Best Free Things To Do In The Outer Banks North Carolina

Cool Free Things to do in the Outer Banks, NC

One of the best places to visit in North Carolina for a beach vacation is easily the Outer Banks. The Outer Banks is situated just off the coast of North Carolina, and while being very beautiful, it is also known for being a little expensive, especially during high season. So, in this Outer Banks (OBX) guide, we cover the best free things to do in the Outer Banks!

This Outer Banks guide will also include travel tips, how to get around, where to stay, and more.

Jockeys Ridge Sand Dune is one of the best free things to do in the Outer Banks NC

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Visit The Wild Horses of Corolla

I bet you didn’t know that the Outer Banks is home to wild horses! The horses are Colonial Spanish Mustangs and live on the beaches, and have done for approximately 500 years!

The horses are located at the northernmost Currituck Outer Banks and if you’re lucky enough to see them, it is such a surreal experience to see them trotting along on the sand. This is one of the coolest free things to do in the Outer Banks.

They actually have a Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which was formed in 1989 to protect these horses and also raise awareness about them. This fund also works to preserve the land and keep it as a permanent sanctuary for these beautiful animals!

It is important to know, that you should not go within 50 ft of these wild horses, and please do NOT feed them anything (there have been cases where the horses have died from food given to them). They should be appreciated from a distance!

The wild horses are located on Corolla beach and can even be seen trotting in front of the seaside properties. You can drive on the beach over here as long as you have 4 Wheel Drive. You can also park, and walk along the beach looking for them. This may be a little harder.

Additionally, you can go on a tour, but this obviously won’t be free.

Corolla Wild Horses

Outer Banks Beach Hopping

I imagine you came to the Outer Banks to enjoy some of these beautiful beaches. Thankfully, most, if not all the beaches are free to visit! During the fall and winter, you can even bring your pup to some of the beaches.

Some of the most popular beaches to visit include Kitty Hawk, the beaches that surround Bodie Lighthouse (more about that later), Nags Head Beach,  and, Corolla Beach. You really can’t go wrong with any of the beaches in The Outer Banks, if I am being honest!

Choose to soak up the sun or enjoy the water activities, including surfing, SUP boarding, kayaking, snorkeling and if you’re lucky, dolphin spotting! Most public beach access areas will have showers and or bathrooms nearby.

Several beaches located in Carova and Ocracoke also allow bonfires during the evening.

Shells Outer Banks

Bodie Lighthouse

Another fun and free thing to do in the Outer Banks is exploring the Bodie Lighthouse! I mean, who doesn’t love a lighthouse? Bodie Lighthouse is on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in Dare County and is a really popular tourist attraction.

An interesting fact about this National Historic Site is that there were 2 previous Bodie lighthouses before the one that stands today. The original one had structural issues, and the one after that was sadly destroyed in the civil war. But the third one is just as beautiful, in my opinion!

The Bodie (pronounced Body) is a huge 156 ft tall and is so large it can be seen 19 miles offshore!

I think one of the things that makes this lighthouse so popular is the walking trails surrounding it that provide stunning ocean views!

For a fee of $10 (adults) and $5 (seniors and children under 11 years old), you can have the opportunity to climb the 214 steps to the top of the lighthouse!

The tickets can be purchased online and are on a first-come, first-served basis and run all day (9 AM – 5:30 PM).

Cape Hatteras National Seashore itself, is so stunning and is perfect for coastal views, oh and picnics!

Address: 8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head, NC 27959

Hours: Open 24 hours every day of the week

The Bodie lighthouse is one of the best free things to do in the Outer Banks

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

You can’t visit the Outer Banks without adding Jockey’s Ridge State Park to your itinerary. I believe Jockey’s Ridge is still very much a hidden gem, and it is probably one of the most unique places to visit in North Carolina.

If you have never heard of a “live” sand dune, then you soon will! Jockey’s Ridge is home to the largest active sand dune on the East Coast of the United States.

Located in Nag’s Head, these sand dunes reach a huge 60 ft tall and can leave you feeling as though you are in the Sahara Desert! The reason they call them live sand dunes is because the dunes are always changing with the wind. That means they can look completely different every time you visit them.

