Each summer, visitors flock to North Carolina’s Outer Banks for vacation. But many won’t make the trip to the northern part of the barrier island. In comparison to Kill Devil Hills or Nags Head, the village of Corolla, North Carolina, is a more quiet destination. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening and fun. There are plenty of activities and things to do in Corolla, from places to eat and shop. And there are special activities that you can not do just anywhere, like lighthouse climbing!
As a child, each year for our family vacation we loaded up in the minivan and traveled the nearly eight hours in order to spend a week in Corolla’s Whalehead area. It is a spot that is special and nostalgic for me. Even after all this time, the heart of the area remains.
When you compare Corolla to its other North Carolina’s Outer Banks counterparts, it is almost a world away. With somewhat less commercial development, Corolla maintains a feel that is closer to that of a Southern village. That isn’t to say it isn’t busy in the summer, but Corolla certainly embodies a more laid back feel.
Get to Know Corolla
Corolla, North Carolina, is a scenic village with the Currituck Sound to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. It is roughly 21 miles north of Mile Post 1. The community is north of Duck and just south of Carova Beach, a 4×4-only area that runs towards the North Carolina-Virginia border. Route 12 is essentially the only road in and out of town.
Historically, the northern area was a hunting and fishing ground for the Native Americans that lived in the region. By the middle of the 19th century, European settlers had begun settling in the area. And in 1873, work began on the Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
Although the region has never had a very large population, it hit a low in the 1950s when the lighthouse was electrified. Electrification meant that a full-time lighthouse keeper was no longer necessary. But by the 1970s, vacationers and adventurers were starting to explore and experience the area.
While Corolla is certainly less busy than the southern portions of OBX, that isn’t to say it isn’t popular. For example, during the peak summer season and long holiday weekends, traffic in and out of the area can be very congested.
Where towns like Nags Head or Kill Devil Hills can be busy and noisy with the four-lane highway lined with businesses vying for your attention, Corolla is quieter. But the activities on offer are not minimal. There are plenty of things to do in Corolla that are family favorites. You can look forward to mini-golf, go-karts, ice cream parlors, and — of course — the beach!
Things to Do in Corolla
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
To say that Currituck Beach Lighthouse is a beacon for travelers is, well, a little too on the nose. But the historic lighthouse is not one you will want to miss if you are in the neighborhood. The red brick lighthouse rises out of the woods to offer wayward sailors (and, today, slightly lost travelers) a landmark by which to set their path.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse came to life in 1875. It didn’t become automated until 1937, meaning a team of lighthouse keepers was necessary to keep it in working order and make sure the light came on each evening. The light, by the way, is visible for up to 18 nautical miles.
But to get the best understanding and appreciation of the light, you need to climb to its top. There are 220 steps and nine landings. Once you get to the top, you can take in spectacular and unobstructed views over the Atlantic Ocean, the Currituck Sound, the Whalehead Club, the lighthouse keeper buildings, and beyond. As a child, I still have strong memories of climbing to the top and waving to my grandmother down below. The lighthouse is one of those attractions that span the generations and will excite curious kids while also delighting couples.
The lighthouse is open daily from March through December, although hours do vary depending on the time of year. (The admission is actually a tax-deductible charitable donation so save those receipts!)
In 1925, Edward Collings Knight, Jr. built a 21,000 square foot hunting retreat for his wife, Marie Louise. To this day, the mansion is an impressive pop of architecture that you might not expect given the beach town.. With its bright yellow exterior, Art Nouveau style, and location on the edge of Currituck Sound, the mansion is rather eye catching.
After the couple died in the mid-1930s, family members sold the property at a cut-rate price. After that, it bounced around between owners for a bit. During World War II it was a Coast Guard recruitment base, in the 1950s it was a correctional school for boys, and the ’60s saw it used as a rocket fuel testing site. Then in 1992, after twenty years empty, the county bought and restored the property.
From February through December visitors can tour the luxury home. The interior retains its former glory with Tiffany glass sconces, Otis elevator, and corduroy walls.
Historic Corolla Village
While massive mansions dominate the landscape, there is a quiet spot to escape to: Historic Corolla Village. Hidden in the woods under lush tree cover between the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Whalehead Club, the historic village is a labor of love.
Twiddy and Co., a local home rental company, has led the effort to restore about a half-dozen buildings in this historic community. Some of the buildings date to the late 19th century and feature classic architectural details. Today, you can stroll through the area to enjoy these restored buildings and to support the shops that they now are. For example, Island Books resides in the one-time Callie Parker General Store while a salon and spa now calls the Curtis Blanche Gray House home.
