The Outer Banks of North Carolina consists of numerous islands, some only accessible by ferry boat.
Ocracoke is one of these isolated, quiet islands.
Just because it’s isolated and quiet doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do there. Quite the contrary, there are plenty of activities to fill a day (or several), if your travels take you to Ocracoke Island.
Enjoy the slower pace and live life on island time!
How to Get to Ocracoke Island
Ocracoke Island is situated at the south end of Cape Hatteras Island on North Carolina’s Atlantic Coast. There are three ferry lines that access Ocracoke Island. One arrives from Hatteras Island to the north.
Two ferry lines arrive at the south end of Ocracoke Island. The Cedar Island ferry and the Swan Quarter ferry lines connect to two different points on the North Carolina mainland.
The Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferry trips take over 2 hours and require you to pay a toll and make a reservation.
If you’re planning a day trip from Hatteras Island, you’ll arrive on Ocracoke Island via the Highway 12 Ferry from Hatteras Island. This is a free ferry, and takes about one hour.
During the peak summer season, ferries depart approximately every half hour, but depending on how long the lines are, you may have to wait longer than that to board the ferry.
Plan to arrive at the ferry docks early (by 7 or 8 AM) to minimize your wait time.
If you do get stuck in a long ferry line, you can always do a little browsing at the nearby shops at Hatteras Landing. Just keep an eye on the line so you can move your car up when necessary.
When it’s your turn to board the ferry, the ferry workers will instruct you where to park on the ferry.
After the ferry has left the dock, you are free to get out of your vehicle and walk around the ferry deck or go to the passenger cabin on the upper level.
Take advantage of this unique, free boat ride by watching the gulls circling, breathing in the salt air, and taking in the water views. You may even spot some fish, dolphins, or other sea life.
Once you disembark on Ocracoke Island, you’ve still got a bit of a drive before you reach Ocracoke Village. You can head straight there, or you can stop off at a few sites of interest on your way.
Plenty of beach-access parking areas line the highway, including one with restrooms and showers.
Or you can stop and view the wild ponies.
Visit the Wild Ponies
Along Highway 12 on Ocracoke Island is the wild pony pen that contains the remnants of the herd of wild Banker Ponies that used to roam the island.
Calling them wild ponies might be a little bit misleading, as the herd is now contained in a 188-acre fenced enclosure, along with a barn and other shelters.
The horses are fed and monitored for health by the National Park Service.
They are now only wild in the sense that they are not ridden or put to any other work.
Still, who doesn’t want to have a look at some pretty ponies? They can often be seen in the paddock near the parking area, especially during feeding time.
The kids will appreciate a stop, and while you’re there, you can take the opportunity to walk over the boardwalk across the street to spend a few minutes at the beach.
Go to the Beach
You can find beach access points all along Highway 12 as you head toward Ocracoke Village.
There are several boardwalks (the wooden plank kind, not the carnival kind) and at least one spot with a restroom and showers. Lifeguarded beaches are staffed from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
You can also find numerous other pull-off places with trails leading to the beach.
Wherever you choose to hit the sands, the beaches of Ocracoke are unparalleled for their pristine, protected expanses.
You won’t be fighting the crowds – it’s peaceful and untouched. Here you can swim, fish, build sandcastles, or just bask to your heart’s content.
Visit the Lighthouse
The Ocracoke Lighthouse, located within Ocracoke Village, is the second oldest operational lighthouse in North America. It’s a good bit shorter than the other iconic Outer Banks lighthouses, but still impressive in its own right.
You can find parking just a few yards away from the lighthouse, then walk down the very quiet street to the walkway that leads to the structure.
Take time to savor the quaint, picturesque buildings that surround the lighthouse, including the lighthouse keeper’s quarters and the white picket fence.
While you can’t climb the lighthouse, you can go inside for a quick peek around.
During open hours, a Park Service guide is available to answer questions and teach you a bit about the history and other interesting facts about the lighthouse.
See Where Blackbeard Was Beheaded
Back in the heyday of piracy, the infamous pirate Blackbeard made Ocracoke and its environs his base of operations.
His barbarous piracy led to an attack by the Royal Navy, and on November 22nd, 1718, Blackbeard met his demise in a location called Teaches Hole, just off the coast of Ocracoke.
You can view this historic site just down the street from the Ocracoke Lighthouse. And if you’re hungry for more gory pirate stories (or other local history), visit the Ocracoke Preservation Museum.
Go to the Park Service Visitor’s Center
At the very south end of Ocracoke Village is the National Park Service Visitor’s Center. You can stop in here to see what educational programs are on offer.
Throughout the summer, various programs are offered to help kids engage with the natural surroundings, wildlife, and habitat that make the Outer Banks so unique.
Take some time to peruse the displays on exhibit, pick up a brochure or two, and ask lots of questions of the friendly and knowledgable staff to elevate your day from merely entertaining to truly educational.
Have a Picnic or Get Lunch at One of the Restaurants
By now you’re probably hot and hungry, and just the thing to refresh your body and attitude is a cool break for some lunch.
A packed picnic lunch is budget-friendly and memorable, too.
A great spot for a quiet picnic lunch is the shaded lawn of the Park Service Visitor’s Center. Benches and picnic tables are available, and there’s plenty of space for little people to wander freely.
Or if the thought of packing a lunch sounds stressful, plan to eat at one of the numerous food establishments in Ocracoke Village.
There is something for every budget and taste preference, from food truck to fine dining.
Get Ice Cream or Other Treats
Top off your lunch with a sweet treat. There are plenty of ice cream places around the village to choose from. Or you can opt for tropical shaved ice.
Or save the ice cream for a mid-afternoon snack to hold the kids’ attention and reward them for their patience as you cart them around the village on a hot summer afternoon.
Ocracoke is also well-known for its local, homemade fudge. Plenty of shops offer it for sale, usually including some free tastings to help you choose your favorite flavor.
Rent a Bike and Cruise the Village (or Ride the Tram)
You certainly can drive your car pretty much anywhere around Ocracoke Village. But it’s much more fun (and also more convenient) to use other means of transport around town.
Bike rentals are aplenty and reasonably priced. Rent bikes for you and the kids, and cruise around, stopping whenever something catches your eye.
Golf-carts are another popular way of getting around the village. Or you can simply hop on the free tram, a bus that circles the town from one end to the other.
The kids are sure to love any of these alternate means of travel as much as they enjoy seeing the sights.
And there is plenty to see around Ocracoke Village. It’s quaint and compact, with lots of tropical greenery to remind you that you’re experiencing the island.
Stop in at the multitude of shops to find that perfect souvenir. Even better, you can strike up a conversation with the shop owners to ask about the life of a local and get insider tips on things to do and the best way to do them.
If you’re lucky, you might meet someone who can speak the local brogue – that quickly fading way of speech that used to characterize the Ocracoke residents.
Rent a Kayak or Paddleboard
Since it’s a beach vacation, of course everyone wants to get in the water as much as possible, right? Why not rent some kayaks or paddleboards and take to the water?
Several access points can get you directly to the shallow, quiet waters of the Pamlico Sound and other tidal marshlands where you can enjoy a quiet paddle.
Look for birds, fish, hermit crabs and all kinds of other wildlife as you slow the pace way down.
Several rental locations in town can help you get the equipment you need and tell you exactly where to go. Some offer tours or other custom packages to help you have the experience you want.