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The Outer Banks: Nags Head to Kitty Hawk

Author: Rosie E.L.
Date of Trip: September 2009

The Outer Banks. The words evoke images of white sandy beaches, quaint shingled cottages, lazy summer afternoons, and romantic evenings. For the past 13 years I have lived only 2 1/2 to 3 hours from the Outer Banks, but until Labor Day weekend 2009, I had not visited the Banks since Labor Day weekend 1996. On that occasion I headed South to spend a couple of nights in the Hatteras area. I had not visited the Northern Shores of the OBX since May 1984. What I remembered from those earlier trips, as well as my first trip to both the Northern and Southern Shores in July 1967, was uncrowded beaches, uncongested highways, and controlled development (or little development in 1967).

Things have changed. Fortunately the Northern Shores are not marred by high-rise hotels lining the either side of Highway 12 the beach road, or cluttered with as many outlet malls and shopping centers, miniature golf courses, amusement rides, tourists attractions (and traps), and the glut of fast food restaurants that have destroyed the charm of Myrtle Beach, (another Carolina beach town this Hoosier visited for the first time in 1967), but the Northern Shores have certainly suffered a hit, and I don’t mean from a hurricane. I mean from “developers gone wild.” Those quaint weathered cottages have been mostly replaced by multi-story, multi-unit, multi-colored rental properties. The few mom-and-pop motels that have managed to survive the onslaught of development over the past decade or two now compete with big chain, two and three-story hotels such as Days Inn, Econolodge, Comfort Inn, etc. And the sand is not white or powdery. It is sand colored (khaki) and course. Was it ever white or only white in my imagination?

I made a big mistake in heading to the OBX (Outer Banks) on Labor Day weekend without a hotel reservation. Labor Day weekend, I was told by an employee at the Visitor Center where I stopped to pick up a free map and other information, is one of the busiest weekends of the season. I don’t even want to mention how much I paid for a single, second-floor room with a parking lot view in a decent, but not exceptional hotel. My accommodation of choice when traveling, especially out of the country, is typically hostels or pensions. Let’s just say I could have spent 4 or 5 nights, maybe 6, in a hostel for the cost of one night in that Kitty Hawk hotel. The price did include a continental breakfast with made-to-order waffles and round-the-clock- complimentary coffee, however, and HBO. You don’t usually get that at an American hostel. But I won’t make the same mistake again. In fact, I may not make the mistake of traveling to the OBX again during high season, when hotel/motel rates crest like the waves along the Outer Banks during a Category 5 hurricane. I prefer the quieter side of the Outer Banks, with fewer people and less traffic and of course, cheaper rates.

But hanging out on a crowded beach isn’t the only reason to visit the Northern Shores. I arrived on Saturday a little before noon. After securing a place to stay with some difficulty, as most hotels were booked, would not take one-nighters, or were priced way beyond my frugal budget, I headed to Wright Brothers Memorial, an historic site I had first seen on my visit to Kitty Hawk in 1984. My timing could not have been better. A park historian was just about to give a lecture/presentation on the history of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the two Ohio Brothers credited with accomplishing the first powered flight.

A more interesting, informative, and lively presentation by a National Park ranger I have never heard. This guy (himself a Midwesterner) knew his stuff. For 30 minutes he described to an attentive audience the upbringing of the Wright Brothers, their creativeness, their ambition, their difficulties in figuring out how to make their “flying machine” turn and lift, their failures, their discouragement discouragement that caused one brother in 1901 to declare that it would be “1000 years before man would fly.” But with patience, perseverance, and a great deal of prodding by their sister, according to the ranger, the brothers finally achieved their dream. And on December 17, 1903, their innovative aircraft left the ground and sailed not once, but 4 times, the final time staying aloft for 59 seconds and covering a distance of 852 feet. Today, stone markers indicate the duration and distance of each those incredible four flights. Surprisingly, neither brother had more than a high school education, though both were extremely well-read, had obvious intuitive mechanical ability, and a keen understanding of physics. Even more surprisingly, the mechanisms the brothers designed to lift, thrust, and control their “flying machine” are the “granddaddy” of the mechanisms used by modern pilots to maneuver their planes. How amazing that the invention of two bicycle repairmen from Dayton, Ohio would forever change the world!

From the Visitors Center, a paved walking path leads to the 60-foot monument which sits atop at 90-foot dune. It is a fairly easy uphill walk and takes about 20 minutes. The path loops around the monument and ends back at the Visitor Center. There are restrooms and a gift shop on site, and educational programs are offered throughout the day. The centerpiece of Wright Brothers Memorial, however, is the full-scale reproduction of both the 1902 glider and the 1903 “flying machine,” located inside the Visitors Center.

Wright Brothers Memorial is located at Milepost 8 in Kill Devil Hills. The site is open year-round except on Christmas Day. Admission is charged. Visit their website at or call 252-473-2111 for more information.

A few miles south of Wright Brothers Memorial, at Milepost 12, is Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which boasts the highest sand dune east of the Mississippi River. This giant dune, which varies in height from 80 to 100 feet (depending on weather conditions), came perilously close to being leveled by one of those “developers gone wild.” In 1973, a local woman planted herself in front of the earthmover threatening to destroy this natural wonder, and refused to budge. A grassroots organization was formed to save the sand dune. The state’s Division of Parks and Recreation also got involved, and in 1974, the dune was declared a National Landmark. In 1975, with matching federal funds, the state purchased 152 acres and Jockey’s Ridge State Park was created. With help from the Nature Conservancy, today the park encompasses 426 acres.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is a nature lover’s paradise. Visitors can follow self-guided nature trails, including the 1.5-mile “Tracks in the Sand” trail, or climb up to the top of the dune. (Flip-flops and sandals are not recommended for this strenuous hike!) Year-round winds make Jockey’s Ridge an ideal location for kite-flying or hang-gliding. (Hang-gliding lessons can be arranged on-site.) Bird watching, picnicing, and ranger-led nature walks are a few of the other activities visitors can enjoy at Jockey’s Ridge.

Restrooms and a small store are located inside the Visitors Center. The park is open year-round. Free admission. For more information, visit their website at or call 252-441-7132

So maybe I did have to compete with hordes of other beachgoers on my recent visit to the Northern Shores of the Outer Banks, and maybe the area has lost some of the quaintness and charm of yesteryear, but it’s still a great place to spend the weekend or even a week (though I do recommend visiting during the “off” season). The Northern Shores of the OBX still offer interesting sites, one-of-a-kind eateries, history, year-round fun, and that unique Outer Banks personality. And by the time a flaming sun began to set, most of the picnicers, kite-flyers, football players, shell collectors, castle builders, surfers, swimmers, and walkers had disappeared inside their fancy bungalows and hotel rooms, leaving the reddening sky, the sound of crashing waves and noisy gulls, and the deserted shore to people like me, who come to enjoy the peacefulness and solitude of the Outer Banks.

For a free Official Travel Guide to the Outer Banks, visit the Outer Banks Visitor Bureau website at or call 877-629-4386.

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