My first visit to Nags Head, North Carolina was in the summer of 1958. Contrary to the black and white photos taken from that time, the scenery was colorful. From the whiteness of the sand dunes under clear blue skies to the colorful beach shacks like the one my parents rented, this quiet little beach town was the ideal spot for a perfect family-friendly vacation.
While my mother was busy winning my first Brownie Instamatic camera playing bingo in a local parlor, I was with my dad catching my first flounder off of one of the area’s bridges. At night we’d go roller skating or bowling, or sometimes just sit outside and listen to the ocean.
Visitors to Nags Head now post full high-definition color digital photos on social media via their 8-12 MP iPhone cameras. They post pictures of their scrumptious seafood dinners and go live on Facebook in case anyone is interested in watching their kids building sandcastles.
The days of trashing Dad’s beloved Studebaker with wet sand and seashells have long since passed and times have certainly changed, but let’s see if the years took the magic of this quaint beach town with them. Let’s find out if it’s still possible for families to create similar type memories in Nags Head, just in an updated sort of way.
Nags Head Today
Vacationers began coming to Nags Head as early as 1830 and its popularity has never waned. Still known as a family-friendly destination, modern Nag Head offers a quieter more subdued atmosphere than that of nearby Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head. With a population of only 3,000 full-time residents, Nags head is sandwiched between Cape Hatteras’s 70-miles of protected beaches to the south and Kitty Hawk to the north.
As in days past, Nags Head remains a rest and relaxation destination where whiling the hours away doing absolutely nothing is totally acceptable and having no set agenda is the rule. Oceanfront cottages from the 19th and 20th century in Nags Head’s historic Cottage Row can still be rented. These same cottages were originally rented by wealthy tobacco planters wanting to get off the farm for a week or so, and outside of some modern renovations, not much of the landscape has changed.
Nags Head Beach
With 12-miles of sparkling sand beaches with 30 public access points, 10 of which provide lifeguards, Nags Head Beach has always been and still remains, the towns main attraction. Unlike many public beaches, every single mile of beach in Nags Head is dog-friendly provided they are kept on a leash. Coolers with adult beverages are allowed as long as there are no glass containers.
It’s fairly easy to find an uncrowded stretch of sand where kids can run and play and their parents can stretch out without fear of being hit by an out of control frisbee.
The pier was built in 1939 but as the 2000’s rolled around it was in bad shape from years of pounding hurricane abuse. When Hurricane Isabelle had its way with the pier in 2003 it looked like the final curtain call for this historic landmark but the state of North Carolina took an interest and it has now been totally renovated.
On any given day anglers on the pier can be found pulling in their catches while visitors enjoy the small museum and the scientific research center housed in the pier’s building. Kids’ programs, such as learning about local sea life or how a wind turbine produces energy, make learning fun and the programs are ongoing throughout the year.
Outer Banks Pier
The Outer Banks Pier is located in South Nags Head but can be seen from anywhere in town. Its primary purpose is for fishing and anglers have been known to pull in some hardy flounder and sheepshead. Just like the beach, the pier rarely to never gets crowded and it’s ideal for some bonding time between parents and their kids.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
The park is best known for its looming mountains of sand dunes towering towards the sky. The dunes serve as a launching pad for hang-gliders and during the summer months, the park plays host to sand sculpture competitions which draw in awestruck spectators from near and far.
Sandboarding down the dunes is an experience beyond compare. The sand is smooth and the dunes are tall making clipping along at a fast rate of speed similar to snow-sledding down a steep hill without wearing a bulky snowsuit and without freezing nostril hairs.
The best panoramic view of Nags Head can be seen from the park and the sunsets are so surrealistic they look like an artists vision painted on canvas.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
This circa 1892 lighthouse with its 200 steps is a steep climb to the top but well-worth every bead of sweat it takes to get to the top. The bird’s eye view of freshwater marshlands, the Atlantic Ocean, and towering tall pines is one that should not be missed. The historic keepers quarters now serve as the visitors center and the office of the park ranger but not much has been done to change its original appearance.
Stand-Up Paddle Board and Kayak Tours
The best way to see and experience Nags Head is from the water. Take an early morning or an evening tour of Cape Hatteras National Seashore or the marshes of Roanoke Sound via the quietness of a kayak or a paddle board so as not to disturb the abundant wildlife or aquatic sea life. The guides are well experienced and know the exact vantage spots for witnessing the most there is to see.
If exploring the area from the water without the benefit of a guide is anyone’s preference, paddle boards and kayaks can be rented by solo adventurers.
If a beachside family vacation is on your agenda but the thought of crowds and the typical tourist hub-bub is of little interest, consider Nags Head for a more laidback time of sun and fun. Just as my childhood memories of Nags Head are still as fresh as though it were yesterday, there are still plenty of memories there just waiting to be made. Go get ya’ a few.