Only a few weeks before we left Norfolk, Virginia, for a cross-country move, I discovered Steev had never been to the town of Kill Devil Hills. My husband, a pilot, had never been to one of the best places to visit in the Outer Banks of North Carolina… the site of the first flight! Obviously, I had to rectify that, STAT. As in, that very weekend.
Of all the things to do in Kill Devil Hills, NC, it’s claim to fame is the Wright Brothers National Monument, where the famous first flight took place. If you’re into flying or history – or, better yet, both! – visiting this memorial is one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks (yes, I’m married to a pilot, but I’m not at all biased).
KDH is also a great jumping off point to explore other nearby towns. There’s a lot to see on this chain of barrier islands! Here’s how we spent the long weekend…
Things to do in Kill Devil Hills, NC
Kill Devil Hills is an easy 1.5 hours from Norfolk, so we scrambled together a last-minute trip. I quickly packed us and our infant, Jack, into a single suitcase (yes, it can be done!) and the next morning we made a beeline for the Wright Brothers memorial.
Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial
From the second we entered the Wright Brothers museum and visitor’s center, Steev was devouring every last tidbit of information he could, constantly marveling aloud at what the brothers had set in motion. Kill Devil Hills history begins and ends with the Wright Brothers, and I don’t know what excited me more… seeing it all for myself, or seeing Steev see it all.
Wait, yeah I do… definitely the latter… It was a thrill seeing his face light up as he took it all in!
Then, on to the grounds of Wright Brothers National Memorial – a 400+ acre park. National Park Service staff has preserved everything as best they can, including the monorail the brothers used to guide their flyer as it accelerated before takeoff, and the flight line and landing locations of the first four flights that took place on December 17, 1903.
Though accommodation was available in town, the Wright Brothers spent much of their early time in KDH camping on-site so they could be close to their flyers. But it’s windy there… so they eventually built camp shacks so they could be slightly more comfortable. These have been reconstructed so you can see how simply they lived while they were testing and tweaking and literally making history.
The 60-foot tall Wright Monument is an impressive memorial to the brothers and provides an expansive view of the grounds from atop Big Kill Devil Hill, including First Flight Airport at the far side of the park (yah, you can actually fly into the place where the first flight took place).
But the coolest view is of the bronze sculpture display that’s been erected to depict the moment of the first flight. The scene’s design is based on the infamous photo taken that day by John T. Daniels Jr., at the moment of takeoff on what would become the first recorded flight. The life-sized model of the Wright Flyer makes for great photos, and it’s super cool that park staff allow it to be an open space so visitors can interact within the display.
We had fun learning about these badass brothers, following the paths of the first flights and climbing all over the statues maturely viewing the life-sized displays. For a pilot, especially, it was easy to see why the national memorial that honors them is one of the most famous Outer Banks attractions.
Go to Kill Devil Hills Beach
After a few hours at the park, we scarfed down some lunch, put Jack down for a power nap, and hit the beach! Outer Banks beaches are beautiful, and not as crowded as the more touristy beach destinations in the Carolinas. Being May, it was still a little chilly to actually get in the water, and the wind and waves were pretty high, but we had a blast building sandcastles with our little ankle-biter.
The beaches here are super family-friendly. Lifeguards in stands and lifeguards on 4-wheelers are literally everywhere. Jack had fun (I think?) trying to figure out the whole sand thing, and we watched as families set-up for evening surf fishing.
Do Some Surf Fishing!
On that note, surf fishing is one of my favorite Outer Banks activities! There are a number of local tackle shops that can hook you up (hook you up, get it?! … damn, I’m witty) with modestly-priced rods and reels, bait and tackle, and even your (required) saltwater fishing license. And they can tell you what’s biting where.
Fishing is allowed on all KDH beaches (just be mindful of beach crowds… obvi), and you can even drive your vehicle out onto the beach during the winter months with a permit (more about that here).
I’ve done my fair share of surf fishing in the OBX town of Buxton a little farther south (FYI… for the cool kids, OBX is short for Outer Banks). It’s so much fun! From fish to sharks, and all things in between, my chances of catching something are always pretty high (fret not, these little guys were quickly released).
