Looking for some excitement for your next family getaway, but not sure which direction to go? What if I told you there’s a way to travel by both land and sea? No, I don’t mean a hovercraft rental. I’m talking about traversing the outer reaches of North Carolina’s coast via RV and ferry, with several stops along the way to stretch not only your legs, but the most active imaginations. With two dozen ferry boats that run daily along the eastern edge of the state — from Knotts Island, which hugs the Virginia state line, to Fort Fisher and the Cape Fear area — the North Carolina Department of Transportation provides road warriors plenty of opportunity to explore this chain of islands. And on these tiny slivers of land, big adventure awaits. (Before setting out on your journey, remember that reservations may be required to secure a spot on board.)
Begin by rolling south on Route 158 towards the Outer Banks and keep an eye out for the blue-and-white signs leading to the free Currituck/Knotts Island Ferry. After a 45-minute boat ride across the Currituck Sound, you’ll arrive on quaint Knotts Island. While the island is primarily residential, visitors are warmly welcomed with two public vineyards, a U-pick orchard, the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, artist and craftsman shops, and the Sandy Point Resort Campground. As the birthplace of Ducks Unlimited, Knotts Island also makes an ideal layover spot for the sporting enthusiast. Though the ferry rides to and from the island provide beautiful views of the sound, the best way to take in the marshy vistas is by kayak or canoe. Stillwater Touring Company offers guided paddling tours of the area, including a popular 5.5-mile trek to Carova Beach, where wild horses can often be spotted roaming the shoreline.
Returning to Currituck and heading further south, cross into Kitty Hawk via the Wright Memorial Bridge. Here, you’ll discover endless options for adventure, including a bit of air travel at Kitty Hawk Kites’ Hang Gliding Training Center. Try spreading your wings over the mountainous dunes of Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern U.S. The site also serves up opportunities for sandboarding (think snowboarding minus the cold stuff). If you’re still looking for an adrenaline rush, hit Kitty Hawk Sports, which can set you out sailing, sea kayaking, kite surfing, and wind surfing.
If you’re a fan of history (and heights), this stretch of highway is perfect for lighthouse learning. North of Kitty Hawk in Corolla, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse has been flashing its Fresnel lens since 1875 and is currently open for climbing. Aim your RV in the other direction past Nags Head to visit the Bodie Island Lighthouse. While you can’t scale this black-and-white standard that guards Oregon Inlet, you can visit the restored keeper’s quarters and stand under the 150-foot high structure. Continue down the slender strip of Route 12 to find the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the country’s tallest brick beacon, which is open to explorers willing to make the strenuous climb up 248 spiraling stairs.
From Hatteras, pick up the free ferry across Hatteras Inlet to Ocracoke Island (a 40-minute trip), home to miles of secluded beaches, even more lighthouses, wild ponies that descended from Spanish mustangs, and legends and lore from the days of Blackbeard. Still feeling restless? Check out the jet-ski rentals and parasailing opportunities. And for those that need a rest, the tiny fishing village hosts Teeter’s Campground, where you can hook up and stay the night. If you do choose to stay over, be sure to bring along a flashlight, since there are about as many ghost crabs on the beaches as there are ghost stories in this historic spot, and chasing the skittering critters at night is a great way to play.
The ferry ride from Ocracoke to Cedar Island is the longest of this journey at two hours and 20 minutes — as such, the fee is $45 for vehicles over 40 feet long (most cars are charged $15). While this small coastal community doesn’t offer nearly the adventure of its northern neighbors, travelers will find the Driftwood Campground, Motel, and Restaurant, as well as the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, where you can rest your wheels and kick up your heels for some peaceful kayaking, fishing, and beach combing.
And if you’re not quite ready to set the parking brake on your getaway, you can continue southward to the Cape Fear region. Kayaking, backpacking, camping, and surfing abound in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach. And not far from the South Carolina border, another ferry ($15 for vehicles over 40 feet) awaits to take you from the historic Civil War site Fort Fisher to the maritime town of Southport.