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So, you’re taking the family to the Outer Banks for vacation! You made a fantastic choice when it comes to a fun, relaxing, gorgeous destination. We spend a week in the Outer Banks of North Carolina most summers and as much as I love theme parks, cruises, resorts, etc, there are very very few trips I would choose over a few days to relax in OBX.
A vacation on the Outer Banks can be as relaxing or as “on-the-go-touristy” as you want to make it. We typically do a mix of those two modes. We love lazy days at the beach but also try to spend a day or 2 during our week exploring the barrier island(s).
As a kid, our annual trips to the Outer Banks took us to the town of Rodanthe, a good hour or so drive from the Kitty Hawk, NC area (where the bridge onto the island is located). Since Bob and I have started going down to OBX with our own kids, we stay closer to the Kitty Hawk area, in Nags Head. We like that the beaches are just as quiet, open and peaceful as the ones further south, but there is a LOT more to do activity-wise along the main highway where we stay. Mini golf, movie theater, restaurants, grocery stores, big box stores, you name it. (Yes, even a couple of Starbucks!)
This list of 10 fun free or cheap things to do with kids in the Outer Banks spans a large area of the Outer Banks. The wild horses of Corolla mentioned below are about an hour north of that bridge onto OBX, while the Ocracoke Ferry is about an hour and a half south of the bridge.
No matter what activities you decide to do, the Outer Banks will give you an incredible vacation landscape that will lure you back year after year!
1. Catch a sunrise. The Outer Banks are not very wide, so chances are good-to-certain that no matter where you stay, you’ll be able to catch a sunrise or two during your stay. I like to check sunrise times and set my alarm for a few minutes before the sunrise. I only need a couple of minutes to roll out of bed and stumble out the door to catch the show. An unexpected bonus? Lily discovered the amazingness of a great sunrise and is hooked. It has become our tradition to do together and I love sharing that moment with her!
2. Check out a lighthouse. There are 5 lighthouses on the Outer Banks that you can visit. We have been to 4 of them over the years. They are neat to see in person and most, if not all, give visitors the chance to climb up to the top for a small charge.
One thing to note – the climb is no joke. Tight, small, winding staircase to the top which is not only physically challenging, but at those heights, it’s mentally challenging as well. We climbed the Currituck Beach Lighthouse a couple of years ago and I found that looking DOWN gave me a near anxiety attack. I made it all the way up and back down but I probably won’t be climbing up a lighthouse in the near future.
3. Look for the wild horses. If you take a drive up north on the Outer Banks to the town of Corolla, you can look for some of the wild mustangs that have lived on the island for centuries. 4-wheel-drive vehicles can drive on the beaches of Corolla and look for wild horses in the dunes and on the beach. If you don’t have an off-road car (or simply have no interest in the rough terrain of the beach) you can take one of numerous horse and wildlife sightseeing tours.
One year we took a drive on the beach and saw 2 different herds of horses in the sand dunes. Another year we stopped at a shopping complex in Duck, NC where you could ride a mustang.
4. Hunt for ghost crabs! Grab your flashlights, nets and glow sticks because after the sun goes down, it’s time to head out to the beach and look for ghost crabs. These crabs (ranging in size from miniature to about the size of an adult hand) are EVERYWHERE on the beach at night. You shine your light ahead of you and watch them scatter about! The kids have a blast looking for crabs and catching (and releasing) them.
5. Fly a kite. Typical of coastal locales, the Outer Banks have a constant breeze that blows round the clock. This makes for some fantastic kite flying weather. You will see a large array of different kites flying up and down the beach. Don’t have a kite? Stop in any of the beach supply stores and pick one up – you’ll find everything from a cheap simple kit to a more elaborate model.
Photo Credit: Dan Stasiorowski
6. Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial. This museum is a must-see! In 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first successful airplane flights on this exact spot in Kitty Hawk, NC! Entrance to the Wright Brothers National Memorial is a few dollars and your admission pass is valid for re-entry over the next 7 days. You can visit the museum, walk around the actual flight track and hike up to the impressive memorial.
7. Climb the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Just down the road from the Wright Brothers Memorial is Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This expanse of SAND is the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern US! You won’t doubt that statistic when you see the dunes for yourself. They are massive! Entrance to Jockey’s Ridge is FREE. You can climb up the dunes (it’s a fantastic spot to watch the sunset, fly a kite, etc). When you get to the top of the dunes, you can see the ocean on one side and the bay on the other.
We love to watch the hang gliders taking flight off the dunes. For a fee you can take an intro to hang gliding class. Bob did this one year and had a blast.
8. Take the free ferry to Ocracoke Island. On our most recent trip to OBX, we spent a day driving south towards Hatteras and Ocracoke Island. There is a free ferry that runs back and forth to Ocracoke. It is really important to check out the Ocracoke Ferry schedule and arrive with plenty of time to catch the ferry you want. The ferry boat itself is pretty small. You drive your car right onto the boat. The ferry ride takes about 45 minutes. During peak tourist times in the summer the wait for the ferry can be hours! We were very fortunate and only had to wait about 30 minutes or so.
There are several shops and eateries near the ferry terminal.
Once on Ocracoke, you drive for several miles passing nothing but sand dunes and beach on either side. The village of Ocracoke is relatively small. We stopped on the drive in and got a glimpse of some wild mustangs at a sanctuary off the main highway. We ate lunch at one of the many restaurants that dot the highway. We saw shops, drove past the Ocracoke lighthouse and then started on our way back to the ferry. The ferry ride and drive across the island were enough for us! They were nice to do and cool that the ferry was free. Worth doing at least once!
9. Go crabbing. 2 years ago we had the chance to take the kids crabbing while in the Outer Banks. We drove up to Corolla to spend the day with some friends who were staying there for the week. Their kids were into crabbing and had the required equipment (a net, some string, some raw chicken for bait). We went over to the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and went crabbing in the nice catch and release area they had.
Make sure you take a peek inside the center while you’re there. It’s HUGE (5,000 square feet), FREE and packed with cool displays, a giant aquarium and more. The center also offers a wide array of interesting wildlife classes and activities. Most (if not all) of these classes are free, but many require reservations as they fill up fast!
10. Catch a sunset. Just like the awesome beauty of watching a sunrise on the Outer Banks, sunset shouldn’t be missed either! There are numerous viewing spots all along the Outer Banks. Two of our favorites are the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge and the back deck of Pamlico Jacks Restaurant (bonus – the 2nd option comes with tasty eats!).
Photo Credit: Dan Stasiorowski
So there you have it! Those are our top 10 free or cheap things that are really fun to do with the kiddos in the Outer Banks. What would you add?
Also be sure to check out 9 Must-Try Foods in the Outer Banks, NC!
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