What to do in Nags Head
Book-ending Kill Devil Hills to the north and south are the towns of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, respectively. They’re all so close to each other that when people look up things to do in one town, they’ll usually get results for all three. In my quest to be technically correct, I’m gonna be specific about what’s where… hopefully that’s helpful!
See Nags Head Fishing Pier
Speaking of fishing, there’s also a ton of pier fishing going on in OBX. After getting our fill of flying history and beach fun, it was time to check out some fun things to do in Nags Head. A stop at Nags Head Fishing Pier was first on the next day’s agenda.
After a leisurely morning playing with Jack, we arrived, hankering for a late-morning beer (don’t judge!). Still wanting to enjoy that ocean view, we forked over two bucks for a “sightseeing pass” (i.e. pier access), plus two more bucks to get beers-in-hand. We headed out, found a bench, and soaked up some more sun.
We finished up our drinks (Jack, too!) and took a walk down the pier, passing by a few salty fishermen who were hooking puffer fish left and right. They were on a roll, but gracious enough to let us interrupt to show Jack the fish, take a few pics, and pick their brains about puffer fish fishing. Surprisingly, they were keeping these little guys to filet and fry up. Guess I didn’t realize puffers made for good eatin’.
Eat at Pier House Restaurant
After getting our fill of fishy selfies, we took Jack inside to grab a bite at the Pier House Restaurant. The menu was pretty standard bar food so nothing to write home about, but we liked the local hole-in-the-wall atmosphere, and wanted to soak it up a bit longer. A little weathered, sand on the floor… it was right up our alley.
Not long after, our fisher friends came in and were seated next to us. Rather than taking their puffers home to cook, they opted for the restaurant to prepare the fish for them! That was a pretty cool service… They call it the “You hook ‘em, We cook ‘em” platter!
Soon, their puffer filets arrived table-side, battered and deep-fried. They offered me one and it was pretty darn tasty. I love little chance experiences like these when traveling… meeting random fisherman who offer you a taste of their catch? Yes, please!
Go Hang Gliding!
This was soooooooo on my agenda, mostly for Steev (I’m good on the ground, thanks). I mean, he’s a pilot, so taking flight where the first flight took place seemed like a fitting thing to do. Hang gliding has been a thing in the OBX for years, and is a huge tourist draw. Who wouldn’t want to see the Outer Banks from a birds-eye perspective? (Besides me, obviously.)
But, sadly, hang gliding wasn’t in the cards that weekend. Luckily, my fellow travel blogger Patti went, and wrote about the experience over on her blog, including some kick-ass aerial photos. Click here to read her first-hand account of hang gliding in the Outer Banks!
We did at least visit Kitty Hawk Kites at their Nags Head location; this is where the company operates their Hang Gliding School. Y’all, they offer so many options… beginner through advanced lessons, kids lessons, and a tandem hang gliding experience for those who don’t wanna go it alone.
Kitty Hawk Kites also sponsors events throughout the year. We happened to be in town on Easter weekend, so we hit up their Easter Eggstravaganza egg hunt. It was good, clean, family fun (minus the weirdly competitive parents… it’s a game, y’all). Jack may have been a little less than impressed, if him sleeping through the hunt and bunny visit was any indication! We did manage to snag him a single egg for when he woke up, so… #Easterwin?
Visit Bodie Island Lighthouse
The last morning of our trip was Easter Sunday. So, we took a detour to hit up mass at the Catholic Church on our way to our final Landmark: Bodie Island Lighthouse.
It’s pretty much an unwritten rule that you can’t leave the Outer Banks without visiting one of its lighthouses. North Carolina lighthouses are literally world famous. Bodie Island at the north end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the closest, so off we went.
The grounds and original lightkeeper’s home, now turned visitor’s center, are so well kept and pristine. While we were there, we walked the dock to an elevated platform where birdwatchers go to get their fix. Pea Island Wildlife Refuge is adjacent to the lighthouse, so lots of birds frequent the area.
