Last Updated on November 26, 2022 by Maggie McKneely
Planning on visiting North Carolina’s Outer Banks in winter? Check out this guide for what to do during the offseason!
*This post contains affiliate links. That just means that if you happen to click on one of those links and end up making a purchase, I make a small commission (and you will have made my day!)
Guide to the Outer Banks in Winter Time
Ever since the days when gold-hungry pirates and intrepid explorers sailed the Atlantic, the Outer Banks have enchanted those who wander to its shores. The Outer Banks were the home the first attempted English settlement, as well as the headquarters for the notorious pirate Blackbeard. Wilbur and Orville Wright chose these sandy shores for their flight experiments, and the US government established the first national seashore here. Today, the narrow strip of land off of North Carolina’s eastern coast, commonly referred to by the acronym OBX, is one of the East Coast’s most popular beach destinations and one of the best places in the US to visit.
You won’t find any boardwalks here or bustling casinos along the 200 miles that make up the Outer Banks, no fairgrounds with Ferris wheels or nightlife of any kind. Instead, you’ll find wild horses roaming the northern beaches, ever-changing sand dunes, and a way of life that works at a much slower pace than the rest of the East Coast. The Outer Banks are for people looking to escape the normal craziness of life.
Despite its relative remoteness, East Coast beach-seekers have been flocking to the Outer Banks for generations, either for weekend getaways or season-long stays. My mom grew up spending her summers combing the beaches of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, long before there was a highway connecting the various islands. And although it’s much more developed these days, it’s still relatively peaceful and remote compared to other nearby beach destinations.
But summertime can be pricey – after all, this is a beach destination! If you want to save some money and really truly avoid any type of crowds, you should visit the Outer Banks in wintertime! My family has spent several Thanksgivings here and this year spent Christmas down there as well. Watching the sunrise over the ocean waves each morning with a cup of coffee and a comfy blanket is the perfect way to relax and recharge. And if you feel like venturing out of your cozy beachside cabin, there are tons of things to do on the Outer Banks in the winter.
What to do on the Outer Banks in Winter Time
One reason to visit the Outer Banks in winter is that there are some things that can only be done this time of year!
Winter Lights at Elizabethan Gardens
The Elizabethan Gardens are located just steps away from the original site of the first English settlement in America, the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island. The gardens simultaneously honor Roanoke Island’s Tudor-era roots while showcasing the best of Outer Banks flora and fauna.
While they’re open during the day year-round, they transform into a winter wonderland from November to January. During Winterlights, the gardens open up in the evening to welcome guests to a world of traditional holiday decor, festive foods, and radiant, fantastical light displays.
- Location:1411 National Park Drive, Manteo, NC 27954
- Admission: Adults $11, Youth (ages 6-17) $9, Child (5 and under) $6
- Hours: 6:00 PM-9:00PM
- Dates: Usually late-November to mid-January
- Go here for more info
Poulos Family Christmas Lights
The Poulos Family has been carrying on this Christmas tradition for over 40 years. Their decked-out home has been featured on HGTV and The Today Show. This is one Outer Banks winter activity the whole family will love!
- Location: 622 Ocean Acres Drive, Kill Devil Hills, 27948
- Dates: Thanksgiving evening – December 31
The Outer Banks have been the site of several world-changing events. These historical places are open year-round but are much less crowded during the offseason.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first-ever successful airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They chose the Outer Banks for their experiments because of its sand dunes, lack of trees and buildings, consistent winds, and isolation. Today, a memorial and museum are located at the spot that that historic flight took place. No visit to the Outer Banks is complete without learning about the world’s first flight.
If you’re in town on December 17th, the First Flight Society holds an annual celebration at the Memorial in honor of the Wright brothers’ successful first flight.
- Location: 1000 North Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948
- Admission: Adult: (16 years old+) $10, Child: $0
- Hours: 9 AM-5 PM every day except December 25th
- Go here for more info
The first English settlement in America wasn’t Jamestown; it was actually Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island. Fort Raleigh was founded on the Outer Banks in 1585. But when supply ships arrived in 1590, the Fort Raleigh colonists had disappeared. Historians today still don’t know for sure what happened to the “Lost Colony,” making the fate of those first colonists one of the greatest mysteries in American history. However, we do know where their settlement was. Today, it’s preserved by the National Park Service and makes for a fascinating visit for history buffs.
