Camping in the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Camping & Hiking expert Alex Dolan shares the story of his camping trip to North Carolina's Outer Banks, a location he recommends to all.

Waves crash at sunset or sunrise.

Photo by Cam Bradford

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The Outer Banks are a chain of islands far removed from the mainland of North Carolina. These narrow strips of land offer a unique landscape that can change drastically in a matter of feet. You could start on a ocean shore with breaking waves, seashells and sand as far as the eye can see; suddenly walk into a forest where you are engulfed by trees and surrounded by critters; and end up in an expanse of sand dunes that will make you feel like you walked straight into the Sahara Desert. It is truly an unforgettable experience that I would recommend to anyone.

Getting There via the Inner Banks

I began my journey on the southern coast of North Carolina, not far from Wilmington. From here you might think it would be pretty simple to zip up the coast and start touring the islands, right? Well, it isn’t quite that easy. In order to get to Ocracoke (one of the southernmost islands in the chain), a ferry ride is required. I wanted to keep my schedule flexible at the beginning of my trip so I opted to drive north all the way to Nags Head Island, where a huge high-rise bridge connects the Outer Banks to the mainland. Since I wanted to tour the whole chain of islands anyway, this route afforded me the opportunity to see some of the intercoastal towns of North Carolina that are often overlooked. This area is often referred to by local inhabitants as the “Inner Banks.”

A Google Maps screenshot of the region.

Among the Inner Banks are various small and historic towns such as Bath. Bath was once home to Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard, an infamous pirate of the American Colonial era. The town has preserved many of the historic buildings and artifacts of the area while the people lend a hand in creating the quaint and humble intercoastal atmosphere.

According to local lore, a priest in Bath once “shook his shoes” at the town and ‘cursed’ it, proclaiming that the town's population would never grow. Local inhabitants today seem to regard the curse as more of a blessing and appreciate that their small town has remained unchanged in an era when everywhere else seems to be growing exponentially. The Inner Banks proved to be one of the most interesting landscapes to drive through. Vast stretches of wetlands and brackish water occupy a region that was home to the original American colony, Jamestown, way back in 1607. Considering how much land the United States has developed since Colonial times, it is hard not to notice that most of this area remains undeveloped.

Jockey’s Ridge

The first attraction I visited was Jockey’s Ridge State Park, a quick stop just north of the high-rise bridge. The stop proved to be well worth at least a quick look. A short walk through a forested trail opens up to a vast expanse of yellow sand dunes that extend as far as the eye can see in every direction. I have some great memories from when I was eight years old of tumbling down these dunes like a rolling log, laughing hysterically as I did so and boundlessly crawling my way up to the top for more.

Sand dunes lightly covered with vegetation at Jockey's Ridge State Park.

Jockey's Ridge State Park. Photo courtesy of pxfuel

All of this open space and an ample amount of wind make this a great place to fly kites, which you will probably see on any given day here. After building the world's first flying contraption (which was actually more like a glider), the Wright brothers took advantage of the perfect kite-flying conditions here in addition to the soft sand that could break their fall in the event of a crash, and they successfully performed the first manned flight in an airplane in 1903.

As I headed south toward my campsite I stopped to watch the acrobatics of windsurfers and kiteboarders playing and performing at various beaches along the way. While my hopes of surfing waves on the coastal side were blown away by the strong winds, I was happy to see an abundance of outdoor enthusiasts using these winds to their advantage.

Two windsurfers battle against big waves.

Photo by Daniel Stenholm

Frisco

I spent two nights at the Frisco campground which afforded me a much-needed respite from the heavy winds that were bombarding the islands while I was there. My campsite was protected by lots of trees, providing shade and some great places to set up my hammock.

I learned that the shoreline of the campsite (on the sound side of the island) is the perfect location to learn how to windsurf or kiteboard. The water in this particular part of the sound is shallow enough to stand in for miles. The shallow depth allows the sun to warm this area of water which also makes the conditions even more ideal for beginners.

Photo by Alex Dolan

Also located in Frisco is a one-of-a-kind UFO. Once it landed here years ago, all kinds of interesting, odd, and all-around quirky artifacts began accumulating around the spacecraft. The attraction is roadside and if you are brave enough to peek inside the windows, you can get a glimpse of what an average disco alien’s living room looks like. It is an oddity of an attraction, but well worth the stop if you happen to be traveling through the sleepy town of Frisco.

Maritime History

Image of the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse from the white-picket-fence-lined path in front of it.

The Ocracoke Island Lighthouse. Photo by Alex Dolan

If you enjoy historical sites, the Outer Banks is an ideal vacation destination. Lighthouses, maritime museums, and the lore of the Atlantic’s graveyard create a cacophony of historical lessons. Thousands of sunken ships and submarines have been identified on the coast of the Outer Banks, dating from the Colonial explorers, through both World Wars, and into the present day. The narrow inlets of the Outer Banks made treacherous conditions for even the most experienced seamen, and they also provided great hiding spots for colonial pirates to hide from the law and stalk prey.

Ferry Ride

I am always looking forward to the portion of a long road trip adventure that includes a ferry ride. Maybe it’s the excitement of driving my vehicle onto a large boat that is going to float me across a large passage. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t have to sit in the driver’s seat, but instead stretch my legs and enjoy the view while the captain navigates. Maybe it’s the thrill of spotting dolphins in the sound or watching ocean birds fly in the wake of the ferry. Whatever it is, I highly recommend working a ferry ride into any Outer Banks adventure that you may be planning.

On this particular portion of my journey, I was venturing back to the mainland across the Pamlico Sound, the vastness of which is much more impressive in person than it appears on the map.

A view of the quaint shelter of the cabin as I journey from Ocracoke (in the southern Outer Banks) to Swan Quarter (among the Inner Banks). Photo by Alex Dolan

Sit back, relax and enjoy the view from the comfort of the cabin inside the ferry while the captain navigates this portion of your journey.

At the end of my journey, I thought about how the Outer Banks met my expectations but also provided so much more than I was really expecting to see. The people were friendly and laid back. And above all, I found that nature is still quite abundant in a place that I had thought of largely as a tourist’s hot spot. If you make the trip yourself, I would encourage you to get as much variety as you can in your experiences and make a point to notice the small nuances of inhabiting a small island off the coast of North Carolina.

If you are planning a trip to the Outer Banks or if you’ve already been and you want to tell me about your own adventure, feel free to shoot me a message. I would love to chat about your experiences or your adventure plans. Just click on my expert profile below to get connected with me directly. Remember to keep your environmental impact low and your stoke levels high!

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I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time, and I've spent countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element. I love moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. ​ I have also toured the San Juan Islands via...

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