America’s Most Scenic Waterside Drive - Outer Banks
by Jessie S.
Today, we continue to explore the different accolades the Outer Banks has received from some of the most well-known magazines, reviewers and other travel authorities. We already know that the Outer Banks is the #1 Best Family Beach Vacation in the USA, a top Affordable Honeymoon Vacation spot and a top Family Spring Break Destination. We know the Outer Banks has a few of the Top 100 Golf Courses, Must Try Spring Food Festivals and one of the 15 Best Fishing Spots in America. But what about those travelers who aren’t keen on staying in one place and prefer to experience a new destination road-trip style? There is nothing more iconic for summer fun than cruising down a highway with the windows rolled down, sun in your hair, music up and laughing with your passengers, so it’s understandable that people who love road trips are looking for great scenic byways to drive through. No surprise – the Outer Banks is one of them.
In 2014, Travel+Leisure Magazine put out a list tailored for the enthusiastic road tripper out there – America’s Most Scenic Waterside Drives – and the Outer Banks was at the top of the list! Travel+Leisure suggests starting at Kitty Hawk and heading South to Ocracoke Island via Highway 12 and the ferry at Hatteras Inlet - a great route with plenty to do and see along the way. The whole trip from Kitty Hawk to Ocracoke Island will take you roughly three hours depending on traffic and not including stops and is more than worth the drive. Here is what you can expect when you take one of America’s Most Scenic Waterside Drives on the Outer Banks:
The Beach Road
The route begins in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina where visitors to the area have the option to head north towards Corolla (where the wild horses roam) or continue South towards Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island. As you’re choosing to go south, the quickest route (albeit can have the heaviest traffic during summer months) is along US-158 – also known as “the bypass” which is a 4-lane highway that will take you all the way to Nags Head with 2 lanes going in each direction. This route is still a gorgeous drive with a glimpse of the ocean or the sound along the way but for a truly scenic experience, you should take NC-12/Virginia Dare Trail.
Fondly referred to as “The Beach Road” by locals and visitors, NC-12 runs parallel to the bypass and the Atlantic Ocean. This 2-lane highway passes brightly colored mansions, classic-style beach boxes and everything in between including local restaurants, gift shops, beach accesses, piers, and in many cases, the shoulder of the road is just beach so there is nothing to block your view. NC-12 will take you all the way to Nags Head where you eventually have three options – 1) rejoin US-158 and head to Roanoke Island, 2) merge straight onto Old Oregon Inlet Road to explore South Nags Head, or 3) continue onto NC-12 towards the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The Old Oregon Inlet option will feature more of “The Beach Road"-style landscape along the ocean while the last option will begin to take you through a path of marshes along the sound. Within a few minutes, both options eventually merge and your route will continue south until you hit Oregon Inlet.
Now Before you get to Oregon Inlet, you’re going to pass a lot of prime pit-stop opportunities along the way. There are several awesome Outer Banks landmarks that are worth diverting to from your planned course but if you want to stay on track, you still pass a few significant destinations. In Kill Devil Hills, be sure to stop at the Avalon Fishing Pier (a 700-foot long pier that was first opened in 1958) or Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head (a notable pier originally built in 1939 that was destroyed by Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and rebuilt as a 1,000-foot-long fishing pier and educational center on sturdy concrete pilings). As you near Oregon Inlet, you are also going to pass the Bodie Island Lighthouse, an original first-order Fresnel lens structure originally built in 1872. As the third structure to be built at this location (one built in 1847 lost to a bad foundation and one in 1859 lost to Confederate troops), it stands around 150-feet tall and visitors can climb to the top for amazing 360-degree views of the island. There are dozens of beach accesses along the way too so it’s easy to get out and walk over to the ocean at any point during your drive.
Before you even start your trip, pull into John’s Drive In to satisfy your hunger. Located in north Kitty Hawk along the Beach Road, John’s Drive In has been a local favorite for over 40 years! Most well known for their Dolphin Boats (fried mahi-mahi with French fries and hushpuppies), visitors can also order burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, popcorn shrimp, and a variety of soft serve specialties like chocolate milkshakes and root beer floats. True to its name, dine in your car or pick up your order and be on your way. For more of a classic sit-down experience, Owens’ Restaurant in Nags Head is the perfect historic pit stop. Originally opened in 1946, this Beach Road gem is still owned and operated by the same Owens’ family who saw great potential in the area long before it became a popular tourist town. Featuring classic maritime ship decor with museum-like artifacts, you’ll love both the atmosphere and the fresh food, all locally sourced of course.
