The Outer Banks of North Carolina welcome millions (yes millions) of visitors to its beaches each and every year. I have personally spent at least 20 summers spending a week at various shore points on OBX and there is no other place on earth that feels more like “beach vacation” to me than those spots. Summer might be the obvious time to visit the sandy beaches on the Outer Banks. But what about fall? Is fall a good time for an Outer Banks vacation? The answer might surprise you.
I have vacationed at dozens and dozens of beaches over my life. Many of them have been wonderful, but the beaches that call my name more than any others are the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Filled with great memories from my childhood and now wonderful memories with my own kids, the Outer Banks offer the whole package with so many things to do. You will find beaches, entertainment, dining, history, nature and r-e-l-a-x-a-t-i-o-n. Up until last year, I had only ever vacationed in OBX during summer months (most often August, but some June and July trips as well).
We have camped on Hatteras Island and also stayed in shore house rentals. Both are great options, and offer different experiences and plenty of budget-friendly accommodations.
Shoulder Seasons in the Outer Banks
Spring and fall are both great times to head to the barrier islands. In my opinion, they are some of the best times to visit. These times of year offer a more relaxed pace with fewer tourists. Last year after an exhausting summer of kid sports, camp, and a very fun but very exhausting trip to Bar Harbor and Boston, we were feeling a bit desperate for the chance to unplug.
We were out of time for summer travel and started to kick around the idea of a fall trip to the Outer Banks.
I have to tell you: Our fall visit to the Outer Banks was one of the best, most relaxing, most enjoyable trips to OBX that I can EVER remember. There were several factors that made us feel like this was the best time of year to visit, and I’d love to tell you about them!
Best Reasons to Visit Outer Banks in the Fall
Our kids return to school before Labor Day each year, so when we started to plan a fall vacation to the beach, I focused on late October. I usually try to avoid pulling them out of school for trips in the first month or two of school, so late October seemed like a good compromise. We live in Pennsylvania and by the end of October, the days (and nights) turn quite cool and aren’t exactly beach weather. I hoped that by traveling a few hundred miles south to NC, we might luck out with some warmth.
Let’s dig into some specific reasons to consider a fall visit to OBX.
By September, the burgeoning summer crowds that clog the Outer Banks all summer start to wane. Kids return to school, and the islands fill with adults (and families with little kiddos who haven’t started school yet). By October, the crowd level drops even more.
There were honestly some days on the beach when the closest people to us were half a football field length away!
The wait times everywhere were lower – from restaurants to mini golf. It was a great time to visit many popular tourist attractions because the crowds were non-existent. This saved us a lot of time and definitely created an enjoyable, low-key atmosphere.
We loved the lower-than-summer crowds at:
- Corolla Lighthouse and town
- Wright Brothers National Historic Site (Kitty Hawk)
- Mini golf
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Summers on the coast of North Carolina are HOT. Not just hot, but they also experience high levels of humidity. Some of our visits during August, in particular, have felt downright oppressive. One time we biked 12 miles for donuts (round trip) after which I was done for the rest of the day. The heat and humidity were off the charts. Sure, there is an ocean breeze that helps to cool things off a bit. But when you are off on a tourist visit to the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge state park or a lighthouse, the heat and humidity can really put a damper on the experience.
Fall in the Outer Banks offers some absolutely GORGEOUS weather. We stayed in OBX during the 3rd week of October. I know that I can’t even begin to adequately express how picture perfect our weather was. The temperatures were notably cooler than the scorching summer, with humidity non-existent. The temperatures during the day were warm enough to sit on the beach (and the kids went in the ocean). Most days had the most lovely slight chill in the air. By late afternoon I was sitting on the beach in a long-sleeve shirt and sipping a hot coffee. It was literally perfection. Average temperatures during the day were in the mid 70s.
I would imagine that by November, the weather would still be nice enough to sit on the beach, but maybe not in a bathing suit.
Gorgeous Sunrise and Sunset Opportunities
The Outer Banks offers stunning sunrises and sunsets year round. Up and down the coastline, you can find great viewing spots for both events. But in the summer, you will be waking up before the rooster crows to see that sun rise! In the fall, the sun rises a good bit later in the morning, which we loved. We didn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn on vacation and still got to sit out and watch that incredible display as the sun pops up over the ocean.
Just like any other shore town, rental properties and campgrounds charge more money during peak season. Summer is undoubtedly peak season in the Outer Banks and beach houses and campgrounds come with premium price tags.
