The 16 Best Things to Do in Hatteras NC

Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore

No trip to the Outer Banks would be complete without exploring Hatteras Island. Letting the surf flow around your ankles as you walk along the sandy beaches enjoying the blue skies is one of the more relaxing vacations you could have. What is there to do in Hatteras, NC? The island has many interesting historical places to see, family activities, and fabulous restaurants. Here are the 16 best things to do in Hatteras NC.

Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore
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Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

As you drive onto the north end of Hatteras Island, you’ll be in the Pea Island National Wildlife Reserve. Look toward the east to see the visitor’s center widows walk peeking over the vegetation. Established in 1938, the wildlife refuge provides nesting, resting, and wintering habitats for migratory birds. With over 6,000 acres of beach, dunes, brackish ponds, and marshes, you can spot hundreds of migrating birds within the 13-mile span of the wildlife refuge. From Spring to Autumn, many birds migrate along the “Atlantic Flyway,” including the greater snow geese and other migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and raptors. There are observation platforms near the parking areas to watch almost 400 species of migrating birds and other wildlife, including endangered and threatened species, such as loggerhead sea turtles.

Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore

Panoramic of Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore

When I walked onto the sandy beach of the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore, I was awestruck by the miles and miles of uncrowded beach, which is not the norm during the many vacations to Myrtle Beach. The other thing that surprised me was that on these beaches, you could drive on them with a permit. Be sure to get a permit online for beach driving at I saw several trucks and SUVs parked on the beach with people fishing in the surf. I had never seen that before, so I went up and chatted with one to see if they caught anything.

Fishing at Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore

Established in 1953, the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore is America’s first National Seashore extending more than 70 miles south from Nags Head to Ocracoke Inlet, covering 30,000 acres, the largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline on the East Coast. There are three historic operating lighthouses on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and Ocracoke Lighthouses, and the first two you can climb.

Atlantic Ocean at the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore

Did you know that Cape Hatteras holds the title for having the biggest surfing waves on the Atlantic Coast? The surf is pretty impressive in the Outer Banks. You might see kiteboarders, windsurfers, surfers, or kayakers in the marsh grasses. Whenever you visit the Outer Banks, especially the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore, it might look different than the last time you were here. The landscape is constantly changing due to erosion from the wind and waves; even during the few days I was there, it changed as we were on the tail end of a Nor’easter, and we had to drive through large puddles over the road.

Driving through the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore

Chicamacomico Life Saving Station

Chicamacomico Life Saving Station

If you blink while driving on Hwy 12 through the village of Rodanthe, you might miss the Chicamacomico Life Station as it blends in with the houses built around it, a great family activity on Hatteras Island. The Chicamacomico Life Station was the forerunner to the U.S. Coast Guard. As the historic site of two former life stations, 1874 and 1911, the U.S. Lifesaving Service rescued 177,286 out of the 178,741 lives in peril. Simply amazing work these men did daily.

From April thru November, there are programs and exhibits for you to watch reenactments and learn stories of the men who risked their lives to save others. Like our visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes, you can see them fire a Lyle Gun out to sea. Very few Life Saving Service buildings remain in the U.S. today, and the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station site is one of the most complete and the only one designated as a teaching museum in the United States. It is important to remember what was once the most important rescue service in the nation but extremely risky to themselves, where they were required to go out, but as they would say, “It don’t say nothin’ ’bout coming back.”

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Living in Michigan, I have been fortunate to visit many Michigan lighthouses and other historic lighthouses like the Nubble Lighthouse, Colchester Reef Light, and the Penmon Lighthouse. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, also known as America’s Lighthouse, is as impressive as these and more, built-in 1870 and moved in 1999. Although I couldn’t climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse because we showed up before the park was open, there was plenty to explore on the grounds.

Double Keepers' Quarters houses the Museum of the Sea

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in North America, standing at 208/210 feet high. You can see the light shining from the black and white, spiral-striped lighthouse more than 20 miles at sea, which is extremely helpful for the boats/ships, warning them of the submerged and shifting sandbars that extends almost 20 miles into the Atlantic Ocean beneath the turbulent sea. Off the coast of the Outer Banks, it is considered the Graveyard of the Atlantic, with over 600 shipwrecks known.