Oregon Inlet refers to the inlet of water formed between Bodie Island and Pea Island in the mid 1800s. To the East sits the Oregon Inlet Campground which is a popular campsite maintained by the National Park Service. To the west, you’ll find a US Coast Guard Station and the huge Oregon Inlet Fishing Center which is a popular marina for locals and visitors that hosts fishing charters like the Fishin Frenzy – made popular by NatGeo TV’s Wicked Tuna. On the neighboring Pea Island, the Pea Island Life-Saving Station is known for being the first life-saving station with an all African-American crew led by commanding officer Richard Etheridge who served as keeper for 20 years. As with many life-saving stations along the coast, the station was decommissioned in 1947 with the establishment of the USCG.
To cross the inlet, visitors must drive on the Marc Basnight Bridge that opened just last month in February 2019. The new bridge replaced the famous (for the transportation lifeline it created between the main area of the Outer Banks and Hatteras Island) and infamous (for its dangerously low safety rating and overuse well beyond its expectancy) Herbert C. Bonner Bridge after a 3-year construction period. The bridges run parallel to one another over the inlet and have a storied history making it a unique landmark in itself. At its highest point of over 90 feet above the water, the new Marc Basnight Bridge is the perfect scenic view before you begin the next trek of your journey.
Once you drive over the bridge, you’ll have a bit of a stretch before you come to another town so make sure your gas tank is full and you have all the snacks you need for a long drive. Hatteras Island is the general name for the land area covering the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the small towns of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras that stretch south to the tip of the island. The stretch before you get to Rodanthe, as well as the stretches in between towns, are serene, beautiful, and framed by the Pamlico Sound to your west and the Atlantic Ocean to your east. The coastline is home to both local and migratory birds and a host of other local wildlife, plant species, and protective sand dunes.
Through each of the little towns, you will find a similar look of that which you had on "The Beach Road" – a mixture of local businesses, delightfully decorated restaurants, brightly painted vacation rentals and charming little cottages. The land is actually incredibly narrow and it isn’t uncommon for sand, ocean over wash and flooding to close towns off from one another. More notoriously, large inlets are sometimes formed after hurricanes like the huge inlet that formed between Frisco and Hatteras after Hurricane Isabel or the continuously repeated breaches at the “S-Cuves” at the Rodanthe entrance (a windy stretch of NC-12 that is often washed out after major tropical storms). To combat this particular problem area, a new bridge is under way to give NC-12 an alternate route that might be less threatened by the encroaching waves. The first pilings for the new bridge, dubbed the “jug-handle bridge,” were driven into the seabed in September 2018. Construction is still underway and is not expected to be completed until late 2020.
Despite these conditions, residents have been dealing with coastal weather for hundreds of years and welcome visitors with open arms to come experience a little southern charm and laid-back beach lifestyle. As long as there is nothing major on the horizon, your trip south should be not be obstructed by any road hazards but instead, should be a fun, educational and beautiful trip.
So what can you expect to find on Hatteras Island? The local landmarks and historically-significant sites definitely continue on this stretch of your drive. The Chicamacomico Life Saving Station and museum in Rodanthe is one of the most well-known lifesaving stations built to facilitate rescues of ships traversing the dangerous “Diamond Shoals” of the Atlantic. Originally built in 1874, Keeper John Allen Midgett famously rescued 42 British sailors from the SS Mirlo in 1918 after it was destroyed by a German U-boat during WWI. Today, the station serves as a reminder of the heroic actions of the many lifesavers who worked there.
On the way from Avon to Buxton, pull off into the popular sound access spot known as Canadian Hole. This day-use area is a hotspot for families, swimmers and water sports enthusiasts – particularly windsurfers who are able to enjoy perfect wind and water conditions. If you drive through this area in the evening, you will experience sunsets like you have never imagined. In Buxton, a 2-minute detour off the main road will take you to the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. A great place to stop for a break, the Cape Hatteras Light Station center is maintained by the NPS and offers parking, beach access and bathroom facilities. If you’re feeling adventurous and you’re not afraid of heights, a climb up the 257 steps of the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States will reward you with 360-degree incredible view of the Pamlico Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Famously moved in 1999 to protect the structure from beach erosion, this iconic diagonally striped lighthouse is arguably one of the best pitstops along your drive. Along the way, you will pass dozens of beach and sound accesses as well as travel along many stretches of land with an unobstructed water view.
