Best Outer Banks Beaches

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Best Beaches in Outer Banks, North Carolina

The Outer Banks is a barrier island chain located off the east coast of the United States. It is a popular tourist destination for family vacations known for its beautiful beaches, historic sites, and outdoor activities. There are many beach towns along the Outer Banks, each with its own unique character and amenities.

The Outer Banks is home to several great beaches, receiving many accolades for having the best beaches in the U.S.  Hatteras Island beaches consistently appear in Dr. Beach Top Ten beaches in the U.S.  Continue reading to learn more about the Outer Banks and which beaches are best for you.

What is the Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks is a collection of barrier islands along the East Coast of the United States, consisting of a 120-mile collection of barrier islands.  The Outer Banks is a popular family vacation spot known for its excellent beaches.  The Outer Banks generally falls into 2 primary land masses:

  • Dare Mainland - The northern barrier island more than 50 miles long.  Most of this Outer Banks barrier island is heavily developed.
  • Hatteras Island - The southern 50-mile long barrier island consisting of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a popular tourist destination for family vacations which is easily accessed by bridge.  Hatteras Island is less congested and generally less expensive to stay compared to the Dare Mainland.

What is Roanoke Island?

There are other Outer Banks islands such as Roanoke Island and you might also want to visit the town of Manteo, but there are no ocean beaches on Roanoke Island.  Dare Mainland and Hatteras Island are the largest beach destinations for family vacations in the Outer Banks.

Outer Banks Barrier Islands

What island should you stay on in the Outer Banks?

Both sections of the Outer Banks have beautiful beaches, historic sites and a family-friendly atmosphere.  Each has its own set of unique memorials and historic sites which can be enjoyed by travelers staying in either section of the Outer Banks. You will find Oceanfront and Soundfront OBX vacation rentals in all of these towns, as well as several hotels.  The Outer Banks is also home to several well-known lighthouses.

Outer Banks Area Pros Cons

Dare Mainland

(Carova, Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head)

More dining options, shops and activities More crowded, expensive, traffic & noise
Less natural beauty
Cooler waters

Hatteras Island

(Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras)

Less crowded, less expensive
More natural beauty, more remote & peaceful
Warmer waters
Fewer nightlife and dining options

Map of the Outer Banks

Outer Banks Map
Map of the Outer Banks

Outer Banks Land Development

Even though Hatteras Island is home to numerous luxury vacation homes, shopping centers, restaurants and activities, eighty-eight percent of Hatteras Island is federal and state parks and wetlands.  This means there will always be large sections of undeveloped land on Hatteras Island, less crowds and more space to relax and enjoy for travelers and vacationers.

Outer Banks Uninhabited Islands

There are other Outer Banks islands including Portsmouth Island, Cape Lookout National Seashore, etc - but these islands are mostly uninhabited and are not easily accessed.  A boat or ferry is needed to enter these islands.

Outer Banks Inhabited Islands

Additional Outer Banks islands to the South include Ocracoke Island, Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle.  The portions of these Outer Banks barrier islands not owned by the National Park Service are heavily developed.

How do you access the Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks is easily accessible by multiple bridges as well as vehicle ferries.  The northern 2.5-mile Wright Memorial Bridge drops you off the Dare Mainland in Kitty Hawk. 

The 5.2-mile Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge is the longest bridge in North Carolina which connects the Inner Banks to the Outer Banks.  From there, travelers take the Washington Baum Bridge to Nags Head.  The recently built 2.8-mile Marc Masnight Bridge then connects the Dare Mainland to Hatteras Island.

The Jug Handle Bridge also opened in 2022 for better access to and from Hatteras Island.  In that same year, faster-moving express passenger ferries carrying up to 129 passengers quickly transport you to and from Ocracoke Island in about an hour.

While many visitors choose to stay on Ocracoke Island, the southern-most part of the Outer Banks, other travelers take a day-trip to Ocracoke via one of the vehicle or passenger ferries while staying on Hatteras Island.

Should I Stay on the Soundfront or Oceanfront at the Outer Banks?

There are advantages to both soundfront and oceanfront, depending on your needs and who is in your group when vacationing at the Outer Banks.  Here are several things to consider:

Are soundfront beaches better than oceanfront beaches?

If you stay in a soundfront home with a beach, it will provide many of the same benefits as an oceanfront beach such as swimming and sunbathing on the beach.  The primary difference is soundfront beaches are often private for the home you are staying in and less crowded than ocean beaches.

Is sound water calmer than ocean water?

