I’ve been wanting to check out the famed OBX since I moved to North Carolina last year, but a conversation with friends made me think I would have to wait until next summer to visit. I was happy to discover (and you will be, too!) that the Outer Banks in the winter are just as magical as they are when the tourist hordes start to descend in June.
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“We should rent a beach house in the Outer Banks with the whole gang!”
It’s Saturday night in early November and the “whole gang” is out to dinner. I’m never one to turn down an adventure of any sort, so naturally I’m the first one to enlist. “When? I’m free any time.”
“Oh, well, not until late spring or early summer. Everything closes in the winter.”
“Everything. I don’t think you can even get to the Outer Banks in the winter.”
I can’t really fault my friend for thinking so, because it’s a common misconception. Most people who visit the Outer Banks only do so in the summer, because who takes a beach holiday at any other time of year?
People who love to travel without crowds, that’s who.
I had the opportunity to visit the Outer Banks in January and I was very pleased to discover that, contrary to popular belief, the entire place wasn’t boarded up and deserted. I had a fantastic time, and came home with a list of 10 awesome things that you can do in the Outer Banks in the winter:
- Taste some killer “Kill Devil” rum at Outer Banks Distilling. This was the absolute highlight of my trip, and I came home with a new favorite rum. And a box of rum balls that barely made it through the night, but let’s not talk about that. The guys who run the place (the first and only legal distillery in the Outer Banks) are absolute experts at what they do, and you’ll come away from a tour knowing more than you ever thought possible about how to make rum. As a bonus, they’re as funny and passionate about their craft as they are knowledgeable. And did I mention the rum balls??
- Explore isolated stretches of beach in search of wild horses. If you don’t have your own 4×4 vehicle, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund offers year-round tours. If you haven’t added this to your bucket list yet, you will after reading about the conservation efforts that have gone into protecting these beautiful creatures from human encroachment and activity. These horses are descended from the Mustangs brought here by Spanish explorers, and are severely endangered.
- Horseback riding on the beach, Hatteras Island. I know, you’re bummed you can’t pet the wild horses in Corolla. Me, too. Here’s the next best thing, though. Hatteras Island Horseback Riding offers year round beach rides. Time it right and you may just have the whole beach to yourself.
- Hike the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Guided informative hikes are offered year round, so you can learn all about the fascinating things that lie under the dune, having been swallowed over the years by the shifting sands.
- Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Educational programs are offered throughout the year at random times, but even if your visit doesn’t coincide with a ranger-led program, you’ll still get fantastic views and a great place to contemplate how two engineers from Ohio came to the beach and taught themselves how to fly.
- Bird watching at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. 90 minute guided walks are offered year round if you’d like to learn about the nearly 400 species of birds who make this refuge home for all or part of the year. You can also wander the 13 mile long sanctuary on your own, keeping an eye out for endangered creatures like the red wolf and the loggerhead sea turtle.
- Have breakfast with stingrays or make lunch for an otter. The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is open year-round for regular visits and special programs. Bonus: they offer free admission on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
- Winter Lights at Elizabethan Gardens. Maybe the only good thing about how early it gets dark in the winter: you don’t have to wait as long to head over to this locals-favorite annual spectacle in Manteo and take a stroll through a glittering winter wonderland.
- Take a quick trip to England without ever leaving the OBX. In the center of Ocracoke island is a small plot of land considered to be British soil, as it’s perpetually leased to the British Commonwealth. Why? Because it contains the bodies of four British sailors killed off the Carolina coast in WWII. The entire crew of the HMT Bedfordshire died in the attack, but the bodies of the other 33 men were lost at sea.
- The Frisco Native American Museum. We spend a lot of time talking about the lost Roanoke colonists, but the Native American tribes inhabiting the Outer Banks already had a thriving society when the English arrived. This small but impressively designed and lovingly curated Hatteras Island museum is open year round (limited hours in winter so call ahead). A 70+ year labor of love, the museum contains thousands of artifacts the founder has collected throughout his life.
Enjoy your winter vacation in the OBX! What else do you enjoy doing in the Outer Banks in the winter? I’m sure there are lots of other activities I missed- tell me about them in the comments!
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