A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

  [caption id="attachment_169212" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] The North Beach Access Road is the start of NC Highway 12.[/caption] Corolla North Beach Access Road From Corolla Beach, Highway 12 emerges from the

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

  [caption id="attachment_169212" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] The North Beach Access Road is the start of NC Highway 12.[/caption] Corolla North Beach Access Road From Corolla Beach, Highway 12 emerges from the

Photo Essay/

The Beach Road: A Stop-by-Stop Guide to Exploring NC Highway 12


The North Beach Access Road is the start of NC Highway 12. photograph by Chris Hannant


North Beach Access Road

From Corolla Beach, Highway 12 emerges from the sand as if rising from a tunnel beneath the ocean. Just north of here, Corolla’s famous wild mustangs make their home among the dunes.


Historic Corolla Village

White clapboard and brown Nags Head-style cottages from the turn of the 20th century have been authentically restored into shops, restaurants, and offices. Among the highlights are the Corolla Chapel and the Art Nouveau-style Whalehead mansion, a former duck hunting retreat.


The red-brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse is 162 feet tall. photograph by Chris Hannant

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

First lit in December 1875, our northernmost lighthouse is one of only a few in the country that still uses its original Fresnel lens. Those who climb the 220 steps to the top are rewarded with views of Currituck Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, and the village below, tucked among the trees.

1101 Corolla Village Road
(252) 453-4939


Explore on two wheels along the Corolla Greenway. photograph by Chris Hannant

Corolla Greenway

To experience Highway 12 from a different perspective, trade four wheels for two: Part concrete and part boardwalk, the mostly shaded bike path follows the road for about 10 miles, bordering wind-twisted maritime forest and passing some of Corolla’s attractions.


The Duck Town Park Boardwalk is a beautiful spot to watch the sun set into the sound. photograph by Chris Hannant


Duck Town Park Boardwalk

Duck’s charming village features a few dozen businesses, including art galleries, gift shops, specialty food stores, outfitters, restaurants, and more. A boardwalk connects many of the soundside storefronts and traces about a mile of marsh on the edge of Duck Town Park. Fish or catch crabs from the pier; launch a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard; or watch for waterfowl in this designated bird sanctuary.



Find rest and relaxation at Sanderling Resort. photograph by Emily Chaplin

Sanderling Resort

Enlist the help of an in-house Adventure Planner to arrange nearby activities by land, air, or sea, or stay in and enjoy the spa, beach bar, three pools, and two upscale restaurants.

1461 Duck Road
(844) 890-4393


Duck Donuts can satisfy any sweet tooth. photograph by Chris Hannant

Duck Donuts

This nationwide franchise started right here in Duck, with fresh, hot doughnuts made to order with custom frostings, drizzles, and toppings in dozens of combinations.

1190 Duck Road
(252) 262-1406


In June, anglers like Jeffrey Robinson can catch sea mullet or puppy drum near the Avalon Pier. photograph by Chris Hannant

Kitty Hawk & Kill Devil Hills

Avalon Pier

Since 1962, generations of families and fishermen have come to Avalon Pier to cast a line, grab a bite, and watch the sun set over the ocean. Lining the pier are dozens of bright blue “memorial fish” engraved with the names of visitors — a testament to the memories made here.

2111 North Virginia Dare Trail
(252) 441-7494


Rundown Cafe

Named for a Jamaican fish soup called The Rundown, this restaurant has been serving global island fare — made with local seafood and inspired by the team’s travels to the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim — since 1993.

5218 North Virginia Dare Trail
(252) 255-0026


Ocean Boulevard Bistro & Martini Bar

The 1948 Virginia Dare Hardware building was transformed into a fine-dining restaurant in 1995. Some original features are still intact, like steel ceiling beams from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

4700 North Virginia Dare Trail
(252) 261-2546


Start the day with breakfast and a Bakon Mary from The Jolly Roger Restaurant. photograph by Chris Hannant

The Jolly Roger Restaurant

The menu at this 51-year-old restaurant — from breakfast to late-night drinks — is as eclectic as the decor: a mix of Christmas lights, pirate statues, coastal murals, and old-timey movie posters.

