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Ocracoke is separated from the rest of the world by the 20+ mile wide Pamlico Sound, which means that the only way to access the island is via a personal vessel, or more commonly, by a North Carolina State Ferry.
There are three NC state-run ferry routes which provide access to Ocracoke Island. The Cedar Island and Swanquarter ferries are located at the southern end of the island, adjacent to Ocracoke Village and Silver Lake Harbor. These two ferry routes cross the Pamlico Sound to the mainland. The Hatteras Island Ferry is located on the desolate northern end of the island, and provides a relatively quick shuttle to neighboring Hatteras Island.
All three ferries are managed by the North Carolina Ferry System, a division of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and offer year-round crossings for visitors and local alike.
Hatteras / Ocracoke Ferry
Crossing time: 45 minutes to 75 minutes
Reservations: None, however residents and personnel with priority passes are allowed to board first.
Schedule: The Hatteras Ferry runs roughly every hour from 5:00 a.m. until midnight in the off-season, and adds half-hour departures as well in the summer months, from 8:00 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. During the height of the summer season, the ferry departs every 15 minutes or so during popular departure times. A complete schedule can be found online at http://www.ncdot.gov/download/transit/ferry/ferryschedule.pdf.
Amenities Near the Terminal: The Hatteras terminal is adjacent to the Hatteras Landing Shopping Center, which features a number of seasonally opened shops and restaurants. The central convenience store is open year-round, and features drinks, snacks, and deli sandwiches, as well as souvenirs and apparel. There is also a NCDOT managed Information Center adjacent to the terminal with local information and local business fliers, a gift shop, restrooms, and vending machines.
Amenities on Board: The smaller ferries that serve the Hatteras / Ocracoke routes have restrooms as well as a small air-conditioned indoor passenger lounge with bus-style seating and a water fountain on board. There are no vending machines on the ferry.
Boarding the Hatteras Ferry: Visitors will be directed to line up in designated "lanes" by NCDOT personnel. From there, each ferry is boarded on a first arrived, first served basis, (with the exception of vehicles in the Priority Lane to the far left.)
About the Hatteras Ferry: The Hatteras Ferry route is short and scenic, and lasts roughly an hour. (The route has been adjusted in the past year due to recent shoaling, and the average trip length is now about 75 minutes.) The route crosses the Hatteras Island, and unloads at the northern Ocracoke Island ferry terminal. This terminal features vending machines and restrooms, and is located about 13 miles away from Ocracoke Village. Traffic is at its worst on the weekends, and during the middle of the day in the summer months.
Swanquarter / Ocracoke Ferry
Crossing time: 2.5 hours
Fee: $15 for most vehicles (less than 20' feet), $10 for motorcycles, $3 for bicycles, and $1 for pedestrians. Extra fees apply for larger vehicles, and cars or trucks that are towing a trailer.
Reservations: Strongly suggested. Reservations can be made online at https://ferry.ncdot.gov/ or by calling 1-800-BY-FERRY.
Schedule: The Swanquarter Ferry has roughly three crossings per day in the off-season, and four crossings per day in the summer season. Ferries depart from either terminal between roughly 7:00 am. and 4:30 p.m. A complete schedule can be found online at http://www.ncdot.gov/download/transit/ferry/ferryschedule.pdf.
Amenities Near the Terminal: The Swanquarter terminal features a small Visitors Center with vending machines, restrooms, and area information. Once on the mainland, visitors can head into the heart of Swanquarter for a small collection of gas stations and convenience stores. The Ocracoke Terminal features an expansive Visitors Center with restrooms and vending machines, and is adjacent to the stores, motels and restaurants along Silver Lake Harbor in Ocracoke Village.
Amenities on Board: The Swanquarter Ferry features an expansive, air-conditioned passenger lounge with rows of seats as well as several tables. There are also restrooms on board, vending machines, and an outdoor top-level deck with panoramic views.
Boarding the Swanquarter Ferry: Visitors will be directed into a given lane by NCDOT personnel. A valid driver's license or ID is required to board the ferry, and visitors at the Ocracoke terminal will want to pay close attention when parking in their designated lane to ensure they are not accidentally boarding the other ferry that leaves from the terminal, the Cedar Island ferry. All Swanquarter ferry passengers are required to be at the terminal 30 minutes before departure or else their reservation will be cancelled.
