Visiting the Outer Banks at any time of the year is an awe-inspiring experience. Summer is by far the busiest period, however, and if you’re hoping to dodge the crowds and spend a bit more time soaking up the scenery without the competition, visiting the North Carolina barrier islands in the fall is more than a sensible alternative.
Once the cooler months arrive, that quintessential OBX vibe changes ever so slightly. It’s still laid-back and welcoming in every way, but it’s also cooler and somehow even more relaxed. Activities that seem distant during other times of the year become the norm during shoulder season.
If you’re prepared to brave the lower temperatures, the wonderful nip in the air, and the feeling of crisp ocean breeze as it tickles your skin, you’re undoubtedly ready for a fall trip to the Outer Banks.
Pros of Visiting the Outer Banks in the Fall
The differences are like night and day if you’ve ever experienced both summer and fall in the Outer Banks. The beaches grow considerably less crowded, so there’s more sand for you to sink into should you feel the calling for some light ocean breeze and plenty of sunshine.
It cools down gradually, with average highs of around 80 degrees Fahrenheit in September making way for around 73 degrees in October. By November, it’s down to about 65 degrees.
While the allure of beach life is the big draw during the summer months, it doesn’t disappear entirely come fall. In fact, like many other beaches in the southeast, it’s still pleasant enough to relax by the shoreline or even dip a toe into the water.
Crowds change considerably at this time of the year, too. Spring and summer find it packed with families and students seeking refuge from their daily routines.
Bigger Waves for Surfing
Fall, by contrast, is when couples arrive to indulge in some much-needed break time, and when empty-nesters visit when their kids have flown off. The Outer Banks are also a consistent draw for water sports enthusiasts seeking more challenging surf conditions.
Fall brings bigger and better swells, and that’s a big reason why some consider it the best time of year for surfing in the OBX. Plus, you can expect water temperatures to stay mild enough for comfort until at least Columbus Day. After that, you’ll probably need to bring your wetsuit!
Less Competition for Fishing
Thinner crowds also means better opportunity for fishing enthusiasts to find success. What’s especially nice is that the conditions are just right for fish to migrate from the south. The pleasant water conditions make it a comfortable experience, too. If you’re fishing off-shore in September, expect to find plenty of fish species, like blue and white marlin, yellowfin and blackfin tuna, and mahi.
Come November, don’t be surprised if you encounter bigeye tuna or a giant bluefin. Nearer the shore, you’ll notice that Spanish mackerel depart for the season to make way for king mackerel and false albacore.
Better Prices on Beach Rentals
When choosing your ideal beach house rental, you’ll also enjoy reduced rates on your accommodations. Peak season is over, after all, so now is the time to book that suite with all the extras or the larger vacation rental that’s spacious enough to accommodate your entire family — with some room left over for friends, too.
Oceanfront views and private pools are a few of the key amenities that may be within closer reach during fall.
Cons of Visiting the Outer Banks in the Fall
While it doesn’t get cooler until later in the season, those days may find more people flocking inside for entertainment. If that’s the case, you’ll find that restaurants, shopping centers, museums, and movie theaters are far more crowded.
It’s not unusual to experience an extended wait on those days, so be prepared if you happen to book your Outer Banks beach vacation during a cooler fall period.
Shorter Business Hours
At this time of the year, it’s also not unheard of for some shops and restaurants to change their hours. As crowds thin out, so does business. This is most likely to occur if you venture to OBX later in the season.
Some eateries, for example, close for the off-season right after Thanksgiving, and many summery spots like ice cream shops and mini golf courses shutter until spring, too.
Hurricane season in the Outer Banks runs from the first of June to the end of November. It’s always important to be prepared for the possibility of a storm, so you may wish to purchase travel insurance if you’re visiting during fall.
That’s especially crucial if you booked a vacation home and at the last minute have to cancel due to bad weather. You can then recover your otherwise non-refundable security deposit. Make sure to check the requirements, however, as some mandate that an evacuation order must be in effect to receive a refund.
Top Things to Do in the Fall in the Outer Banks
The pros certainly outweigh the cons when it comes to spending quality time on the Outer Banks in the fall. There’s a lot to do — probably more than you’ll have time to experience in a single visit!
Head to the Beach
It’s the obvious contender: beach time is a no-brainer when you head to the Outer Banks for your fall vacation, and there’s almost no better place than vibrant Nags Head. Plush sand dunes, nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and fishing on Jennette’s Pier make the beach one of the most family-friendly options imaginable.
If you’re feeling adventurous, book an off-season sunset cruise — they typically run through October — and enjoy the glorious views. Some even provide fishing gear.
Nags Head is also a great place for a beach fire. Bring the ingredients for s’mores, your best ghost stories, and enjoy a cozy evening as the sun sets. Cape Hatteras National Seashore is another ideal spot for a blaze by the water.
If you rented an off-road vehicle, you can even take the 4×4 to Kill Devil Hills and ride it on the sand. Keep in mind any rules that might be in place, along with permit requirements. Got your dog with you? Your furry companion is usually welcome at the beach during fall, too.
