“A Short Ferry Ride Away But A World Apart” -Alan Sutton
While vacationing along the North Carolina Outer Banks, many folks like to take a day to site see the entire length of Highway 12. At the farthest southern tip of Highway 12 is Ocracoke Island. The island is only accessible by boat or plane. The ferry across is free for now, although North Carolina is considering charging a fee in the future. The ferry trip across the inlet is about an hour long. Busy days in the summer tend to be Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday – what we call “day-tripper” days. Ferry traffic can back up on the Hatteras side during mid-morning through lunchtime, and on the Ocracoke side mid-afternoon through evening. To avoid the long ferry lines either come early in the morning and leave later in the day, or avoid the mid-week “day-tripper” days.
Once you drive off of the Hatteras ferry onto Ocracoke Island, there are 16 miles of beach and maritime forest before you reach Ocracoke’s village. Along the way to the village you will pass the Ocracoke Pony Pens, a horse herd managed by the National Park Service (NPS). These small ponies descend from the wild mustangs that were shipwrecked off the coast in the 1600s. This is also a nice location to park and walk out to the beach and look for some shells. There is also a NPS nature trail on the sound side of the island across from the NPS campground which offers a shady walk through the maritime forest.
For those without 4-wheel drive vehicles, the easiest access to the beach is at the Pony Pens or the parking lot a half-mile toward Hatteras from the Pony Pens. For swimmers who prefer a lifeguard, the lifeguard beach is located between the NPS campground and the airport. The Ocracoke Lifeguard beach was named America’s best beach by Dr. Stephen Leathermen (Dr. Beach) in 2007 and the #3 beach in 2017. There are several beach ramp locations along the island, but walking out to the beach at the airport or from south point road is not recommended, as it is quite a long walk at these 4-wheel drive ramp locations. If you are looking for 4-wheel drive beach access, stop by Tradewinds Tackle for the latest information on NPS closures and restrictions. Be sure to get your beach driving permit from the National Park Service, new in 2012.
Upon arriving in Ocracoke village, many people take advantage of the NPS visitor center parking lot by Silver Lake Harbor, just before the Cedar Island/Swan Quarter ferry terminal. The area around Silver Lake Harbor has several inshore and offshore charters available for half day or full day trips. Afternoons at the marina will find offshore boats coming in to clean their catches. Some folks enjoy renting a skiff to explore our inshore fishing, receiving sailboat lessons, or taking part in parasailing trips are that are available in season so they can get a bird’s eye view of the island. Many people are fond of taking the taking the new tram or renting golf carts and bicycles to slowly travel the three mile wide village. Paddle boats and kayaks are also available for rent to enjoy the harbor up close, and there are excursions to the nearby island of Portsmouth and sunset cruises when weather permits. Located in the same NPS parking lot is the Ocracoke Preservation Museum which is housed in a restored historic island home and contains island history and exhibits. The Ocracoke Working Waterman’s Exhibit located on Silver Lake also shares Ocracoke island’s working cultural history.
The island’s shops are sprinkled throughout the tree lined streets of the village, many in old island homes and buildings. Local artists display their handcrafted pottery, jewelry, and paintings as well as nautical gift items, shells, books, and clothing. There are lots of great places to eat, and all offer “to-go” food for the ferries, beach, and trails. There are too many places to list, but if you want to know where the locals are eating just ask inside one of the shops. Some of the restaurants will have live music in the early evening hours during the summer.
A unique corner of the village is the British Cemetery. It is actually a small plot of land donated by local island families to Britain as a memorial to the Royal Navy. During World War II on May 14, 1942, the British submarine HMS Bedfordshire was torpedoed and sunk with all hands lost. Four bodies of the crew were subsequently found and buried on Ocracoke in this plot. Another visitor favorite is the Ocracoke Lighthouse, which is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the nation, built in 1823. The public is allowed inside during the 4th of July festival. There is very limited parking at the lighthouse, so many bike or walk.
Nearby the lighthouse is Springer’s Point, a beautiful property owned by The Coastal Land Trust. There is no parking at Springer’s Point, so you have to walk or ride a bike to get there. This preserve of more than 120 acres of maritime forest, salt marsh, wet grasslands and sound front beach, was opened to the public in 2006. Old large live oaks and yaupon provide shade along sandy trails to the isolated sound side beach overlooking the infamous Teach’s Hole. Teach’s Hole is the reputed favorite haunt of the legendary pirate, Blackbeard, who eluded capture until finally meeting his fate off Springer’s Point. Walking either Springer’s Point or the NPS nature trail is great on windy days, as the beach is sandy and it cuts down on the mosquitos.
Another sound side activity is clamming or crabbing, which can be great fun. Clam rakes are for rent at Tradewinds Tackle. Crabbing nets, traps, baits, and crabbing line are also available at Tradewinds. A NC fishing license is not required for clamming and crabbing, but size restrictions do apply. Both are great ways to teach kids about the ecology living on the soundside of the island. Many folks like to try their luck fishing along the beach and Tradewinds can supply all the necessary bait and tackle, as well as suggestions of where to fish for the most seasoned angler to the most inexperienced. North Carolina does require a saltwater fishing license for those 16 years old or older which may be purchased online or in Tradewinds.
For more information about Ocracoke “day tripping” stop by Tradewinds Tackle, next door to Jason’s Restaurant as you enter the village from the Hatteras ferry. Be aware that the village can be completely different in the different seasons. While summer can bring tourists walking and biking in the roads, late fall through early spring can be very quiet. Although there are no chain restaurants or stores, our quaint coastal village and pristine beach draws visitors back time after time.