What I found fascinating was the stones laid in a semi-circle by the visitor center. They are the foundation stones engraved with the names of the previous keepers left behind by the lighthouse when it was moved in 1999. And when you are standing by the stones, look northeast along the path between the trees. This is the path the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse moved a half mile inland to protect it from the encroaching ocean.

How did they move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse?

They cut the lighthouse from the original foundations, which took them three months to separate it. The next steps had them hydraulically lifting the lighthouse 5.34 feet onto steel beams. The hydraulic jacks rested on 100 rollers and acted as a suspension system to keep the lighthouse level during the 2,900 feet transfer. The lighthouse was then moved slowly along the designated path using rollers and hydraulic jacks to push it to its current location today. It took them 23 days to complete the entire move.

Path that the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Moved

The Lighthouse keeper’s quarters serve as a visitor center, and Museum is open year-round. It is free to visit, but there is a climbing fee. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is open for climbing from April to Columbus Day.

Frisco Native American Museum & Natural History Center

The Frisco Native American Museum & Natural History Center gives you a unique opportunity to learn about Native American history and culture. Filled with traditional tools, pottery, detailed beadwork, and textiles, the Museum provides a glimpse into the daily lives of Native American tribes, especially local Outer Banks tribes, the Hatterask, Croatoan, and Roanoac. Also, some lovely nature trails for you to enjoy take you over bridges, streams, and a pond as you wander through the wooded landscape around the Museum.

Hatteras U.S. Weather Bureau Station

Hatteras U.S. Weather Bureau Station

Stopping at the Hatteras U.S. Weather Bureau Station was interesting as we entered the building right before the heavens opened up. How ironic that we were visiting a historic weather station when it was pouring outside. Inside, we found the Outer Banks Visitor Bureau and a museum detailing how the Hatteras U.S. Weather Bureau Station played a significant role in reporting weather conditions for the Outer Banks and was one of the first weather reporting stations that preluded today’s U.S. Weather Service.

Opening on January 1, 1902, the Hatteras station was one of only seven buildings on the Atlantic coast built specifically for Weather Bureau operations. The first floor was where the supervisor’s family lived, and the second floor was the Weather Bureau’s observation room and access to the roof. There were three observers taking readings around the clock and one supervisor. Within the Museum, you can read about Lucy Stowe, who became an observer at 18 and worked at the wooden Hatteras weather office in a small room with a teletype and basic weather instruments. When she retired in 1980, Lucy worked in a “storm-proof” reinforced concrete building complete with weather radar, computerized instrumentation, and data networking, where the forecasts were received from satellites and computerized models. Seeing how the weather service has changed so much in 40 years was amazing.

The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau and Museum is open from March to November. The Hatteras U.S. Weather Bureau Station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Street Art

Sword Fish Mural

Anyone that follows my travel adventures knows that I love hunting street art. And it was no surprise that when we got to the Hatteras U.S. Eather Bureau Station, I made a beeline across the street to capture photos of a couple of street murals painted on the side of a building. The giant swordfish gave the quintessential Outer Banks fishing vibe, and the farmers market scene shows off the local fresh produce. I’m not sure they hold the farmers market in this spot, but it would be the perfect place if they did have this art mural as the backdrop.

Farmers Market Mural

Hatteras – Ocracoke Ferry

Most of the Other Banks barrier islands are connected by bridges, although there are a few you need to access a ferry to get across Pamlico Sound. Two ferries service the islands of Hatteras and Ocracoke, the Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry and the Hatteras-Ocracoke vehicle ferry. The vehicle ferry runs year-round and is free but is first come, first serve. The Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry runs seven days/week from mid-May to early September. There is a fee for the passenger ferry, and advance reservations are required. To make a reservation, call 1-800-BY-FERRY or book online at

More Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry details to note:

