Nestled in the golden dunes of North Carolina’s Outer Banks — a string of barrier islands and spits fronting the Atlantic Ocean and dotted with small coastal towns — the Wright Brothers National Memorial beckons the curious. It’s home to a visitor center and museum, run by the National Park Service, that tells the riveting story of the two American aviation pioneers who made history when they soared through the skies in 1903 on their homemade flyer with a 40-foot wingspan. Step inside the single-story, 9,600-square-foot attraction and you might think you’re floating in the sky as well, with an abundance of light shining through arched floor-to-ceiling windows and the glass dome roof.
You’ll also feel like you’ve traveled back in time, into the yesteryear of black-and-white photographs, handwritten diaries and pencil drawings. In the Exhibit Hall, walk through the brothers’ life and work, starting with their early childhood in Dayton, Ohio, where they grew up with a bishop father and a mechanically gifted mother, who helped them fix their toys and sparked their interest in mechanics. As adults, Orville and Wilbur ran a bike shop in Dayton where their flying machine fledged its wings. In the late 1800s, the concept of using one’s body to move a bicycle was an electrifying novelty that inspired the brothers to dream of maneuvering a wind-propelled glider.
As you explore the exhibits, you’ll learn that wind brought them to North Carolina’s shores, where the confluence of two powerful ocean currents — the warm Gulf Stream and the cold Labrador — create fierce air streams. Letters the brothers exchanged with their sister, Katharine, a loyal supporter, reveal how they worked with a local North Carolina family to set up camp among the dunes. For four years of successes and setbacks, they alternated between testing their flier and going home to Dayton to improve it, finally adding a custom-built lightweight gasoline engine.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 1000 N. Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
Getting there: From the closest major airport, in Norfolk, Virginia, you’ll drive 82 miles southeast to the memorial, primarily on N.C. 168 and U.S. Highway 158. It should take about 1½ hours, possibly longer during peak travel periods.
Hours: Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $10 (the National Park Service operates the museum, so entrance is free to those with a Senior Pass)
Best time to visit: The Outer Banks are crowded in summer and typically busy during major holiday seasons, especially Christmas and New Year’s. To avoid crowds, visit the museum off-season.
Accessibility: The museum building is flat with no stairs, with most of the terrain around it is flat, too. The museum has a few wheelchairs, available on demand, but no walkers. Parking is available and a short, easy walk to the building.
What to pack: The sun can be intense (as can the wind), so bring sunscreen, a hat and water, especially for ranger walks, in the hot and humid summer. Dress in layers in cooler seasons, with a windbreaker or a jacket at hand.
Several interactive exhibits help you understand the physical forces involved in airplane lift and propulsion. Step up to a panel with three levers to experience the three axes of plane control — roll, pitch and yaw — which affect, respectively, how planes bank side to side, move up and down, and turn left or right. As you experiment with the levers, the small airplane figures they control turn, roll or change their pitch, according to the forces applied.
The famous photograph of the brothers’ launch from these shores leads you to the other gallery — the Flight Room — where a full-size replica of their groundbreaking creation that gave birth to the world of aviation demands attention. Next to it, check out the 19th-century sewing machine they used to stitch the fabric for the wings.
Themed as “Making Impossible Possible,” the exhibition portrays the famous duo not only as brilliant minds, but also as average Americans with a dream of making a machine that could fly. “Part of what the museum exhibits hope to show is that Wilbur and Orville worked really hard; they were coming here again and again, and problem-solving, and refusing to give up,” says Elizabeth Hudick, supervisory park ranger at the museum. “And that’s what made them successful over anything else.”
The museum doubles as a visitor center to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which includes the surrounding 428 acres and a 60-foot-tall granite monument commemorating the brothers and their feat. After touring the museum, take one of the 30-minute, ranger-led walks of the grounds to see a replica of the aviators’ original 1903 camp buildings and the Flight Boulder, which signifies the spot where their flyer took off, putting their names in history books for the ages.
Ranger tip: In the Exhibit Hall, be sure to look up at the ceiling for an entire aviation history lesson floating above your head. You’ll see a series of metal aircraft, starting with simple glider machines and progressing all the way to the modern space shuttle. “People tend to miss that,” says Hudick. “Usually it’s something people see only on their second or third visit.”
Other Outer Banks attractions
Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School: If you’re adventurous, try flying in the Wright brothers’ wake at this school, just 4 miles south of the museum on U.S. 158 in the neighboring town of Nags Head. Instructors offer three-hour beginner and advanced hang-gliding lessons ($39) using kitelike gliders. Beginners take multiple flights off sand dunes, staying airborne for a few seconds each time and getting better and more confident with each round. You fly solo, with instructors on the ground keeping you safe by using ropes to control your kite. Only those taking advanced lessons take longer flights. Reservations required.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site: Visit this historic site (free admission) on Roanoke Island, just 18 miles southwest of the museum on U.S. 158 and U.S. Highway 64. It preserves the tantalizing history of the first European colony in America, settled here in 1585. Hear the settlers’ story in a 17-minute movie at the visitor center, then walk through the fort grounds and archaeological digs. The first European child born on American soil was delivered here, shortly before the settlers mysteriously disappeared, leaving with no trace, and believed to have suffered a tragic fate. Adjacent to the site, also explore Elizabethan Gardens ($8). In the early 1950s, a group of historians and philanthropists created the 2-acre botanical gardens to symbolize what the settlers might have done with the land had they not perished. The gardens remain beautiful in most seasons.
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Hatteras Island: If staying in the area for a few days, schedule a day trip to Hatteras, 58 miles south via N.C. 12. Here you can “dive” into the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (free), a fascinating attraction of all things lifted from the sea —bits of shipwrecks from the 1700s to modern times, vintage diving gear, German U-boats the U.S. Navy sank in World War II and more. On your way to Hatteras, stop at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge for good birdwatching and to eye nesting sea turtles.
New York City–based journalist Lina Zeldovich has written for Afar, the BBC, Popular Science and The New York Times.