When I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina 14 years ago, I knew little about the geography of the state. That was a good reason to get out and do some exploring. This post shares miscellaneous photos from two road trips to the Outer Banks with my son in 2010 and 2013.

North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a string of low-lying barrier islands that begin at the Virginia border and extend south for 120 miles to Ocracoke Island. The Outer Banks separate Currituck Sound, Albemarle Sound, and Pamlico Sound and the mainland of North Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean.  In addition to their geographic significance, the Outer Banks have an interesting history.

Driving to the Outer Banks taught me something about the size of North Carolina. Charlotte is located on North Carolina’s southern border roughly in the middle of the state. I was surprised to find that the driving distance to the Outer Banks was 400 miles. It takes over six hours to get there.

The drive is more than worth it. The photos begin around Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills and proceed south to the southern tip of the Banks, Ocracoke Island.

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The Wright brothers’ first ever flight in a controlled, powered, heavier-than-air vehicle took place on the Outer Banks on December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills near the seafront town of Kitty Hawk. The Wright Brothers National Monument commemorates the historic flights.

Markers noting the distance covered by the first flights.
Wright Brothers Monument, Kill Devil Hills

Roanoke island is located a few miles south of Kill Devil Hills. The first attempts to establish an English colony in the New World were located on Roanoke Island. The first attempt in 1585 was abandoned voluntarily. A second colony was established in 1587. This colony was organized by Sir Walter Raleigh. It was a privately funded expedition of 115 colonists led by John White.

White returned to England in 1587 seeking more supplies. Due to the naval war with Spain, White was unable to return to Roanoke Island until 1590. He found the colony abandoned. The word “Croatoan,” which was the name for Hatteras Island at the time, was carved on a post in the fence around the colony and “cro” was carved on a tree.

The fate of the colonists, including White’s granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas, is a mystery that remains unsolved. Theories include massacre by or assimilation into a Native American tribe, and annihilation by a Spanish expedition from the Caribbean or Florida. My favorite theory is that White found the colonists massacred or dead as a result of disease or starvation and concocted a story that might not sound as discouraging to potential investors. 

Replica of Native American home on Roanoke Island

Replica of one of John White’s ships that established the Lost Colony in 1587.

As the map above indicates, the Outer Banks are in some places incredibly narrow strips of sand that waves, currents and storms are in a constant process of rearranging. In some places, a lot of effort goes into preserving the banks as they now appear.

Competing with the Atlantic Ocean seems to be a losing proposition in the long run. It also raises questions about the ethics of attempting to defeat natural processes for the convenience of current visitors and inhabitants.


Stormy seas and hundreds of shipwrecks along the Outer Banks have given the surrounding waters the nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. There is a museum of the same name in Hatteras Village on Hatteras Island not far from the ferry terminal.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Offshore of Cape Hatteras, the warm Gulf Stream collides with the Virginia Drift, a branch of the Labrador Current from Canada. This current forces southbound ships into a dangerous 12-mile long sandbar called Diamond Shoals. Thousands of shipwrecks along the Outer Banks make it an interesting spot for divers.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and measures just over 198 feet (60 m) from the bottom of the foundation to the top of the pinnacle of the tower. This height was needed to extend the range of the light-beam from the tower’s low-lying beach site.

The lighthouse has been rebuilt and relocated several times since the original version was completed in 1870. In 1999, after years of study and debate, current Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved to its present location. The lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet in 23 days and now lies 1,500 feet from the seashore

Not all of the shipwrecks around the Outer Banks were accidents.  Some residents of the Outer Banks, known as wreckers, made part of their living by scavenging wrecked ships— and sometimes by luring ships to their destruction.  Horses with lanterns tied to their necks would be walked along the beach; the lanterns’ up and down motion would appear to ships to represent clear water and a ship ahead.  An unsuspecting captain would then drive his ship ashore following this false light.

This slideshow is a compilation of more photos from the trips.

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Ocracoke is the Outer Banks’ southernmost island, by some definitions.  It can be reached by free ferry from Hatteras Island and a toll ferry from the North Carolina mainland. 

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There are plenty of recreational opportunities on Ocracoke as well as the rest of the islands.  Alex and I stayed in a very nice bed & breakfast, rented bikes to get around town, and took kayaks into the harbor and beyond.

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Ocracoke has a bit of a notorious past. Edward Teach (c. 1680 – 22 November 1718), better known as Blackbeard, was an English pirate who had a brief but notorious career capturing vessels on the high seas in the Caribbean Sea and off the east coast of Britain’s North American colonies. Blackbeard was killed in battle on Ocracoke in 1718. He had been tracked down there when he returned to piracy after receiving a pardon.

Final Thoughts

I hope this quick look back at trips to the Outer Banks sparked memories of your tips there or provided encouragement for a future visit. I know I’d like to go back.