If you have the ability schedule-wise to visit during a shoulder season like fall, you can enjoy some bigtime savings.
During our fall stay last year, we rented an oceanfront property in the town of Nags Head, NC. The rental fee was less than HALF of what the same house cost in July during the height of peak season. We were able to stay in a prime location in a big house for a fraction of the summer price.
Fall Festivals, Music Events and Fishing
From Bluegrass music concerts to wine festivals, the fall months on OBX are FULL of fun events to attend. We saw so many signs and banners for all sorts of entertainment happening around the island towns.
We saw surfing (traditional and kite surfing) across the waves every day, all day long.
Fall fishing in the Outer Banks is incredibly popular! This time of year is known as some of the best fishing on the entire East Coast. Our kids had a great time fishing right from the beach in front of our rental house. You can also fish from the fishing piers or if you really love the water, you can reserve a fishing charter! We love Nag’s Head Pier, Rodanthe Pier and Jennette’s Pier for fishing or just taking a stroll over the water.
A Couple Drawbacks to Shoulder Season
I have told you all of our favorite reasons for visiting the Outer Banks during the fall. It is with the utmost confidence that I can say: there will be future fall trips to OBX for us.
But like everything else in life, there are a few not-so-great things to consider before you book that next trip. These drawbacks to a fall stay might not bother you at all, but just in case they are deal breakers, they are worth mentioning.
- Limited hours for shops and restaurants: Once the summer crowds start to diminish, entertainment options around the islands start to ease into off-season hours. Some shops and restaurants were closed completely for the fall and winter by the time we arrived. The stores, tourist attractions and restaurants that were still open typically opened a little later and closed a little earlier than in the summer.
- Limited ferry schedule: Piggybacking on the last point, transportation schedules change depending on the demand. Fewer people means more infrequent ferries. For example, the Ocracoke vehicle ferry schedule goes from ferry departures every 30 minutes during peak season to every 2 hours during off season when the main passengers are locals.
- Hurricanes: Hurricane season on the Atlantic Ocean runs from about mid-summer through late fall. These are obviously weather phenomena that cannot be predicted or planned for. When you book a trip to OBX for a fall stay, know that your trip runs the real risk of being cut short (or canceled altogether) due to a hurricane. Be weather-aware and keep an eye on the predicted forecast a week or two before your trip. Consider purchasing hurricane trip insurance. We always purchase insurance and have had to use it once.
- Cooler temps: Yes, I know, I listed the cooler temperatures as a perk earlier in this post. That is because I happen to LOVE the lower temps and humidity. However, if you are a heat seeker and love it HOT, a fall stay in Outer Banks might be chilly for you!
- Seasonal activities are done for the year: The end of summer also means the end of certain activities on the island. For example, every year The Lost Colony in Manteo (on Roanoke Island) is a historical theatre event that is performed all summer long but ends before Labor Day. Various seasonal tours, events, and charters also hang up their hats with the end of the summer. If there is something particular that you hope to see or do during your visit, make sure you research the schedule and availability before you book your trip.
- Summer favorites not in stock: One thing that really surprised us was not finding some of our favorite foods and drinks, etc in stock at various stores and restaurants. For example, we always stop at Morris Farm Market on our way onto the island. We stock up on produce and lots of cider (they carry at least 5 or 6 flavors). A stop in late October found LOTS of pumpkins (FUN!) but very very limited cider flavor offerings (boo!) and a sparse selection of produce, far less than you’d find in August. Now certainly this makes a lot of sense. When visiting in prime summer growing season, you are going to find better selection. This was just something we hadn’t expected since we had never visited in fall. Instead of grabbing our produce there, we had to get it at the grocery store near the beach house.
- Shorter days: Long summer days with sunlight into the evening hours is a definite perk when you want to be out and about. When you travel to OBX in the fall, your days are shorter and by 7 pm or so, it is really getting dark. This made those traditional after-dinner bike rides for ice cream or walks on the beach a bit trickier to fit in. The sunsets were earlier and if you wanted to be in a prime spot to watch the sun set, you really had to plan accordingly.
The timestamp on this picture is 6:51 pm and you can see how the dark is quickly settling in:
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as you plan your own trip to the Outer Banks. If the fall experience that I described sounds enjoyable to you, I cannot recommend it enough! If you have taken a fall trip to OBX before, I would love to hear about the things you loved (and/or didn’t love). Drop us a comment and tell us about it.