This season I met several guests visiting the Outer Banks for the first time, several others who were returning after a decade or more, and still others who visit often but enjoy venturing off the beaten path to find hidden secret spots. I thought it would be helpful if I wrote about the area from a local’s perspective instead of repeating the usual guidebook information, which you can find on what I think are the most useful sites for Area Information below. I hope this helps! Please feel free to contact me with any additional questions you might have. I look forward to helping you plan your trip.
Pronunciations – To sound like a local, pronounce Manteo (man-tee-OH); pronounce Corolla (cah-rahl-la) – not like the Toyota; pronounce Rodanthe (road-an-thee) – with a long E at the end; pronounce Ocracoke (oh-kra-coke).
A new visitor might wonder how best to see all the attractions of the Outer Banks. I hear often that it is difficult to discern driving distances and overall layout of the island, which is necessary information when choosing accommodations and the length of your vacation. Let me explain the basics.
There are only two main roads, so it’s hard to get lost. The By-pass (what locals call US Hwy 158) and the Beach Road (what locals call NC Rte 12, also named Virginia Dare Trail – North or South). These two roads run north and south, parallel to each other down the length of the middle banks. Highway 158 extends into North Carolina’s mainland while Route 12 extends to the northern and southern beaches of the Outer Banks.
The By-pass – The By-pass runs down the middle of the middle banks from Kitty Hawk to Nags Head and eventually meets 64/264-E on the NC mainland. It is a five lane, 50 mph road. On a day of busy summer traffic it might take 35 minutes to get from MP 1 to MP 17, as there are several lights in the middle of the island.
Walking & Biking – Truthfully, the Outer Banks is not a pedestrian-friendly area. Just in recent seasons have bike lanes even been added to the Beach Road. There are few sidewalks, and fewer crosswalks, especially on the By-pass. The lights change for traffic and are not that safe for pedestrians, especially families toting umbrellas, chairs and young children. I hope this will improve soon. In the meantime, just be aware of the layout. The middle banks towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head do not have town centers where you park your car, get out and walk around. To get to a particular destination, you must drive, walk or bike however many miles in a straight line to get there, then turn around and bike the exact same path back (though you may vary the scenery by choosing a parallel route).
Why The Sandbar? – Our inn is located at MP 10.5 on the Beach Road, across the street from the beach next to a beach access. While you will have to cross the Beach Road to get on the sand, you will not have to cross the highway. It’s a great central location for those who intend to see both the northern and southern beaches, and is also conveniently located close to Roanoke Island, with the town of Manteo. The Tanger Outlets are less than five miles south; Jockey’s Ridge State Park is two miles south; The Wright Brothers’ Memorial is two miles north; and the inn is within a walking and biking of some of the best shops, galleries and restaurants on the beach. It takes less than five minutes via car to get to Kill Devil Hills, about ten minutes to Kitty Hawk and 15 – 20 minutes to Roanoke Island. The drive to Hatteras is about an hour and fifteen minutes and the drive to Corolla is an hour with traffic. The town of Nags Head also has the most relaxed pet laws of all the towns for guests who bring their pets
The Northern Beaches – Around MP 2 on the By-pass are big green highway signs announcing the turn of Route 12 (the Beach Road) north toward the towns of Duck and Corolla. The first ten miles of this drive runs through Southern Shores, which is a residential community. As the speed limit becomes 25 mph, you will enter the town of Duck. Duck has the best concentrated area of shopping on the Outer Banks and is one of the only areas where you can park your car and walk around in a central location (Manteo being the other). However, there aren’t any public beach accesses even though the beach is a public place (zoning trickery in favor of the homeowners) so plan to visit Duck but not swim there. Duck features good restaurants and the park there has a busy activity schedule in the summer with concerts, tai chi and play times for children. Everything is a little more expensive there
Another fifteen miles on a mostly 45 mph drive brings you to the town of Corolla, (you also switch from Dare to Currituck County), home of the Currituck Lighthouse, which you can climb. Corolla is a more exclusive area, marked by gigantic houses which are worth seeing simply for scale. The Timbuck II shopping center houses awesome shops and restaurants and is not to be missed, though those who don’t like congestion should avoid the parking lot at all costs and park across the street. It is overwhelming in summer season.
