The Ultimate Summer RV Road Trip on North Carolina's Outer Banks
It's the first night of our trip, and a sudden rainstorm washes across the beach. But we're snug inside an Airstream, eating boiled peanuts and drinking bottles of beer from the tiny fridge. By the next afternoon, we've had a mostly sunny day of exploring, and we're not going to cloister inside our camper again. We nap while the ferry takes us—and our trailer—to our next destination. Then we buy fresh sheepshead fillets at a local seafood shop to cook on the grill back at our campsite. A few people wave when walking past. By night three, we've become fully RV social. Our neighbors at the next site over invite us to stop by. They've got a fire going and wine to sip while the four of us rate the sunset. (It's a solid eight and a half, maybe a nine.)
This feels like just the right elixir. Day after day, we drive another stretch of open road, breathe in the salt air, and then slip into slingback chairs at sites with dune-side or waterfront views. No hotels or beach house bookings for this trip to the Outer Banks (aka the OBX). Instead, our lodging is always in tow. Though we're a longtime camping couple, this is the first time we've rented an RV.
The idea behind this trip is to find the best places possible to wake up each day by the ocean. We've mapped out a basic plan. Beginning the drive from the southern reaches of the Outer Banks, we'll follow the mostly two-lane State 12 (NC-12). This ribbon of pavement frequently skirts the Atlantic, sometimes bringing cars within yards of the surf. The route continues past lighthouses and beach villages for some 148 miles—requiring two ferry rides to complete—and culminates on the northernmost Currituck Banks, where the oceanfront is traversed by four-wheel drive trucks and wild horses. By then, Virginia will be in view.
Know the Logistics
If you like packing and unpacking or figuring out systems and organizing, you'll love camping. Seriously, that's part of the experience. And it's also liberating to look back from the driver's seat and see a curvy-cool Airstream gliding along behind you. The full-size bed inside with plush linens and picture window views is a game changer, and the overall RV experience is a far cry from our past road trip getaways, made in a series of trusty Volvo wagons we've had over the years and headed for wherever we've had a room reserved.
Bringing a travel trailer creates a new dynamic, beginning with the extended-cab truck we rent to do the pulling. The RV we've hitched to it is Airstream's fully equipped 16-foot Bambi model. At this compact length, we should be able to stop most anywhere we like. Besides the bedroom, a kitchenette, a table, a TV, and even a bathroom with a shower are all inside. It's a "wet bath" in the mode of a marine head, with the shower and toilet sharing the same compartment and a drain in the floor. Although I'm skeptical at first, all hesitation melts away in the first moments of a hot-water shower at the end of a camping day.
Plot Your Course
From end to end, North Carolina's Outer Banks is a string of offshore barrier islands mounded with some of the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast, delivering an edge-of-the-world seascape. The Atlantic shows its wonders and power here. High tides and storms sometimes blanket sections of the route with shifting, powder-soft sand. Locals are used to the changing scenery, and bulldozers are parked at the ready to get the roadways open again quickly. (Just weeks before our trip, a storm had rendered some parts of State 12 impassable. But all was clear by the time we set out.)
With our windows open to saltwater air, we're ready for the ride. Immediately, we sense the remoteness. On Cedar Island, brackish estuaries and vast causeway views make up much of the little-developed scenery in the Croatan National Forest and Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to red wolves and stands of virgin longleaf pines. Anticipation builds as we pass frequent road signs marking the remaining miles to the ferry landing and pointing the way to the fishing communities of Atlantic and Sealevel on the banks of Core Sound. At Cedar Island Resort, RVs fill campsites closest to the ferry dock and there's a horse paddock near the dunes. After that first rainy night, we wake to a clearing sky and open the Airstream door to see a curving strip of beach on the edge of the campground where another couple is already walking a pair of dogs. At the last minute, we had decided to bring our two pups along on this trip, and after noticing a few more duos of poodles, hounds, and terriers, we joke that there must be a two-dog minimum on the RV circuit.
Around midmorning—more than an hour before the next ferry to Ocracoke Island—a line starts to form. It's a parade of travel trailers, cars, and trucks loaded with surfboards and bicycles, coolers and fishing rods. We pack up and pull in line, too, waiting for our turn to board and make the crossing. The open-deck ferryboat from Cedar Island to Ocracoke hums along for just over two hours to a terminal in a sheltered harbor.
Ocracoke Inlet was already a busy ships' passage by the 1700s, and in the village that hugs the harbor, which is called Silver Lake, we find sand roads shaded by oak trees around a circa-1823 lighthouse, century-old cottages with picket fences, and cemetery markers for British navy men (lost in a World War II sinking off the coast). We've booked a dune-side spot at Cape Hatteras National Seashore-Ocracoke Campground, just a few miles from the island's hub. In the evening, we look up to see a sky that's chalkboard black and speckled with stars, uninterrupted by urban light pollution. In the morning, we wake to the sound of Atlantic waves, brew coffee in the RV, and follow a beach path over the dunes at dawn, doing our best to dodge the prickles of sandspurs.
