Ocracoke Attractions - Wildlife Refuges & Programs
Hammock Hills Nature Trail
- 4281 Irvin Garrish Highway
Just across from the National Park Service’s Ocracoke Campground, the Hammock Hills Nature Trail is a 3/4-mile trail through the island’s maritime forest and salt marsh. It’s a great trail for nature lovers and bird watchers, and there are informative signposts along the way. The hike takes about 30 minutes. There are parking places for several vehicles, or you can access the nature trail by foot or bicycle using the paved bike trail that starts at the village edge across from Howard’s Pub. Be sure to bring along insect repellent—the trail is also popular with mosquitoes!
National Park Service Ocracoke Island Visitor Center
- 38 Irvin Garrish Highway
- (252) 928-4531
The majority of land on Ocracoke is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and is publicly owned and administered by the National Park Service. The NPS Visitor Center, located at the southernmost end of N.C. Highway 12 near the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferry docks, is a clearinghouse for all types of island and national seashore information. You’ll find an information desk, helpful staff, a bookshop, free maps, informational brochures and exhibits about the island and public restrooms. From Memorial Day through Labor Day three or four ranger-led programs are offered daily. The visitor center is open year-round.
Ocracoke Ponies and Pen
- 7669 Irvin Garrish Highway
There are many theories about how ponies found their way to Ocracoke Island. Some say they arrived on English ships during 16th-century exploration, others say they were victims of Spanish shipwrecks and some say they were simply livestock for the locals. However they got here, the ponies roamed the island freely for at least two centuries and were very much a part of the island lifestyle in days gone by. The local Boy Scouts even rode them, making them the only mounted troop in the country.
When N.C. Highway 12 was paved in 1957, cars and ponies began to collide. The National Park Service wanted to get rid of the entire herd, but the islanders protested and the Park Service agreed to contain some of the ponies on the island. In 1959, they developed the Ocracoke Pony Pens, a 180-acre pasture area that today houses about 24 ponies. Several ponies are rotated up to the front pasture so that visitors can always get a look at these unusual equines. The Ocracoke ponies have distinctive physical characteristics: five lumbar vertebrae instead of the six found in most horses, 17 ribs instead of 18 and a unique shape, posture, color, size and weight.
The pens are located on N.C. 12 about 7 miles north of the village. It’s free to visit, but donations are welcomed to help pay for the food and veterinary care of the ponies. Remember: The ponies are not tame, and they may try to kick or bite you if you try to feed or touch them. Also, remember that people food can be very dangerous for horses, so don’t take the chance of making one of these wonderful creatures ill by offering them chips or the rest of your sandwich.
Portsmouth Island, just across the inlet from Ocracoke Island, is an enchanting place to visit. This uninhabited island is rugged and remote, one of the last Atlantic coast islands that is free of development, thanks to its status as part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. There is much to do on this island, all of it free and simple, filled with history and the allure of the natural world.
On the north end of the island is a veritable ghost town known as Portsmouth Village. The village was once one of the largest settlements on the Outer Banks, though no one lives there now, save a caretaker. Portsmouth Village was established in 1753 on the shores of Ocracoke Inlet, and it was predominantly a “lightering” village. Large ships that used Ocracoke Inlet as a major trade route to the mainland would have to be unloaded to pass through the inlet and the shallow sounds and then reloaded as they found deeper waters. The residents of Portsmouth Village did the lightering of the load by moving goods to several smaller flatboats and then reloading the ships a ways down the water. A large community sprang up around this business, with a post office, a church, a school and many homes.
In 1846 Hatteras Inlet opened in a hurricane and was deeper and safer than Ocracoke Inlet. The shipping route shifted to the north, and the Portsmouth villagers had to find other ways to make a living. Later, during the Civil War, many islanders fled to the mainland to avoid advancing Union troops and never came back after the war. Portsmouth Village’s population continued to decline until there were only three residents left in 1970. In 1971, one of them died and the other two left the island reluctantly. In 1976 Portsmouth Village was saved when Cape Lookout National Seashore was established. The village is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Many of the buildings have been restored, and visitors can enter the church, Coast Guard station, school house and post office for a peek at old island life. The interiors look as if the people have just left, and you can look into the windows of some old buildings and see the villagers’ former belongings. There is also a visitor center in a restored house where you’ll find restrooms and exhibits on the island’s history. You can walk from the village to the beach, though it is a long walk so be prepared. The beach at Portsmouth Island is expansive and clean, and the shelling is outstanding.
Conveniences are few on Portsmouth Island. Restrooms are available, but drinking water and food are not. Bring your own, plus sunscreen and insect repellent. The mosquitoes are voracious on Portsmouth Island. The island is only accessible by boat. See Recreation for information on Portsmouth Island ferry services and boat rentals.
- 100 Loop Road
Springer’s Point covers about 90 acres of maritime forest bordering Pamlico Sound near South Point. In 2002 after 10 years of research and negotiation, the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust purchased a 31-acre tract of this land and established a nature preserve. A high point of land overlooking the inlet, Springer’s is believed to be the site of the earliest settlements on the island. Supposedly Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, met up with some fellow pirates here shortly before his 1718 death for several days of rum drinking, a pig roast, bonfires and music. He was discovered at his hangout in November and beheaded in a bloody battle. The deep hole just off the point is a popular fishing spot and still called “Teach’s Hole.”
Today the preserve is available for more serene pleasures. A half-mile stroll along the groomed trail takes you among the gnarled and ancient live oaks and maritime evergreen forest to the water’s edge, where a rookery of heron, egret and ibises can be spotted to the east. Along the trail visitors will see an old well, all that is left of a former home site. You should also take time to notice the amazing fences made of natural wood and vines. The inimitable Sam Jones, who once owned the property, is buried here, next to his horse.
Parking is not available, and you must walk or bike to access the property. Donations supporting maritime forest restoration can be made at the Ocracoke Preservation Society.