- Location:1500 Fort Raleigh Road, Manteo, NC 27954
- Admission: Free
- Hours: The Visitors’ Center is open daily 9 AM-5 PM; the grounds are open sunrise-sunset
- Go here for more info
Visit the Lighthouses
For centuries, the Outer Banks have been known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic; the ever-changing sand bars, shoals, and water patterns have led to more shipwrecks here than anywhere else in the world. Because of that, this shoreline is home to a high concentration of beautiful but life-saving lighthouses. Of the six OBX lighthouses, there are two you don’t want to miss.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The most famous OBX lighthouse, and one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the world, is the white and black striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. At 210ft, it’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the US and 2nd in the world, and it is still operational. While you can’t climb inside the lighthouse during the winter, the site is still open. This is definitely one of the best free things to do on the Outer Banks. Put this on your Outer Banks offseason itinerary to avoid the summer crowds!
- Location: 46375 Lighthouse Road, Cape Hatteras Light Station, Buxton, NC 27920
- Hours: The Visitors’ Center is open daily from 9 AM-5 PM, except for December 25th
- Admission: Free
- Go here for more info
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
On the opposite end of the Outer Banks from Cape Hatteras is the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, located in the town of Corolla. Built in 1875, this lighthouse looks distinctively different from the rest of its neighbors. It was left unpainted, so visitors can see the sheer amount of bricks it took to build the lighthouse. While the lighthouse itself is only open in the summer, the grounds are open year-round. It’s definitely a worthwhile field trip to take in the winter.
- Location:1101 Corolla Village Rd, Corolla, NC 27927
- Admission: Visiting the grounds is free
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
The Outer Banks is, first and foremost, a beach destination. And as such, no visit here is complete without enjoying the great outdoors, even in the wintertime!
Jockeys Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the tallest sand dunes on the Atlantic seaboard. From the top, you get a panoramic view of both the Roanoke Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can hike the dunes, fly kites, and even take hang-gliding lessons.
- Location: 300 W. Carolista Drive, Nags Head, NC 27959
- Hours: From November-February: 8 AM-6 PM (closed Christmas Day)
- Admission: Free
The Outer Banks is the birthplace of aviation, so it makes sense that you too should learn how to fly! Kitty Hawk Kites offers hang-gliding lessons year-round at Jockey’s Ridge.
- Each lesson is about 3 hours long and are offered from Beginner level to Advanced. Prices start at $99. Go here to purchase tickets.
Corolla Wild Horse Tours
The Outer Banks may be an odd place to find wild horses, but the herd of Colonial Spanish Mustangs has called this sandy coastline home for almost 500 years. They were brought here by Spanish explorers in the early 1500s but left behind when those explorers were chased out by Native Americans. Today, the herd is protected and managed by a nonprofit. Tourists can take 2-hour guided tours to see the horses in their natural beach habitat.
- Hours: Two tours are offered per day in the winter: 10:30 AM and 1 PM
- Price: $50
- Purchase tickets here
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
If you enjoy birding, then you need to head to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in Rodanthe. The refuge is home to over 400 different types of bird – in the winter, dozens of duck species and songbirds call the park home. Bird tours are conducted daily by volunteers.
- Location: Visitor’s Center: 1401 National Park Dr., Rodanthe, NC 27968
- Hours: Sunrise to sunset
- Admission: Free
Walk the Beaches
One of the things that makes visiting the Outer Banks in the winter so great is that it never gets too cold. Average daily temperatures range from 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. While you may not want to get in the water, that weather is perfect for walking on the beach, searching for seashells – sea glass, scotch bonnets, scallops, whelks, moon snails, and a variety of other shells can all be found on the Outer Banks beaches.
Related: Nearby Wilmington, NC has lots of fun things to do in the winter too!
Where to Stay
The heart of the Outer Banks are in the towns of Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills. This is where most of the shops and restaurants are and where you’ll most likely want to stay.
Corolla and Duck are known as the more exclusive towns on the Outer Banks. They are a little more remote and more expensive but not in the middle of nowhere. If you want to stay somewhere more upscale, you can look there.
Hatteras, Rodanthe, Avon, and Buxton are almost ghost towns in the winter. Unless you REALLY want to get away from it all, I don’t suggest staying in those towns.
