One of the first tourist destinations in the United States, the town of Nags Head has a long history of welcoming visitors. When Francis Nixon built a vacation cottage for his family in the 1830s so they could escape the oppressive heat, humidity, and malaria of a North Carolina summer, he started a trend that continues to the present day. The community and citizens of Nags Head remain as welcoming to visitors today as they were 180 years ago.
Where to Stay in Nags Head
Attractions to Nags Head
There is so much to do in Nags Head that it could be considered a singular vacation destination. There is a unique historic district, great shopping and natural beauty everywhere.
Beach: With an 11-mile shoreline, Nags Head has more beaches than any other town on the Outer Banks. The beach, especially around Jennette’s Pier, is very wide with lovely, soft sand. Many CAMA parking facilities are adjacent to the beach, with several providing showers and a few with restroom facilities. South of Jennette’s Pier there is no commercial development, and public parking is much more restricted.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park: The largest sand dune on the East Coast, Jockey’s Ridge State Park is well worth a visit and a few hours of exploration. It is considered one of the finest places in the world to fly any size and style of kite, from a simple diamond shaped kite to the largest and most powerful. The highest elevation on the Outer Banks, this dune is absolutely barren. With no vegetation there is nothing to block the breathtaking panoramic views of the sound and sea. There is also nothing to block the wind, which creates perfect kite flying conditions.
Nags Head Fishing Pier is located at Milepost 11.5 on the Beach Road. A very traditional wooden pier, it has a restaurant and tackle store, and the pier extends over 750 feet into the ocean.
At the other end of Nags Head, the Outer Banks Fishing Pier is found at Milepost 18.5 on the Beach Road in South Nags Head. It’s been around for almost 50 years and extends 600 feet into the surf zone, giving anglers a great chance to hook larger fish running farther offshore.
Jennette’s Pier is the most spectacular pier on the Outer Banks. When Hurricane Isabel destroyed the original pier, there was concern this local icon would be gone forever. Fortunately, the NC Aquarium Society stepped in, bought the property and created an amazing 1,000 foot concrete pier that includes a small aquarium, event area and fully stocked gift shop.
Nags Head Links Golf Course: A true links style course, Nags Head Links parallels the Roanoke Sound and features beautiful vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and sound. This 6,126 yard, par 71 course changes dramatically with the wind. Reports indicate finesse players have much success here.
Brief History of Nags Head, NC
The first European settlers arrived at what is now Nags Head around 1700. Legend holds that the first settlers were survivors of shipwrecks. There is little historic evidence to support that claim and there is equal evidence to deny it. What is known is that the first residents earned a living through subsistence farming, hunting, fishing and salvaging the debris from shipwrecks.
After Francis Nixon built the first vacation getaway on the soundside, Nags Head quickly developed into a small but thriving tourist destination, and by 1840 the Nags Head Hotel had accommodations for more than 200 and a wooden walkway leading to the ocean. Its location at the south end of Jockey’s Ridge sealed its fate—by the end of the 1870s the building was abandoned due to ever-shifting sands.
Nags Head’s reputation as a vacation destination was already well established when in 1855 oceanside development began in Nags Head. It was started by Elizabeth City physician, Dr. W.G. Pool, who bought 50 acres of beachfront land for $30. He built his cottage then proceeded to sell lots for $1 apiece to his friends and neighbors, insuring they could all take advantage of the Nags Head lifestyle. His plan worked. By 1885 there were 13 homes lining the beach, but the real boom came when Elizabeth City builder, S.J. Twine, came to Nags Head at the turn of the 20th century. Twine’s homes featured many of the distinctive design characteristics still used in beachfront cottages today.
Where is Nags Head?
Nags Head is the southernmost of the three largest towns that occupy the northern Outer Banks—Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills are the other two. The town limits begin at Milepost 10 or ten miles south of the Wright Memorial Bridge. Coming from the west on US 64, Nags Head begins at the eastern end of the Washington Baum Bridge—the bridge that connects Roanoke Island (Manteo) with the Outer Banks beaches. That strip of road between the end of the bridge and Whalebone Junction is often referred to as the Causeway.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you drive on the beach in Nags Head?
Beach driving is allowed in Nags Head between October 1 and April 30 with a town permit.
Are dogs allowed on the beach in Nags Head?
Dogs are allowed on the beach when on a leash. We recommend you remain mindful of the temperatures of the sand during the summer months, as it gets very hot and can burn your pet’s paws. Picking up after your pet is required – burying in sand or throwing in the ocean is prohibited.
Is there public parking with beach access in Nags Head?
There are several public parking lots along the beach, some offering showers and restrooms. As you make your way south into Old Nags Head (south of Jennette’s Pier), public parking is much less abundant, if at all.
Why Is It Called Nags Head, NC?
No one is quite sure how either Nags Head or Jockey’s Ridge got their names. The most colorful tale holds that during storms, early residents of the area would strap a lantern to a horse’s neck and walk the horse back and forth on Jockey’s Ridge. The motion would mimic the motion of a ship at anchor, and then ships at sea would make for the anchorage, only to wreck on the shoals and sandbars. The residents would then salvage the goods. A good story, but it is hard to imagine a horse allowing a lantern with a flame to be attached to its head or neck.
What is the Best Time to Visit?
While many would say “there is no bad time to visit the beach”, we understand there are better times than others. Keeping in mind that everyone is different, we will just go through each season starting with the most popular — summer! Summertime on the Outer Banks is exactly how you’d expect a beach destination to be in the warmest months of the year. It is a bit more crowded than the rest of the year, but you’re nearly guaranteed the best beach days, the sunniest skies, and the warmest weather (remember, there are no guarantees when it comes to Mother Nature). Spring and fall, the shoulder seasons, are not to be overlooked though. They also offer up some epic beach days, fall more so than spring. The beauty of these seasons is that the beaches and roads are less crowded than the summer. Winter on the OBX is, again, how you’d expect a beach destination to be in the coldest months of the year. A lot of locations have closed for a couple months to get some R&R after a busy season and to gear up for another year. Winter nearly empties the beaches (with the exception of that one-off slightly warmer, sunshine-filled winter day).
How Do I Get to Nags Head?
Getting to any of the towns on the Outer Banks is as simple as driving north or south. If you are coming from the east, after going over the Wright Memorial Bridge, you continue through Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills to get to Nags Head. Coming from the west, you will go past Roanoke Island, over the Washington Baum Bridge, and you will have arrived.