There’s just something cool about lighthouses — how they were built, how they worked, the people who lived in them… and they’re fun to photograph! Here’s just a couple pics from the hundred or so I took (you’re welcome for my restraint).
Hotels in Kill Devil Hills, NC
There’s a good selection of places to stay in Kill Devil Hills, especially if you expand your search to include Kitty Hawk and Nags Head on either side. Since it was our last weekend getaway before the stress of a big move, I wanted to make it a little special by trying to find a unique, cutesy-fartsy B&B for us. But, it was a last-minute trip… And I had a baby in tow… So, I couldn’t find any that could host us on such short notice.
Days Inn Kill Devil Hills
I reluctantly opted for the Days Inn Mariner… and ended up being pleasantly surprised! I decided on a little suite, with a separate living area that had a tiny kitchenette and couch, because we wanted space for Jack’s Graco Pack ‘n Play and a little extra separation at bedtime.
The hotel is waterfront and our room was an oceanview, just 20 steps from the sand. The close proximity made it super easy for us to pop out for a little beach fun without having to haul a bunch of stuff out and back, or get our car all sandy with gear.
The room was clean and well-appointed for a budget hotel. And, while pretty basic, their continental breakfast was super handy in the morning before we set off on our adventures.
Or, compare rates among other Kill Devil Hills hotels here:
Sea Ranch Resort
Full disclosure: we didn’t stay here, but the Days Inn staff recommended their Beachside Bistro for dinner. The resort was just next door to our hotel, so we took their advice.
Well, we walked over that first night and I immediately got hotel envy. Granted, it was a 3-star as opposed to our 2, so I probably shouldn’t compare… but as you might expect, it was a touch nicer and a little more full-service, so we’ll be trying it on our next visit.
Kill Devil Hills Restaurants
Kudos to the Days Inn staff, because we really enjoyed their recommendation of Beachside Bistro restaurant! The bistro had a clam chowder special the first night we went (we dined there twice) that was kinda surprising. The local Wancheese clams they used in it were delicious.
No New England style here, baby (thank goodness)! Rather than that gummy, gloopy cream base, clam chowders in NC are broth-based.
Kitty Hawk Restaurants
Wanting to end the weekend with a kick-ass Sunday brunch before our short drive home, we finished up our tour of Bodie Island Lighthouse and headed north back to Kitty Hawk. Just before turning onto the bridge for the mainland, we stopped at Rundown Café.
Unlike the name suggests, the Rundown Café is anything but rundown. The beautiful koi pond at the entrance, super bright and colorful interior, and great “Tsunami Deck” outside make it a destination in itself. And the food is gooooooood. So good, we dined there twice (we’d already been for lunch after our visit to the Wright Brothers memorial).
It offers Caribbean-style cuisine and gets its name from a Jamaican dish called Rundown Soup. Of course, we had to try it. Fish, coconut milk, onions, tomatoes and sweet potatoes may sound like a weird combo… but it’s freaking delicious!
Pair that with a mimosa and soft-shell crab Bloody Mary, throw in a grilled shrimp salad and some seared tuna, and you’re good to go. If I had one restaurant recommendation to give folks traveling to/near Kitty Hawk, it would be Rundown Café.
If You Go
Early May is a great time. It’s right before school gets out, so it’s not crowded with tourists yet. It’s late enough in the spring that you’ll probably get good weather — though, that’s a toss-up. This trip, it was just warm enough to hit the beach in the afternoon, but we had to wear jackets the rest of the time. I’ve been other times in May when it was cold AF. Pack layers!
Don’t discount some of the budget hotels. We were pleasantly surprised with Days Inn. On a longer trip, I might’ve opted for a condo or B&B so we could spread out more and make some of our own meals, but for a quick trip I wouldn’t have wanted to spend time cooking anyway. So, I was glad the hotel worked out the way it did.
The Outer Banks are NOT one of your touristy beach destinations! If you want a main drag with amusement park-style rides or rowdy late-night bars, don’t choose OBX. If you want laid-back and family-friendly with low-key attractions, go here. Enjoy!