The Outer Banks
The geography of the Outer Banks, a series of barrier islands stretching for over 200 miles along the coast of North Carolina, has changed dramatically over time, thanks to hurricanes and winter storms, not to mention human hands. Until a series of lighthouses was built beginning in the late 18th century, the islands and the offshore shoals were so treacherous they became known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
Nowadays, the same places where pirates once plundered are given over to windsurfing, hang-gliding, kite-surfing, sportfishing, and beachcombing, as the Outer Banks (sometimes abbreviated OBX) have become a tourist and recreation destination par excellence. The resident population of some 33,920 swells to accommodate over six million annual visitors, but unlike its nearest comparison, Cape Cod, the Outer Banks area boasts only a few historic towns. Instead, substantial development over the past 25 years has covered the sands with an ugly sprawl of vacation homes and time-share condos perched—often on stilts to protect them from storm damage—directly on the broad Atlantic beaches. Most of the development has taken place in the north along two parallel roads: US-158, usually called The Bypass but also known as Croatan Highway; and oceanfront Hwy-12, a.k.a. Virginia Dare Trail and Beach Road. Mileposts on both roads mark distances from north to south. There’s plentiful lodging in the many little towns along Hwy-12; gas stations and fast-food restaurants line US-158. The exception to the commercial sprawl are the magical 75 miles of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Along the northern Outer Banks, bridges link Nags Head and Kitty Hawk with the mainland, though access to the less-developed southern parts of the Outer Banks is limited to ferry boats, all of which carry cars.