May 11, 2024

Take the ferry, not the road in coastal North Carolina

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News

Enjoy visiting eastern NC towns and the Outer Banks by water

Get off the roads and onto a ferry for a water view of the sounds and coastal rivers on the east coast. Deep in maritime history and miles of sun-drenched sandy white beaches, you’ll find golfing, fishing, sailing and anything you can do on a boat and at the beach.  On several trips to North Carolina coastal towns, we opted to bypass busy roads and take a water route on the North Carolina Ferry System which are enjoyable and cost very little. The ferries are used daily by folks who live and work in coastal communities and offer tourists and visitors that same convenience. And you’re saving fuel by not driving, too.

The fleet of 20 vessels take passengers on routes across the sound and coastal rivers in and around the Outer Banks, often referred to as OBX. There are ferry terminals at Aurora, Bayfield, Cedar Island, Cherry Branch, Currituck, Fort Fisher, Hatteras Island, Knotts Island, Minnesott Beach, Ocracoke Island, Southport and Swan Quarter.

Passengers bring their cars, bicycles, motorcycles, trailers or RVs along with golf clubs, fishing and bachcombing gear. We were happy to learn pets are allowed, but they must be kept in vehicles or on a leash.

Good to know

Reservations are recommended – especially during the busy summer season – to ensure you get on the ferry that works for your schedule. And any reservations must be claimed at least 30 minutes before your departure to avoid cancellation.

Ferry Arriving Ocracoke

For daytrippers to Ocracoke Island the Ocracoke Express ferry from Hatteras carries passengers across the Pamlico Sound directly into Ocracoke Village, within walking or biking distance to restaurants, shops and of all the village has to offer along the waterfront. Use the Hyde County’s free Village Tram that makes a loop around the village, stopping at several points of interest. The ferry costs $15 round trip per person plus $1 if you bring a bicycle. To sightsee and reach the beach rent a bike or golf cart.

Map of North Carolina Ferry System

Three ferries take passengers to and from Ocracoke Island: the Hatteras Ferry at the tip of the Outer Banks, and on the mainland the Swan Quarter Ferry to the north and the Cedar Island Ferry to the south.

Logistics of where the ferries go

Near the Virginia and North Carolina state line in northeast coastal area, take the Currituck ferry to Knotts Island in the middle of Currituck Sound for a day trip. You’ll find a remote island for camping – tent and RV hook ups – fishing, crabbing, and enjoy nature in a serene setting. From there it’s a short drive to Virginia Beach, VA.

Even Tour Busses Use the Ferry System

Further south on the coast there are several ferry terminals near popular destinations on and around Pamlico Sound. Swan Quarter is near Lake Mattamuskeet, a wildlife refuge and is one of three ferries going to Ocracoke Island. Nearby the Bayfield to Aurora ferry crosses the Pamlico River not far from the historic towns of Bath and Belhaven. Highway 17 leads to New Bern on the Neuse River, a historic and charming town that once was the capital city.

The Minnesott Beach to Cherry Branch ferry crosses the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound, not far from Oriental, one of our favorite little harbor towns known for its marinas and boating, both power and sail. If you’re bound for the Morehead City – Beaufort area, the Cedar Island ferry is nearby and will take you to Ocracoke Island. From there you can experience island living and beachcombing. Take the ferry to Hatteras, the Cape Lookout National Seashore and explore the long stretch of Outer Banks island communities.

Fort Fisher Ferry

The southernmost ferry at Southport, near the South Carolina border leads to Fort Fisher, a Civil War historic site and the ever-popular North Carolina Aquarium. From there heading north on the coast you’re not far from Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach, Topsail Beach and Surf City, beach town destinations with plenty of sun and fun.

Take a ferry wherever you travel in coastal North Carolina. Enjoy the exhilerting sea air and being on the open water. Just lean on the rail, watch seagulls dive for fish in the churning engine’s wake and experience of being on the water and not in miles of traffic.

On their website NC Ferry System you’ll find information to: Plan your visit, make a reservation, get tickets and sign up for notices about your ferry. You can also get tickets by calling 1-800-BY-FERRY.

  To learn more about coastal North Carolina, go to

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Gene and Katie Hamilton are long-time writers about using binoculars for boating, bird watching, stargazing and traveling. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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