Watch the Sunset
You haven’t really experienced the very best of the Outer Banks in the fall until you’ve watched the sun set. For a truly epic view, visit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. As the tallest in the entire country, it’s ideal for picture-taking — if you don’t mind the 250-step climb, of course.
The payoff, though, is tremendous, with picturesque, panoramic views that will take your breath away. It’s best to arrive early, where it may be quieter. The Bodie Island Lighthouse in Dare County is another must-visit that’s not nearly as well-known, but no less impressive. Among these two there are a handful of other great lighthouses in the OBX area to visit.
Arrive at precisely the right time and you may well be astounded by the sight of the magnificent black and white striped structure against the gorgeous backdrop.
Another ideal spot for a sunset viewing is the Duck Boardwalk along Currituck Sound. It’s a little busier at this time of day, but once you find your prime spot on the boardwalk you’ll quickly understand why so many are drawn to the magnificent view.
If you happen to be fishing on the Outer Banks Fishing Pier, stop and stay for a while — there’s even a cool grill where you can grab a bite to eat while you wait for the sun to bid farewell for the day.
Go Festival Hopping
Things don’t necessarily come to a complete halt in the fall. Festival season is still in full swing, as evidenced by the calendar full of exciting events appealing to every conceivable interest.
Among the most popular is the Outer Banks Seafood Festival, which runs in October and offers plenty of seafood-themed activities and, of course, lots of delicious and fresh fare. If you’re a music enthusiast, the Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival in Manteo in late October is a must. It draws big and small acts alike, so expect crowds.
First Fridays in Manteo are also worth a visit. One of the most historic towns of the Outer Banks on Roanoke Island, it boasts an eclectic scene in its buzzy downtown area. Throughout the season, come by on Fridays and experience the immersive street festival while supporting local businesses and restaurants.
If you happen to be in town during Halloween, make your way to Ocracoke for Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree. This annual event spans several days and is a delight for the entire family. Learn all about pirate life — and what exactly Blackbeard himself experienced during his final battle on the Ocracoke Island coastline.
Enjoy Gorgeous Walks
Exploring the Outer Banks on foot is an unforgettable experience. There are many areas to visit, from the over 1,400 acres of land within Nags Head Woods to the shopping- and dining-friendly boardwalk at Hatteras Village.
If you prefer your walks with some beach views, strap on your shoes and head for NC-12/Beach Road, which offers paths for both walking and biking. Some portions of the path are more challenging than others, so be forewarned if you’re a more casual walker.
Visiting The Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo is a humbling experience — and certainly worth the time if you’d like to experience a combination of rich history and beautiful colors while on your walk.
As vibrant as they are elaborate, these gardens were designed to replicate the elegant botanical displays created for Queen Elizabeth I. Behind the brick walls, you’ll encounter everything from native plants and perennials to ornamental grass and salvia in the fall.
Visit the Fishing Piers
You don’t have to be a fishing enthusiast to enjoy the beauty of the fishing piers that populate the Outer Banks. Dedicate a day to experiencing them in all their glory during fall. There are five fishing piers within the central Outer Banks, including three in Nags Head, one in Kitty Hawk, and one in Kill Devil Hills.
There are also two more located on Hatteras Island, including one in Avon and another in Rodanthe. Most of these piers evoke an old-school feel thanks to their weathered wooden planks. Jennette’s Pier, made of concrete, is the only one that’s more contemporary.
While fishing conditions on the piers are optimal, there’s far more to do than that. You can also enjoy live music, play arcade games, or dine by the sea and dig into some fresh seafood. Most of the pier houses offer everything needed for a successful outing, including bait, tackle, beverages, snacks, and souvenirs galore.
Take a Hike
Fall is an exceptional time for hiking in the OBX. North Carolina offers many popular options, like Jockey’s Ridge State Park and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Focus on your surroundings, for they’re unlikely to be like anything else you’ve seen before.
Run Hill, located in Kill Devil Hills, is another fantastic choice known for its sand dunes and exquisite views of the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
At the northernmost tip of the OBX is Corolla, a wonderful coastal village known for its boutique shops and expansive beaches. Among the most popular hiking trails is at the Currituck Banks Reserve just north of the village.
It’s a simpler option if you’re new to hiking or just want to enjoy a more relaxed journey while stopping to admire the birds and scenery.
Scour for Great Food
Because the off-season is considerably less busy, many local restaurants shutter for several months. So where to dine? Luckily, there are quite a few options that stay open, so it’s the perfect time to explore some area favorites.
The Blue Point, offering beautiful Currituck Sound views, is a Duck favorite known for its local seafood. If you’re in Kitty Hawk, head to Hurricane Moe’s for happy hour and easy meals all day long. Savor the true island experience at the tropical-themed Barefoot Bernie’s, also in Kitty Hawk.
In Manteo, there’s the lively Full Moon Cafe and Brewery. It’s open through early December, offering you plenty of time to experience the microbrewery’s best dishes. For some of the best comfort food in Nags Head, try Blue Moon Beach Grill. Open daily, they offer a range of familiar dishes creatively prepared for your dining pleasure.
With so much to see and experience, the area is beautiful at any time of the year. If you’re hoping to escape the crowds and enjoy more consistently pleasant weather, however, fall is a wonderful time to book your Outer Banks vacation.