The two-lane roads of North Carolina’s Highway 12 span roughly 150 miles along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Outer Banks. From Ocracoke Island and Cape Hatteras up to the town of Duck and the Historic Corolla Village in the north, and beyond, stunning coastal views, historic and culture-rich towns, baskets full of hushpuppies, rich maritime (and pirate!) history, and the tallest brick lighthouse in the country, all make Highway 12 a bucket list-worthy road trip.
With Emerald Isle as a home base, the towns that make up the Crystal Coast—the southern or lower Outer Banks—are all fair play. Stop into the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, and enjoy feedings, an interactive pick-up tank, and more. In historic Beaufort, learn about the area’s storied maritime history at the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
At Fort Macon State Park, there’s free access to the beach and the inlet, plus outdoor family fun like fishing, swimming, picnicking and more. It’s also a great place to explore the restored pre-Civil War fort. Daily guided tours include cannon and musket demonstrations.
After relaxing at your hotel, get ready for your day trip adventure on North Carolina’s Highway 12.
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Starting from the south on Highway 12, hop on the Cedar Island Ferry to Ocracoke Island. Though several lighthouses dot the North Carolina coast, only three are considered part of the National Seashore: Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke. (Note: Ferries connect Highway 12 in a couple of spots. Be sure to check ferry times and plan in advance.)
Hundreds of ships have fallen victim to the harsh storms, strong currents, and shifting shoals along the Outer Banks, in what has become known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Largely built to warn ships of these dangers, lighthouses were crucial to early seaside life and commerce.
Hop on another ferry to see the most celebrated and recognizable of the lights, Cape Hatteras Light Station. Originally built in 1870, the black-and-white striped Hatteras is the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. In 1999, due to threatening erosion, the lighthouse was moved to its present location.
While driving along small coastal towns, like Salvo and Avon may feel like something out of a movie or a novel, or both—that’s because it is. Rodanthe, a town highlighted on the big screen by Richard Gere and Diane Lane, was the inspiration behind the popular Nicholas Sparks novel “Nights in Rodanthe.” A rustic inn in the town was the centerpiece of the 2008 film. For more North Carolina romantic inspiration, read our article in Romance Books Set in North Carolina.
Continuing north, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that covers 5,000 acres and was founded in the 1930s to protect the nesting grounds and natural habitat of a long list of over 370 migratory birds, plus turtles and other coastal wildlife. Stop into the visitors center and sign up for a summertime turtle talk, canoe tour, or bird walk.
Color-blocked in black and white, the 156-foot Bodie Island Lighthouse was first lit in 1872. Book a climb to the top, then check out the visitors’ center, located inside the Double Keepers’ Quarters, to absorb its history and pick up a keepsake.
In Manteo, catch the renowned outdoor symphonic drama, The Lost Colony, which shares the story of the area’s first European settlers, known as the Roanoke Colony, and their interactions with the native inhabitants.
The Elizabethan Gardens are a great place any time of year, with vibrant spring blooms and winter lights shows. Grab a cup of coffee or a bite to eat in town. For a family-friendly experience, go to Darrell’s, a longstanding, no-frills seafood spot.
Back along Highway 12, heading north, did you notice “First in Flight” on the North Carolina license plates? The slogan references the site of the first-ever manned flight attempt by brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, which occurred along Highway 12 near present day Kitty Hawk.
Wright Brothers National Memorial honors the brothers’ vision and tenacity to make powered flight a reality. In the visitor’s center, explore exhibits and a reproduction 1903 flyer in the Flight Room, where you can experience, up-close, what the original craft looked like. A monument atop historic Kill Devil Hill marks the spot where the duo experimented with their glider until they finally achieved powered flight.
Continuing north, In Duck, stop in Duck Donuts for a custom-topped cake donut served hot and fresh. Toppings like crumbled Oreo cookies, cinnamon and sugar, and more, have gained such a following that over 100 locations all across the country now serve the hole-y goodness.
If time permits, farther north, in the historic Corolla Village, Currituck Beach Lighthouse, an unpainted red brick beauty can be detected from 18 nautical miles away. Go up in the lighthouse for expansive views of the Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean or stay at ground-level and stop in several of the surrounding spots that offer interpretive history.