See The Wild Horses On North Carolina’s Outer Banks

The Northern Outer Banks Are A Horse Of A Different Color. 

If you’re local to the Outer Banks, you’ve undoubtedly heard tales of the majestic wild horses that roam the beach just north of Corolla in Currituck County. Perhaps you’ve even seen them galloping along the shores or wading through the sea in all their glory. But how did they get to such a remote area of the state? And how have they survived? Ahead, we’ll elaborate on the origins of Corolla's wild horses, the best ways to see them up close, and other exciting things to do in one of the Carolinas’ most remote areas.

How To See The Wild Horses In Corolla

Part of the beauty of the wild horses of Corolla is their somewhat elusive nature. It is important to keep in mind that they are protected by the National Park Service, and it is illegal to either approach or feed the horses. Locals and visitors alike are expected to respect the wild horses by maintaining a safe distance and admiring them from afar. That said, there are multiple ways to observe and appreciate the wild horses while having a thrilling time!

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A guided tour group watches North Carolina's wild horses

Improve your odds of seeing the wild horses with a knowledgeable tour guide.

Take a guided tour to see the wild horses

Several outfitters offer guided tours of the Currituck Outer Banks, taking patrons to areas where the wild horses frequently roam. In nearby Corolla, for example, the 2-hour Outer Banks Wild Horse Tour by 4WD is a five-star-rated experience consisting of a two-hour round trip to visit the wild mustangs. On some of the guided safaris, you’ll also encounter an 1874 U.S. Federal Life Saving Station, a World War I-era Coast Guard Station, and various stopping points to observe flora, fauna, and wildlife native to the Carolina Outer Banks. Keep your eyes peeled to the sky for soaring pelicans while ensuring not to overlook turtles and other marine mammals crawling below eye level.

Swans take flight from Mackey's Island in the Currituck Wildlife Refuge

Need a break from the beach? Make your way to the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge and Mackey's Island to enjoy a different side of the Outer Banks.

Visit the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge

Home to a large population of wild horses, the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge grants visitors up-close access to the beach and dunes of the Outer Banks. There are many boardwalks and trails providing connections to different areas of the beach. Getting to the refuge is only accessible by boat or 4WD vehicle, the latter of which are available for rent in Corolla. In addition to observing wild horses, you can also take advantage of opportunities for recreational fishing (fishing license required), hiking, wildlife watching, and bird photography. You can even bring your pet with you, as long as it is secured on a leash.

If you're itching for a break from the beach but you cannot commit to a trek to the Wildlife Refuge, you can kayak around the maritime forest in Kitty Hawk. This also is a guided tour on calm water and you'll likely see a lot of the same wildlife. The outfitter provides the guide, kayaks, paddles, and life jackets.

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A family drives a rented Jeep onto the beach in Corolla

With a rented Jeep, the Wolding family drove along Highway 12, past where the pavement ends in Corolla.

Go off-roading to see the wild horses

For those with a truly adventurous spirit, making an independent trek to the beach is the best way to go. Driving on the beach is only allowed with a permit, and certain restrictions apply, so you’ll want to research and consider speaking with local authorities before you embark on your quest for wild horses. 

If you’re visiting between the last Saturday of April and the first Saturday of October, you can purchase your beach parking pass in Corolla, where staff will review beach guidelines with you and your cohort. Here are essential things to know:

  • Parking is prohibited for the first mile and a half north of the 4WD beach access
  • Parking (and stopping) are not permitted on the beach ramp area
  • Vehicles must park in the middle of the beach strand
  • Drivers must abide by the beach speed limit of 35 miles per hour and slow down to 15 miles per hour when within 300 feet of any person
  • Drivers should let the air out of their tires prior to driving on the beach, and air stations are available throughout the Historic Corolla Park

It is imperative to use a 4WD vehicle when setting out to encounter the wild horses of Currituck. Locals recall many hilarious tales of watching overly confident visitors attempt to drive unacceptable vehicles onto the beach, veer off into the soft sand, or forget to let their air out of their tires. While tow truck companies are nearby, the process can take hours and potentially derail your journey to locate the wild horses. Several companies offer Jeep rentals in Kill Devil Hills and throughout the Outer Banks of North Carolina. These companies typically offer a variety of rental options, including daily and weekly rentals, and provide detailed information about the rules and regulations for driving on the beach.

