for close-ups in the marshes or hike the nature trails as they wind over observation platforms and through beautiful cedar forests.

Visit the Fishing Piers

For epic photo ops, visit the Pirate’s Cove Marina as the boats come in after a day of fishing. When the catches of the day are unloaded, you’ll likely spot giant yellowfin tunas and other varieties of fish, from king mackerel and striped bass to cobia and flounder. As you wander the pier, see how many unique species you spot and take a guess at who had the best haul.

Experience Local Culture at a Museum or Gallery

The Outer Banks has many fun and free museums and galleries to visit on your vacation. For a dose of history, head to the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum in Manteo, where you can explore the boathouses and learn all about the building of the Elizabeth II, which is docked nearby. After checking out the museum, you can wander over to the Silver Bonsai Gallery and peruse handmade jewelry, woodworking, ceramic, metal, and glasswork pieces by local artists. While it’s a great spot to view the region's most talented makers, you may just happen upon a must-have souvenir to commemorate your Outer Banks vacation.

Plan Your Unforgettable Outer Banks Getaway

The Outer Banks is brimming with opportunities for fun and excitement that don't have to cost a thing. From the natural beauty of the beaches and dunes to the rich tapestry of history and culture, there's no end to the adventures that await you and your family. And when it comes to finding the perfect place to stay, look no further than Carolina Shores Vacation Rentals. Our selection of vacation rentals provides the ideal home base for your coastal explorations. Book your stay today and experience all the fun and free activities the Outer Banks has to offer!