Looking for somewhere to experience the beach, an ocean sound, lighthouses, historical shipwrecks, epic kite flying, wild horses, and more? The Outer Banks, North Carolina, is an adventure paradise! Today, Wendy Cox, Virginia mom of four, is sharing her family’s recent visit to the Outer Banks. Wendy shares all the info you need to know about exploring lighthouses and beaches, connecting with nature through sea turtles and wild horses, and flying kites and historic flying sites. 

Visiting the Outer Banks with kids

Nestled along the picturesque coastline of North Carolina lies a hidden gem that promises sun-kissed beaches, historic charm, and endless family-friendly fun—the Outer Banks. We recently went to the Outer Banks for the first time and absolutely fell in love with the area. We went in the off-season (November), and still found so much to do. I can’t wait to get back there in the summertime when the sun is shining, and the skies are blue. Here are some of the things we did on our first trip, and some of the things we want to do when we go again. 

What is the Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks are a string of islands on the Atlantic Ocean. They run from southeastern Virginia down along the coast of North Carolina and encompass about a 200-mile stretch from north to south. The Atlantic Ocean on the east, and a series of sounds and bays on the west border the Outer Banks. The land is typically very narrow. Most parts of the islands are less than a mile wide.

exploring the outer banks with kid - history of the outer banks

History of the Outer Banks

Did you know that the Outer Banks is known as the graveyard of the Atlantic? It’s hard to say how many ships were sunk off the shores of these islands, but bits and pieces of ships are still washing up onto the shores to this day. There was a storm one of the nights that we were staying in the Outer Banks with our kids. It rained most of the night, and the wind was up to 27 miles per hour. 

The next morning, I was walking towards the beach from a parking lot, and I saw a man walking towards me from the beach. I asked him how it was looking, and he said, “Pretty clean!” At first, I was confused and wondered what that meant. The longer I thought about it, I realized that he was probably out looking for anything of interest that had washed up with the storm. What a cool hobby! 

outer banks with kids - what to do, where to stay

Outer Banks: Graveyard of the Atlantic

You might wonder why so many ships were wrecked near the Outer Banks. We found all of the answers to that at The Museum. First of all, the Outer Banks has something called the Diamond Shoals. The Diamond Shoals are sandbanks that are continually shifting. Shifting sandbanks catch sailors unaware, and result in shipwrecks. In addition to the Diamond Shoals, ocean currents, raging winds, pirates, the Civil War, German U-Boats, and hurricanes all added to the number of ships sunk in this Graveyard of the Atlantic. Check out this map of some shipwrecks that can be seen from shore during low tide.  

Outer Banks, NC with kids

Lighthouses of the Outer Banks

No trip to the Outer Banks is complete without seeing a lighthouse (or two, or three)! In total, there are 5 lighthouses in the Outer Banks. In order from south to north, they are: Ocracoke Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, and Currituck Beach Lighthouse.

It would take about 4 hours to travel from Ocracoke Lighthouse to Currituck Beach Lighthouse. That’s without stopping and looking around. I don’t suggest trying to get to all of them in one day. Here are some details about each lighthouse.

Ocracoke Lighthouse

This lighthouse can only be accessed via ferry. You can’t just drive to Ocracoke Island, but you can drive your car onto the ferry and get there that way. I hear that the wait time at the ferry can be quite long in the summer. We went in November, and there was no line to get on the ferry, but it was not running that day because of high winds. It was running the following day, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to make it that day.

My kids were super bummed that we didn’t get to drive on the ferry! I was really looking forward to it as well, but I guess that means we’ll have to make another trip out there. I am completely ok with that option. While I do plan on going to this lighthouse in the future, it is not open for climbing. We are pretty excited about the drive on the ferry, though!