If you follow the rules, you’re much more likely to find the wild horses trotting along the coastline. It is vital to stay at least 50 feet away from them, and people should never attempt to touch or feed them in any circumstances. Doing so can result in fines or other penalties, which ignores the reality that wild animals can sometimes behave unpredictably. You’re more than welcome to enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach, snap stunning photographs of the wild horses, go surfing, and collect various shells.

Wild horses graze next to house in Carova, NC

Most guided wild-horse tours will drive you to the remote beach town of Carova, where wild horses grazing on the front lawn is not an uncommon sight!

Other exciting things to do in and around Corolla

You may be wondering if a jaunt up to the Outer Banks is worth the effort, to which we would reply with a resounding, “Yes!” 

The town of Carova Beach, located slightly north of Corolla, is only accessible by 4WD vehicles. If you’ve rented a Jeep or other automobile for the day or weekend, it makes perfect sense to make the most of it! Take a walk along the miles of unspoiled beaches, launch your kayak from the close-by Currituck Sound, or simply enjoy a scenic drive.

Should you choose to journey south, you’ll run into the charming coastal town of Duck, North Carolina. Offering a less remote experience than its northern neighbors, Duck is home to a sprinkling of shops, boutiques, and restaurants that offer local art, jewelry, and souvenirs. The Duck Town Park is flanked by pristine walking trails and a soundside boardwalk, and it frequently hosts concerts and other social events throughout the year.

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Currituck Beach lighthouse overlooks Corolla NC

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse punctuates the skyline in the Outer Banks village of Corolla.

Of course, should you choose to remain in the Currituck/Corolla area, there are plenty of activities to keep you and your family or friends entertained. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is open for climbing, and the 220-step march to the top grants extraordinary vistas of the Outer Banks. This lighthouse is one of the few remaining in America which still houses its original Fresnel lens. To this day, the light continues flashing every 20 seconds. If you’re more inclined to stay near the ground, the Whalehead is a historic 1920s Art Nouveau mansion offering guided architectural tours.

After participating in so many enthralling adventures, you and your cohort will likely have worked up a hearty appetite! A casual seafood spot in Kitty Hawk, I Got Your Crabs Shellfish Market and Oyster Bar is a local favorite serving fresh seafood accompanied by craft beers. Families with diverse palates will enjoy Mike Dianna’s Grill Room, which features a menu inclusive of seafood, steak, pasta, and more. In Duck, more upscale eateries like The Blue Point and Kimball’s Kitchen (on the Currituck Sound) focus on a fine dining experience bolstered by local produce and creative seafood dishes.

Two wild horses run on the beach near Corolla, NC

Wild and free! Make the most of your beach vacation in Corolla, NC. The Outer Banks.

Hoofprints in the sand: historians debate the origins of Currituck’s wild horses

The wild horses in Corolla, North Carolina, are believed to be descendants of Spanish Mustangs that were brought to the area by early explorers and settlers. It is estimated that the horses arrived in the area in the 16th century when Spanish explorers began to explore and settle in what is now the southeastern United States. These explorers and settlers likely brought the horses over as a means of transportation and for use in farming and ranching.

Others conjecture that the wild mustangs were survivors of shipwrecks that occurred off the coast of the Outer Banks; this is certainly possible, as the treacherous shoals and shallow waters of the Atlantic Ocean have wreaked havoc upon countless sea vessels throughout history.

Over time, the horses were released or escaped into the wild, where they adapted to their new environment and developed into a hardy breed well-suited to the area's coastal terrain and weather conditions. The horses have lived on the beaches and dunes of Currituck for generations and are now protected as a unique and valuable part of the area's cultural and natural heritage.

A trip to Currituck and Corolla to view the infamous wild horses is an item that every Tar Heel will want to check off their North Carolina bucket lists. Come with the family, visit with friends, or travel solo – a journey to the northern Outer Banks promises to be just as restorative as it is adventurous.

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