13 Places to EXPLORE with the FAMILY in Coastal NC
North Carolina has a way of connecting families and creating memories to stay long after the fun is over. Uncrowded beaches that stretch for miles and the endless possibilities that come with them. After all, this is America’s First Beach. The site of our country’s first National Seashore and the place where the English first tried to settle in the New World. National and state parks help to share those stories and more. You’ll find sweet and hospitable people in towns and villages across coastal North Carolina, and plenty of vacation rentals, hotels, and (my personal favorite) CAMPSITES to call “home” for a few days, or a week or two. The restaurant and shopping choices are every bit as diverse. Not many big box stores or chain restaurants out here. Chances are, you’ll have to try something new. But hey, this is the land of firsts. You’ll be rewarded for stepping outside of the ordinary.
If your kids are like mine, they often forget how lucky we are to be surrounded by so much beauty and adventure. Sometimes we need a little push in the right direction to try something new! So, whether you are a native to this great state or planning a vacation there is SO MUCH to discover in coastal North Carolina.
Camp at Shackleford Banks and run with the horses - Okay, so you like air conditioners and your blow drier a little too much to "rough it" for the night.... toss your hair in a messy bun or throw on a ball cap and step outside of your comfort zone for a bit - I PROMISE you won't regret it. Beautiful skies as far as the eye can see and more stars than you can count in one night. There is something to be said about sharing an island with wild horses that have been there for over 400 years. You can watch them swim, play, and run. The kids can also run, play, fish, build a campfire and even roast marshmallows. This is an experience they will never forget. Early morning is the BEST shelling I have ever experienced. Giant conch shells, sand dollars, and I even found a full starfish last year. There are several ways to get to Shackleford Banks. You can take a passenger ferry with The Island Express, you can take your personal boat or you can kayak over yourself (I only recommend kayaking for avid kayakers, as the currents are a little more advanced). The Island Express departs from Beaufort and Harkers Island. I highly recommend the additional drive to depart from Harkers Island. By taking the ferry from Harkers Island, you can purchase a combo ticket which will allow you access to Cape Lookout as well as Shackleford Banks. Also, for camping, you will have a view of the lighthouse at night from this side of the island. Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout are some of the only places in the state you can camp ON the beach. There are only a few rules and camping is otherwise primitive. Keep your tent above the high water mark and your fire below and DON'T BOTHER THE HORSES (Remember, we are sharing THEIR habitat). So please be kind to the horses and other wildlife. Bring a trash bag to carry all of your trash with you when you leave, there are no trash cans on the island. Other than January-March there is really not a bad time of year to camp. In the summer months, the kids enjoy swimming and fishing. In the fall and spring temperatures are a little cooler, but it is always fun to hike across the island or take the ferry to Cape Lookout and climb the lighthouse. Don't have a tent or gear? There are also options to rent camping gear. Up the Creek Outfitters will pack all the gear you will need, tents, fire starters, flashlights, and will even pack a cooler and food. For a complete list of rules and laws, you can visit the National Park Service page.
2. Wright Brothers Memorial- Kitty Hawk, NC - In 1900, the Wrights began researching locations from which to begin their flying experiments. Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a tiny coastal fishing village of approximately 300 people at the turn of the century, would come to suit their needs. Just three days prior to leaving, Wilbur wrote this to his dad "I chose Kitty Hawk because it seemed the place which most clearly met the required conditions…At Kitty Hawk, which is on the narrow bar separating the Sound from the Ocean, there are neither hills nor trees, so that it offers a safe place for practice. Also, the wind there is stronger than any place near home and is almost constant." Today you can tour the Wright Brothers Memorial, it is open every day of the year except Christmas Day. It is free for children under 16 and only $7 for adults 16+.
3. Climb a Lighthouse - The best views in North Carolina are from the top of one of our many lighthouses. Our lighthouses are as iconic as our barbecue. While there are a plethora of lighthouses in North Carolina, there are 7 that are most well known.
