Visiting the Outer Banks
Welcome to the Outer Banks! An amazing place only hours from where I live, but a place I’ve shamefully only visited twice in my life. The Outer Banks are a unique set of Barrier Islands with great beaches, surf and even lots of significant history. Just an hour south of Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks offer a much quieter atmosphere than their large urban neighbor. Most of the towns that line the barrier islands rarely reach over 5,000 people, but you’ll still find plenty of restaurants, resorts, and great coastline.
Part of its rural atmosphere means that you’ll not find any boardwalk along the Outer Banks. This means you’re either walking on the side of a road like this one or you’re directly in the sand dunes. I’d say that this picture above is what the majority of the Outer Banks look like when you’re on a main road. It’s most definitely not lined with huge hotels and businesses!
There are several hotels to choose from, but in the Outer Banks the real way to visit is by renting out a beach house. Some of these can seriously cost five figures for a single week, but come with enough rooms to comfortable fit over a dozen people. Time shares or massive family reunions here are very popular. As you can see, some of these beach houses decorated with palm trees look like they could be from Florida or California.
When you look from a satellite or aircraft photo of the Outer Banks, it almost looks too narrow for there to be any infrastructure here. North Carolina’s coast has hundreds of small inlets and tiny islands, and then it looks like someone took a pen and drew a border around them to form the Outer Banks. When I first visited I was pretty surprised how developed things where. There are plenty of places where you can get a higher vantage point and see the water on both sides, but for the most part the place feels fairly normal when inland. The photo above shows a typical beach plaza in the Outer Banks, and below you can see a “Redneck Special” at a restaurant that I couldn’t help but photograph. On my last visit I finished my final night out with some drinks at a tiki bar, and wish I took some photos of that.
Surprisingly one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of mankind took place in the Outer Banks. With the Outer Banks being relatively flat in a remote area, they seemed like an unlikely place for the birth of aviation. It was here though, that the Wright brothers famously developed what’s regarded as the first aircraft. Of course historically other aircraft had been created and tested, but this was the first true aircraft that could actually sustain flight.
Orville and Wilbur Wright worked tirelessly at their invention, spending years designing and testing different methods. Of course they ran into lots of failures and disappointments, but after thousands of test flights they finally solved their engineering problems they had encountered along the way, and in December 1903 had their first successful launch. The photo above is a reconstructed hangar that they spent most of their time working in, below is a model and memorial or Orville during his first flight.
The Wright brother’s memorial is marked with a small museum, historical markers, and a few artifacts on display. In the photo above you can seethe exact spot that their aircraft first took off, in mankind’s first true flight. Many point out that there had been other aviation tests before in other nations. While this is of course true, the difference here is that the Wright brothers made the first controllable, aircraft that was powered. In other words, this was the aircraft that could actually carry someone and go places. Other aircraft were essentially gliders, or lighter than air models such as hot air balloons that either could not sustain flight, or did not have directional control. Below is the main memorial dedicated to the Wright brothers; I forgot how big it when I returned ten years later!
Hundreds of years before the Wright Brothers were even born, another important piece of history took place in the Outer Banks. England’s first attempt to colonize the new world was at Roanoke Island in the late 1500’s. The colonists arrived in 1585 and the plan was to have them visited each year by the British Empire. The British faced some logistic issues, and a series of delays occurred. Three years later when new ships finally arrived, they found the entire colony abandoned. This is a mystery that remains today. Most believe that the colonists suffered without new supplies in a foreign land, and therefore out of desperation joined the local Indian tribes in order to survive. Others believe Spanish settlers or the Powhatan natives attacked the colonists and massacred them. One of America’s most famous plays, the “Lost Colony”, is performed on Roanoke island, which tells a story of what may have happened. On both visits to Roanoke Island I missed the play, but definitely plan to see it one day. The photo above shows some of the actors from the Lost Colony. The photo below is a memorial to the lost colonists built in 1886; 300 years after their disappearance.
There’s plenty of other historic places in the Outer Banks, but for the most part I spent the rest of my time enjoying the beach. One of the most unique places along the barrier islands is Jockey’s Ridge, the highest natural sand dunes on the east coast! At first they’re what you might expect, a few random dunes in the midst of some small bushes and trees. Take a short hike up the dunes and you’ll see how incredible this place is!
The dunes here are famous for hand gliding. I almost tried it myself, and even thought it could justify bringing my GoPro. I’ll be honest, not trying hand gliding was probably the best decision I made. Without any exaggeration you take off from a hill that’s about ten feet high (three meters). Your experience descending the hill while people guide you on leashes lasts about five seconds, but don’t worry in case you crash you’ll be wearing a helmet! It’s clearly for young children to play around and get a feel for what hand gliding might be like. You can actually see the starting and finishing points in the photo below, so if you’re looking for a realistic experience I’m not sure this give you much insight.
Hand gliding here is said to be great because of the consistent wind and soft sand to land on. If it was a more real experience I likely would have taken it up. Instead though I was more entertained by the wildlife and desert like atmosphere here. There was a tiny puddle of water with a few birds cooling off in the hot sun. There seemed to be about three species here, but I didn’t do a great job getting any clear photos.
I’ve always loved deserts and sand dunes, so despite how small this place is it made me happy. The photo above shows some of the dune details, and below was maybe my most interesting find. If you look around you’ll almost definitely see a few of these dune crickets, that have completely camouflaged themselves with the sand!
There is a small visitor center, which mentions everything from how the sand dunes form to the life of various animals here. The most interesting to me was the life of a tiger beetle. Luckily this model above isn’t the actual size of them, but they are predators that live in the dunes and feed off everything from crickets to even small crabs. The tiger beetle survives by burrowing deep into the sand, sometimes as far as four feet (one meter). When the beetle is ready for dinner, it simply waits at the opening for prey to walk by and then attacks.
I didn’t see much of the wildlife mentioned in the visitor center of course, but I at least hiked to the top of the dunes. From there you can see both sides of the barrier islands, but otherwise the dunes actually look less impressive. Instead of endless sand you can see them fade out into the vegetation all around you. I found the most amazing views were climbing up the steep hills, where you have no sense of how far they extend out. My friend and I visited in early September, but it was still so ridiculously hot that it felt we may as well been in the Sahara.
I had no plans to go hand gliding in North Carolina, but I had put some serious research into kite boarding. They say that this is one of the best places in the country to learn, because you have extensive areas off the coast that are only waist deep, so you can easily stand up and recover if you crash. I didn’t take the course though, so maybe on another visit. I did see lots of people paddle boarding and even paragliding like this guy, perhaps I missed out.
Some of these pictures on this page are over ten years apart, so originals like these two are much lower in quality. I should have brought my camera to the beach and got some updates, but of course you can’t bring it everywhere. The photo above shows a laughing gull and a pelican below. There’s lots of seabirds along the coast, and even when I stepped into the ocean to swim I saw lots of fish as well. Believe it or not, but you can even go scuba diving or sign up for a dolphin tour here.
Sometimes I feel sorry for black birds, because they are so common they’re almost never photographed. I’ve seen black birds everywhere from the Atlantic coast to high camp on Mt. Everest.
Much more interesting is this nasty sand flea photographed above. These guys generally burrow into the sand, and are difficult to find unless you actually dig for them. Below is a crab who like his nearby cricket friend, developed some excellent camouflage.
And finally, nothing is better than watching the sunrise or set. In the Atlantic you have to wake up early to see the sun over the ocean, but that means you’ll likely have the entire beach to yourself. One morning I got up around six and did a short stroll on the beach, and snapped this photo above.