Cape Hatteras is a 6 hour drive from the DC area but feels like a world away. The slow pace, beautiful beaches and opportunities for family fun make this a great summer getaway.
Just past the busy beach towns of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head you enter into the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Strip malls give way to sea oats and sand and long stretches of blue sky. This less developed area of the Outer Banks of North Carolina was our destination for a week in July. Used to the fast pace of life in the DC area, I thought to myself upon arrival, “What are we going to do down here for an entire week?” It turns out that the answer is, a lot!
The beaches on Cape Hatteras are stunning and empty. These isolated shores are prone to big surf and loads of washed up shells. Few beaches in this area have lifeguards, which means less relaxing on the beach for mom and dad but the water is warm and the views unbeatable. Two of our favorite spots on the southern part of the island are the Old Lighthouse beach in Buxton (which used to be lifeguarded but is not in 2010) and the beaches surrounding the now defunct Frisco pier.
On our first night in Frisco, our four year old asked, “Where is the boardwalk?” There are few traditional beach diversions here but plenty to do if you seek more than a day at the beach. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, located in Buxton, is the nation’s tallest and arguably most famous lighthouse. The visitor’s center and environs provide many programs for families and are a great way to learn about some of the natural world and history surrounding the area. At 11am each day during the summer a park ranger leads a free kids program teaching them about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the others in the area (Currituck, Ocracoke and Cape Lookout). Kids are then lead through a simple craft to create a lighthouse from a toilet paper roll, designing their own day marks and telling the ranger if their creation would be used for “direction or protection”, the two purposes of lighthouses. The program was held outdoors in a shady pavilion and was a great spot to be even on a very sunny summer day. A pirate program is also held in the same spot each weekday at 4pm.
Kids visiting Cape Hatteras Lighthouse can complete an activity book and become Junior Park Rangers. The booklets, available at the Visitor’s Center, have coloring and games and can be turned in after completion for an official Jr. Park Ranger badge (a BIG hit). Kids attending 2 or more ranger programs on their visit can receive an additional patch too. Climbing the lighthouse is also a popular activity here. Kids must be 42 inches tall and able to handle the climb to the top themselves, no carrying anyone up is allowed. The trip up is equivalent to a 12 story building and can be HOT. We left our kids (ages 4 and 5) home with grandma and grandpa for this one but did the climb ourselves. I strongly recommend going first thing in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. Many kids did the climb and they all seemed to love the view from the top and the sense of accomplishment.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum located at the tip of Hatteras Village is also a stop worthy of a visit. On Thursday mornings from 10:30 to 11:30am throughout the summer the museum has a craft table set up for kids. My kids made flags using stencils and markers. The pirate exhibit here was interesting for both the adults and kids. The museum is small and our visit including the craft took around 1.5 hours.
No trip to Hatteras would be complete without a day trip to Ocracoke Island. The NC ferry system runs a FREE ferry between the two islands many times per day. The ferry ride itself is a great adventure for kids and the beaches once you arrive on Ocracoke are spectacular. The ferry wait can be really long (up to two hours) if you go on a popular day like Tuesday, Wed. or Thursday. To avoid the crowds, consider a late afternoon trip to Ocracoke instead of heading out in the morning. There are many great kid friendly restaurants here and the idea of taking a boat ride to the restaurant was really exciting for my kiddos.
Still looking for more to do? Try one of these ideas
- Delicious ice cream and mini golf at Uncle Eddy’s in Buxton.
- Fudge sampling and hermit crab races Fridays at 3pm at Scotch Bonnet in Frisco.
- Paint your own Thomas at the Hatteras Island Toy Store in Avon.
- Head down to Hatteras Marina, Oden’s Dock or Teach’s Marina in Hatteras around 4pm to watch the fishing boats come in with their daily catch.
- Shop at Kitty Hawk Kites in Hatteras, Avon or Waves. Each store holds a Kids Day where they provide games, demonstrations and face painting. Buy a kite while you’re there and take it down to the beach in the evenings.
- Waves Kids Day – Wed. 4 to 6pm
- Avon Kids Day – Tues. 4 to 6pm
- Hatteras Kids Day Tues. 10am to 2pm
However you choose to enjoy your Hatteras vacation be assured that kids and families are welcome almost anywhere. Restaurants are casual and many shops carry kids souvenirs (pirate silly bands anyone?) Visit the National Seashore website (www.nps.gov/caha) for schedules of events and classes sponsored by the National Park Service or www.outerbanks.org for information on other facilities, restaurants and beaches.
Most rentals in the Outer Banks are Saturday to Saturday (with some being Sunday to Sunday) so the traffic coming and going can be bad on Saturdays in particular. Our Kids recommends leaving the DC area as early as you can to try to avoid some of it. There are two convenient rest stops along the typical route, one outside of Williamsburg in Virginia and the other just before you reach the Wright Memorial Bridge to the Barrier Island. Both have clean restrooms, changing facilities and picnic areas. Also be sure to bring your fast pass to use for the toll just south of Virginia Beach, it can be a real time saver.
- The Outer Banks of North Carolina Official Site – Visitors Bureau
- VisitOB.com Vacation Guide
- The Official Travel & Tourism Website for Ocracoke Island, NC
- Midgett Realty
- Sun Realty
- Hatteras Realty
- Surf or Sound Realty
Our Kids Tip: if you can swing it, Our Kids recommends you head to the Outer Banks in the off season. Before the OK interns were in elementary school, we would vacation in October when the water is still warm and the crowds are small to non-existent.