A glance at a map of North Carolina illustrates one of the state's most striking features: the long line of barrier islands that form much of the Atlantic Coast known as the Outer Banks.
The islands are more than a geographical oddity, however: They're one of the best reasons to visit the state. This scenic place of undeveloped beaches, sand dunes, lighthouses and small resort towns is truly special.
The most northerly access to the islands is via Highway 158, which crosses from Point Harbor on the mainland to Bodie Island. If you follow the highway south, you'll pass the town of Kitty Hawk, and soon after, the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
Turn west on Highway 64 to get to Roanoke Island, home of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. At the nearby town of Manteo, you can see a replica of the type of boats that the first North Carolina colonists arrived in. Manteo is also the home of the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island, which focuses on aquatic creatures native to the state.
Return east to the barrier islands, and turn south on Highway 12. From there to Cape Lookout (about 115 mi/185 km of shoreline), the Outer Banks are primarily public lands, encompassed in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Cape Lookout National Seashore, as well as Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. There are several towns along the way, however, which provide overnight accommodations and other services to visitors. The main ones, from north to south, are Buxton, Hatteras and Ocracoke. Camping is allowed on the national seashores, as are swimming, boating, surfing, horseback riding, sailing, hunting and fishing.
Not all of the islands are connected by road. When driving south, the highway ends at the town of Hatteras. A free ferry provides transportation across Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island.
Highway 12 resumes on Ocracoke Island, where you can drive to the southern tip of the island and visit the historic village of Ocracoke. From there you can either head back up to Hatteras or catch another ferry to Cedar Island or Swan Quarter, useful for those heading to inland North Carolina.
South of Ocracoke are the islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore, which comrpise 56 mi/90 km of undeveloped beach. Even a day trip requires advance planning. State-authorized ferry services transport passengers and four-wheel drive vehicles to the islands for hiking and camping. You can also canoe or kayak to the islands, but be sure to file a float plan with the Harkers Island Visitor Center (http://www.nps.gov/calo/planyourvisit/paddling.htm).
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