On North Carolina’s Outer Banks — a ribbon-thin strip of barrier islands covered in sand and maritime woods and stretching for more than 100 miles — active getaways are king. There are lighthouses and dunes to climb, forests and boardwalks to stroll, trails to tackle, and shores to wander on the Outer Banks.
Below, we’ll cover the most notable trails, walks, and climbs of the OBX, organized geographically or thematically, and ranked on a simple scale:
* Easy. Almost as relaxing as napping in a hammock.
** Moderate. No more difficult than an active day at the beach.
*** Strenuous. Stretch or you’ll be sore tomorrow!
Whether you’re triathlon training or in search of some shade, strap on your hiking sandals, boots, or running shoes — here’s how and where to get moving.
Nags Head Woods Preserve
On the soundside opposite the Nags Head Fishing Pier, Nags Head Woods protects 1,400+ acres of forested dunes, interdune ponds, and plenty of wildlife. The forest and terrain here provide hikes that feel more like something you’d find on the mainland.
A pair of trails join to make a long scenic loop, while two other trails lead to Roanoke Sound, giving those with mobility issues the opportunity to explore. Here’s the rundown:
Center Loop Trail (*) – A quick .25-mile loop by the visitor center, this kid-friendly route gives a good idea of the trail ahead. Signage helps you name the trees and other flora, and the ponds you see are home to some 100+ species of birds. The loop connects to…
Sweetgum Swamp Trail (***) – This two-mile lollipop trail ascends the wooded dune ridge and follows the terrain up and over rises, down a sandy sway, and along the flanks of interdune and seasonal ponds.
Roanoke Trail (**) – This flat, 1.5-mile trek leads to Roanoke Sound and back, and along the way an audio tour (triggered by QR codes scanned with your smartphone) tells the story of families who lived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
ADA Trail (*) – A half-mile loop circling an interdune pond and passing through a maritime swamp forest. The mix of concrete path and wooden boardwalk makes it a good choice for hikers of any ability.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Buxton Woods Trail (*) – Looping through the Buxton Woods Preserve for .75 mile, this is a gentle trail surrounded by a scrubby maritime forest
Open Ponds Trail (***) – 4.5 miles one-way, Open Ponds Trail takes you among the dunes, along interdune ponds, and into the maritime forest.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Home to the tallest active sand dune in the eastern US, Jockey’s Ridge is a sight. The towering sand — topping 60 feet — is surrounded by two trails that lead to Roanoke Sound:
Tracks in the Sand Trail (**) – Marked with easy-to-spot trail posts that lead across the sand to the sound, this trek clocks in at 1.2 miles round-trip.
Soundside Nature Trail (*) – This .6-mile loop wanders through the dunes and scrubby woods on the west side of Jockey’s Ridge State Park. A spur trail leads to a secluded beach on the shallow and lovely Roanoke Sound.
Two boardwalks at opposite ends of the Outer Banks provide a taste of what feels like age-old tradition. The first, at Hatteras Village, is mainly a good distraction from shopping and grabbing lunch, though you can find some pretty Instagram shots on the short boardwalk. The second, in Duck, is an absolute gem:
Duck Boardwalk (*) – Picturesque at any time of day — but positively gorgeous around sunset — the .62-mile Duck Boardwalk traces the shore of Currituck Sound, passes through several small shopping areas and wanders along the edge of a maritime forest and willow swamp. Allow more time for this than you anticipate!
If you’re a sucker for a “long walk on the beach,” be careful what you wish for. Here in the OBX, you can start in Duck and walk all the way to Nags Head, a 30- mile shoreside trek — or take on the whole Cape Hatteras National Seashore for another secluded 70 miles.
NC-12/Beach Road (* to ***, depending on distance) – Walking and biking paths lie parallel to this old oceanfront highway through Duck and Southern Shores and from Kitty Hawk all the way down to Nags Head.
Hatteras Island NC-12 Path (* to ***, depending on distance) – This multi-use path connects the villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo with a roadside biking/walking path and fun over-water sections of elevated boardwalk.