America's Scenic Byways

Outer Banks Scenic Byway

137.8 miles - 5.5 hours, including 3.5 hours on the two ferries

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. Travelers make plans to come back even as they leave.

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 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.

The Outer Banks Scenic Byway’s unique maritime culture references historic events with stories about piracy, war, shipwrecks, and hurricanes. Explore North Carolina today -- the coast is calling.