Navigating the Outer Banks
Travelling through the Outer Banks is remarkably easy since there are only two directions one can go, north or south. The two exceptions to this rule are Colington Island and the town of Manteo (located on Roanoke Island), which are both situated to the west.
In the heart of the Outer Banks, there are two main roads for travel through the towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head: US 158 and NC 12. These highways each have two reference names, US 158 or Croatan Highway and NC 12 or Virginia Dare Trail. When using GPS or SIRI for directions, it’s important to use the street names for both road systems.
Locals don’t refer to either road by these names. US 158 is referred to as the Bypass and NC 12 is called the Beach Road, and since there is no road between it and the Atlantic Ocean, the description is befitting.
Into the early 1960s, the Beach Road was the only road on the Outer Banks. As businesses built up along the shoreline, the consensus was that a road was needed to bypass the business district hence the name. It’s not much of a bypass anymore; instead, it is the center of the business district in the towns it passes through.
US 158 is the road that crosses the Wright Memorial Bridge, which is the entrance to (or exit from) the northern end of the Outer Banks. About a mile past the Wright Memorial Bridge, 158 and NC 12 intersect, with the state route continuing north to the towns of Southern Shores, Duck and Corolla. South of Whalebone Junction, NC 12 heads south to Hatteras Island and Ocracoke. US 158 begins (or ends) at Whalebone Junction in Nags Head where it becomes US 64.
Also known as the Outer Banks National Scenic Highway, NC 12 is never more than 300 yards from the Atlantic Ocean for its entire 138 mile length.
Because the Wright Memorial Bridge is a readily identified point of entrance to the Outer Banks, the easiest way to get around is to reference distances from the bridge. This is done with small green and white signs that indicate the miles from this bridge. Both roads are marked with milepost numbers every half mile which are used by locals and regular visitors to quickly navigate.
For example, the address for the Outer Banks Brewing Station is 600 S. Croatan Highway. Yet most local people would prefer to know the restaurant is located at milepost 8.5! Milepost markers are not a perfect system. Instead they serve as a guide to get drivers in close proximity to a business where it can then typically be spotted alongside the roadways.
One of the more unique characteristics of the Bypass is the use of a center turning lane. The Bypass is a 5-lane highway with two lanes travelling south, two lanes travelling north and a center turning lane. Traffic, especially in the summer, is very heavy on this road, and the turning lane is designed to keep traffic moving.
Always use your turn signal and slow your vehicle when proceeding into the center lane. Be advised that vehicles approaching from the opposite direction may also use this as a turning lane which emphasizes the importance of using a turn signal, slowing your pace and remaining alert.
During times of high traffic, it is sometimes best to find an intersection controlled by a traffic light when turning against the traffic flow. Generally speaking, vehicles move more quickly on the bypass, although the pace can slow below 50 mph during the summer months. If you wish to maintain a slower pace with ocean vistas, consider the Beach Road as a viable alternative (just be mindful of stopping at crosswalks with signage to allow pedestrians to cross).