Welcome to another installment of our “Trail Town” series spotlighting the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Contributions by Stephanie Hall, Senior Content Coordinator from The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. Photos: The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a barrier island lined with quaint towns and sleepy fishing villages connected by walkways and trails, each wonderfully weather worn to a varying degree. Even spanning hundreds of years and despite millions of visitors, each town retains its own individual character. To the north, Duck and Southern Shores are the newest communities on the Outer Banks (OBX), populated by services of all kinds and beautiful vacation homes. Centrally located, the towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head are more populated, especially in the summer, with plenty of locally owned restaurants, bars and beach shops. And then to the south, on Hatteras Island, a bevy of neatly isolated towns nestled right along the ocean. To the west, you can dive back in time to historical Manteo on Roanoke Island along with other small towns that comprise Dare Mainland.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina is often overlooked as a place for great trail running. While we do not have mountains to climb, we have some of the tallest sand dunes on the east coast and some of the best hidden running trails too.
Heading to the southern Outer Banks, just past the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, you’ll find Buxton Woods. This is a 1,007 acre expanse of maritime forest perfect for nature lovers and trail runners of all ages. Many white-tailed deer call this area home, don’t be surprised if you see them in broad daylight while running the trails. For a change of scenery, run along the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse grounds while you’re there or drive a bit farther down Hatteras Island and follow the Sea Breeze Trail through the Hatteras Village Park. This is a good one for young kids who can’t run long distances, and the elevated boardwalk provides a good perspective on waterfront canal living.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is known for having the tallest sand dunes on the east coast. What most folks don’t know is that this state park also has running trails. These paths lead through the dunes, opening up to the sound, with markers and info panels along the way describing the unique ecosystem. The trails have spectacular views along the way, making you feel like you are on top of the world! Only a short drive south is the beautiful Bodie Island Lighthouse with a boardwalk and surrounding walkable land. It’s also located across from Coquina Beach Access, a National Park Service beach and perfect stop to refresh and fill up those water bottles.
Some of the best trail running can be found at Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. Running trails are open from dawn to dusk year-round and offer great views of sand dunes, ponds, marshes and history. The Roanoke Trail is a local favorite, consisting of a short 1.5 mile round trip. This trail leads you through the woods, past the old Tillett homestead, to the sound. Just before arriving there, you’ll find a wooden walkway with benches…a convenient resting place to sit and watch wildlife or the afternoon sunset over the reeds. This trail is dog and kid friendly too.
Find your way over to Run Hill in Kill Devil Hills, for a walk through sand dunes that mirror Jockey’s Ridge State Park. These dunes are on the northern border of Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve and can be accessed behind First Flight Elementary School. At the top of these natural dunes you’ll find gorgeous views of the sound to the east and the Wright Brothers National Memorial to the North. Don’t be fooled though, the water is farther than it seems. There’s no trail to follow here, just let your feet be your guide as you discover untouched sand dunes, much like the way Big Kill Devil Hill looked when the Wright Brothers first learned to fly.
To the north along Bay Drive in Kill Devil Hills, you can find numerous public boardwalks, gazebos and newly constructed pedestrian sidewalks. You can find a new connector trail at the Dare County Park in the Town of Kitty Hawk. The connector trail provides access to a 1.8 mile nature trail in the Kitty Hawks Wood Reserve known as the Birch Lane Trail. The connector trail was constructed by LSI Marine Construction and was 100% funded with grants received through the State of North Carolina and Dare County Tourism Board.
Keep heading north to set foot on the popular Duck Boardwalk, spanning nearly a mile with 11 acres of sound-front views.
Parking and Transit
Getting to and around the Outer Banks is easy. OBX is accessible from Norfolk International Airport (82 miles north), Raleigh Durham International Airport (192 miles west), or Coastal Carolina Airport (138 miles southwest). Expect a scenic drive in and one filled with anticipation. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, approach the islands from the south and travel in on one of the car ferries. The travel time is a bit longer, but sure to make a memory. Once you’re on the islands, a couple of roads traverse north to south making it almost impossible to lose your way. You can find a full list of beach and sound accesses to park and explore nearby trails. The open spaces and endless possibilities you love during the summer are pretty great year-round! Incredible events, smaller crowds and lower prices are a few reasons to think about coming to the OBX in fall, spring or winter. Not to mention, a whole lot less traffic.
Our locals and visitors are outdoor lovers. We have some of the best beaches for running that are long, wide, and have firm, packed sand. Walkways, paths, sandy trails can connect you to wildlife, history, and undiscovered adventures. Many of our trails are kid-friendly too! Whether you are a trail runner or looking for a quiet, easy stroll along the shore, we have the perfect trail for you and your closest friends and family.