The road north eventually ends, but you can continue driving on the sand with four wheel drive to the beach community of Corova, which is accessible only by vehicle at low tide. This is where the wild horses live. If you don’t have a 4X4, you can rent a Jeep or take a driven tour. The sand is finer and it’s neat to see the houses built on the sand. The horses like cool weather, so a trip north is actually great on a cloudy or rainy day
The Southern Beaches – Driving south on the By-Pass or Beach Road, around MP 16, are another set of big green highways signs announcing the turn south of Route 12, taking you to Oregon Inlet, Rodanthe and Hatteras. This is the route to Ocracoke Island as well. The first half of the drive is protected national seashore so there is no development. None. This section of the Outer Banks gives you an idea of what it looked like pre-beach house, pre-Burger King, pre-paved roads. The sea oats wave in the wind and there are a few places to stop and see the ocean. The sand gets finer the farther south you drive, and the water gets warmer, as this area sticks father out into the Gulf Stream than the middle and northern banks, which marks the spot where the Labrador and Gulf currents meet
Oregon Inlet is a popular spot for the Fourth of July and Memorial and Labor Day weekends. You can drive out on the beach and park next to the water, drop your cooler in the sand and put some poles in the water. It’s also a big fishing spot, along with Roanoke Island, where you can charter a boat. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is also on the way featuring trails and information about the local flora and fauna
The towns of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Buxton, etc. all run together like the towns of the middle banks. The only real distinction between them geographically is a sign reading “Welcome to (fill in the town)”. Incidentally, the very first house on the left once you enter Rodanthe is the house from the Nicholas Sparks movie. There are some good local eateries, artists’ wares and shopping throughout these towns. Also, the best surf is down this way but you’ll have to call a surf shop for exact locations
Finally, the town of Hatteras with its Cape and Lighthouse, which you can climb, bring the south road to an end. From there you can take the free NC ferry to the island of Ocracoke to see its lighthouse, the local wild ponies, and the national park there. The sand is gorgeous and the water is the warmest of the Outer Banks. Guests have described Ocracoke as an artist/fishing community
Please note that while a trip to Hatteras can be done in half a day, a trip to Ocracoke from our inn is a full day. Many people fail to calculate all the things to do on the drive to Hatteras, which makes it longer than an hour and fifteen minute drive. Then they add a 45 minute ferry ride without calculating the waiting time for the ferry on either end of the trip (ferries run every 30 minutes in season, every hour off season), and the docking and unloading time, not to mention sight-seeing on the island itself. Guests who visit Ocracoke should leave early in the day and expect to eat lunch and possibly dinner while away, getting back 8 – 10 hours later
Roanoke Island/Manteo – Instead of turning south on Rte 12 toward Hatteras at those big green road signs, you have the option to go west from Highway 158, which takes you across another bridge to the NC mainland. Manteo is the home of Fort Raleigh, Lost Colony Theater, NC Aquarium, Elizabethan Gardens, Roanoke Island Festival Park, great antiquing and shopping as well as wonderful local restaurants. Manteo is another location where you can park your car and walk around the waterfront and town center. It’s easy to spend a half day enjoying the area. Don’t miss the fifth lighthouse here, located on the sound waters.
Last Word – Finally, if this is your first time to the Outer Banks I would be remiss not to inform you about change-over day (the day the rental houses switch weekly tenants). On the weekends, mostly Saturday and to a significant extent Sunday as well, all the outgoing families head off the island before noon while all the incoming families head onto the island after noon. As there is only one road north, one road south and two roads in the middle responsible for delivering all of these vehicles full of families to their vacation destination, it is inevitable that traffic will be congested and slow
In-bound traffic from the north often backs up on a Saturday afternoon 20 – 30 miles from the bridge onto the island. People sit idle for hours on the bridge waiting for traffic to move. The turn north from Hwy 158 onto Rte 12 to get to Duck, which is easily a ten minute drive in the winter, can take three hours on a Saturday. Often families find this out at the end of a six, ten or thirteen hour drive just when everyone is ready to get out of the car and tempers are thin
A good solution is to come in a day or two early (note that not many accommodations offer one night stays on the weekend) or plan your arrival time for early Saturday morning and hit the beach after breakfast until your accommodation is ready. I will make every effort to accommodate your travel schedule to help you avoid this mess. Not being bound to the weekly change-over schedule is one of the perks of staying at the Sandbar.
Going home is not much fun either if you leave between 8 am and noon. Your best bet is to get up very early, or to plan to sunbathe until after lunch. The northbound bridge is usually clear by one o’clock.
www.outerbanks.com - This site features local history, regional information, specific community details, area and waterway maps, and weather.
Surrounded by 900 miles of water, The Outer Banks has the largest estuary system in the world. Make sure to visit the wildlife refuges, maritime forests, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
Once you cross the bridge onto the island follow 158 S through Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and into Nags Head. Turn left at the Eighth Street Light at MP 10. Drive until the road ends at S. Virginia Dare Trail aka NC Route 12 aka the Beach Road. Turn right and drive half a mile. The inn is located on the right-hand side between Something Fishy and Gulf Stream Gifts. The 10.5 milepost is just after the u-shaped driveway of the inn.
