Living on the Outer Banks, one thing that is shared by just about all of us is how family oriented we are. And that is one of the reasons—maybe even the most important reason—why the Outer Banks is such a fantastic vacation destination for families.
What makes the Outer Banks particularly appealing to so many families is how much there is to do and how broad the range of choices are.
We’re going to start with the obvious and then take a look at some of the activities and things to do that maybe people weren’t aware of or maybe didn’t even know that could be done.
We talk a lot about our beaches because…well, they’re spectacular. And when we think about our beaches, it is not just one place or one location that we are describing. From Carova to Ocracoke there are well over 120 miles of sand waiting to create a perfect day by the sea.
Rather than try to describe all 120 miles of shoreline, we’re going to limit ourselves to the beaches north of Oregon Inlet. There are some differences among the various locations when it comes to the services that are available and in some cases how easy it is to access them. For families with children, depending on their ages, it can make a difference.
Families with Toddlers to 10
Families with younger children will probably want to be closer to services—stores, perhaps a fast food restaurant, and certainly restrooms.
If that is the case, the beaches in the three main towns of the Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head, will probably be the best choice. Beach parking in those towns also have the advantage of being very close, sometimes right on, the beach.
Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Corolla maintain a bathhouse with showers and parking. The Kill Devil Hills bathhouse and the Nags Head facilities at Jennette’s Pier probably have the best combination of available facilities and ample parking.
The Currituck County Southern Beach Access across from Old Stoney Road in Corolla is a very well-maintained facility with plenty of parking. It is a bit of a hike from the parking lot to the beach—about a quarter mile—but the sand is some of the best quality on the Outer Banks.
11 to Teenage
When kids get a bit older they’re more self-sufficient and that does open up a few more possibilities.
The Corolla beaches are absolutely wonderful. By all means, take advantage of that. The type of convenience that parents may want for younger children is not quite as available in Corolla, but when kids get a little older, these are great beaches to check out.
On the south end of Nags Head, right across from Bodie Island Lighthouse, the National Park Service Coquina Beach is marvelous. Wide with lots of room to spread out, it may be as good as it gets. The NPS parking lot is huge; there should not be any problem parking.
Learn to Surf
Two of the most popular activities on the ocean, other than swimming, are surfing and Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP).
Get a wow factor into the vacation and see if a lesson or lessons can be scheduled.
Generally age six and up are good for surfing lessons. SUP takes more coordination and balance, so 10 and up are usually the ages.
To make it really fun, there’s no reason why it can’t be a family activity.
During the Outer Banks peak season, mid-June through August, it’s a good idea to book a lesson before coming. Schedules fill up quickly during the summer.
Great Fun and It Doesn’t Cost Much
Two activities that kids love—and adults attempt from time to time—are skimboarding and bodyboarding.
It is possible to spend a lot of money on skimboards and bodyboards, but until there is some real experience on the water, there is no point in spending $300-$400.
Skimboarding especially takes some practice. The size of the board does have to change with the weight of the user, which is another way of saying hopping on your eight-year-old child’s board to demonstrate how it’s done will not end well.
A boogie board and bodyboard are the same thing. The boogie board coming from the original maker of bodyboards. It is probably a bit easier to get the basics of riding a bodyboard down, but like the skimboards, there isn’t much reason to get a better board until a certain level of expertise has been reached.
Ghost Crab Hunt
From toddlers to teens, looking for ghost crabs is too much fun to miss. They’ll pop out of their burrows every once in a while, their eyes on a 360-degree swivel, then scurry back down.
Although they are often seen during the daytime, the best time to go on a ghost crab hunt is at night. The only equipment needed is a flashlight.
Everyone has fun on ghost crab hunt, but the squeals of delight when a three-year old sees one for the first time is an Outer Banks memory to be cherished.
Away From The Beach
The reason families come to the Outer Banks is the beach, but the reason they keep returning is there is so much to do here that one visit doesn’t scratch the surface.
With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and a series of sounds to the west, most of our activities are focused on enjoying time on the water. Here are a few suggestions, but there are so many choices for things to do, we know our list is incomplete.
Fun on the Water
This is a great activity for kids 10 and older, although children at the younger end will probably be better in a tandem kayak with a parent paddling. It is possible that a younger child would be ok in a kayak, but that is something parents have to judge for themselves.
