Featured Route: OBX National Scenic Highway
The Outer Banks National Scenic Byway traces the easternmost parts of North Carolina along the state’s barrier islands. From Whalebone Junction in Dare County to Beaufort in Carteret County, the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway is comprised of 21 coastal villages that share a unique maritime culture. With 138 driving miles and 25 ferry-riding miles along the route, you can leave the mainland behind. Tour historic villages, visit iconic lighthouses, and enjoy the stunning backdrop of gorgeous beaches while driving on the Byway. AAA Travel can help you plan an unforgettable trip along the Outer Banks.
Currently, nine barrier islands, or banks, protect the mainland coast from the fierce Atlantic Ocean. This protection is temporary, as the winds and water shift the sands of these islands, making them transient. Weather impacts life on the islands and many locals have lived through their share of storms. The islands include Currituck Banks, Bodie Island, Pea Island, Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island, Portsmouth Island, Core Banks, Shackleford Banks, and Bogue Banks.
North Carolina's barrier islands are separated from the mainland by six sounds that range from 3 to 40 miles wide. From the north to the south, these include Currituck, Albemarle, Roanoke, Pamlico, Core, and Bogue. Pamlico, which is visible to the west along many portions of the Byway, is the largest sound on the East Coast, covering more than 1,800 square miles. You can take a ferry crossing Pamlico from Ocracoke Island to both Hatteras and Cedar Island.
The Byway begins at Whalebone Junction, along N.C. 12, near the site of New Inlet. The junction is at the end of Currituck Banks, the northernmost barrier island in North Carolina. Head south on N.C. 12 to Cape Hatteras National Seashore on Bodie Island, where you can visit the Bodie Island Lighthouse. The 156-foot black and white striped lighthouse can be seen from miles away. You can do a self-guided climb of the lighthouse from the end of April to mid-October.
Eleven miles south, the Byway crosses over Oregon Inlet into Pea Island. Since Pea Island is a National Wildlife Refuge and Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, it's an excellent opportunity to view wildlife in the freshwater ponds. Get out and stretch your legs before continuing toward Cape Hatteras.
You will drive through the communities of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, and Avon before getting to Buxton. Home to the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Buxton is the easternmost point in North Carolina. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest masonry lighthouse in the U.S., standing at 210 feet tall. Its powerful beam warned ships away from nearby Diamond Shoals since turbulent waters often caused ships to wreck. The black and white candy-striped tower is opened seasonally for tours.
After stopping in Buxton, you will drive through the communities of Frisco and Hatteras. If you stop in any of these small villages, you'll notice the local Elizabethan dialect. Some of the residents live in isolated parts of the islands and have retained their ancestral way of speaking.
Next, you will take a free ferry across the Hatteras Inlet to Ocracoke Island. Along the way, you will pass a pasture of Banker's Ponies, descendants of horses brought by early explorers on ships wrecked in the Atlantic. One of the oldest operating lighthouses within a town on the Atlantic Coast is the 75-foot, Ocracoke Island Lighthouse. The notorious pirate, Blackbeard was killed in Ocracoke Inlet back in the 1700s.
Take the tolled Cedar Island Ferry into Cedar Island in Carteret County. The ride is just over two hours, and reservations are recommended, especially in the summer. To the east, you can see Portsmouth Island on a clear day. Portsmouth was one of North Carolina’s busiest ports of entry and a resort before the Civil War. A limited number of visitors can visit by private ferry if you're interested in exploring the area. After docking on Cedar Island, check out the salt marshes of the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge.
N.C. 12 becomes U.S. 70 about 12 miles south of the ferry. Follow the Byway through the communities of Stacy, Davis, and Williston to capture small coastal community living. When you cross Harkers Island Bridge causeway, you will find pier fishing, wildlife viewing, and public swimming access. Side roads will lead you to homes and small businesses dedicated to island life. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is accessible by private ferry from Harkers Island. The state-designated Byway continues for six miles before ending in Beaufort, a great place to get out and stretch.
The Outer Banks National Scenic Byway is a well-traveled road, especially in warmer weather. AAA Travel can help you customize an itinerary for traveling the Byway this fall when it's less crowded. We can help you find lodging along the way if you choose to stay and explore certain areas more deeply. Stop into a local AAA Travel branch for more information or call us today at 1-800-444-8691.