Ocracoke Lighthouse - ferry with kids

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

This iconic lighthouse was my favorite! Although we couldn’t walk up the lighthouse, the kids enjoyed running around the grassy area after spending some time in the car that day. The visitor’s center at this lighthouse was very interesting. There were exhibits about how the lighthouse was relocated in 1999, and this is also where we learned about all of the shipwrecks that occurred, and continue to occur, in the area. This lighthouse is not currently open to climb, but hopefully, within the next year, it will open again for climbing.

cape hatteras lighthouse with kids

Bodie Island Lighthouse

Finally, a lighthouse you can climb to the top of! This cute lighthouse is close to the middle of the Outer Banks and looks very similar to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, but the stripes are horizontal instead of diagonal. It costs $10 for adults and $5 for children. Reservations are required. You can make your reservation here

bodie island lighthouse with kid - outer banks

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

We didn’t get to visit this one during this trip, but it’s at the top of our list for next time. Located in the town of Manteo, North Carolina. This lighthouse is a replica of other lighthouses of the same name in Manteo. It closes from mid-fall until spring, but you can still walk the 40-yard pier out to the lighthouse throughout the year. The town of Manteo also has a marina near the lighthouse that would be fun to explore. We look forward to visiting Manteo and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse when we’re in the Outer Banks next time.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Currituck Beach is a bigger, more developed town than most of the other places we visited in the Outer Banks. If you’re looking for conveniences and familiar stores or familiar restaurants, Currituck Beach is where you want to be. This lighthouse is located in Historic Corolla Park. Carolla Park has walking trails, saltwater ponds, and a 1920s mansion called the Whalehead. The lighthouse itself is open to climb to anyone age 4 or older for $12 per person. No reservations are required here, and tickets can be purchased at the lighthouse.

Wild horses of the Outer Banks

One part of visiting the Outer Banks that had me incredibly excited was the wild horses that are known to roam the beaches there. The legend is that horses from sinking ships were freed as the ships went down. Then they swam to shore and adapted to life on the beach.

There are a couple of places that are popular horse viewing areas, one in the north and the other in the south. In the north, Corolla and Corova Beach are the two most well-known locations for horses. You can take the kids on a tour from any of a number of companies that will take you out to find the horses. This website has a good list of those companies. 

Pony pen at Ocracoke Island

The other option, and the one that I was trying for, is to head south to Ocracoke Island via ferry. At the southern end of Ocracoke Island, which is still part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, there is a pony pen. I’m not sure why it’s called a pony pen when the horses that live here are the same genetically as the ones up in Carolla. Anyway, the horses here are cared for by the National Park Service. You aren’t supposed to touch them, but I read that the horses do come up to the fence if you’re patient. I’ve also read that there is a beautiful beach across from the pony pens, so after spending some time looking at the wild horses, you can dip your toes in the salty sea and rack up some blue hours.

where to see wild horses of the outer banksexploring kitty hawk with kid - outer banks, NC

Kitty Hawk

If history is your jam, you’ll definitely want to make a stop at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, is located on Bodie Island. You can’t miss the memorial, as there’s only one main road that traverses the majority of the Outer Banks.

This National Memorial has a replica of the airplane that Wilbur and Orville Wright built and flew for the very first time. You’ll also notice while you’re there that the North Carolina license plate bears the phrase “First in Flight.” The constant wind at Kitty Hawk, NC, made it an ideal place for the Wright brothers to test all of their flying machines. 

wright brothers national park with kids - outer banks, NC exploring kitty hawk with kids

Outer Banks and kites

Speaking of flying, the kite situation in the Outer Banks is out of control! I have never seen as many kite stores (or kite stores so large!), as I did while visiting the Outer Banks. As you drive down the main road, you will come upon a kite store every few miles, and it will most likely be painted a vibrant shade of yellow or pink. You can’t miss them!

We stopped at one to check it out, and it was so much fun to look at all of the different types of kites, wind sockets, spinners, and toys. We chose our two favorite ones (we went with the classic diamond shape) and then went to the beach to fly them. The wind was blowing crazy hard, so we weren’t too successful at keeping the kite in the air, but we had fun trying.

If you want to try flying a kite while you’re at the Outer Banks, brush up on your skills by reading this great post on kite flying with kids

Kite flying with kids in the Outer Banks

Where to stay when visiting the Outer Banks with kids

You might be wondering where to stay while visiting the Outer Banks with your kids. There are so many options for lodging and accommodations, including hotels, vacation rentals, and camping options.