Many people own oceanfront condos and rent them out via AirBnB when they themselves are not at the beach. We’ve stayed in some amazing places on the Outer Banks this way, so I definitely recommend AirBnB for the Outer Banks.
You can also find more traditional hotels and some cute B&Bs on Booking.com.
Like it? Pin it!
Such an informative blog, it looks beautiful here!
I like the recommendations that you’ve made. What a great place to visit.
I love the OBX! I have been visiting for the last 25+ years. I usually stay to the north but the last few times have been near Kitty Hawk.
What a detailed and comprehensive post! I love travelling in the winter as it is usually so much quieter and I don’t mind getting rugged up if i need to. There still seems like there is so much to do at the Outer Banks and beautiful at this time of year too.
What a great and informative post! I’ve only been to North Carolina once to Raleigh but I would love to go back and explore the Outer Banks. Can never see enough beaches and lighthouses! ?
Love this so much! I live in NC and I’ve never thought about all the cool things to do in the OBX in the winter! Most people only visit in the summer so I’m totally inspired to go check it out without all the tourists!
Outer Banks has been on my bucket list for a long time – serious! Now I am moving to NC from Arizona. I have to wait 2+ weeks to get into my new house and am thinking of doing a winter weekend in Feb here! Thanks for the tips – I always prefer the beach off-season and this year it is GOING to happen!
It looks like weissed one thing…the Pea Island National Refuge!
I never knew this even existed in North Carolina. Here I am trying to plan a trip to Asheville instead. But the outer banks look amazing!
If I were to visit Carolina, the Outer Banks would make my list as we prefer a quieter area rather than concrete jungles and casinos.I’d love to see the wild horses.
I never heard of the place but now I want to go, mainly to see the sunrise on the beach (I am total sucker for that) but also for the historical element with the Wright Brothers. Also I love taking photos of Lighthouses. Not sure why but the ones here look pretty. Would love to take a trip here when I eventually get to NC.
Some places have beautiful light in winter, more subtle and crisp than in summer, which is better for photos. The Outer Banks look like one of these places… Love the horses on the beach, what a great photo!
I had never thought of visiting the Outer Banks in winter. But lower crowds would certainly balance less desirable weather. We do love the lighthouses we find on the coast. I might not go hang gliding. But love to watch this in action. Long walks on the beach and sunsets will always draw me to water spots like this.
I never think to go to a place like The Outer Banks in the winter but it sounds like a wonderful place to visit no matter the season!!
I love the Outer Banks! My husband’s family has been going every year for ages. They used to always go in August, but when the kids grew up, they’ve changed it to September because the price is a fraction of the summer. Sadly, they’ve had to deal with hurricanes a few times though.
Wow – beautiful place, never been. Adding to my bucket list. I especially love the lighthouses.
I have been trying to plan a trip with my 13-year-old son and this may be a perfect idea. He loves planes, so a walk on the beach for me and a trip to see how flight started sounds ideal.
Looks like a lovely Winter holiday, with walks on the beach and visiting the lighthouses. Hang gliding lessons sounds like a fun activity and I would love seeing the Corolla beach horses too. Good to know you can book lovely Airbnb’s there.
I’ve never thought about staying on the beach during the winter holiday, but it sounds like the Outer Banks is a great option. The Christmas lights are gorgeous and I would love to explore the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
This sounds like a great weekend getaway with lots of unique history to check out. For Lighthouse buffs, it looks like the place to be. Most of us don’t think about beach holidays in the winter, so it’s nice to hear of things that are worth checking out at that time of year there.
Great post on the Outer Banks! I have always wanted to visit and hope to do so soon — maybe even in the winter, as you suggest! I love the personal touch at the beginning and the very well thought out and helpful comments for those who are looking for a great visit in the winter. You are answering our questions well — this is exactly what we need to know. Thank you so much!
North Carolina’s Outer Banks in winter really looks worth visiting with beautiful weather as most of the parts of the world are freezing. Wild Horses roaming freely on the beach really looks exotic.
This list is a great reminder that you not only can visit coastal towns on the off season but you can have a great time with some awesome activities for the whole family.
The Outer Banks look like such a peaceful place to visit. I’ve always wanted to see the wild horses there.