At the northern end of 16-mile-long Ocracoke is a second ferry landing, this one transporting passengers to Hatteras Island, just over an hour away. Surf contests are held near the black-and-white striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which was famously (and carefully) moved 2,900 feet landward from the encroaching saltwater in 1999. And at nearby private Frisco Woods Campground on the Pamlico Sound side of the island, we meet neighbors on a friendly cul-de-sac and watch the kite-surfers fly across the water in the final daylight hours. Fishing and surfing rule on Hatteras. Before dawn, we hear engines start and watch as some of our fellow campers load fishing gear and coolers onto trucks to drive out to surf-fishing hot spots on the windswept sands of Cape Point.
Continuing north, we reach Bodie Island, home to more untamed beaches on Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Sea oats flutter and blanket flowers (also called gaillardias) bloom yellow and red on the dunes. The whole scene looks canyon-like as we drive through. Two historic lighthouses rise above the sand and tree lines, Bodie Island Lighthouse near Oregon Inlet and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse about 42 miles northward, not far from the sands where wild horses roam. We test our four-wheel drive on the beach for several miles.
In between the two lights, in Nags Head, are the jaw-droppingly tall sand dunes at Jockeys Ridge State Park (the tallest on the OBX), along with mini-golf courses, smoothie shops, boutiques, and wine bars. At the site beside ours at the Oregon Inlet Campground on the national seashore, a couple who just parked their RV are installing pink lawn flamingos as their first order of business before unfolding a pair of oversize chairs with armrest drink holders.
We observe, explore, and begin to find our own pace and style. Flamingos next trip? Maybe some version of that, but we'd definitely bring patio lights to string outdoors again and more blankets and pillows for the lounge chairs—for even better sunset watching and stargazing. The Outer Banks adventuring has fueled our RV interests. By midweek, our conversations are already turning to when, where, and how we can next get another dose of driving in the salty breezes and camping by the sea.
How to Book the Perfect Trailer
As people look for new ways to travel, there's a growing interest in RVs, says Chris Leimberger, who founded Georgia-based Stay Sublime in 2019 to focus on luxury rentals with a growing fleet of top-of-the-line Airstream travel trailers—typically delivered to the location of the renter's choice, provided it's within 100 miles of Atlanta or Miami. Or you can ask for a quote if your destination is farther away from those cities (staysublime.com).
"Our phone really started ringing off the hook a few months into the pandemic," says Leimberger.
If you borrow or rent a camper that you'll need to tow, you might also require a larger-size vehicle. (We rented a Ford 4WD from our local Enterprise Truck Rental.) Whether online or in person, you'll need to learn basic RV skills: hitching, towing, and leveling the camper; hooking up water and electricity; emptying black water tanks; etc.
Rental options can also be found on other websites such as outdoorsy.com and rvshare.com. Leimberger notes that there's a growing number of wonderful farm, vineyard, waterfront, and woodland campsites located on private property. You can view and book them online at hipcamp.com.
RV 101: Lessons Learned
- Make the online campground reservations early. If your travel plans change, you can try stopping by the site's office to find out what they have available.
- Book both private and public campgrounds to sample the wide variety of amenities that they offer and the unique character of each.
- Plan for the ferry. Visit ncdot.gov/divisions/ferry to see the schedules and fees and make reservations, as recommended.
- Pack paper plates and woven holders for easy cleanup; a folding aluminum outdoor table; bamboo-frame slingback chairs; a portable charcoal grill; trash bags; aluminum foil; a salad spinner for local produce; fast-drying Turkish towels; and headlamps for nighttime tasks and dog walks. Get some foldable bikes for campground roads and any places where parking is limited. We also enjoyed our Perfection surfboard, shaped by Kelly Richards, a board maker since the 1980s.
- Bring spices and pantry basics, and shop for local fare. We stocked up at Sugar Island Bakery in Surf City (for biscuits, cakes, fruit bars, North Carolina cheeses, boiled peanuts, and coffee), Ocracoke Seafood Company, and the Tomato Shack (a produce market in Duck).
- Give yourself time. Veteran RV travelers park at least two nights at any site. One of our campground neighbors said, "I won't stay less than four nights or there's no relaxation."
- Consider your companion. Two people make RV logistics work; it takes teamwork to back in and set up a trailer, open the awning, and organize the gear.
- Embrace the camper's "rule of thirds": one-third of your time for getting there and setting up, another third for exploring and relaxing, and the final third for handling errands and delays.