1836 North Virginia Dare Trail
(252) 441-6530


Art’s Place

When Art Stiles opened a restaurant and bait shop in 1978, he started a community institution. Through the Joy Fund, he helped hundreds of local families in need, earning his induction into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine several years before he died in 2010.

4624 North Virginia Dare Trail
(252) 261-3233



South of the monument on Big Kill Devil Hill, Orville Wright takes flight on his bronze-and-steel replica while Wilbur guides the wing and onlookers cheer. photograph by Chris Hannant

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Self-taught engineers Orville and Wilbur Wright forever changed the skies with their first successful flights in Kitty Hawk in 1903. At their memorial park, trace their flight path, see a reconstruction of the camp where they lived, learn about their flight experiments through interactive exhibits, and examine a “please touch” sculpture of the Wright Flyer.

1000 North Croatan Highway
(252) 473-2111


Find a locally made treasure at Seagreen Gallery. photograph by Chris Hannant

Nags Head

Seagreen Gallery

A family of artists turns what many might see as trash — old license plates, driftwood, discarded glass, antique home goods — into colorful, whimsical pieces. Rabbits, a Chinese water dragon, a cat, a dog, and a duck often roam in the garden out back.

2404 South Virginia Dare Trail
(252) 715-2426



Cool off with frozen yogurt from Surfin’ Spoon. photograph by Chris Hannant

Surfin’ Spoon

In the 1960s, customers at the former Jockey’s Ridge Restaurant tipped servers by sticking money into the ceiling slats. When pro surfer Jesse Hines and his wife, Whitney, opened a frozen yogurt bar there in 2012, they continued the tradition, donating the money to the nonprofit Surfing for Autism.

3408 South Virginia Dare Trail
(252) 441-7873


Climb the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. photograph by Chris Hannant

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Mountains of sand extend as far as the eye can see at the tallest living sand dune on the East Coast. The desert-like landscape calls to adventurers armed with sandboards, sleds, and hang gliders — and to kids who just want to roll down the sandy, shifting slopes.

300 West Carolista Drive
(252) 441-7132


Cavalier Surf Shop

In a small, bright yellow building, one of the Outer Banks’ oldest surf shops — established in the early 1960s — offers surf lessons and board rentals alongside all sorts of beach gear.

4324 South Virginia Dare Trail
(252) 441-7349


Tar Heel Motel

This old-school motel was renovated into a modern destination, with retro touches like historical photos and vintage postcards. Rooms decorated to reflect the 1950s and ’60s are named for local fish and waterways.

7010 South Virginia Dare Trail
(877) 585-3292


The Marc Basnight Bridge provides stunning views of Oregon Inlet. photograph by Chris Hannant

Marc Basnight Bridge

Heralded as a marvel of engineering, the new bridge connecting Bodie and Hatteras islands, completed in 2019, was designed to withstand the turbulent waters of Oregon Inlet. Stretching for 2.8 miles, the bridge replaced the iconic 1963 Bonner Bridge, which has found new life — literally — as an artificial reef.


Jeanette’s Pier is open year-round and offers panoramic views. photograph by Chris Hannant

Nags Head Piers

Having withstood time, tides, and tempests, Nags Head Fishing Pier, Jennette’s Pier, and the Outer Banks Fishing Pier offer family fun and endless views of the ocean, just as they have for decades.


The first two Bodie Island lighthouses were destroyed due to foundation problems and a run-in with Confederate troops during the Civil War. photograph by Chris Hannant

Bodie Island Lighthouse

Separated from the highway by a large freshwater marsh, this lighthouse is easily missed if you’re not paying attention. At 156 feet tall, it’s well worth a stop to climb to the top, learn about its history — this third iteration was completed in 1872 — and admire its picturesque setting among the pines.

8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Road
(252) 473-2111


The Oregon Inlet Life-Saving Station offers a pretty picture at sunset. photograph by Chris Hannant

Rodanthe & Avon

Oregon Inlet Life-Saving Station

From the Bonner Bridge Pier — a remnant of the old bridge — a short walk through the dunes leads to this 1898 life-saving station. The building is empty now, but the exterior is well-preserved — part of an iconic landscape on the Outer Banks.



Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station

This museum and historic site — built in 1874, the first of seven life-saving stations in North Carolina — includes two restored stations, cookhouses, a stable, water towers, and stories and artifacts from the early days of ocean rescue.

23645 NC Highway 12
(252) 987-1552


Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Nearly 6,000 acres provide habitat for the more than 370 species of birds that nest or overwinter on our barrier islands. Spot snow geese, tundra swans, and other shorebirds and waterfowl on a hike through the marsh, from a kayak, or during programs at the visitor center.

14500 NC Highway 12
(252) 987-2394


Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the first of its kind when it was established in 1953. photograph by Chris Hannant

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Stretching more than 70 miles from Bodie Island to Ocracoke, Cape Hatteras National Seashore encompasses some of the most pristine natural beauty on the Outer Banks. With limited development, the beaches attract nesting birds and sea turtles, not to mention vacationers in search of a little piece of heaven.

(252) 473-2111


Feel the breeze at Kite Point. photograph by Chris Hannant


Kite Point

With its consistent breezes, easy access, and shallow waters that extend for hundreds of feet, this unmarked beach on the sound, south of the Haulover parking lot, attracts world-class kiteboarders — and spectators who come to see them fly across the water on their colorful rigs.



The dock at The Inn on Pamlico Sound is the perfect spot to watch the sun set. photograph by VisitNC.com

The Inn on Pamlico Sound

This 13-room boutique hotel is quaint and spacious, casual and luxurious all at once. Many of the rooms overlook the sound, as do the outdoor pool and Café Pamlico, the on-site fine-dining restaurant.

49684 NC Highway 12
(866) 726-5426


Nearly two decades after it experienced a change of scenery, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse remains a Hatteras Island marvel. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Editor’s Note: The Cape Hatteras Light Station is temporarily closed for climbing due to a large restoration project. The Museum of the Sea and Park Store remain open.

Rising 198 feet above the landscape, America’s tallest brick lighthouse is also one of its most iconic, with its red base and black-and-white swirl pattern climbing like a vine up its sides. Built in 1870 to protect ships from the treacherous Diamond Shoals, the Cape Hatteras Light was moved inland in 1999 so that it could be protected from encroaching waves.

46379 Lighthouse Road
(252) 473-2111


Choose from dozens of syrup flavors at Hatteras Sno-Balls. photograph by Chris Hannant

Frisco & Hatteras

Hatteras Sno-Balls

The watermelon pink cedar-shake building on the side of the road hints at the brightly colored treats inside: 12 flavors of ice cream or frozen yogurt topped with shaved ice in any number of the shop’s 62 syrup flavors. Can’t decide on just one? Try the Rainbow blend.

53203 Delmar Willis Road
(252) 562-4488


Stock up on sweets at Scotch Bonnet Fudge & Gifts. photograph by Chris Hannant

Scotch Bonnet Fudge & Gifts

For more melt-in-your-mouth treats, this equally vibrant gift shop — named for the state shell — has been a go-to stop for more than 60 years, with 24 flavors of saltwater taffy and 33 flavors of homemade fudge.

51684 NC Highway 12
(888) 354-4242


Forget people-watching — keep an eye on the boats at Hatteras Harbor Marina. photograph by Chris Hannant

Hatteras Harbor Marina

This small marina is home base for inshore and offshore commercial and charter fishing. Enlist the help of a captain and venture out to sea to cast a line, or watch fishermen bring in their hauls to be sold at local seafood markets and shipped across the country.

58058 NC Highway 12
(252) 986-2166


The original Fresnel lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was the centerpiece of the museum’s lobby until it was dismantled to prepare for building renovations. The museum will reopen in late 2023. photograph by Chris Hannant

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

With structural elements resembling the hull and portholes of a ship, this free museum offers fascinating exhibits and interactive programs that encourage visitors to explore the maritime history of the Outer Banks — known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because of the dangerous shoals that have wrecked more than 2,000 ships.

