The main Outer Banks attraction: The BEACH! There are so many fun and relaxing ways to enjoy your beach time on the Outer Banks, and we’ve outlined some of our favorite activities below.
Beach Time On The Outer Banks
The main Outer Banks attraction: The BEACH!
So much makes the Outer Banks special, but miles and miles of pristine coastline are what brings visitors back year after year. There are so many fun and relaxing ways to enjoy your beach time on the Outer Banks, and we’ve outlined some of our favorite activities below.
Several different shells can be found on our shores, and the best time to look is low tide. Our beachcombing guide will help you identify your treasures from the sea.
Go for a long walk or beach run.
Hoping to fit in some exercise on vacation? Walking on sand is a workout! It can take more than twice the energy to walk or run on sand compared to hard surfaces. Plus, exercise with an ocean view isn’t so bad…
Catch the sunrise.
Set that alarm. We promise it’s worth it! Sunrises over the Atlantic are breathtaking. Plus, early mornings are one of the best times to spot pods of dolphins swimming parallel to the shoreline. (If you aren’t a morning person, sunset afterglows on the beach are truly beautiful too! Or you can catch the full sunset on the soundside. Check out our soundfront homes here.)
Go for a drive on the sand.
Most Outer Banks towns allow off-roading on the beach during certain times of the year. It’s a ton of fun to pack a lunch, some beach gear, and take a four-wheel-drive vehicle out to find the perfect spot to spend the day. Learn more about each town’s rules and off-road vehicle safety.
Have a beach bonfire.
Few things are more relaxing than the sound of a crackling fire next to waves lapping the shore. Beach fires are only allowed in Nags Head and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Learn more about the regulations and required permits.
Surf fishing from the beach is a pastime enjoyed by all ages. Learn more about the required fishing license and all the other ways to fish on the Outer Banks.
Build a castle.
Sandcastles are a classic beach day activity. Add some friendly competition to the mix by having a sandcastle-building contest with others in your vacation group! You don’t have to stick to castles – your imagination is the limit.
Take in a surfing lesson.
Surfing is a favorite local pastime, and there are great instructors on the Outer Banks ready to help you learn. No board? No problem – if the instructor doesn’t provide boards, they can be rented locally.
Give boogie boarding or skimboarding a try!
Boogie boards (also known as bodyboards) are great for riding shore break waves back to shore. Skimboards are used to glide on the water’s surface closer to shore. Boogie boarding tends to be the easier of the two. Both types of boards can be rented or purchased locally.
Free souvenirs from the sea! This guide provides images of shells and other items found on the beaches of Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head.
OBX Beachcombing & Shell Guide
Beachcombing is one of our favorite things to do.
Who doesn’t love free souvenirs from the sea? This guide provides images of shells and other items found on the beaches of Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head.
Where is the best place to find shells on the Outer Banks? Weather, currents, and our shoreline are constantly changing, so you never know quite where the best shell beds will be day-to-day. If you aren’t having luck at your nearest beach access, give a different one a try! There are many public beach accesses to choose from.
When is the best time to go shelling? Beachcombing is in-season all year round. If you’re an early riser, head to the shore for sunrise. Some great shells may have washed up overnight, plus there’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise over the Atlantic. (This is also a common time of day to spot dolphins swimming offshore!) It’s also helpful to follow the tides. Low tide is the ideal time to beachcomb, before the water rises to cover what the waves brought onto the sand.
Scotch Bonnets are the official North Carolina state seashell! The shell is grown by a type of sea snail and can be 2-4 inches on the longest side. They can be shades of brown, yellow, and orange.
Ocean Quahog shells are hinged clam shells, but it’s rare to find the two sides still attached once they wash up on the beach. These are thick shells that tend to have a white interior with a purple rim, but some have no purple coloring at all. The oldest living animal on the planet was a quahog at 507 years old!
Broken Pieces of Ocean Quahogs
When quahog shells break up into pieces, it can expose more of the purple coloring commonly found in the deeper layers of the shell. Over time these pieces become worn and smooth. White and purple quahog pieces were used by Native Americans to create wampum beads, which were used at currency.
Atlantic Giant Cockles
Cockles are radially-ribbed hinged clam shells, but it is uncommon to find the two sides still hinged together on Outer Banks beaches. Atlantic Giant Cockles range in size from about a half inch to six inches at their widest part. They are usually off-white with brown and red markings, and their interior is commonly smooth and pink.
Scallops are clam shells, and they can be found in a wide variety of colors on the Outer Banks. They are typically about three inches at their widest width and are radially-ribbed with “ears” sticking out slightly on either side of their base where the hinge would be. It isn’t common to find the two sides still hinged together on the beach.
Coquinas are small hinged clam shells that grow to be smaller than an inch. You can find these on Outer Banks beaches at the tide line with both sides still held together by the delicate hinge, which give them a butterfly-like shape. They are typically white on both sides. The interior can have tinges of purple and yellow.
A variety of Whelks are sea snails. A variety of whelk shells can be found on Outer Banks beaches, but the knobbed whelk and lightning whelk are the most common. Lightning whelk shells have their opening on the left side, and knobbed whelks have their opening on the right side. These sprial shells can be found in a variety of sizes.
Atlantic Surf Clams
Atlantic Surf Clams are hinged clam shells that are usually white, gray, yellow, and brown. They can grow to be nearly 9 inches, but it’s very rare to find them that large.
Mussel shells are wedge-shaped, hinged, and are typically black and dark blue or purple. It’s common to find these shells still hinged on the beach at the tide line.
Ark Clams are thick, hinged shells with radial ridges. They can be found in a wide variety of colors on the Outer Banks, but white and gray are the most common.
