So there is no way around it: This post is going to be a bit long. 🙂 But that’s because there’s just so much to experience in the Outer Banks. We spent a week there–we needed a month.
Even though Jarrett absolutely hates the sand–unfortunately for him, he married a beach-loving girl–our trip to the Outer Banks proved to him that a trip to the coast doesn’t mean you have to spend your entire time at the beach. This family-fun themed guide will highlight activities we believe families of all ages can enjoy together. The Outer Banks is rich with so many historical, cultural, and outdoor recreational opportunities that even families with diverse interests (like ours) will find something for everyone. Here’s all the fun we uncovered while we were there:
Many thanks to the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, which sponsored our visit. Additionally, this post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, we will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you! Our disclosure policy can be found here.
Jennette’s Pier is a state-of-the-art, public fishing pier located in Nags Head. A wide-variety of ocean angling is permitted from this 1,000-foot-long concrete pier and although you will have to purchase an entrance/fishing pass, you don’t have to buy a special fishing license. If you don’t have your own gear, the facility offers rod rentals and stocked bait and tackle. New to fishing? No worries. The pier offers a range of classes and educational programs geared for both novice and experienced anglers. One class will even guide you from catching a fish to cleaning and then cooking it.
We were super impressed with the family-focused atmosphere at the pier. When our sons each reeled in a skate (I had never heard of such a creature before and the best way I can describe it is it looks similar to a sting ray), friendly staff members were on hand to congratulate them and then guide them through the unhooking and release process. The pier even mailed each of the boys a certificate commemorating their first catch at the pier. Many thanks to Daryl Law for showing us around!
The Festival Park in Manteo is the perfect spot for families to delve into the region’s history, learning through hands-on exhibits about what life would have been like at the time of the first English settlement. The exhibits include a representative 16th century ship, Algonquian Indian town, early settlement site, and an adventure museum that traces the history of Roanoke Island life. Our kiddos had a blast climbing all over the ship, trying their hands at weaving, and even learning how to measure “the catch.”
Before there was the U.S. Coast Guard, there were teams of brave men who formed lIfe-saving stations along the coasts. Just down the street from our campground, is the historic Chicamacomico site and museum dedicated to preserving the history of the life-saving service and chronicling the famous 1918 Mirlo rescue. The complex features several historic buildings, including the 1874 Station where the life-saving boat and life car (which looks kind of like a mini submarine!) are kept.
Before we visited the site, we had read the kids Heroes of the Surf, by Elisa Carbone, a great children’s picture book that told the story of a little boy rescued from a shipwrecked boat, carried safely to shore by something called a breeches buoy. Thus the kids were very excited to see a real-life model of this ingenious contraption. Many thanks to Warren Renn for the great tour!
The aquarium itself was still under renovation during our visit, but we were able to take the behind the scenes tour of the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center. This special program includes an informational session about sea turtles and then a tour of the rehab center, where this past winter the personnel had to manage an abnormally large influx of distressed sea turtles. We were able to watch as a skilled team demonstrated how they administer nutrition and physical therapy to one of the sea turtles at the center. At the end of the tour the kids had fun making special sea turtle “treats.”
This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility is free to the public and features interactive exhibits, audio-visual programs, and even a virtual airplane ride. The colorful and engaging displays were a hit with the kids, who enjoyed learning about migration schedules, the recovering red wolf population, and wildfire fighting. This would be a great stop on a rainy day!
This is home to the largest natural sand dune on the East Coast. Challenge your family to a dune climb, or let your kiddos spend some time working through a booklet to earn the park’s state junior ranger badge. You may even spot some hang gliders or sand boarders among the kite flyers.
As the daughter of a former Air Force pilot and a former Ohioan, it was pretty cool to be at the site where the first successful airplane flights took place. We immediately could feel why this was the perfect spot for the Wright brothers to test their plane: Oh my, the wind!
During our visit the kids worked on their first Junior Ranger badge of the trip, and thankfully it was a gorgeous day so we could roam the property at our leisure. We were fortunate enough to be at the park in time to hear a ranger program with Darrell Collins. It was the best ranger program we have ever attended, and it was an honor that he could “swear in” our kiddos. (There is a small fee for anyone 16 years and older to visit this NPS site.)
The national seashore provided another opportunity for the kiddos to earn a Junior Ranger badge. You can visit the two lighthouse sites–Bodie and Hatteras–for free, but you have to pay a fee to climb them. Both lighthouses have restrictions on when they are open and who can climb them so be sure to read the park information before you go. The lighthouses also offer small museum areas to explore, and plenty of iconic spots to capture a few family pictures.
Here’s the place to learn about England’s first settlements in the New World–including the infamous and mysterious “Lost Colony.” In addition to a video about the colony, you can explore a small but well-done museum area and the grounds. This marks the third NPS site in the area where the kids could work on NPS Junior Ranger badges. (Our kiddos were WAY excited that one camping trip destination netted them three badges.) There is no entrance fee to visit Fort Raleigh.
This is another free spot, all the way down at the southern end of the barrier islands, that would be perfect to save for a rainy day. Just off the coast of the Outer Banks lie more than 2,000 shipwrecks, which is why the region was once nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The museum chronicles maritime and shipwreck history. Although this isn’t a hands-on exhibit, the staff have created a little scavenger hunt to keep kids engaged as you work your way through the displays.
Still looking for more ideas? Our off-season visit didn’t accommodate a visit to several other stops like Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Island Farm, The Elizabethan Gardens, or going to The Lost Colony outdoor production. Additionally, the region is ripe for numerous recreational opportunities like kayaking, off-road beach driving, kite-boarding, and crabbing charters. With so many options for fun and relaxation, it’s likely you and your family will be plotting a return trip to the Outer Banks before you’ve even crossed back onto the mainland.