We are more of a camping family, so we stayed at Cape Hatteras KOA. We were in a two-room cabin that was the perfect space for the six of us. The KOA also has tent camping, lots of RV sites, and other lodging that is like a small home you can rent. My kids spent as much time as possible jumping on this inflated jumpy pad! There is also a playground, a pool and hot tub, an arcade room, restaurant, store, showers, beach access, and access to the sound across the street with a pier. We are big KOA fans! You can book at their website if that sounds like something your family would enjoy.

KOA Outer Banks - cabin camping with kids Outer Banks KOA with kids

Camping and other accommodations

If you’re looking for a more natural setting, the Outer Banks is dotted with campgrounds. Some are run by the National Park Service or other government agencies. Others are private campgrounds. One thing is for sure, though, and that is that you will be very close to the water if you choose to camp. Also, be prepared for some wind. This part of North Carolina is known for its abundant wind, and you’ll want to be ready for that.

The Outer Banks also has a tremendous amount of vacation rentals. Most, if not all, of the houses are up on stilts. That in itself is a fun and different experience! Some parts of the Outer Banks have colorful homes that really add to the beachy vibe. One positive of staying at a vacation rental is that they will usually provide some beach gear for you to use. Not having to pack the chairs, umbrellas, sand toys, and buckets is a real plus.

vacation rentals in the Outer Banks - exploring with kids

Gear rentals in the Outer Banks

Speaking of beach gear, it is worth noting that there is a large variety of businesses that will rent out all kinds of equipment to visitors. We saw jet skis, surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, bikes, golf carts, and more available to rent. If you’re not keen on packing any of those items, know that you will most likely be able to rent them somewhere not too far from where you are staying.

Outer Banks nature

I’ve listed a lot of adventures here so far. I totally understand that sometimes you want a vacation to be slow and relaxing. As tough as that can be with kids sometimes, the Outer Banks can help. It offers a lot of serene landscapes and activities that can slow life down for a bit.

Bird watching is popular in this area. There are many diverse species of birds that make the Outer Banks their home. Fishing is also a popular activity, and the Outer Banks is known for its fresh and delicious seafood. There are also fishing tours you can book where someone will take you out on their boat.

Sea turtles in the Outer Banks

Another absolute bucket list item that you can participate in at the Outer Banks involves sea turtles. How many of us have seen a sea turtle in its natural habitat? If you live in Hawaii, you probably have, but the rest of us may not. I spoke to a ranger from Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and she answered all my questions about sea turtles. It was incredible!

She told me they have a program where you can babysit a nest of turtle eggs. The rangers let you know when the nest is about to hatch. Then, you sit with the nest for several days until all of the eggs hatch. Sometimes, the turtles are confused by the artificial light. Instead of heading for the water, they head for the town. Turtle babysitters are there to guide the little ones to the water, and to protect them from predators.

I’m convinced I need to be a turtle babysitter! You can learn more about that program from the aquarium on Roanoke Island. If you want to learn more about protecting sea turtles in general, you’ll definitely want to read this amazing article!

Outer Banks beaches with kids - exploring in the off season

Outer Banks beaches

One thing that should never be underestimated is the power of the sound of the ocean. Imagine how it would feel to take a walk on the beach where your only care is helping your kids find beautiful seashells! I can already taste the salty wind on my lips. Even though there are a million and one things you could be doing with your kids in the Outer Banks, please don’t forget that what they will remember the most is the time you spent with them. The toys will break, the shells will get lost, and the sand will eventually wash out of their hair. But what is lasting, for you and for your kids, is the memories that you make together. 

Have you ever been to the Outer Banks?
What’s your favorite thing to do there?

About the author

Wendy is a married momma who recently moved from San Diego to Virginia. She’s raising 4 human kids, 2 goat kids, 4 chickens, and one grumpy cat. She enjoys gardening, hiking, camping, backpacking, going to the beach, and generally getting out of doors. Wendy is a family photographer and also works at several local elementary schools as the garden educator. She dreams of traveling to all 50 states and beyond and believes that there is great beauty to be found in all parts of the earth; we just have to open our eyes to see it.

You can find more from Wendy online in the following locations:
Instagram: @wendycoxphotography
RWMC posts: Wendy Cox