  • Departs from Hatteras ferry terminal at 9:30 am, 1 pm, and 4:30 pm.
  • Departures from Ocracoke Silver Lake Terminal are scheduled for 11 am, 3 pm, and 8 pm.
  • Crossing time is approximately 70 minutes
  • The passenger ferry capacity is 149, with 25 spots for bikes
  • There is no extra charge for bicycles
  • Small carry-on items, backpacks, purses, strollers, and walkers are permitted
  • Pets are allowed but need to be on a leash

For those parking their vehicles, 142 and five overnight spaces are available at the Hatteras ferry terminal. Parking is first-come, first-serve. If you decide not to make a reservation for the Ocracoke Express, check in no later than 20 minutes before departure time. When we drove by the Hatteras Ferry terminal, the line of cars was so long, so make sure to get there early.

Why take the ferry to Ocracoke Island? The Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry drops you directly into Ocracoke Village at Silver Lake and is within walking distance of the village, where there is dining, shopping, and strolling along the waterfront. If you take the vehicle ferry, you are dropped off further down the island and must drive from the terminal to the village 12 miles away.

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

Currently temporarily closed for renovations to exhibits – expected to open back up in fall 2023

There is nothing like going to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in a downpour. The dark skies and hearing the rain thunder down on the roof set the mood while exploring this Museum that looks like a ship filled with shipwreck artifacts. The Museum’s outside has monuments for the Maritime Casualties of the American Civil War, the Flagship USS Minnesota, the loss of the Ironclad USS Monitor, and the Hotel De Afrique, the first haven for African Americans in North Carolina during the Civil War. You might even see pieces of actual shipwrecks lining the walkway to the entrance.

Inside this unique Museum dedicated to preserving the maritime history of the Outer Banks, you’ll learn about the more than 2,000 known shipwrecks that lie off the coast, as well as the Outer Banks’ contributing history in the World Wars. The exhibits tell stories of shipwrecks, war, piracy, lifesaving, the fishing industry, and the historic maritime cultural landscape along North Carolina’s coast. We weren’t even in the Museum’s lobby for a few moments when we got to chatting with one of the employees, and he told us of shipwrecks in the area that you could still see up close. Of course, we planned to check one out when we were finished.

Where can we see shipwrecks?

Shipwrecks appear and disappear because of daily weather conditions. Double-check the list at the front desk to see which shipwrecks are accessible to the public. And when you do go and see them be respectful. Please don’t touch or take anything from them. Here is where to find some of the visible ones when we visited in May 2022.

  • Pea Island across from the rest area on Hwy 12 – boiler stack from Oriental (Federal Transport ship sank May 1862) is sometimes visible
  • An unknown wreck occasionally is visible off Flabeau St. Take a left out of the Museum parking lot and then turn right on Eagle Pass Road, just north of the Ferry Docks. Make a right turn onto Flambeau St. and head to the beach. Walk to the right. (Thought to be an early 1900s barge)
  • Salvo off Hwy 12. Turn on Sand Street. A ship that has not been identified but could be the Pocohontas, U.S.S. Richmond, or S.S. Blenheim is occasionally visible there.
  • Schooner G.A. Kholer sank in August 1933 and is sometimes visible on the beach at Ramp 27, just north of Avon.
  • In front of the Museum, you can see the remains of Laura A. Barnes (Schooner, 1921).
  • Corolla wreck, named after where it was discovered, is thought to be the oldest shipwreck found off the North Carolina coast to date. It is possible a merchant ship dating mid-to-late-1600s. It is located on the grounds of the Museum.
  • Depending on the weather at Ramp 55, a wreck shows itself directly across the Museum. Go onto the beach, turn right, and walk about a half- to one-mile.
1854 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel Lens

Plan to spend an hour or two going through the entire Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. There are a lot of exhibits and signs to read, telling the stories of some of the artifacts, like the mystery surrounding the missing lens of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the Enigma machine from the German U-85 boat, Blackbeard’s ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and even the ghost ship Carroll A. Deering. I’m a huge Civil War fan, so I enjoyed learning about how the Confederates blacked out all the coastal lighthouses and sank the channel buoys and the battle of the Ironclads. Then there were the World War I exhibits showcasing the bell recovered from the wreck of the Diamond Shoals Light Vessel that was sunk by gunfire from the German submarine U-140. But, the highlight was the Diary and Log from the Hatteras Weather Station detailing the last messages from the RMS Titanic. These stories and many more can be found in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. This is one of the free things to do on Hatteras Island.