Therefore, in my humble opinion, Jockey’s Ridge is easily one of the best free things to do in the Outer Banks! You will find hiking trails, people picnicking, flying kites, and watching the sunrise or sunset. Some other things to do at Jockey’s Ridge (although not all are free) include Sandboarding and Hang Gliding.

The park is also located right on the sound. Therefore, you can also go kayaking, swimming, kiteboarding, and windsurfing.

If you are traveling with your furry friend, you will be happy to know dogs are allowed. However, the sand can get extremely hot here, and it is very windy, so keep that in mind for your dog’s paws and eyes. People have even put goggles on their dogs here.

Address: 300 W Carolista Dr, Nags Head, NC 27959

Hours: The park hours range depending on the season. They always open at 8 AM and don’t close until at least 6 PM, if not later. You can check the hours here.

Jockeys Ridge in the Outer Banks

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Another free lighthouse to visit in the Outer Banks is the Currituck Beach Lighthouse located in Corolla. This lighthouse is unique because it’s not painted like the other North Carolina lighthouse, so you see the exposed red bricks. It is one of the only lighthouses in the USA that still has its original Fresnel lens.

This lighthouse was first lit on December 1, 1875, which makes it a real token of the history of North Carolina. The Currituck Lighthouse was built to provide light in the last, remaining ‘dark area’ on the coast of Nothern Carolina. You can still see the light today for 18 nautical miles at 20-second intervals.

The lighthouse is 162 ft, and for a small fee of $12 USD, you can climb the 220 steps!

Address: 1101 Corolla Village Rd, Corolla, NC 27927

 Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Visit the Graveyard to the Atlantic Museum

While at the time of writing this, this museum is temporarily closed, it is planned to reopen by summertime and it is completely free to visit.

North Carolina is home to the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Currently, there are around 3,000 shipwrecks that have unfortunately sunk. This museum was made to honor the maritime culture that is ever present in The Outer Banks.

The museum is home to various exhibits that educate you on maritime culture. During a visit, you can even see artifacts from historic ships.

These pieces of history are found by divers and even people who live by the coast, as it is not uncommon for parts of sunken ships to wash up on shore. This can be a great thing to do if you have kids too.

Address: 59200 Museum Dr, Hatteras, NC 27943, United States

Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10 AM – 4 PM

Visit Wright Brothers Memorial

Considered “a moment that changed the world,” Wilbur and Orville Wright made history in 1903 by successfully piloting the first airplane.

The brothers spent their trips to The Outer Banks learning how to fly by experimenting with gliding inventions over the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk (Jockeys Ridge). This museum is a homage to this iconic moment in history that changed the world!

This is generally a paid attraction, but it is free 7 days of the year, so I wanted to include it in these free things to do in the Outer Banks.

There is also free access for U.S. Military Veterans and Gold Star Families. Additionally, if you already hold an Annual Federal Lands pass like the America the Beautiful pass, it will allow you free entry as well.

Free Days:

  • January 16: Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • April 22: First day of National Park Week
  • August 4: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • August 19: National Aviation Day
  • September 23: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day
  • December 17: 120th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight

Address: 1000 N Croatan Hwy, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948

Hours: Everyday: 9 AM – 5 PM

The Wrights Brother Memorial in the Outer Banks

Shell Hunting in OBX

With so many beautiful beaches to explore, it offers a great opportunity to go shell hunting – which is a big deal in the Outer Banks.

It’s actually commonly known that North Carolina is one of the best places to go shell hunting in the United States.

Without a doubt, you will see people searching for the best shells to take home, even more so if there has recently been a storm, as this is when you can find some rare ones!

This therapeutic activity can be really fun, and it’s not uncommon to find shells like the moon snail, sundials, and the oyster driller! Some of the beaches I suggest visiting to do this are Kitty Hawk, Rodanthe, and Avon!

Shell hunting in the outer banks

Bird Watch at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was built in 1938 and is used to provide a safe habitat for over 360 species of animals, mainly migratory birds like snow geese and shorebirds, which are birds that you don’t often see!

Also, they protect other endangered species, including loggerhead sea turtles!

The refuge is located on Hatteras Island and provides a great scenic hike where you can look out for these animals while enjoying the beach, ponds, and marshes! This is especially a great place to visit for bird watchers.

Address: 14500 North Carolina Hwy 12, Rodanthe, NC

Hours: Open 24 hours Daily

Drive the National Scenic Byway

The byways located in America are described as being “adventures where no two experiences are the same,” and this byway in OBX does not disappoint.

