Turn left off N.C. 12 about 8 miles south of U.S. 158 to reach Coquina Beach, which offers bath shelters, lifeguards (mid-June to Labor Day), picnic shelters, and beach walks guided by National Park Service naturalists. Back on N.C. 12, to the southwest you will soon see the 156-foot-tall black-and-white-striped Bodie Island Lighthouse, in operation since 1872.
Two miles south, the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge cuts an elegant swath over the waters of Oregon Inlet; look down to see anglers wrestling with puppy drum on the spits of sand beneath the bridge. Across Oregon Inlet, the 5,834 acres of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 252/473-1131; www.fws.gov/peaisland), on Hatteras Island (the northern part, south of Bonner Bridge), attract birders from all over the country to see snow geese in winter and wading shore and upland birds in summer. Some 265 species of birds winter here. There's a parking area and raised platforms. The wildlife refuge, 10 miles south of Nags Head, is open daily 9am to 4pm; admission is free.
All along N.C. 12, you'll see places to pull off and park to reach the beaches, which are hidden from view by huge protective sand dunes. Note: Don't try to park anywhere else; the sands are very soft, and it's easy to get stuck.
Warning: Whether you're camping or just stopping at beaches where there are no lifeguards, you should always keep in mind that tides and currents along the Outer Banks are very strong, and ocean swimming can be dangerous at times.
When you get to Buxton, turn left off N.C. 12 to see the famed Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (tel. 252/473-2111; www.nps.gov/caha). The iconic lighthouse was reopened to the public in 2000 following a massive relocation effort, which moved the lighthouse back 2,900 feet to save it from toppling into the encroaching sea. Its rotating duplex beacon has a 1,000-watt, 250,000-candlepower lamp on each side and is visible for 20 miles. The lighthouse is open May 1 until October 19, 9am to 5pm. Climbing passes for the lighthouse are $7 for adults, $3.50 for seniors and children 12 and under. Tickets can be purchased in person, on-site, the day of the climb.
The village of Hatteras exists now, as it has from the 1700s, as a fishing center, with large commercial and sport fleets operating from its docks and marinas. In the spring and fall, boats bring in catches of sea trout, king and Spanish mackerel, red drum, and striped bass. In summer, most of the action is offshore, where blue marlin and other billfish are in plentiful supply. If you're interested in doing some fishing yourself, the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce can supply a list of charter boats and fishing information. Even if you don't fish, it's fun to watch the boats come in between 4 and 6pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.