Outer Banks National Scenic Byway

Details

  • DesignationNational Scenic Byway (2009)
  • Intrinsic QualitiesCultural
  • LocationNC
  • Length137 miles
Byway Visitor Information
Outer Banks National Scenic Byway
Statewide Byway Partners
North Carolina Department of Transportation
Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina
This “life-saving station
Public domain. Photo

Overview

The Outer Banks National Scenic Byway traverses one of the nation’s great wild and scenic coastal landscapes encompassing the unique maritime culture of 21 coastal villages.

The Byway follows the North Carolina coastline as it juts east into the Atlantic Ocean. The Byway stretches over 138 driving miles and 25 ferry-riding miles along barrier islands, Pamlico Sound and two inlets and through coastal villages.


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Story of the Byway

Leave the mainland behind and come to the most romantic byway in North Carolina -- the Outer Banks Scenic Byway of the barrier islands. Tour its beautiful beaches, thriving wildlife preserves, historic towns, and well-known lighthouses.

Centered around a rich village culture, the Outer Banks Scenic Byway is a must for any traveler looking to escape to a time of front porch talks and simple maritime living. Explore the Down East community, an up-close look at what life was like before our hectic schedules and tourist-driven cities. The byway’s Down East showcases Outer Banks maritime culture with little impact from current-day tourism. A heritage center built by Down East communities reinforces an experience of the place with stories, objects, and exhibits. The pronounced flare to the bow of a Harkers Island fishing vessel is a centuries-old boatbuilding tradition unique to regional waters. North Carolina Folk Heritage Awards in recent years have recognized a boat builder, a decoy carver, and a model boat maker -- all from Down East.

Enjoy grand scenic views of barrier islands bracketed by the Atlantic Ocean and an estuarine system of shallow, fertile sounds on North Carolina’s Outer Banks Scenic Byway. On half of the byway’s 137.8 land miles, visitors view the corridor’s wild side of dunes, marsh, and water in the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores and two national wildlife refuges, Pea Island and Cedar Island. These national seashores and refuges mark the natural element along the byway as special places with beaches, tidal flats, maritime forests, and abundant marine, avian, and terrestrial wildlife.

On the byway’s Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, a “beach vacation” landscape with outstanding recreation marks eight villages surrounded by national seashore. Historic settlement patterns are visible in ancient live oaks, harbors, old houses, family cemeteries, simple churches, family stores, fish houses, and 19th-century life-saving stations. On Ocracoke and in Down East you’ll hear at least two variations of a “brogue” or dialect, with echoes of 17th- and early 18th-century English speech patterns.

Outer Banks living demands vital knowledge of wildlife, waters, and weather. That knowledge is expressed in rich traditions, building and settlement patterns, occupations, tales, songs, crafts, gardens, remedies, recipes, community events, and place names. Fishing for a living and hunting are keys to this culture that clings to the coastal edge. Working watermen ply the region’s waters from backyard docks, marinas, and public harbors. Pound net stakes are everywhere in the sounds. Waterfowl hunters scan the sky from blinds in marshes and on far-from-land shallow waters and reefs of the sounds.

That village culture is intimately linked to striking natural features and nationally significant historic places along the byway corridor. A collection of the nation’s earliest civil works includes four historic lighthouses and eight early U.S. Life-Saving Service or U.S. Coast Guard stations. Villages developed around lighthouses and life-saving stations where byway heroes are honored. Roadless Cape Lookout National Seashore preserves two uninhabited historic villages to tell the stories of long-ago villages. One is near the diamond-painted Cape Lookout Lighthouse (1859). The other, Portsmouth, preserves life-saving service memories and Revolutionary War shipping stories. Explore these remnants of the past on your trip down the North Carolina coast.

