I think most people have some place that is “their” vacation spot – a place the family goes regularly enough that it feels like both a home away from home and a clear indication that you’re one vacation. My personal vacation spot is the Outer Banks where my family has vacationed for years. We don’t go every year, and we stay in different places, but I know that when we cross the bridge and drive through Nags Head and finally end up on the beach I’m officially on vacation. But while I love visiting Jockey’s Ridge and seeing the Lost Colony play on Roanoke, Cape Hatteras National Seashore is probably my all-time favorite part of the Outer Banks.
As I had missed a couple of our big family vacations due to summer classes in 2017 and study abroad in 2018, I really, really wanted to go to the beach with my family in summer 2019. Since I was going to Easter Island in June, we made plans to come to Hatteras in July – a month that we normally avoid because of the crowds. However, Hatteras, being my favorite beach, is the kind of place where you can still be alone with the sand and waves even in peak tourist season. Several years ago when we stayed on Hatteras, we were in one of the first houses built in a development that has since grown much larger. Tourism is definitely coming to Hatteras, but its distance from everything else and the fact that it’s partly protected by the Parks Service mean that it stays a little quieter here, just how I like.
About the National Seashore
One of my favorite parts of visiting the Outer Banks has always been going to Roanoke to see a play about the Lost Colony – an English settlement on Roanoke Island in 1587. The colonists were left on the island for three years without seeing British ships, and by 1590 when the ships returned, the island was deserted. The mystery of the Lost Colony has been debated for years since then, but the real fun fact is that we actually do know what happened to the colonists – they relocated to Hatteras Island where the Croatoan people lived, and they assimilated into the tribe. This is one of my favorite facts about Hatteras because I grew up going to Roanoke, watching the play, and wondering which of its changing endings was real. And then I learned that the answer to the mystery was actually just a few miles south on Hatteras!
Cape Hatteras is actually most famous for its (beautiful) lighthouse though. The original structure was built in the 1870s, but it was moved inland in 1999 because of an eroding coastline. On our visit this year (2019), they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the move, so I got to learn a bit more about the incredibly complicated and delicate procedure that was necessary to move a whole lighthouse. This also wasn’t the first instance of an eroding coastline being a problem for the barrier islands; the islands that make up the Outer Banks are basically just sandbars, and the ocean constantly changes their coastlines. Hatteras’s designation as a National Seashore in 1953 gave the Park Service the ability to preserve the land and protect the animals that live there.
What to do on Hatteras Island
While I enjoy writing up itineraries and offering scheduling suggestions for how to visit different places, Hatteras is a beach. You’ve got to take some time to just relax and hang out by the water. So, rather than giving a suggested schedule for how to spend a week, I’ll just be providing a bit of information on some of my favorite things to do on the island besides just existing at the beach.
Climbing the Lighthouse
Hatteras is the world’s second tallest brick lighthouse, so this is a good workout. It’s an amazing view though, and a little something to brag about. There’s also a small museum about the lighthouse and how it was moved, which is important for two reasons. First, it was the home of the people who used to run the lighthouse, and second, it has air conditioning. I also really love the Hatteras Lighthouse because it really looks like you imagine a lighthouse, and others like the Oak Island Lighthouse are sad in comparison. If you visit one lighthouse while on the Outer Banks, it should be this one!
Visiting the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
The waters off the Outer Banks are not just fun for swimming. They’re also the grave for over 600 ships that have wrecked here. This dangerous past proves why the lighthouse was necessary, and at the museum, you can see artifacts relating to everything from Black Beard to World War II. It’s a lot of history that you don’t really think about since ships rarely wreck here today, but my childhood pirate obsession comes back with a force every time I go here to refresh my memory on all this. Summer vacations to the Outer Banks were definitely an inspiration to that time in my life when I wanted to be an underwater archaeologist…honestly, part of me still wants that job.
Attending a Ranger Program
Pretty much every National Park has some Park Ranger Programs, which are a lot of fun and can give you more insight about the area besides just how pretty it is. These are usually free and fun for the whole family – and why not add some science to a beach vacation? I attended two programs during the week: Night Sky over Hatteras and Morning Bird Walk. The stargazing program had a lot more people, but it was still really amazing to see the Milky Way splashed across the sky while listening to the waves crashing on the beach. The bird walk I did here was also really great, and I thought it was pretty neat afterwards to be able to identify a few of the common birds I saw on the island. If you’re really into birdwatching, there are additional programs at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Hatteras is also home to Buxton Woods, which is a maritime forest and has its own cool ecosystem to explore!
Taking the Ferry to Ocracoke
I cover this more here, but riding the ferry to Ocracoke is one of my favorite parts of our Outer Banks vacations. They now have a passenger ferry in addition ot the car ferry, which saves a lot of time. As someone who was used to taking the car ferry for several years, I really love the new passenger ferry! It’s faster, more comfortable, and it drops you off downtown right where you want to be! Ocracoke is a cute little island with a population of about 900 people, and it’s a great place to relax and spend part of a day. My mom considers retiring here every time we visit, and I completely get it.
A Day around the Bigger Towns
While I love Hatteras for its distance from the big crowds, exploring the shops at Kitty Hawk Kites was a formative part of my childhood, and nostalgia makes going there a requirement. There’s generally a lot of shopping around Nags Head, and stopping by the Outlet Mall can be fun while you’re there too. The main thing though is getting fudge at The Fudgery. A visit to Jockey’s Ridge is also fun, and you really can’t miss going to Roanoke to see The Lost Colony in the evening and to explore Fort Raleigh during the day.
Hatteras is my favorite place on the Outer Banks. Besides what I mention above, there are also the usual beach activities like jet skiing, kite surfing, and eating too much ice cream. Whatever you decide to do, the National Seashore is a great place to visit, but, of course, the best way to spend a week on Hatteras is to take it easy and enjoy this beautiful place.