There are a couple of ways to go about this. For families who are experienced paddlers, rent kayaks, get some advice about where to go, and have some fun.
However, the ecosystems of the Outer Banks are vast, complex and fascinating and a kayak eco-tour is a great way to discover how the environment of this vast line of barrier islands is at once fragile yet resilient.
Take Some Sailing Lessons
With constant winds and protected shallow waters, the Outer Banks sounds offer as good an opportunity to learn to sail as there is.
On the Outer Banks there are two sailing schools, one in Manteo and the other in Duck. N’or Banks Sailing in Duck offers a full range of services in addition to lessons.
There are a lot of crabs in our Outer Banks sounds. The chance of an accidental encounter with one is remote; the chance of catching a few with a line and some bait is pretty good.
There is going to be some equipment needed for this. The basics are some raw chicken or shrimp and some line. Any line will do. A long-handled net, some tongs, and a cooler will also be needed. Check with any fishing supply store and they will know which net to use.
Attach the bait to the end of the line, throw about 15’ in the water and wait. There will be a tug on the line. Slowly bring the line in. Too fast and the crab will let go. Just before the crab gets to the surface, snag it with the net. If the crab breaks the surface of the water, it will immediately let go of the bait.
This can be a great family activity. The littlest kids will be excited to see the crab up close and the older kids may want to help, but make sure fingers are kept away from the claws.
Crabs must be 5” across the widest point of their shell to keep, so a ruler will be needed. The catch limit is 50/day for a daily.
There are a number of great crabbing locations around Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla. The little bridge on the Nags Head is also a good location.
Charter Fishing in the Sound
The waters of the Outer Banks sounds are teeming with fish…and crab and shrimp. One of the best ways to discover what is out there is to take a trip with an experienced charter boat captain and see for yourself.
The waters of the sounds are generally much calmer than ocean waters, and the trips shorter—generally three to four hours long. That’s probably better suited to the attention levels of younger anglers.
Fun for the whole family. Be sure to schedule this in advance.
The waters the Outer Banks sounds are teeming with…dolphin. Really. The Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research had identified some 700 individual dolphins in a paper they published in 2017.
This is a really exciting way to introduce kids to an exciting part of maritime life.
Explore the Land
Go Fly a Kite
If there is a better place anywhere in the world to fly a kite than Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, it would be hard to imagine. There is nothing to block the wind, the view from the top is spectacular and there is almost always enough wind for flight.
Jockey’s Ridge, however, is not the only great place on the Outer Banks to fly a kite. There is a large open area next to the Whalehead Club in Corolla. And when the wind is right, flying a kite on the beach is wonderful.
For older kids, get a two or four line stunt kite. Two line is easier to learn. Four line allows for an incredible range of tricks.
Learn to Fly a Huge Kite
A hang glider is actually a huge (huge!) kite. The Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School at Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the oldest hang gliding school in the United States. There is a real emphasis on safety and the instructors are excellent in working with all age groups.
It is hard to describe how exciting it is when your feet leave the ground and you realize you’re actually flying and controlling this huge kite.
With soft sand in the landing zone, Jockey’s Ridge is an excellent location for learning the basics.
There are age and weight restrictions.
Explore a Maritime Forest
There are three protected maritime forests along the western side of the northern Outer Banks. Or four if the small maritime forest that has formed in the wind shadow of Jockey’s Ridge is included.
They are all very different. Nags Head Woods features a hilly terrain with elevation gains that can be surprising. There are also hidden freshwater ponds and ancient graveyards.
The easiest to navigate, and would be the best to explore with the youngest members of the family, is the Currituck Banks Estuarine Reserve just north of Corolla Village.
The trails in Kitty Hawk Woods are extensive and take hikers on a fascinating journey into a maritime forest. However, parking is very limited and the trailheads difficult to find.
Go Back to School
There are innumerable day camps, half-day camps, and instructional gatherings geared toward helping children learn about the Outer Banks environment and ecosystems.
The instructors engage really well with the kids in what is a great learning experience.
For parents who want to go all-in with the camp experience, Coastal Studies Institute on Roanoke Island offers week-long camps that explore the science of the area in depth with classes given by the CSI instructors.