If you are a road trip lover, like me, then be sure to take a trip down Route 12, where you will see the lovely ocean views. This entire Byway is a road trip of around 138 driving miles and provides you with 21 different towns for you to explore! During the trip, you will see cultural, historic, and scenic areas of OBX.

As you get further south, you will need to take a ferry to continue to explore, which is not free, but the Nothern area to Hatteras is completely free of charge!

Explore the Duck Waterfront Stores

If you are in need of some retail therapy that comes with a scenic view of the ocean, you need to go down to the Duck Waterfront shops. Technically, if you buy something, this is no longer a free experience, but it totally can be. The Boardwalk is really nice right on the water with benches.

Some of the popular shops that would be fun to stop by are Candy & Corks, for seasonal desserts, The Blue Point Back Bar, which provides traditional meals from a local team, and Ducks Cottage Coffee and Books for a relaxing bite to eat and where you can even treat yourself to a book to read for the rest of your vacation!

You will also see people paddle boarding over here as well.

Address: 1240 Duck Rd, Duck, NC 27949

Hours: Hours vary per store

Duck Waterfront Stores

Getting around Outer Banks

If you are already located in or Near North Carolina, the quickest way to get to the Outer Banks is by car. If you are flying in, look at the Norfolk International Airport, which will be the closest. You can also check Raleigh Durham International, but this will be around 3+ hours.

Check Skyscanner for the best flight option from your airport.

Depending on where you are visiting in the Outer Banks, you may need to take a car ferry. You will know this pretty quickly by putting in your location via Google maps.

For exploring The Outer Banks, I definitely suggest traveling by car. It would be very hard to get around otherwise. I would even suggest renting a jeep or truck if possible (a vehicle with 4-wheel drive) so you can experience cruising along on the beach! Driving on beaches in OBX is pretty popular.

Outer Banks Packing List

Now that you know some of the best free things to do in the Outerbanks, here are some things to bring along with you!

Sunscreen: I always try to use reef-safe sunscreen if possible. I use both of these: Juice Beauty 30 SPF Sport & Blue Lizard Sensitive Skin.

Quick Dry Towels: After I brought quick dry towels, I never looked back! These towels are a traveler’s best friend as they are perfect for the beach. They are sand resistant and dry quickly! My favorite ones to use are the Dock & Bay towels!

Beach Items: Snorkel gear, umbrella, surfboard, and of course, snacks and drinks in a cooler!

Clothing: Always check the weather and then pack accordingly. It can be windy, so having a light jacket with you for the evenings will be beneficial.

And finally, here are some of my favorite women’s bathing suits.

  • Cute Cutout One Piece
  • Cute Bandeau Bikini
  • Ribbed Checky Two Piece
  • Bright Color Block One Piece
  • Cover-up
Sandals at the Beach

Best Time to Visit The Outer Banks

The Outer Banks can be visited year-round, but if you’re hoping for a sunny getaway, I suggest planning your trip for the summer months, which are June through August.

That being said, the summer months will be when the accommodation prices are at their highest, so I would book your hotel or place to stay in advance, if possible.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Outer Banks do fall in the Hurricane belt. Hurricanes are possible from June until November.

Despite being a beach town, North Carolina does have cold winters, and the temperatures often drop below zero. If this doesn’t put you off, then winter is a really calm time to visit with minimal tourists.

The only thing is that if the weather is extreme, some attractions may close and many other businesses are seasonal.

Where to Stay in the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks is probably a little larger than you might expect – 135 miles. With traffic, it can take a while to get down the shore. So, I have found to like the more Northern area of OBX. With that being said, here are some hotel recommendations. Again, if you are planning a summer trip, try to book as soon as possible. This is the most popular time to visit, and rooms go fast, and prices go high.

Hilton Garden Inn Kitty Hawk

TownePlace Suites by Marriott Outer Banks Kill Devil Hills (Dog Friendly)

Hampton Inn & Suites Outer Banks/Corolla

Ramada Plaza by Wyndham Nags Head Oceanfront (Dog Friendly)

The Best Free Things To Do In The Outer Banks Review

This concludes the best free things to do in the Outer Banks! I hope you have the best time exploring North Carolina’s shores!

Other NC Guides:

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