Driving Directions

The byway begins at the intersection of NC-12 and US-64 at the northern end of the Outer Banks. Head south on NC 12/Cape Hatteras National Park Road to Hatteras. Stay on NC 12 through the National Park, over Oregon Inlet and onto Hatteras Island, and through several villages (including Rodanthe, Avon and Buxton) to the end of the road in Hatteras. Get onto the Hatteras Ocracoke ferry and go to Ocracoke Island. Go southwest on NC 12 to Ocracoke. Several ferry routes depart from Ocracoke. Get onto the Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferry to continue your byway trip. On Cedar Island, continue south on NC 12. At the junction of Cedar Island Rd. and Old Cedar Island Rd., the byway branches. For the primary byway route through Atlantic and Sealevel villages, Turn southeast (left) onto NC-1387 (Old Cedar Island Road.) Proceed to the village of Atlantic. In Atlantic, turn right at NC-1378 onto Shell Rd/US-70. Stay on US-70 by turning left onto NC-1380/School Dr. Turn left at Seashore Dr/US-70, and proceed to the end of the road at Atlantic Harbor. Note: a drawbridge once crossed the harbor at this location and the road can sometimes still appear as a crossing in various older mapping. Make a U-turn at Atlantic Harbor, and retrace your route to School Drive. Continue straight on Seashore Dr/US-70 out of Atlantic and into the village of Sea Level. Continue on US-70 through Sea Level. Rejoin the main byway route at NC-12 north of Sealevel. Otherwise, Continue straight on NC-12 (Cedar Island Road.) NC-12 meets US-70 at Nelson Bay. Continue following US-70 around Nelson Bay and through Stacy, Davis and Williston to Smyrna. The byway again branches at the junction of US-70 and Marshalberg Rd/NC-1347 in Smyrna. For the Marshallberg/Harkers Island Route, Turn south on NC-1347 to the end of the road at Marshallberg's Park. Turn around and retrace your route north on Marshallberg Rd/NC-1347. Turn left at NC-1346/Star Church Rd. Turn left at Gloucester Rd/NC-1343/Pigott Rd and continue into the village of Gloucester. Continue on NC-1343/Pigott Rd. as it turns sharply north. At NC-1335/Straits Rd, turn west to head toward Harkers Island through the village of Straits. Turn east to follow NC-1335/Island Road through the village of Harkers Island to the easternmost point of Harkers Island and the Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center parking lot. Turn around and retrace your route on NC-1335 back through Harkers Island and Straits. This time in Gloucester, turn left (north) onto NC-1332 (Harkers Island Road) to a stop sign at US-70. Otherwise, Turn right (west) to stay on US-70. Continue on US-70 to the junction with NC-1332 (Harkers Island Road.) Continue through Otway and Bettie and across the North River to the byway's end at the intersection with NC-1300 (Merrimon Rd.)

Points of Interest

  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore

    The national seashore runs from Whalebone Junction to Ocracoke Inlet. This seashore is the nation’s first. It was authorized in 1937, established in 1953 and dedicated in 1958. Explore barrier island zones: beachfront and dune, vegetated sand flats and shrub thicket, maritime forest and marshes and sounds. Programs offered at visitor centers.

  • Bodie Island Lighthouse

    Encounter a verdant six-mile passage through the seashore to the Bodie Island Lighthouse, one of four along the Byway. This light, 156-feet tall, was turned on Oct. 1, 1872. The adjacent Lightkeepers’ Quarters serves as a small bookstore. Across NC 12 is Coquina Beach Day Use Area with bathhouse and parking area.

  • Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

    Driving through windswept Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge brings the natural world up close. The Byway flows through the refuge’s 13 wild miles. The refuge was established for migrating waterfowl and, throughout the year, hosts 365 bird species. Midway through the refuge is the visitor center. A hiking trail leads from the visitor center.

  • Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe

    Chicamacomico is one of the first life-saving stations built along the Outer Banks. It is the most complete site of remaining life-saving stations in North Carolina. The site contains 1874 and 1911 stations and outbuildings. The station anchors a small historic district that is National Register-eligible. The district illustrates village settlement around life-saving stations. Historic homes, a harbor and the village school house, now a community gathering place, can be easily viewed on a short walk.

  • Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

    In Buxton, the Cape Hatteras light, international icon of seafaring troubles, warns mariners of hazardous Diamond Shoals and the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Climb 269 cast iron steps to see the cape and its roiling shoals, to view a narrow barrier island, to look at the fishing fertile Pamlico Sound and to be amazed at Buxton Woods, a rare maritime forest. The lighthouse, the tallest masonry lighthouse in the United States, was built in 1870.

  • The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

    More than 2,000 shipwrecks sunk off the Coast of North Carolina in what’s called the Graveyard of the Atlantic. With all that history floating around, it was only natural to build a museum to honor and preserve the maritime culture of the Outer Banks. A state-of-the-art structure, the year round museum houses and displays artifacts, and presents a variety of exhibits and interprets the rich maritime culture that includes war, piracy, ghost ships and more. Artifacts include thoseex from the USS Monitor, which sank 16 miles off the Hatteras coast. The lobby features the stunning and original, 1854, First Order Lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

  • Ocracoke Island

    Ocracoke Island is often considered the gem of the Outer Banks. Accessible only by boat, this small island has been separated from the rest of the world for centuries, and as a result, has one of the most unique beach atmospheres found anywhere along the coastline. The four-square mile village is buffered by approximately 15 miles of undeveloped and rarely visited beaches, making the occasional visitor feel like they have their own private island to explore. Fishing, shelling and surfing are all exceptional here, and the town itself is a remarkable mixture of a touristy-beach town, a historic local community, and a laid-back coastal fishing village.

  • Core Sound Waterfowl Museum

    A visit to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center reveals details of the rich, less-visible culture that continues to shape and link Down East’s thirteen villages. Outdoors, the Jean Dale, a 1941 Harkers Island boat, awaits restoration. Indoors, village-designed exhibits offer visitors the chance to enjoy privately owned artifacts, memorabilia, models and photos, lovingly cared-for and carefully explained. A gift and book shop sells decoys and other local artworks. Nature trails centered on an ecologically rich freshwater pond are available. Willow Pond Nature Trail (.8 mi) and Soundside Loop Trail (.3 mi) are found on the side-by-side properties of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center and the Cape Lookout National Seashore Harkers Island Visitor Center.

Itinerary

  • The Outer Banks Scenic Byway from Bodie Lighthouse to Buxton

    At Whalebone Junction, enter the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the first nation’s first national seashore. Encounter a verdant six-mile passage through the seashore to the Bodie Island Lighthouse, one of four along the Byway. This light, 156-feet tall, was turned on Oct. 1, 1872. The adjacent Lightkeepers’ Quarters serves as a small bookstore. Across NC 12 is Coquina Beach Day Use Area with a bathhouse and parking area.

    At the end of Bodie Island find the Oregon Inlet Campground and Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, home to a large charter boat fishing fleet. An active U.S. Coast Guard Station is beside the fishing center. The majestic Herbert C. Bonner Bridge rises above turbulent Oregon Inlet and affords a long view down Hatteras Island. Marvel at the construction of a new bridge spanning the inlet, which was opened by a hurricane in 1846. Before 1963, people used ferries to cross the inlet.

    Driving through windswept Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge brings the natural world up close. The Byway flows through the refuge’s 13 wild miles. The refuge was established for migrating waterfowl and, throughout the year, hosts 365 bird species. Midway through the refuge is the visitor center. A hiking trail leads from the visitor center.

    Continue south on North Carolina Route 12 to Rodanthe. Chicamacomico is one of the first life-saving stations built along the Outer Banks. It is the most complete site of remaining life-saving stations in North Carolina. The site contains 1874 and 1911 stations and outbuildings. The station anchors a small historic district that is National Register-eligible. The district illustrates village settlement around life-saving stations. Historic homes, a harbor and the village school house, now a community gathering place, can be easily viewed on a short walk. The site is open from mid-April through the Friday after Thanksgiving and by appointment in the off-season.

    Salvo Day Use Area in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides Pamlico Sound access for swimming, kiteboarding and windsurfing. Between Salvo and Avon stretched a dozen miles of national seashore with ramps to access the ocean beaches and soundside locations.

    After an afternoon on the beach in Salvo, continue south to Buxton to spend the night.

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