Unknown Shipwreck

Unknown Shipwreck on the beach

Few ships wreck today, but storms still uncover the ruins of old wrecks that lie along the beaches of the Outer Banks. Due to the pouring rain, we decided to skip the shipwreck by the Museum, where you had to walk a half mile on the beach. Instead, we head to Flabeau St. to see what was left of the 1900s barge. Once we parked and walked the short distance to the beach, the wreck was visible even through the rain.

Unknown Shipwreck near the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

I have seen a couple of wrecks uncovered on the Great Lakes, but for some reason, as the rain came down on our heads, I felt a connection to this shipwreck. I slowly made my way toward the visible wreck photographing everything and trying to keep the water off my camera lens simultaneously. Wondering how much of the ship was below my feet as I walked around it. You could see more of the ship below the water’s surface sticking out of the sand. Seeing a shipwreck on land is a bucket list item for me!

Why Are There So Many Shipwrecks in the Outer Banks?

With the Gulf Stream passing the Outer Banks and being a global shipping lane, numerous ships are riding the current to gain time; it’s no wonder there are over 2,000 shipwrecks off the Outer Banks. The tumultuous currents and any combination of the following hazards could have caused a shipwreck.

  1. Weather: Storms form offshore and can wreak havoc on a vessel causing it to capsize, founder, or run aground.
  2. Shoals: Shoals, shallow sand bars that can be hard to see and difficult to navigate, extend off the capes and are formed by longshore currents created by northeast and southwest winds carrying sand. Wind and waves can push vessels on the shoals, and the grounded vessels can be battered to pieces by the water and wind.
  3. War: Vessels have been sunk by enemy action during multiple wars, including the Civil War, WWI, and WWII. Vessels also collided and sank while running in a blacked-out state to avoid being seen by the enemy. Ships running too close to shore to avoid U-boats ran aground. Vessels were also purposely set on fire to avoid being used by the enemy or sunk to create navigational deterrents.
  4. Human Error: Captains leaving port thought they could outrun a storm and failed to do so. They might not take soundings (measure the depth of the water with a lead line) or make navigational errors that cause them to run aground.
  5. Mystery: There have been circumstances where vessels were found abandoned or never made it to port without explanation.
  6. Piracy: Pirates were known to sink vessels they overtook if they did not need them. This prevented the ships from being used to pursue the pirates.

Diamond Shoal

Diamond Shoals Restaurant

There are some great restaurants in Hatteras NC. We were recommended to stop at the Diamond Shoals Restaurant on Hatteras Island, and I’m glad we did. It reminded me of the family diners back in Michigan, where the servers are friendly and willing to help you decide what to eat from their extensive menu. Some highlights to try are their award-winning clam chowder, crab bisque, and any fresh catch of the day.

Fresh Salmon with Homemade Mango & Tomatillo Salsa

The food choices were diverse, even with Diamond Shoals being known for fresh seafood and the only place on Hatteras Island for fresh sushi. I went with the fresh catch of grilled Salmon with their homemade mango/tomatillo salsa. The rest of our group ordered mahi tacos, a salad from the fresh salad bar, grilled Salmon with sweet potato waffle fries, and a classic 1/2lb burger and fries. I loved that they gave us each a hush puppy with our meal. They were so good that we ordered a basket of them as well.

Inn at Rodanthe

Inn at Rodanthe

I haven’t seen Nicholas Sparks’ movie, Nights in Rodanthe, which made this building famous. One of the writers on this trip wanted photos of the inn, so we stopped. Serendipity – The Inn At Rodanthe, the six-bedroom/four-full and one-half-bath home, has taken considerable effort to recreate the movie scenes from the movie with the addition of some original props and unique touches to replicate the movie house. The movie is about second chances; you can experience your own when you stay at Serendipity or any other vacation rental in Rodanthe. Rodanthe’s sunrises and sunsets are among the best in the world, so why not come here for your next vacation?