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse - Cape Hatteras National Seashore -The most iconic of all the North Carolina lighthouses and most likely the most iconic in the country is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Its 210-foot height and 257 steps (equivalent to a 12 story building) makes it the tallest brick lighthouse structure in the United States and 2nd in the world. There were 1,250,000 bricks used in construction. Since its base is almost at sea level, it is only the 15th highest light in the United States, the first 14 being built on higher ground. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has had its time in the spotlight, in 1999 with the sea again encroaching, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse had to be moved from its original location at the edge of the ocean to safer ground. Due to erosion of the shore, the lighthouse was just 15 feet from the ocean's edge and was in imminent danger. International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, New York was awarded the contract to move the lighthouse, assisted, among other contractors, by Expert House Movers. The move was controversial at the time with speculation that the structure would not survive the move, resulting in lawsuits that were later dismissed. Despite some opposition, work progressed and the move was completed on September 14, 1999 (which happened to be on my birthday - isn't that fitting?) Today the National Park Service cares for the lighthouse - you can climb the lighthouse from April - October and tickets are $8.
- Bodie Island Lighthouse - Cape Hatteras National Seashore -The old adage "the third times a charm" rings true for the Bodie (pronounced 'Body') Island Lighthouse. The first lighthouse was abandoned due to structural foundation damage. Two years later a second lighthouse was built, then later destroyed in the Civil War. In 1872, the third and final lighthouse was completed. Today the National Park Service cares for the lighthouse - you can climb the Bodie Island Lighthouse from April-October and tickets are $10.
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse - Corolla, NC This red-brick lighthouse towers above the northern Outer Banks landscape in the historic Corolla Village. Visitors can climb the winding staircase, 220 steps in all, to the top of the lighthouse for a panoramic view of Currituck Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and the Currituck Outer Banks. Inside the lighthouse, at the base and on the first two landings, there are museum-quality lighthouse exhibits. On the way up or down, stop to learn about the history of coastal lighthouses, the Fresnel lens, shipwrecks and the lighthouse keepers.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is known as a first order lighthouse, which means it has the largest of seven Fresnel lens sizes. With a 20-second flash cycle (on for 3 seconds, off for 17 seconds), the light can be seen for 18 nautical miles. The distinctive sequence enables the lighthouse not only to warn mariners but also to help identify their locations. Like the other lighthouses on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, this one still serves as an aid to navigation. The beacon comes on automatically every evening at dusk and ceases at dawn.
To distinguish the Currituck Beach Lighthouse from other regional lighthouses, its exterior was left unpainted and gives today’s visitor a sense of the multitude of bricks used to form the structure. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse was the last major brick lighthouse built on the Outer Banks. Over thirty years ago, the Currituck Beach Light Station was in need of repair. The nonprofit Outer Banks Conservationists was created to preserve the light station when no one else was willing to step in and restore the national landmark. Since then, OBC has spent more than three decades and nearly $1.5 million from private funding restoring, maintaining and operating the historic site. OBC receives no government funds. OBC opened the lighthouse to the public in 1990. Today you can climb the lighthouse and tickets are $10.
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse - Cape Lookout National Seashore -The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the least accessible of all the North Carolina lighthouses, but it is absolutely worth the effort. It is only accessible by personal boat or passenger ferry (or by kayak for the adventurous... I have done this excursion and it isn't for the faint of hearts). With the perfect view of the Shackleford horses, the view here is my favorite!! It's iconic black and white diamond pattern can be seen as far as Beaufort. At 163-foot high, it is almost 100 feet shorter than the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse located on the Southern Outer Banks of North Carolina. It flashes every 15 seconds and is visible at least 12 miles out to sea and up to 19 miles. The Cape Lookout Light is one of the very few lighthouses that operate during the day. It became fully automated in 1950. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only such structure in the United States to bear the checkered daymark, intended not only for differentiation between similar light towers, but also to show direction. The center of the black diamonds points in a north-south direction, while the center of the white diamonds points east-west.
- Bald Head Island Lighthouse- Bald Head Island, NC - "Old Baldy" is North Carolina's oldest standing lighthouse. It has maintained its original form and location for over 187 years. The most important purpose of Old Baldy was to mark the Cape Fear River entrance for the maritime sailors. It was never intended as a light for Frying Pan Shoals. Old Baldy was built in 1817 of soft red bricks covered with stucco. In the early days the lighthouse keeper would white wash Old Baldy every two years. When Old Baldy was deactivated in 1935 the lighthouse was abandoned. The white wash protected the stucco. When it was discontinued large pieces of the stucco began to fall off the lighthouse. Occasionally someone would come along and patch the lighthouse with new stucco; however, they did not use the same stucco as was used in 1817. Today Old Baldy looks like a patch work quilt of different stuccos. In 1817 Old Baldy was completely white. Like the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, "Old Baldy" is only accessible by boat or ferry. You can climb the lighthouse is $6 to climb.