59200 Museum Drive
(252) 986-0720


The ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke is a quintessential part of an NC Highway 12 adventure. photograph by Chris Hannant

Ocracoke Ferry

To continue the journey along Highway 12 on this hour-long ferry crossing, you don’t even need to get out of your car — but you should, of course. Feel the sun and the breeze, and watch seagulls and dolphins racing the boat on its way from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke.



At Scratchmade Snackery, Kitty Oden makes mini sourdough loaves, cheesecake bars, and other baked goods. photograph by Chris Hannant

Scratchmade Snackery

After graduating with a culinary degree in baking, Kitty Oden and her husband, Kyle, moved to her family’s homestead on Hatteras in 2014. Not long after, they opened this bakery, offering traditional French pastries, cinnamon rolls, cookies, brownies, and as many goodies as they can fit in their display cases.

57544 NC Highway 12
(252) 986-0048


Lee Robinson General Store

Stock up on beach supplies ranging from specialty foods and wines to books and rental bikes at this shop that’s been around since 1948. The building is a 1990 replica of the original structure, but it still maintains the old-timey feel of a traditional general store.

58372 NC Highway 12
252) 986-2381


Colorful works of art abound at SeaWorthy Gallery. photograph by Chris Hannant

Seaworthy Gallery

This upscale gallery features works by regional artists, including paintings by owner Carole Nunnally and the island’s largest collection of North Carolina-made pottery. The gallery is divided into themes: shorebirds; marine life; boats and lighthouses; “whimsical”; jewelry and pottery; and people, places, and things.

58401 NC Highway 12
(252) 986-6510


See the descendants of colonial Spanish mustangs at the Ocracoke Pony Pens. photograph by Chris Hannant


Ocracoke Pony Pens

“Banker ponies” — which are actually descended from shipwrecked colonial Spanish mustangs — once roamed free on Ocracoke Island. To protect them from vehicles on Highway 12, 188 acres of soundside beach and marsh were enclosed in 1959, and the ponies have been cared for by the National Park Service ever since. A viewing platform overlooks their paddock and stables, and the 15 or so horses that call the island home.



Ocracoke Village surrounds its harbor, Silver Lake. photograph by Chris Hannant

Ocracoke Village

Highway 12 passes right through this waterfront village, past quaint motels and historic inns, past beachy gift shops, past restaurants serving up seafood fresh off the boat. On this part of the highway, the speed limit of 20 miles per hour forces visitors to slow down, look around, and start living on island time.



Ocracoke Beach offers a wide-open playground during the day — and stunning stargazing at night. photograph by Chris Hannant

Ocracoke Beach

This secluded beach on the Atlantic side of the island is considered one of the best in the country. Operated by the National Park Service, it’s often quiet, with plenty of room to spread out. And thanks to the nearby Gulf Stream, the water is warmer than in other parts of the Outer Banks.



The Ocracoke Lighthouse is the oldest continuously-operating lighthouse in the state. photograph by Chris Hannant

Ocracoke Lighthouse

Small and sturdy, the Ocracoke Lighthouse stands just 75 feet tall, the shortest of our oceanfront lighthouses. Its whitewashed exterior enables ships to see it by day as well as by night, when its stationary light shines up to 14 miles out to sea, inviting mariners to come rest in Ocracoke’s peaceful harbor.

360 Lighthouse Road
(252) 473-2111


Highway 12 passes through acres of forest in Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge. photograph by Chris Hannant

Cedar Island

Cedar Island Ferry

The highway dead-ends near the southern end of Ocracoke Island, where another ferry carries vehicles and passengers two hours and 15 minutes across Pamlico Sound to Cedar Island and the mainland.



Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge

After traveling about 100 miles over land and nearly 30 over water, the final stretch of Highway 12 winds for 12 more miles through a wildlife refuge before ending at U.S. Highway 70 near the community of Sealevel. With coastal marsh and woodland habitat extending for miles on either side, the last impression of this scenic byway is one of untamed natural beauty.


This story was published on Jun 05, 2023

Katie King

Katie King is a managing editor at Our State.