Nags Head - The Ultimate Visitors Guide
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Nags Head is located north of Oregon Inlet and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and south of the Town of Kill Devil Hills. The town is an immensely popular area for vacationers from the United States as well as around the world. Many major travel publications have regarded Nags Head as one of the very best places for a family vacation in America.
Nags Head is most known for its beaches, so naturally, a visit to this coastal town is not complete without visiting the beach at least once. There are numerous public beach accesses in Nags Head, and it's fairly easy to secure a parking spot, so long as you arrive early or late if you're visiting between June and August.
If you decide to vacation in the spring or fall, you won't have any trouble finding a peaceful spot in the sand to hang out under an umbrella. The ocean water in Nags Head (and other areas of the Outer Banks) is generally warm enough for swimming between May through October. If the water is too cold for swimming, there are plenty of other things to do, like shopping, putt-putt golf, restaurants, and attractions like the First Flight Adventure Park.
Things to do in Nags Head
Jockey's Ridge State Park
The tallest natural sand dune system on the East Coast, Jockey's Ridge State Park is hard to miss while driving along the bypass in Nags Head. Hike up the dunes, fly a kite, go sand boarding or learn how to hang glide; there are numerous reasons why you'll want to visit this OBX landmark!
Admission is free and hours are generally from sunrise to sunset. There is a cool museum that's worth checking out, it has some interesting Nags Head artifacts and signage that is decades old.
First Flight Adventure Park
Climb and zip your way through the strenuous ropes course at the sound side First Flight Adventure Park. Suitable for youth and adults, this Nags Head attraction is great fun, and a unique attraction to enjoy during your stay.
When Jennette's Pier was destroyed during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, it was uncertain whether or not the structure would be rebuilt. Fortunately, Jennette's Pier was reconstructed and is the only pier on the Outer Banks with concrete pillars.
On a sunny summer day, it's difficult to find a spot for your car in the parking lot. Jennette's Pier is a terrific spot to spend the day at the beach. There's a bath house located just off the beach and a small aquarium and gift/tackle shop in the pier house.
Seaside Art Gallery
Located at milepost 11 on beach road, the Seaside Art Gallery is a wonderful place to view and purchase one-of-a-kind artwork pieces. Unique paintings and drawings line the gallery walls from local and international artists.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
With its distinct black and white stripes, this iconic structure can be spotted from miles away. Bodie Island Lighthouse is visited by tens of thousands of vacationers each year and is an absolute must-see if you haven't visited already.
Self-guided tours are available most days during the summer, and the gift shop stays open year-round. The most recent, multi-million dollar restoration of the lighthouse was completed in 2013 - a project that brought the structure back to its old glory.
Please be advised that if the temperature is too warm or the wind is too strong, you will not be permitted to scale the lighthouse.
There is a small nominal fee to climb the lighthouse. It's free to park and walk around. Bodie Island Lighthouse is operated and maintained by the US National Park Service, and most of the people that work at the landmark are seasonal park rangers.
Full Throttle Speedway
With go-karts and much more, Full Throttle Speedway is a perfect place to spend an evening in Nags Head.
Head over to where all of the action is at off the bypass at milepost 16, and challenge your family and friends to a competitive race around the track. During the summer, there are additional carnival rides that fill the parking lot of Full Throttle Speedway, providing hours of fun and entertainment that's best enjoyed during the evenings.
This attraction is typically open from late spring to early autumn.
Jockey's Ridge Crossing
One of the very best shopping complexes on the Outer Banks, Jockey's Ridge Crossing is located directly across the street from the tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern United States.
Kitty Hawk Kites' flagship store is located here, along with Kitty Hawk Surf Company, Scoop's Ice Cream, Life on a Sandbar, Kitty Hawk Hammocks, The Fudgery, and several other eclectic shops. Several events take place at Jockey's Ridge Crossing during the year, check out the Nags Head events section below to learn more!
Looking for more ideas on what to do while visiting the town? Look no further than our list of the 28 BEST things to do while in Nags Head!
Notable Nags Head Restaurants
There are a plethora of restaurants located in the town of Nags Head, somewhere around five dozen locally-owned establishments.
Every restaurant in the town is located along either the bypass or beach road, which makes it easy to find a place to eat when you're starving.
Below is a list of a few of our favorite restaurants in Nags Head.
(Disclaimer: These are not advertisers, we have dined at the establishments below and are truly blown away by the food quality, service, and ambiance!)
Pier House Restaurant
Waveriders Coffee & Deli
Are there other really fantastic restaurants that we left out of our list of favorites? Absolutely! We tried to keep the list small as not to overwhelm our readers with too many options. Nothing personal, seriously.