- Ocracoke Lighthouse- Ocracoke, NC - For centuries, Ocracoke island was one of the dominant shipping ports of Coastal North Carolina, dating back to the first Spanish explorers of the late 1500s and extending all the way to the colonial period and beyond. (Ocracoke Island itself was famous for the onslaught of pirates who recognized the potential for profit along the barrier islands, including the most famous pirate of all, Blackbeard.)
Realizing that a lighthouse was necessary to help mariners navigate through Ocracoke Inlet, a wooden pyramid-shaped tower was constructed on a neighboring sand bar, Shell Island, in 1794. This first lighthouse served its purpose until the inlet's deepest channels moved, and along with it maritime traffic, and it soon became clear that a new structure in a new location would be needed.
In 1822, the US government bought two acres of Ocracoke Island for $50 and decided to construct a new, better located lighthouse and keepers' quarters. Completed just one year later and well under budget, the 1823 Ocracoke Island Lighthouse still stands and functions today, although the original Forth Order Fresnel Lens has since been replaced, and the lighthouse was automated in the early 1900s.
The Ocracoke Island Lighthouse may not be the most imposing of the Outer Banks Lighthouses, but as North Carolina's oldest lighthouse in operation, (and the second oldest in the United States), it is certainly one of the most beloved. At just 65' ft. tall, it is by far the smallest lighthouse on the Outer Banks, but it still towers over the 4 square miles of Ocracoke Village, and its beacon can be spotted up to 14 miles into the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is NOT open for climbing.
- Oak Island Lighthouse- Oak Island, NC - The Oak Island Lighthouse was completed in 1958 at a total cost of $110,000.00. It is the youngest lighthouse in NC and is much different in design. The lights are 169 feet above the water. A misconception is that the lighthouse itself is 169 feet tall. The actual structure is 153 feet tall, but it stands on a slight rise. Therefore, the height of the light above the water is 169 feet, and it is so reported on nautical charts. There is no spiral staircase as found in most older lighthouses, but instead a series of ships ladders with a total of 131 steps to the lantern gallery level. The Oak Island Lighthouse is owned by the town of Caswell Beach and can be climbed with reservations at least 2 weeks in advance.
4. Take a Ferry Ride - As a child I rode the Bayview ferry over to Bath. I have some of the best memories feeding seagulls and watching sunsets on our scenic ferries. Now, 20 years later, I get to enjoy those same memories with my children! We love to pack a breakfast and take the early Cedar Island ferry over to Ocracoke for the day!!
The North Carolina Ferry Division, the second-largest state-run ferry system in the U.S., runs more than 20 boats on seven regular routes along the coast and transports approximately 850,000 vehicles and 2 million passengers a year.
Since the mid-1920s, ferries have carried people and cars around eastern North Carolina. From Southport in the Brunswick Islands all the way up through the Outer Banks towns of Ocracoke, Hatteras and Knotts Island, North Carolina’s ferries offer a convenient and enjoyable way to spend a weekend traveling along the coast. Originally created to provide transportation for travelers, food, medicine and other goods and services, today’s ferry system has expanded to become one of the largest ferry operations in North America, with seven routes crossing five bodies of North Carolina waters, including the Currituck and Pamlico sounds and the Neuse, Pamlico and Cape Fear rivers. The North Carolina Ferry Division, the second-largest state-run ferry system in the U.S., runs more than 20 boats on seven regular routes along the coast and transports approximately 850,000 vehicles and 2 million passengers a year. For reservations and schedules visit the NC DOT.
5. Lake Mattamuskeet Bird Migration - Imagine the scene in the Nicholas Sparks film, "The Notebook".....when Noah takes Allie canoeing to see all the swans!! That image is what I think of when I think of Lake Mattamuskeet from November-December. The swans stop in Hyde County for a few weeks on their way further south for winter.