While the water can be enjoyed in both the sound and the ocean, ocean water is usually rougher than sound water and has larger waves.  Calmer sound water is often preferred by young children and especially their parents, as well as older or disabled adults. 

Is sound water warmer than ocean water?

Sound water is typically warmer than ocean water, which can be a noticeable difference year round but especially in spring and fall weeks when those few extra degrees can make a big difference when you are trying to enjoy the water.

Is sound water shallower than ocean water?

Yes, the sound in the Outer Banks is typically shallower than the ocean, making it preferable for kids & many adults.  Sound water can often be 1 to 3 feet deep even when going out over 1,000 yards, perfect for those who want to leisurely enjoy the water as well as windsports enthusiasts.  This makes wading and swimming in the sound easier and more relaxing compared to the ocean.

In the ocean, you typically must swim behind breaking waves to reach calmer water.  This calmer water is usually deeper water where you might not be able to stand and must tread water.  For kite boarders, wind surfers, kite foilers and the like, shallower sound water makes it easier to get back up if you fall in the water.  There's no need to tread water in the sound, simply stand up and get back on the board.

Can you fish in the sound at the Outer Banks?

Yes, the Pamlico Sound is known as the fishing gem of North Carolina!  You'll find some of the world's largest Red Drum in the Pamlico Sound.  From June to August, the Pamlico Sound is home to a huge migration of Tarpon which reach over 100 pounds.  Flounder is another fish you can catch in these waters, in addition to Sheepshead and Mullet.

Can you fish in the ocean at the Outer Banks?

Absolutely.  Fishing in the ocean at the Outer Banks is allowed with a license and you can catch Bluefish, Croaker, Flounder, Red Drum, Mackerel, Trout, and Sea Mullet.  You can catch fish off the surf, one of the piers, or by private boat or charter.

Can you build sand castles on a soundfront beach?

If you stay at a home with a soundfront beach, then yes you can!  Soundfront homes can be the perfect place for playing in the sand and constructing your next sand castle.  Keep in mind: not all soundfront homes are created equal and many soundfront homes don't have sandy beaches, so make sure you book a soundfront home with a sandy beach like Seas the Breeze in Avon, NC.

Can you boogie board and skimboard in the Outer Banks?

Yes, the ocean at the Outer Banks is the perfect place for boogie boarding, body boarding, and skimboarding.  You can bring your own board or buy/rent one at one of the many nearby shops.  Find the right size board based on your height & weight and have at it!

Body board size guide
Body board size guide

Can you access the ocean from a soundfront home?

If you stay in a soundfront home, you get direct sound access and also the ability to visit nearby public ocean beaches.  The inverse doesn't usually apply - if you stay in an oceanfront home it can be difficult to access the soundfront since it is typically privately owned.  If you seek the warmer, calmer waters of the sound then you might want to opt for a soundfront vacation rental.

Beach Location Benefits
Ocean Beaches
  • Better for surfing, body (boogie) boarding, skimboarding, etc
  • Larger beaches
  • Deeper water for experienced swimmers
  • More challenging windsports for advanced windsports enthusiasts
  • Breathtaking sunrise views
Sound Beaches
  • Quieter and less crowded than ocean beaches
  • Preferred by young children, elderly and disabled persons
  • Calmer water is better for waders who don't like rough waves
  • Shallower water better for beginner & intermediate kite boarders, wind surfers, kite foilers, etc
  • Typically warmer than ocean water Breathtaking sunset views

Hatteras vs Hatteras Island

Many visitors to the Outer Banks confuse Hatteras with Hatteras Island.  Hatteras is a town near the southern tip of Hatteras Island, also known as Hatteras Village.  Hatteras Island is a 50-mile long island consisting of Waves, Avon, Hatteras Village and other small towns.

Hatteras Island wind surfer and kite boarder
Wind surfer and kite boarder in Avon, NC

Outer Banks Windsports Activities

The Outer Banks is known for being the best place for kite boarding and wind surfing on the east coast of the United States, as well as other wind-sports and water-sports.  The most popular Outer Banks kite boarding location is Kite Point.  There are also many other popular activities for visitors the enjoy in the Outer Banks including many dog friendly activities, museums, lighthouses, hiking trails, watersports, and more.

Outer Banks Conclusion

The Outer Banks is a beautiful and diverse destination with something to offer everyone. Whether you're looking for adventure, fine dining, history, nature, or just a relaxing beach vacation, you're sure to find it on the Outer Banks.