Nags Head History and Lore
Nags Head has been a popular locale for vacationers visiting the coast of North Carolina for some two centuries!
During the late 1830s, there were so many people visiting the town that a hotel, the Nags Head Hotel (originally called The Ocean Retreat), was constructed on the Roanoke Sound near Jockey’s Ridge. This structure was big enough to accommodate some 200 guests and was the epicenter for live entertainment in the town.
Though almost all of the early houses constructed in Nags Head were on the sound as opposed to directly along the oceanfront, summer visitors spent a great deal of time lounging on the beach in period bathing suits.
Today if you’re driving along NC 12 near Jockey’s Ridge State Park, you’ll spot numerous historic homes that have gracefully withstood the worst storms to ever smash into the barrier islands over the past 100 plus years.
During the nineteenth century, several large wooden hotels were constructed along the sound side. One of these structures was later buried by a moving sand dune - the other burned to the ground.
According to their website, the First Colony Inn in Nags Head is one of if not the oldest hotel still standing in the coastal paradise - one of the last original example of a traditional "beach-style" hotel.
Apart from the unbelievably nice beaches, vacationers have flocked to Nags Head for so many years thanks in part to the large sand dunes. Jockey’s Ridge is the largest and most imposing of them all.
It is virtually impossible to drive along the bypass in Nags Head without taking note of its substantial rolling ridges. For more than 100 years, it's not uncommon to see hundreds of people, with their shoes in hand, making their way to the apex of one of the tall dunes.
One of the seven original stations built on the Outer Banks, construction of the Nags Head Lifesaving Station was completed in 1874. This was an important structure for the safety of sailors who would run ashore on one of the many hidden sandbars along the coast of North Carolina.
The origin of the town’s name is still up for debate to this day.
One theory says that a Banks pony with a lantern tied around its neck and walked up and down the beach at night to resemble the up-and-down motion of a vessel. This would trick other ships into thinking the landmass was safe to navigate to and naive sailors would run their ship aground on one of the many sandbars that make up the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Another story says that an Englishman by the name of Leigh visited Jockey’s Ridge and found a resemblance to the sand hills and a place called Nag’s Head on the coast of England.
The third-most popular theory says that a horse caught its head between the limbs of a crooked live oak tree and got stuck. His body remained suspended for many years and after it had fallen away, his head was left secure among the branches - hench the name of Nag’s Head was given to the area.
Annual Events in Nags Head
Each year, the town of Nags Head plays host to an array of annual events. In fact, Nags Head is probably the headquarters for more events each year than any other town on the Outer Banks! From flying kegs and flying kites to surfing and seafood, it seems like there's at least one major event in Nags Head each month.
Below are some of the most notable annual events that take place in the town of Nags Head. Be sure to check a few of them out during the year if you have the opportunity to!
Kelly's St Patrick's Day Parade (March)
Every March, nearly 10,000 spectators line the streets of NC 12 in Nags Head to watch the Kelly's St. Patrick's Day Parade, one of the largest (if not THE largest) St. Patrick's Day parade in all of North Carolina!
Come out and see the floats, catch a handful of candy, and cheer on the local emergency response personnel. After the event, head over to Kelly's Restaurant to enjoy hot dogs, live music, and green beer! This annual event is always a good time.
Hang Gliding Spectacular (May)
A true example of what hang gliding is all about! The event takes place at Jockey's Ridge State Park each year and is the longest running hang gliding competition in the world. Participants of the Hang Gliding Spectacular can pay a small nominal fee to participate, and spectators can enjoy the show for FREE!
OBX Brewfest (May)
If you are 21+ and you LOVE craft beer, this is the event for you! Held at the Outer Banks Event Site in Nags Head, the OBX Brewfest is a celebration of hops and barley that you won't want to miss.
Enjoy live music, fun games, food trucks, and even a craft soda garden! Beverages from over 15 breweries are available at this growing annual event.
Rogallo Kite Festival (June)
This annual kite festival is named after Francis Rogallo, a NASA scientist and inventor of the flexible wing. His inventions created the sport of hang gliding and his designs have carried over into the production and development of stunt kites and power kites that are flown up and down the Outer Banks today.
Check out the Rogallo Kite Festival and enjoy a dazzling display as 30 - 100-foot kites fly above the dunes of Jockey's Ridge State Park at this very popular (and free) annual event.
Outer Banks Watermelon Festival (August)
Lots of fun and plenty of watermelons! Enjoy games, food, face painting, tie-dye shirt making, arts and crafts activities, an inflatable waterslide and more.
All proceeds from the event benefit the local Outer Banks Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Coalition. Parking is scarce so be sure to arrive as close to the start time of the event as possible. Taking place at Jockey's Ridge Crossing Shopping Center, the Outer Banks Watermelon Festival is a must if you're in Nags Head in August!