The Corolla Wild Horse Fund also operates a museum to educate visitors on the wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs that also call the region home. (A trip to the museum is the best way to respect these majestic animals!)
Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education
Sharing the sound waterfront area with the Whalehead Club is a much newer and more modern building. The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education is from 2006 and is a free center that educates visitors on the diversity of North Carolina’s wildlife. The 22,000 square feet of exhibits are open year-round. You can stop in for a visit to learn more.
Let’s be honest. You’re here for the beaches and the ocean. Those sandy shores are probably one of the most popular things to do in Corolla. It does not matter if you plan to build sandcastles, hunt for seashells, ride some waves, or just watch and enjoy from afar, but Corolla Beach is still the area’s main draw.
The area’s beaches tend to be wide, clean, and not overly crowded. And, you can bring the whole pack: I mean, family! Dogs are welcome on Corolla beaches (and all of Currituck County) year-round as long as they are on a leash.
Surf fishing is also allowed as long as you have a valid North Carolina fishing license.
If you are not staying in oceanfront accommodations with private beach access, never fear. There are a number of public beach access points you can use. Not all of the Corolla Beach public beach access points have parking, showers, or bathrooms nearby. At the time of writing, only the Currituck County Southern Beach Access offers showers and bathrooms in addition to parking.
Similarly, lifeguards do operate along the Corolla beachfront. There are permanent lifeguard towers as well as roving units. Lifeguards in Currituck County are on duty from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm Memorial Day through Labor Day. Pending any warnings or flags, swimming is allowed.
If you prefer your relaxation more in the form of retail therapy, you will not be disappointed. Sure, the availability of big-name brands is limited but boutiques with unique pieces abound around the Outer Banks. The shopping areas are also a great place to stretch your legs and do some window shopping if you need a little break from the sand and sun.
The majority of the shopping options are in outdoor strip malls like Timbuck II, Monterey Plaza, and the Corolla Light Town Center. Most of the shopping options are either directly on or just off of Ocean Trail (Highway 12).
All of the shopping centers tend to have a similar blending of souvenir and beach shops, clothing stores, and home decor gift stores, along with some restaurants and ice cream shops. It tends to be one-stop shopping for the entire family.
After enjoying all of these fun things to do in Corolla, you probably will have quite the appetite. There are plenty of places to eat in Corolla, NC, and a fair amount of variety and price range, too. Obviously, seafood is without a doubt the most popular cuisine in the Outer Banks. And with good reason! But you certainly will not go hungry if you are looking to indulge in pizza, burgers, Mexican, Italian, BBQ, or more.
Hidden in Historic Corolla Village you will find Corolla Village Barbecue, a shed offering some pretty good BBQ. There are picnic tables around the shed where you can enjoy your meal and some fresh air. The nearby Corolla Pizza & Deli is another good restaurant option. If you’re looking for some sweets, local chain Duck Donuts is now a national chain. There’s a shop in the Currituck Club shopping center.
Keep in mind that with its somewhat more isolated location, seasonal closures are more likely to occur in Corolla. This is especially true with restaurants.
Adventures & Sporting
If you enjoy watersports like boating, surfing, paddleboarding, or kayaking, then Corolla is probably the spot for you. With easy access to both the sound and the ocean, you can hit the waves in the morning before enjoying a sunset from a kayak in the evening. Local companies, like Kitty Hawk Kites, offer equipment rentals if you don’t own your own gear. They will also provide lessons if you are looking to experience something new.
With its beach setting, you would think watersports are the only sporting option in Corolla. But that is definitely not the case. The Currituck Club offers a full 18-hole golf course or, of course, you can opt for the miniature kind of golf at any of the numerous family spots.
If you prefer hiking, you can enjoy some of the area’s nature trails. Just below the entrance to Carova Beach, the 4×4-only beach area, there is Currituck Banks Maritime Forest Trail & Boardwalk. The trail offers a small parking lot and leads westward towards the Currituck Sound.
If staying active is important to you, consider that when booking accommodations. Some resorts include gyms, tennis courts, and additional sporting amenities.
Where to Stay: Corolla Rentals & Hotels
Imagine waking up with a sunrise over the ocean or a sunset along the sound. Obviously, you are going to want to spend at least a few nights in town.
Corolla rental homes are the most common option. There is no shortage of local companies that rent out homes, such as Twiddy. You can “shop” for a rental home using their online catalogs. If an entire house is too large for your needs or out of your price range, there are a few hotels to choose from. For example, there is Inn at Corolla Light and Corolla Village Inn. And, of course, there are options like Vrbo and Airbnb.
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All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.