These islands each have their own history, geographical features and culture creating three different and exciting spots. The Northern Beaches is filled with towns loaded with shopping, restaurants, plenty of beach space and activity. And with names you probably recognize – Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk to name a few. Roanoke Island is quieter, pedestrian friendly with a deep history dating back to the first English colony. Hatteras is even quieter still, with vast stretches of land devoted to sand dunes and sea oats. It feels a world away, relaxed for travelers looking for a little solitude. Discover the blog post on “Islands of the Outer Banks: Which One Is Right For You?”
Just about everyone loves a great cup of coffee and a scrumptious breakfast. Whether you crave pancakes or eggs benedict paired with a cappuccino or an exotic tea, these islands have it all. Fuel up on a mouth-watering morning meal and cup of joe, turn your day into an Outer Banks day. Get up sleepy trail runner and get going! Here are a few of our local favorites: Treehouse Coffee Co. in Duck, Ashley’s Espresso Parlour in Kill Devil Hills, Front Porch Cafe in Nags Head, Charis Coffee Co. in Manteo, or Uglie Mugs in Avon.
Food and Beer
Probably as legendary as our beaches are the bistros, beach dives, and seafood shacks that dot the barrier islands. By far, most of our restaurants and cafes can only be found on the OBX, and we think that’s a good thing. What that gets you is personal attention to detail and family-run businesses working hard to keep you safe like they would their own. The industry is taking on additional best practices in the coronavirus era, adding to an already impeccable reputation.
We’ll go ahead and assume that at some point, you’re going to want some seafood and we have the best in North Carolina (and beyond). Generations of fishermen work hard in these waters to pull in native green and brown shrimp, blue crabs and tuna that will tempt your tummy. Just about all our seafood restaurants buy fresh catch like this- clams, flounder, scallops and more – right from the docks. We produce more wild-caught seafood on the Outer Banks than anywhere else in the state. At some point, you may want to trade food with fins for something more land-loving. Our chefs can take on your cravings, from the always a crowd favorite pizza to aged beef and pulled pork barbecue. Whether you’re in search of gluten-free, vegan or looking for culture-focused and kid-friendly, the Outer Banks restaurant scene speaks your language.
For those who love the finer tastes in life, we’ve developed an OBX Beer, Wine, & Spirits Trail stretching from our Northern Beaches, to Roanoke Island & Dare Mainland, and south to Hatteras Island. This tasty trek will help you experience the rich, local tradition of beer, wine, and spirits.
Other than outerbanks.org, our Welcome Centers are some of the best places for visitors to find local resources.
- Aycock Brown Welcome Center – Located on the bypass at Milepost 1 in Kitty Hawk (just pass the Home Depot), and operated by The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, the center provides information on attractions, events and directions.
- Sarah Owens Welcome Center – Operated by The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, this conveniently located center provides information on attractions, events and directions. The center also offers an accommodations reservation center, rest rooms, public phones, and picnic area. One Visitors Center Circle, Manteo. (877) 629-4386 or (252) 473-2138.
- Whalebone Welcome Center – Operated by The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, the center provides information on attractions, events and directions. The center also offers rest rooms, public phones and picnic area. Located on your right as you head down Highway 12 on Cape Hatteras National Park Road in Nags Head.
- U.S. Weather Bureau Station/Hatteras Welcome Center – Operated by The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, the center provides information on attractions, events and directions. Welcome center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March to December. The center, built in 1901, housed in the first U.S. Weather Bureau Station. The station played a key role in the nation’s developing meteorological network, and endured some of the worst storms of the 20th century until decommissioned in 1946.
Trail Sharing and Maintenance
The Outer Banks of North Carolina is a different kind of place in part because of its unique ties to nature. Two ocean currents converging, dynamic barrier islands dancing with the waves of the Atlantic. Did you know half of Dare County is water? Or that around 80% of the land within the County cannot be developed because it belongs to a National or State park, preserve or wildlife refuge? Even with these assurances, we’re working hard with our local businesses, tourists, National Park Service, and many other entities to ensure the Outer Banks remains a place dedicated to sustainable tourism and natural oceanside beauty.
As visitation increases, so does the impact of foot, bike, and vehicle traffic on the OBX. Our coast’s public lands are a great resource for trail running, wildlife viewing, fishing, relaxing and so much more. Because of this, we want to ensure that our land and natural resources are protected and we encourage our visitors and locals to practice leaving no trace. Check out 7 Leave No Trace Principles on the OBX.
The Outer Banks celebrates everything from cultural heritage to local art, fresh seafood to craft beer, films to literature. Running events are just one of many exciting activities to make your vacation here special. OBX Running Company hosts weekly organized 5k road racing and multi-sport events. Outer Banks Brewing Station puts on special holiday running events, visit their website for the most up to date race information. During normal years, Outer Banks Sporting Events hosts the OBX Marathon in November, Flying Pirate Half Marathon in April, including the OBX Triathlon in September. You can find a full list of sporting events on our website at outerbanks.org/events.
[Editor’s Note: Did you know the American Trail Running Association race calendar has dozens of beach runs? Check em out! Looking to venture beyond OBX? See our trail race calendar of all North Carolina events.]