Outer Banks Pirate Festival (August)
Ahoy Matey! Get ready for a swashbucklin' good time as a group of pirates occupy Jockey's Ridge Crossing Shopping Center during the annual Outer Banks Pirate Festival.
Hosted by Kitty Hawk Kites, the event is typically two to three days in length and involves a little bit of cannon firing, sword waving and eye patch wearing. FREE to the public!
WRV Outer Banks Pro Surfing Competition (September)
The largest surfing competition of the year on the Outer Banks takes place at Jennette's Pier in Nags Head. Surfers from many different states travel to the area to face off head-to-head to see who can win the annual WRV Outer Banks Pro.
This is a great event for spectators, as you can enjoy a great view of the competitors from the deck of the pier. Parking can be difficult to secure near the event, so consider parking at a public beach access a half mile north of the event and walking down to the competition.
Outer Banks Triathlon (September)
Triathletes train for months to achieve their dream! Choose from either the Sprint Triathlon (great for beginners), the Olympic Triathlon distance, or choose the Half Triathlon distance to see if you have what it takes!
Two days of inspiration, excitement, relationships, and achievements. You can either participate in one of the events or just go to the Outer Banks Triathlon to cheer on the athletes!
Outer Banks Seafood Festival (October)
An event that's held each year at the Outer Banks Event Site in Nags Head to honor the area's rich fishing heritage. Come enjoy an array of fresh local seafood entrees prepared by chefs from some of the area's finest restaurants.
Check out seafood cooking demonstrations, fishing boat and gear displays, fishing industry skills contests and competitions, local seafood cooking competitions, music, author readings, a chowder cook-off contest, activities for children and more. The Outer Banks Seafood Festival is THE biggest event of the year in Nags Head!
OBX Brewtag (October)
Flying kegs, plenty of craft beer and tons of energy and fun! Watch as teams toss their homemade flying machines (with kegs attached) off the top of a 20-foot flight deck to see whose creation can make it the furthest.
Sample beers from most all of the local breweries and savor food from some of the Outer Banks' best restaurants. Founded in 2015, the OBX Brewtag is one of the most unique events in the entire United States. There are NO other competitions in the WORLD like this one held at the Outer Banks Event Site in Nags Head.
If you love craft beer, or just want to watch some kegs fly... be sure to check out the OBX Brewtag in October.
Outer Banks Marathon (November)
Dash through the village of Kitty Hawk, the historical Kill Devil Hills (home of the Wright brothers First Flight), through the incredible maritime forest of Nags Head, and conclude your journey on the downtown Manteo waterfront on Roanoke Island.
One of the most scenic marathons in the United States, the Outer Banks Marathon is a must for anyone who is willing and able to complete the 26.2-mile race!
Kites with Lights and Hangin' with Santa (November)
Spread holiday cheer with Kitty Hawk Kites and the Jockey's Ridge Crossing crew!
Take advantage of FREE pictures with Santa, cocoa and cookies, and a unique light show with kites at Jockey's Ridge State Park (across the street). Get started on your holiday shopping at the complex and take advantage of great deals on gifts for everyone on your list. Hangin with Santa and Kites with Lights is a holiday event in Nags Head that you won't want to miss!
Nags Head Beach Guidelines & Tips
If you’re planning a trip to Nags Head, you’ll likely be spending a significant amount of time during your trip at the beach.
Here are some helpful guidelines and tips from the Town of Nags Head on what you can and cannot do on the area beaches.
Are there public beach accesses in Nags Head?
Absolutely! There are a plethora of public beach accesses in the town for visitors and locals alike to enjoy. Parking can be scarce during the busy summer months, but it is possible to secure a spot if you arrive early or late enough in the day.
What about my dog, can he/she come to hang out on the beach with me?
Not a problem! Dogs are allowed on the beach year-round as long as they are restrained by a leash that does not exceed 10 feet.
Can I go crazy with fireworks on the beach at night?
NO! Fireworks are illegal everywhere in Nags Head. You may hear other people using them at night, those people are breaking the law and susceptible to a visit from an on-duty police officer.
Is it okay if I camp on the beach at night?
Sorry, camping is not permitted anywhere on the beaches of Nags Head or within the local state or public parks. There are campgrounds located in Kill Devil Hills as well as Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Be sure to reserve early because camping spots fill up quickly!
Are there lifeguards in Nags Head to save me in the event something bad happens?
Yes, Nags Head has a team of highly-talented men and women who work in their ocean rescue department. Many of the public beach accesses have a lifeguard on duty that hangs out in the area where you first walk out. There are also lifeguards that patrol the beaches on ATVs during the daytime.
Can I go swimming in the ocean at night?