If you are looking for movie theaters, video arcades, amusement park rides, water skiing, speed boating, or other noisy activities, Lake Mattamuskeet is the wrong place for you to visit. There is not something for everyone at Lake Mattamuskeet. However, if you are looking for peace and quite, serene and beautiful surroundings, and unique lessons in American history, you should visit Lake Mattamuskeet. The lake is a special place for those who want to get back to nature and culture, to find solid roots in one of America’s best places, to travel the road less traveled, to experience what most Americans have not found.
Lake Mattamuskeet is unique and special. It is the site of America’s most famous pump-supported land reclamation project. It has a history of being the Canada Goose Hunting capitol of the world. It is awesome in size and unsurpassed in beauty.
Lake Mattamuskeet is one of a number of Carolina Bay lakes of disputed origin. An Indian legend attributes its formation to a fire that burned for thirteen moons. Scientists cite the possibility of a prehistoric meteor shower or underground peat fires in speculating about how the lake formed.
It is a place worth investigating and we invite you to come on down for a visit.
6. Museum of Coastal Carolina Ingram Planetarium - Sunset Beach, NC - who says you have to go to the Triangle area for great museums and planetariums? Discover the universe at Ingram Planetarium! Enjoy state-of-the-art high definition digital projection and surround-sound systems in the 85-seat SciDome Sky Theater. Watch entertaining and educational programs about space exploration and astronomy. Sit back and enjoy laser music shows. Have fun with the interactive exhibits in the Paul Dennis Science Hall. Visit the Galaxy Gift Shop for space-themed items. Programs and hours are seasonal, visit Coastal Carolina Museum page for more details. Be sure to check out their special holiday show!
7. Bald Head Island Conservancy Fishing School - The BHI Conservancy’s Fishing School began in 1983 and it is named after its first dean and founding BHI Conservancy member, Thad Wester. Now in it's 35th year, the Fishing School continues to generate great enthusiasm for fishing from beginners and seasoned pros alike in a format that is as educational as it is enjoyable. This year's fishing school will hold a special place in the hearts of many due to Dr. Wester's passing in February 2017. It is $300 for adults and $150 for kids 9-12.
8. New Bern Ghost Walk - New Bern, NC - Ghostwalk is a self-guided family event that allows guests to step into New Bern’s past. The event is in always late October. You will meet many of the colorful and quirky characters who lived here throughout the centuries and continue to haunt our fair city. Meet spirits at different historic ghost haunts including homes, churches, and theatres. Enjoy the ghostly actors who will share their spirited stories in the very locations that their characters lived and visited. This year all of the ghosts sites except the cemetery are indoor sites. At Cedar Grove Cemetery, candlelight will lead you on oyster shell paths as historic figures emerge from shadows to tell you their stories. Many famous North Carolinians are buried here, such as Caleb Bradham - the inventor of Pepsi. Tickets are $17 for adults and and $5 for children.
9. Plan a Paddle - Up the Creek Outfitters - Plan a kayaking trip to discover towns like Edenton, Swansboro, Emerald Isle, New Bern or Jockey's Ridge State Park or other parts of the Outer Banks. Up the Creek Outfitters has guided tours throughout Eastern NC. You can also rent kayaks and paddle boards by the hour or for an entire week if staying longer. I have kayaked all over Eastern NC with my own kids. We've seen wild horses, alligators and everything in between. Whether it is a couple of hours or an all day paddle you will enjoy some of the most beautiful sights North Carolina has to offer.
10. Jeanette's Pier Family Fishing Class - Nags Head, NC - So maybe you aren't an expert fisherman. Or, maybe you are and just want a great place to fish. Jeanette's Pier offers family fishing classes for all ages. Learn basic skills necessary to catch fish and have fun doing so. Offered Monday thru Friday during the summer season at 9 a.m. Instruction, equipment, bait and fishing fee included. Cost: $15 per person.
North Carolina’s Outer Banks has long been known for its spectacular fishing. Red drum, bluefish, striped bass, flounder and king mackerel are just some of the prized fishes sought by anglers young and old. Fishing on the banks was forever changed when the first fishing pier – Jennette’s Pier – was opened in Nags Head back in 1939. The beachfront site at Whalebone Junction was the former “Transient Camp,” built in 1933 by the U.S. Civil Works Administration to house some of the 1,500 workers that constructed protective sand dunes from Corolla to Ocracoke. The old camp’s numerous cabins were renovated and made convenient housing for fisherman who traveled great distances to fish on the pier.