Oyster shells are usually teardrop-shaped but can be found in other more freeform shapes as well. They’re comprised of many layers depending on how old they are.
Sea Stars (or starfish) found on the Outer Banks have five tapered arms, also called rays, radiating out from their body. Sea stars are a wonderful beachcombing find, but they should not be taken out of the water or picked up from the sand if at all soft or limp — they could still be alive and are very fragile animals. Once dead, sea stars are dry and stiff.
Shark Eye Moon Snails
Shark Eye Moon Snail shells can be 5 inches at their widest point. They are smooth, spiral-shaped, spherical shells found in a variety of color ranging from brown to blue-gray.
Disk Dosinias are white, flat hinged clam shells. They can be about 3 inches wide.
Baby’s Ear Moon Snails
Baby’s Ear Moon Snails have thin and fragile shells. They have a flattened spiral shape that resembles…and ear! They are typically white, yellow, brown, or gray.
Razor Clam shells are smooth and delicate with a hinge on their long side. They can be up to 9 inches long and resemble the shape of a straight-razor.
Sand Dollars found on Outer Banks beaches are flat discs that can be about 1 to 4 inches at their widest point, and they have a flower-like shape in the center of their body. Sand dollars are brittle, fragile, and white from sun-bleaching. If you find a sand dollar that is a darker color and has fur-like growth on it, it may still be alive and should not be handled.
Driftwood is simply worn pieces of wood that have washed up on the shore. Salt water and wave action lighten and smooth the wood over time, removing any bark.
Sea glass comes from glass objects that made their way into the ocean, broke up, and eroded to small smooth pieces over time. The most common colors that wash up on the Outer Banks are white, amber, and green. Learn more about Outer Banks sea glass on our blog.
Fulgurite is sand and sediment fused together by lightning strikes! These pieces of petrified lightning are often mistaken for concrete because of their color (often gray on the Outer Banks) and odd shapes. Although they may not look like much from the outside, they’re usually hollow, and the inside is smooth glass.
Skate & Ray Egg Cases
Skate and Egg Cases, often called “mermaid purses” are black capsules with two skinny tendrils at the top and bottom.
We’d love to see your beachcombing finds!
Tag us in your shell photos on Instagram or send them to us on Facebook. If you’re feeling creative, we’re always sharing new shell display and DIY ideas on Pinterest.
Zip line, climb and challenge yourself at First Flight Adventure Park! This family friendly attraction features multiple obstacles, a range of platforms, and varying courses. Find out more about them, other activities, and all you need to know to enjoy your stay on the OBX at CarolinaDesigns.com.
First Flight Adventure Park
6716 S Croatan Hwy Nags Head, NC 27959 252-715-3622 Website
Zipline, climb, and challenge yourself at First Flight Adventure Park! This family-friendly attraction features multiple obstacles, a range of platforms, and varying courses: easy, intermediate, or hard. Designed to mimic the bands of a hurricane that cycle out from a central tower, the Adventure Park includes ropes, hammocks, cables, and more! A perfect outing for all ages. Open seasonally.
For a great rainy day activity for both kids and adults on the Outer Banks, visit Jumpmaster’s Trampoline Park in Manteo, NC. Find out more about them, other things to do, and all you need to know to enjoy your stay on the Outer Banks at CarolinaDesigns.com.
Parents and kids alike are thrilled that there’s an active, indoor option for a rainy day on the OBX, or when the ocean is rough, or for those days when everyone’s had enough (or maybe too much…) Vitamin D for the week. Located in Manteo, Jumpmasters is about a 15-minute drive from Nags Head, and it’s totally worth it! Featuring an entire room of trampolines that are flush to the floor and flanked by padded barriers, there’s plenty of space to get your jump on. There’s also a ninja warrior course, climbing wall, and battle beam! Pair your visit to Jumpmasters with a stroll through downtown Manteo, or stop into the Elizabethan Gardens or Festival Park.
223 S Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, NC 27959 252-255-1501 Website
Visit Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head for a wonderful vantage point over the water! Walk to the end of the pier, which extends over 1,000 feet into the ocean to cast a line, or explore the aquarium exhibits in the pier house. They also offer kids programs and camps in the summer months.
3335 S Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head, NC 27959 252-441-5141 Website
A classic Outer Banks establishment, the Nags Head Pier offers fun, food, and fishing! The pier offers a substantial tackle shop to get you geared up to drop a line, and daily, weekly, and seasonal passes are available. Seasonally, the pier is open day and night, so it’s a great activity any time of day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all served. Don’t miss out on the tiki bar – also known as Captain Andy’s Oceanfront Grill – a bar/restaurant with front row seats to watch the waves roll in. With over 30 beers on tap, seasonal live music, and happy hour, this open-air bar is a fan favorite.
8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head, NC 27959 Website
Standing an impressive 156 feet tall, this brick Nags Head lighthouse painted with distinct black-and-white stripes is located 4 miles north of Oregon Inlet. Opened seasonally for climbing in 2013, Bodie Island Lighthouse has 214 swirly steps to the top, where visitors can soak up gorgeous views over the ocean. Fun fact: the lighthouse still casts a light 19 miles out to sea, and is one of a dozen or so remaining brick lighthouses of its size in the country. A boardwalk trail leads through the marshes around the lighthouse, and there is a small welcome center with restrooms.
The East Coast’s largest sand dune, Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head is a must-visit during your next trip to the Outer Banks. A series of rolling sand dunes, some up to 100 feet in height, are the most impressive feature of this local landmark. From the top of the ridge, visitors can enjoy ocean to sound vistas, and the windy ridge is also popular for hang gliding and kite flying. Popular activities include climbing to the top of the dune at sunset to enjoy cotton candy skies and warm summer breezes or strolling the Soundside Nature Trail.