You can, but you really shouldn’t. It is very dangerous to go swimming in the ocean at night as its dark and hard to see the shoreline. Please heed this advice, only go out into the ocean during daylight hours!
Is it okay to leave my tent, chairs or volleyball nets up overnight?
Beachgoers are not allowed to leave unattended personal equipment on the beach between the hours of 8:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. daily. Tents, canopies, and awnings on the beach are prohibited from taking up more than 12 feet by 12 feet in area when standing.
Can I drive my 4-wheel-drive vehicle on the beach?
Sure, vehicles are allowed on the beach between October 1 through April 30 if you have the appropriate town-issued permit. Driving on the dunes is illegal no matter what time of year it is! ATVs are only allowed on the beach if they are being driven by a disabled person who has a town-issued permit.
I love to make fires! Can I make a fire on the beach in Nags Head?
Tame pit fires are allowed on the beach with a permit from the Nags Head Fire and Rescue. Don't get too carried away, please!
Can my significant other and I get married on the beach in Nags Head?
Yes, you can absolutely tie the knot on the town beaches! Weddings are permitted year-round and no permit is required. Chairs may be set out for a maximum of 40 guests, and no alcohol can be served - save that for the reception at your rental home or event space, please! You can use a tent if you'd like, but if the temporary structure exceeds 400' square feet, it must be inspected by the Nags Head Fire Department.
Am I allowed to dig holes on the beach?
Sure, you can dig small holes on the beach, but they must not be left unattended for any period of time at night, or for more than one hour during the day. Holes can become a hazard for beachgoers and animals as well as ocean rescue members that patrol up and down the beach during the day.
Best Time to Visit Nags Head
Without a doubt, the most popular time to visit Nags Head is during the summer months of June, July, and August. During these three months, all of the locally-owned restaurants, shops, and various other establishments are open for business as they attempt to make enough money to sustain themselves over the winter when foot traffic is much slower.
The demand for lodging is greatest during the summer, with rental rates for homes, condos, and hotels at their peak - especially during the July 4th to mid-August timeframe. Many rental homes are only available for lease during the summer.
It’s difficult if you have school-aged children, but the months of September and October are some of the best for visiting Nags Head. Rental rates are low, traffic isn’t an issue, and most independently-owned businesses haven’t shut their doors for the year. Plus the Atlantic Ocean water is still quite warm until late-October. (See spreadsheet below.)
There is typically an uptick of vacationers in the town during Thanksgiving and Christmas as visitors decide to spend their holidays with family at the beach. Most every rental home is only open for week-long stays during the summer, but it is possible to get three-day mini-vacations during the offseason.
Facts About Nags Head
On November 24, 1877, the U.S. man-of-war steamer Huron came ashore just north of Jockey's Ridge. A total of 103 sailors lost their lives that day - one of the worst shipwrecks in the history of the coast.
Nags Head was named the #1 family-friendly beach by TripAdvisor® in 2007. The town usually receives numerous awards from different travel publications each year.
Located in South Nags Head, Bodie Island Lighthouse is one of the most well-kept lighthouses in the United States. The structure underwent a three-year renovation project that was completed in 2013.
Nags Head is home to some of the very best restaurants on the barrier island including Tortugas' Lie, a restaurant that the Food Network's Guy Fieri once deemed the "hot spot" on the Outer Banks.
Nags Head is one of the largest towns in terms of square footage on the Outer Banks.
The first cottages along the Nags Head oceanfront were established in the 1880s and were constructed using mostly salvaged materials.
About 2,800 people call Nags Head home year-round. There are typically anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 people staying in the town during the busy summer months of June, July and August.
Located in Nags Head, Jockey's Ridge State Park is the tallest active sand dune system in the Eastern United States.
Jockey's Ridge is considered by many experts to be one of the very best places in the United States to learn how to hang glide. The area is ideal for beginners because the sand is very soft and there is a constant wind when you're standing on the dunes.
Destroyed by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, Jennette's Pier was later rebuilt and at 1,000 feet, the structure is one of the longest piers in all of North Carolina.
According to the Nature Conservancy organization, the Nags Head Woods Preserve is one of the best remaining examples of a mid-Atlantic maritime forest. The area is made up of 640 acres of protected wetland, dune, and hardwood forest and is a national natural landmark.
Nags Head Average Ocean Water Temperatures
Love going for a swim or catching a wave in the Atlantic Ocean during your Outer Banks vacation? Hopefully, you find the spreadsheet below helpful when deciding which time of year to visit the coast of North Carolina! The temperature ranges listed below are for the most part accurate no matter what town of the Outer Banks you decide to stay in.
Spring: 50°- 60° | Summer: 70° | Fall: 50°- 60° | Winter: 30°- 40°