11. The Lost Colony - Manteo, NC - So you may think that your children would be bored with an outdoor drama. Especially, when they are LEARNING (ha,ha). The Lost Colony play is an amazing production!! I have taken my kids over and over and they still ask to go each year!
Millions have seen the compelling story that celebrates the 117 English men, women, and children whose dream still lives on in this American original. See epic battles and Indian dances. Experience the sorrow and heartbreak of tragedy and loss. Witness the pageantry of the Queen and her court and celebrate the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. There is music, laughter, romance and dance. Over 130 actors, technicians, designers and volunteers gather each spring to begin rehearsals to bring The Lost Colony to life for another summer season. The production is enormous. The stage itself is over three times larger than most Broadway stages in New York City. You will be seated in the center of the action with the show happening on three sides of you and even sometimes right next to you in the aisle. The Lost Colony outdoor drama is the “grandfather” of all outdoor dramas and is produced by the Roanoke Island Historical Association (RIHA). First staged in 1937, The Lost Colony is the nation’s premier and longest-running outdoor symphonic drama. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, The Lost Colony’s 81st anniversary season opens May 25 and plays through Aug. 22, 2018 at Manteo’s Waterside Theatre, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The Lost Colony play is performed over the entire summer, however there is also a "Ghosts" of The Lost Colony performance from March-April each year. There are also various Summer Theatrical Camps and Art Camps for children at The Lost Colony as well.
12. Hang Glide at Jockey's Ridge - Kitty Hawk, NC - The tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast is a premier location for kites, sightseeing and sunsets, with a view arcing from the ocean to Roanoke Sound. A visitor center with museum and 360-foot boardwalk with exhibits explain the dune’s ecology and are a gradual entry to the massive dune field. Sandboarding is welcome with permit and hang-gliding is available through a vendor such as Kitty Hawk Kites. Kitty Hawk Kites is the largest Hang Gliding School in the world. Learn from the best!!
On July 13, 1974, John Harris (owner of Kitty Hawk Kites) became the first person to hang glide from the 1,600-foot high rock pinnacle of Grandfather Mountain. Harris managed to convince Hugh Morton, the mountain’s owner, to let him make the daring attempt during the mountain’s annual Gathering of the Scottish Clans. Harris flew about 1,500 feet, landing safely on the golf course below, and soon after the heyday of hang gliding at the mountain began. In 1975, the U.S. Open Hang Gliding Tournament was held at Grandfather Mountain, and it continued to be held there until 1986. By then the gliders had become more efficient, making for increasingly longer and faster flights, so that there were inadequate safe landing areas around the heavily forested mountain. Flying was suspended from the peak in 1986 after a series of accidents. Like Wilbur and Orville Wright, Harris was a native Midwesterner who was inspired by North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He relocated to the Tar Heel State in the early 1970s for work as an engineer and became captivated by the fledgling sport of hang gliding, spending his free time on Jockey’s Ridge. While living at the coast he started a kite and hang gliding business, Kitty Hawk Kites, that is still in operation today.
13. Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital -Surf City, NC When I arrived at the sea turtle hospital, I was floored how many people were already lined up outside. Caring for forty plus sea turtles is hard work, so visiting hours are only Thursdays and Saturdays from 1-4. As you walk through the hospital you will see LOTS of volunteers that are truly passionate about what they do. They will gladly talk to you about each turtle, their rehabilitation stage and when they can be expected to return to the ocean. Admission is only $5 and this is a GREAT experience for kids of all ages! (even "30 something" kids like me).
The Topsail Turtle Project was organized by Karen Beasley, as she saw the need to preserve and protect the Sea Turtle nests, nesting females and hatchlings on the 26 miles of coastline on Topsail Island. After Karen’s early death, the torch was passed on to her mother, Jean Beasley, today the Executive Director of both the nesting program and the rehabilitation center.
The dream of a rehabilitation center was realized through the tireless efforts of the Beasley family; their financial support; the support of the project members; and the generous donations of money, time and material from local residents, businesses and visitors.
After breaking ground in May 2010, the new Sea Turtle Center facility in Surf City, NC opened its doors on November 7th, 2013. After years of working in a crowded, cramped 900 square-foot space, caring for up to 40 turtles, the center moved into its new 13,000+ square-foot building.