If you’ve waited until this portion of the journey to grab some food, try Pangea Tavern in Avon. Although the restaurant is much newer than others on the island, it’s located next to the historic Avon Fishing Pier so it’s a great opportunity to visit two places in one stop. Get your photo taken in the “pirate stockade” outside and then head inside for fresh seafood (fried or steamed), tasty pasta dishes, salads, and a huge selection of appetizers. Diamond Shoals in Buxton has been a local favorite for decades and serves up delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner so you can sit down to a meal any time you roll through the area. Unique for its sushi bar and all-you-can-eat salad bar, you can also order fresh local seafood, burgers, and combo platters.
As you near the south end of Hatteras Island, a stop at the Frisco Native American Museum is an educational stop where you will learn about native cultures of the island as you explore the museum's many exhibits and nature trails on the museum grounds. At the tip of Hatteras Island, the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum will teach you about the Outer Banks' connection with both local maritime culture and military naval history.
When you’ve made it this far on your journey, your next stop is the Hatteras Ferry Terminal. You might have a bit of a wait to get on the ferry depending on what time you arrive. During the summer months, it is best to arrive very early or late in the afternoon. Once you’re actually on the ferry, the ride will take about an hour so hop out of your car and hit the edges of the ferry for awesome views and a pleasant breeze. During the summer, it can get hot so make sure you have your sunscreen and wear comfortable clothing. Aside from other passing ferries and boats in the water, you never know what you might see from schools of fish, dolphins, skates and rays, and plenty of local bird species – have your camera ready!
When you leave the ferry, you’ll be on the north end of Ocracoke Island. Continue South on NC-12 and your next stop should be at the Ocracoke Pony Pen. Much like the wild Banker Mustangs in Corolla, the Ocracoke wild banker mustangs can trace their lineage back to 16th and 17th century European horses that came over as ship cargo and were left behind when ships returned to Europe. In 1959, the horses were permanently penned in a 180-acre enclosure to protect them from NC-12 traffic and prevent over-grazing. Today, the pen is maintained by the NPS. After observing these majestic creatures, walk across NC-12 to the beach access across from the Pony Pen with a convenient boardwalk to check out the gorgeous Ocracoke beach.
As you continue driving, you eventually will reach the town of Ocracoke. As long as you keep heading straight, the road will end at the Ocracoke Island Visitor Center and south ferry port. A large visitor’s lot is the perfect place to park for the day and explore the small island by foot (but you can also rent bicycles and golf carts for a unique experience specific to the island!) While exploring Ocracoke, be sure to visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse, the British Cemetery and the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum to learn more about the history and culture of Ocracoke Island.
Before heading back on the road, fuel up with some caffeine from Ocracoke Coffee Co. If you want to sit down for a nice dinner, try the Flying Melon Café for a fried or grilled seafood platter and Ocracoke-style clam chowder. Dajio is another great Ocracoke restaurant offering from-scratch seafood entrees and wood-fire pizza. If it’s a particularly hot day, cool down with a syrup slushy or an ice cream float from The Slushy Stand. If you’re in the mood to do a little shopping, The Village Craftsmen has been offering hand-crafted pottery, jewelry, utensils, and decorations since 1970 while Island Ragpicker is a fun and colorful giftshop offering clothing, jewelry, candles, and decor.
The Perfect Scenic Waterside Drive
Once you’ve explored Ocracoke, you’ve completed the entire scenic waterside drive that is the Outer Banks! Although we highlighted the most important pitstops for your journey, it’s admittedly hard to just take a day trip through the Outer Banks knowing there is so much else to see. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if you decided to book an Outer Banks Beach Rental so you can stay awhile and experience your one of a kind OBX Moment!
If for some reason you’re still in doubt about taking this incredible road trip along one of America’s Most Scenic Waterside Drives, check out the following music video (filmed here in the OBX) by NC-local country artist Scotty McCreery to get a little taste of that Outer Banks summertime feeling.
Jessie has been coming to the Outer Banks since she was just 5 years old. She loved it here so much that she finally relocated in 2018. Now her mission is to show the world that the Outer Banks is an incredible place that everyone should experience. When she isn't working, you can find Jessie hanging out with her friends, chilling at home with her awesome cat, Yoji, or discovering a new Outer Banks adventure.