From Virginia (Hampton, Virginia Beach, Norfolk)
Take I-64 E toward Norfolk. Take exit 291B/Elizabeth City onto 464 S for about half a mile. Take the Nags Head/Manteo LEFT exit onto 168 S.** Stay on 168 S about 30 miles, when the road becomes 158 S, which brings you onto the island.
** Indicates the Chesapeake Expressway, which is a toll road that costs $2 each way. EZPass and SmartTag accepted.
From the North (DC, Mid-West, New York, New England)
Follow I-95 S to Richmond, VA. Take I-64 E toward Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Va. Take I-64 or I-664 to Chesapeake, Va. From I-64, take Exit 291B to Route 168 S, the Chesapeake Expressway.** Once in North Carolina, Route 168 S turns into US-158 E after about 30 miles. Follow this road and cross the bridge to the Outer Banks, which brings you onto the island.
For A Scenic Drive From the North (To Avoid 95 S)
95 S to 17 S in Fredricksburg, Va until Newport News, Va where you’ll follow signs for I-664 S, then follow the directions above.
*NOTE: This route is less miles than taking 95 S but takes more time (about 45 minutes) because of lower speed limits and driving through towns. This is a good route if you want to avoid the highway.
From Virginia’s Eastern Shore across Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (Route 13) - coming soon.
For a Scenic Drive
Get off I-64 E at Hampton, Va. Go South on I-664 through Monitor-Merrimack Memorial Bridge-Tunnel. Take I-64 toward Norfolk/Virginia Beach; then go south on US-17 at Deep Creek, Va. to South Mills, NC. Follow NC-343 S to US-158 S, which will lead you over the bridge to the Outer Banks.
Once you cross the bridge onto the island, drive on 158 N until MP 10.5. Turn right onto Adams Street at the light. Follow past Food Lion (this is the closest grocery store) through the stop sign until the road ends at S. Virginia Dare Trail aka NC Route 12 aka the Beach Road. Turn left and drive just a couple of houses to the inn on the left-hand side. The u-shaped driveway is immediatel
From the West (through North Carolina)
From the South
Take I-95 to Rocky Mount, NC. Take US-64 E toward Rocky Mount. Follow US-64 E through Williamston and Plymouth, NC. From Plymouth, NC keep going east until you cross the big bride onto Roanoke Island, where 64 E ends and becomes US-158 N.
For A Scenic Drive From the South
(through Alligator River Swamp and Town of Manteo on Roanoke Island)
For an Alternate Route From the South
Take US-17 N from South Carolina to Wilmington, NC. From US-17 N take NC Route 24 E until it runs into US-70 (before Morehead City, NC). Follow US-70 N from Morehead City to NC Route 12 and the Cedar Island Ferry. Take this toll ferry to Ocracoke Island. Then take NC Route 12 N to the free Hatteras Island Ferry. Drive north from Hatteras on NC Route 12 for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Turn right onto US-158 N and follow directions to the beach house.
*NOTE: The travel time from the Cedar Island Ferry to the beach house, including docking and riding two ferries, then driving is approximately six hours. This does not include extended wait times when ferries are busy, nor personal stops for food or sight-seeing. Click here for ferry schedule.
Dare County Regional Airport (MQI)
Offers numerous services to make your visit more enjoyable.
Roanoke Island (252) 475-5570
For daylight use only, limited day use aircraft parking available.
Wright Brothers National Memorial, Kill Devil Hills
For daylight use only, limited day use aircraft parking available.
National Park Campground, Frisco
The Outer Banks is easily accessible by the following area airports:
Norfolk International Airport (ORF) – Approximately 90 miles north of the Outer Banks.
Norfolk, VA (757) 857-3351 Website
Richmond International Airport – Approximately 145 miles northwest of the Outer Banks.
Raleigh/Durham International Airport (RDU) – Approximately 200 miles west of the Outer Banks.
Raleigh/Durham, NC (919) 840-2123 Website
Mileposts – When you drive across the bridge from the North Carolina mainland (Currituck County) from Hwy 158-S, or across the southern bridge from US 64-E, take note of the green mileposts that count each half mile. Most direction-giving and business location information references the nearest milepost. MP 1 begins as soon as you cross the north bridge onto the island in Kitty Hawk. The mileposts mark ascending distance all the way to Hatteras, at MP 74 or so. They resume on the island of Ocracoke but do not count the distance of the ferry ride. The “middle banks” from Kitty Hawk to Nags Head are roughly 17 miles long and this is the area