Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina offers lighthouses, dolphin watch tours, and beautiful beaches to explore along 70 miles of coastline!
Located along a thin line of barrier islands in North Carolina, Cape Hatteras National Seashore has become a favorite retreat for many vacationers.
Most of us usually just call this whole region the Outer Banks, but three of the islands are officially protected as part of the 70-mile national seashore: Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke.
On a recent getaway to the Outer Banks, we sampled the attractions of this seashore. There’s a lot to do – camping, fishing, visiting lighthouses, sailing, hitting the beach, and more!
We couldn’t fit it all in this time, but that’s okay. The best vacation spots leave you wanting to explore again.
Here are just a few starting points you might want to add to your list if you’re planning an Outer Banks vacation!
Are you visiting off-season? Some of these attractions will still be available! Alternatively, check out Jockey’s Ridge State Park, slightly to the north of this area, or my guide to the best activities outside of peak season.
Camping at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
There are four campgrounds run by the national park system within Cape Hatteras.
Two of the campgrounds, Oregon Inlet and Ocracoke, are open year-round. The others, Cape Point and Frisco, are open from April through November. Reservations must be made and paid for online.
Oregon Inlet is the only campground of the four to offer electric hookups and heated showers.
All of the campgrounds are located quite close to beaches. Frisco Campground even has a handy boardwalk to get you quickly and conveniently over to the ocean!
If you’re not up for camping, of course there are plenty of great hotels and rentals in the Outer Banks too!
One of the main attractions of any beach vacation is a gorgeous ocean view. If you plan right, you may be able to climb right to the top of a couple of Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s lighthouses and take in the sights from above.
Bodie Island Lighthouse is open during the summer season (from mid-May through Columbus Day in September) for climbing the 200 steps to the top.
The Bodie Lighthouse also hosts special climbs to coincide with summertime full moons! Tickets for all climbs must be bought online on the day you plan to visit.
The lighthouse is still functioning, but it doesn’t need live-in keepers anymore. So the old keepers’ quarters have been converted into a ranger office and visitor’s center.
On the southern end of Bodie Island is the fishing center at Oregon Inlet. You can charter a fishing boat from the extensive fleet there if that’s your passion!
Or maybe you’d prefer to try a dolphin watch tour. These two-hour narrated boat trips regularly leave from Oregon Inlet to navigate the Roanoke Sound.
Dolphin watch trips also leave from Nags Head to the north, or from Manteo over on Roanoke Island.
Dolphin sightings are practically guaranteed during the summer months, so the tours take place primarily from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Looking for great local restaurants in the Outer Banks? One of our favorites was Aqua Restaurant, located about 30 miles north of Oregon Inlet.
Beach Areas in Cape Hatteras National Seashore
What would a trip to the Outer Banks be without some time on the beach?
Finding a beach is easy here. As you drive along, just be on the lookout for signs pointing you to beach access roads, boardwalks, and parking lots.
Once you’ve found your perfect spot, you can settle in for a day of beach walking, kite flying, and picnicking. You can even try out a kitesurf or kiteboard if you’re looking for some adventure.
Off-road vehicles are generally allowed onto the beach, though the rules can change at different times of the year. Check the National Park Service’s beach activities page for up-to-date information.
Do you want to linger on the beach on a chilly evening? Depending on the time of year and location, you may be able to build a fire! Just make sure to get a beach fire permit first (it’s free).
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Just like Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is usually open seasonally for climbing. However, when we visited in 2021, it was closed for a multi-year renovation project.
You can still check out the beautiful exterior, though!
What’s interesting about this lighthouse is that it had to be moved from its original location in 1999.
Natural shoreline erosion had brought the ocean ever closer to the lighthouse since its construction in 1870. The building wouldn’t have been able to hold out much longer.
That’s why, after various interventions were tried, it was decided to move the entire structure 2,900 feet further inland. Transferring a 4,830-ton lighthouse from one place to another was no small feat. But it’s safe again — for now!
Unlike Bodie Island Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the lighthouse on Ocracoke Island doesn’t allow you to climb to the top. But if you’re interested in the history of the Outer Banks, you still might want to visit.
The Ocracoke Lighthouse was finished in 1823, making it nearly 200 years old! It’s the second oldest operating lighthouse in the country.
To get to Ocracoke Island, you’ll need to take a ferry. The vehicle ferry from Hatteras is free and operates throughout the day, year-round.
After you disembark from the ferry and drive to the southern end of the island, you can explore the village of Ocracoke (including the area of the lighthouse) on foot or bicycle if you prefer.
These are just a few of the highlights that can make a trip to the Outer Banks so memorable.
Have you explored Cape Hatteras National Seashore for yourself? Let us know in the comments what spots were your favorites!