North Carolina’s Outer Banks ( abbreviated as OBX) is a collective of narrow barrier islands that span nearly 200 miles along the coast. On our recent tour, we decided to skim the northernmost communities of Currituck, Corolla, Duck, and Southern Shores. To my understanding, Currituck and Corolla are mostly private properties of the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, the Banks Reserve, and wilderness retreats.
Duck/Southern Shores is a historic residential neighbourhood known for having seven miles of beautiful beaches and a boardwalk system that connects its Waterfront Shops and entertainment complex. There is so much to see, so stay a while if you are not pressed for time.
We first reached the Outer Banks via I-64/158 at the Whalebone Junction, the meeting of NC interstates that got its name in the 1930s when an actual whale skeleton marked the split. Here, you can branch off to the northern Outer Banks toward Currituck or merge with NC-12 and head south toward Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Highway 12 becomes the Cape Hatteras National Scenic Byway and runs parallel to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore all along the coast.
Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, Bodie Island, Whalebone Junction… just the names of these places invoke vivid images of screeching dragons, superhuman villains, and mutant sea creatures.
My song for this blog is “Astorolus – The Great Octopus” by Candlemass:
Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills are neighbouring beach communities that share a large portion of residential properties and amenities with the tourist industry. I am not certain where the exact demarcation line is between the two, and neither the residents or tourist resources care to make the distinction.
Native American tribes called this coastal area Chickahawk, a place to hunt geese, and the area holds countless marshes, wildlife sanctuaries, and active birding spots.
Kitty Hawk was renamed and incorporated in 1981 around the 400+ acres Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve.
We sat on deck at Kitty Hawk Pier with our beverages of choice, people watching and taking in the fresh salty air.
Avalon Pier was even more fun with its old school arcade, roundtable style bar, bait shop, and elevated decks.
One side of my family, the Wrights, are distant relatives of Orville and Wilbur Wright. I was born in Dayton and just like them, spent my earliest years living near the Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Dayton, Tipp City, and other Ohio cities are full of historic Wright Brothers locations, and I have always been interested in their history so a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial was mandatory.
There is a serious rivalry between Dayton, Ohio and Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, both claiming the same Wrights-related and aviation milestone credits. While they grew up and began their flight experiments in Dayton, they gained international fame with the success of their Wright Flyer after relocating to Kitty Hawk.
To further complicate matters, the actual site they completed that first flight on falls within Kill Devil Hills territory, even though KDH did not become a city until decades later.
The Wright Brothers’ accomplishments continue to impact the field of aviation and their ties to the town of Kitty Hawk have influenced the naming of several carriers such as the USS Kitty Hawk CV-63 and ADV-1, the P-40D Kittyhawk, the Kittyhawk Apollo 14 command module, and others.
In addition to the national monument, check out the reconstructed Wright Brothers homestead, visitors center/museum, and several sculptures on the grounds. Visit in mid-December when the Wright Brothers National Memorial hosts an annual celebration in honour of that first flight.
Kill Devil Hills got its name from the association of its tall dunes (hills) to the types of booze produced in the area during the age of piracy in the Outer Banks, having rum rumoured to be strong enough to kill the devil. Visit Outer Banks Distilling to try some for yourself.
Chartered in 1953, Kill Devil Hills is the largest and most populated part of the Outer Banks. The town shares many of its attractions and events with Kitty Hawk but the bars and restaurants in Kill Devil Hills have more of an oddball edge to them.
Jolly Roger Restaurant was whack. Find it by spotting the black Pegasus statue in front of a building painted with murals of Kenny Rogers, Dean Martin, and other crooners. Walls and ceilings are covered with stained glass, mismatched fixtures, hanging trinket lights, Christmas decorations, maritime and pirate motifs, neon signs, and whatever else the staff feels like adding to the mix.
It is even more eclectic inside, but super laid back. Enter in the gift shop, sit in the bar side or the diner side, or on the rooftop patio. Despite all the strangeness, they take their food seriously. We had a fantastic brunch of salmon eggs benny, home fries, coffee, bacon, and other staples.
Even though Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint is a chain with 14 other locations, they get all of their beef directly from the independently owned and operated Snake River Farms in Idaho. Each location has its own menu variations and house rules, but they all agree on a commitment to not put lettuce and tomato on burgers.
You won’t miss the boring pair after seeing some of the wicked toppings Jack’s has to offer. I ordered the Dr. Gonzo burger that comes with mushrooms, Swiss cheese, Guinness fried onions, and Applewood bacon. My friends had the Cobra Kai burger and these house special loaded fries.
Like Jolly Roger, Jack’s is also strange and quirky, and it is a bit of a gag for patrons to write messages or jokes on dollar bills then staple them to the walls.
Lockers, car parts, masks, and antiques cover the walls inside Jack’s. The exterior is covered in mixed media by local artists so it is easy to find and more fun to sit outside.
We were fortunate to visit during the OBX Rod & Custom Festival that is held around the beginning of May each year.
My brother was thrilled to join other gearheads along the roadside, talking shop and yelling their heads off each time a new car cruised by in a fury of noise and exhaust.
Nags Head has the longest history of intentional touristic development in the Outer Banks starting as far back as the 1830s, and the entertainment options keep growing.
Before electricity, no one living among these massive sand dunes would have dared to travel without a lantern strapped to the head of their horse, or nag, to help find their way after dark. Eventually people started referring to dunes as the Nags Head area.
The Nags Head Pier was beautiful, and there were several others I still long to see.
Oceanfront rentals are easy and plentiful in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head. We spent the evening swimming and watching the sunset on the quiet beach, just a couple hundred feet from our room.
Nearby, the Jockey’s Ridge State Park boasts the tallest sand dunes on the entire east coast and is a mecca for ATVs and handgliders. Unlike most dunes that fall under strict environmental protections, visitors are allowed to walk across these dunes and hike to the top using the park’s designated hiking trails.
There is a museum and outdoor exhibits connected by boardwalks leading to the 400+ acres of dunes. Photos do not serve this park justice so check out this video:
Bodie Island Lighthouse in its present form and location has been standing 156 feet tall since 1872, but has a long history of efforts and damages, relocations and renovations. Bodie, pronounced like body, was named after one of the area’s first families.
Bodie Island proper refers to land from Currituck to Whalebone Junction where the Cape Hatteras National Seashore begins.
A definitive measure of Bodie Island limits is impossible to give because water level, erosion, wind, and traffic through various points continuously alter the qualifying criteria of its geographic features. Technically, Bodie Island is not even an actual island anymore.
After touring the lighthouse grounds, be sure to take the boardwalk path through the marsh and to the observation decks to gain a better picture of the land and water structures here, then check out the nearby Coquina Beach.
In the area for a while? Follow me down the Cape Hatteras National Seashore to Hatteras and Ocracoke!
“Strange” by Kill Devil Hill, a supergroup with members of Black Sabbath, Pantera, and other metal giants.
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