About the Swanquarter Ferry: The Swanquarter ferry is the longest of the three ferries that service Ocracoke Island, and, in fact, is the longest ferry in the North Carolina State Ferry System. Nevertheless, it's also one of the most convenient ferry routes for folks who are visiting Ocracoke Island from the Eastern NC regions of Bath, Little Washington, and Greenville, NC. The Swanquarter Terminal is not close to many restaurants or amenities, and late afternoon and evening passengers will have to drive a good 20-30 minutes along US 264 to find open stores and services once on the mainland. As such, it's a good idea to pack along plenty of food and drinks for this trip.
Cedar Island / Ocracoke Ferry
Crossing time: 2.25 hours
Fee: $15 for most vehicles (less than 20' feet), $10 for motorcycles, $3 for bicycles, and $1 for pedestrians. Vehicles with trailers, or vehicles with more than three axels, are roughly $25 or more.
Reservations: Strongly recommended, as Cedar Island is the most popular mainland route to Ocracoke Island. Reservations can be made online at https://ferry.ncdot.gov/ or by calling 1-800-BY-FERRY.
Schedule: The Cedar Island Ferry has three crossings in the off-season, from approximately 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., and six crossings in the summer, from about 7:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. A complete schedule can be found online at http://www.ncdot.gov/download/transit/ferry/ferryschedule.pdf.
Amenities Near the Terminal: The Cedar Island Terminal has a Visitors Center with vending machines and restrooms, as well as a neighboring motel and restaurant, and horse stables that offer guided tours. There's also a long stretch of soundside shoreline that is open to the public. The Ocracoke Terminal also has an expansive Visitors Center, and is close to all the restaurants and shops along Silver Lake Harbor.
Amenities on Board: Passengers will have access to vending machines, restrooms, and a large, climate controlled passenger lounge with multiple rows of seats as well as a handful of tables. There is also an upper-level deck with benches for great views of the Pamlico Sound.
Boarding the Cedar Island Ferry: At both terminals, visitors will arrive via NC Highway 12 to a small entrance station where they will be required to show a valid ID. From there, passengers will be directed to a specific lane to park and wait to board. At the Ocracoke terminal, it is very important to make sure a vehicle is in the correct lane, as two different ferries depart regularly from this terminal.
About the Cedar Island Ferry: The Cedar Island Ferry is a relaxing way to access the southern Outer Banks regions of Morehead City, Beaufort, and Emerald Isle. It's also the most convenient way to reach Ocracoke Island for visitors traveling from the south. The small town of Cedar Island features a convenience store, motel, and restaurant, and is a 20-30 minute drive away from larger Morehead City and Beaufort amenities. Cedar Island is the most popular of the mainland ferries, so reservations are all but required in the summer months and on weekends throughout the year.
Considerations for Riding an Ocracoke Island Ferry
- To see the current traffic conditions at the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry terminals, visit the NCDOT's live webcams at http://www.ncdot.gov/travel/ferryroutes/.
- Each ferry is affiliated with a North Carolina college or university, and as a result, each vessel is painted in the respective school's colors and logo.
- NC Ferries do not run in inclement weather, (such as sustained winds of 35-40 mph or more.) Ferries also do not run during a mandatory hurricane evacuation once all visitors and residents have left the island.
- A valid driver's license is required by the vehicle operator to board an NC ferry. Other passengers may also be asked to show an ID as well, in accordance with Homeland Security regulations.
- Pets are allowed on the ferry, provided they are leashed at all times outside the vehicle. Visitors should use caution in the summer months when the metal decks can be hot on pets' paws.
- Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the ferry, including inside a vehicle.
- Consuming alcohol is also not permissible on board a ferry, including inside a vehicle.
- Visitors are not allowed to feed seagulls off of the ferry.
- Visitors are free to exit the vehicle and walk around once the ferry is moving, but must stay away from the roped-off areas that designate the machine room, captains quarters, and other NCDOT-only regions of the ship.