WWII British Sailor Cemetery

WWII British Sailor Cemetery

During World War II, on December 11, 1941, Germany declared war on the United States. German U-boats created devasting havoc on the eastern seaboard, sinking nearly 400 ships. Almost 70 were lost off the Outer Banks, earning the location “Torpedo Junction.” With the U.S. Navy having no specific anti-submarine fleet then, the British Royal Navy Patrol Service ships stepped in to help. Unfortunately, it was at a heavy cost. On April 9, 1942, the Motor Vessel San Delfino, an armed British tanker, was torpedoed east of Cape Hatteras; 28 men died out of the 50 on board. The remains of two men – fourth Engineer Michael Cairns and another unidentified sailor washed ashore. They were laid to rest with military honors here.

Orange Blossom Bakery & Cafe

Orange Blossom Bakery & Cafe

The Orange Blossom Bakery & Cafe was a hidden gem on Cape Hatteras. We had an unscheduled change of plans one morning with the cancelation of our horseback riding session due to the bad weather the night before. The owner, Sylvia, mentioned that the locals all go to the Orange Blossom for the Apple Uglies. It is one of the best things to do in Hatteras NC. “Look for the line out the door.” Apple what?

What are Apple Uglies?

Apple Uglies at the Orange Blossom Bakery & Cafe

Apple Uglies are the biggest, fluffiest apple fritters that taste better than they look. The outer dough is slightly crisp and glazed with sugar, with the thick, fluffy inside filled with tons of apples. There is only one line through the cafe where you wait to order and pay for your items at the counter. Besides the Apple Uglies, there are plenty of other breakfast goods to try, like the favorites Breakfast Burrito and Mondo Breakfast Sandwich, donuts, muffins, cinnamon rolls, apple turnovers, and other specialty sandwiches like the Bagel Burner, The Buxton, Davina, and the Brandi.

The Orange Blossom Bakery & Cafe is open seven days a week from 6:30 am to 11:00 am. You only have four and a half hours if you want an Apple Ugly, so go early!

Horseback Riding with Equine Adventures

This was one of the activities I was excited to do; unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. The night before, a big storm knocked power out and knocked over many big trees. When we showed up at Equine Adventures, the owner, Sylvia, told us many big trees fell over on the trail, and she had to cancel our ride. We were bummed, of course. But, not to let the weather ruin the day anymore, we pivoted to something else. However, I have kept this activity front and center in my mind to do once I return to the Outer Banks.

Equine Adventures allows you to ride horseback on trails, over the dunes to the beach, with the wind blowing through your hair and the horse’s hoofs galloping over the sand. This is a great family activity (ages ten and up) and an absolute must-do if the weather cooperates with you. Plus, how cool you support a female-owned business if you go here.

Bodie Island Light Station

Bodie Island Lighthouse

From 1872, the Bodie Island Lighthouse, pronounced ‘body,’ has helped ships navigate the hidden dangers 40 miles to the south, the Diamond Shoals. Located just South of Nags Head and north of the Oregon Inlet, the horizontally-striped beacon stands nearly 165 feet tall, has a floating staircase containing 219 steps, and still possesses its original first-order Fresnel lens. Bodie Island Lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bodie Island Light Station

A visitors center in the old keeper’s quarters is open from March through December. There is also a self-guided nature trail nearby for those who want to do some bird watching. We even saw a few birds playing in the puddles left by the rain. The lighthouse is available for climbing from April thru October.


My feet in the surf at Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore

I love being by the water, and the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore was no exception. I could have stayed here for hours instead of the short time I did visit. Standing on the sandy beach with my toes sinking in the sand as the surf crashed on shore was calming. If you want a vacation to relax, enjoy some sunshine, and still be close to many other activities, consider staying on Cape Hatteras. With many things to do in Hatteras NC, and still close enough to explore Roanoke Island and the other barrier islands, a vacation in the Outer Banks should be on everyone’s list!

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Further Reading

If you are exploring North Carolina, check out these posts for extra travel inspiration:

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