Ocracoke For Beginners

Ocracoke Lighthouse, c. 1823
Ocracoke Lighthouse, c. 1823
Oldest lighthouse in N.C., second oldest operating lighthouse in U.S.

To mainlanders, used to wide-open spaces of solid earth, Ocracoke would barely constitute a substantial piece of land; the entire island has an area of only 9.6 square miles. Ocracoke’s historical isolation from the mainland, and even the other barrier islands, is the gift that has made the island a unique destination.

Ocracoke is the name of the island, as well as its only village (with a population of 950-ish), and the adjacent inlet that connects Pamlico Sound with the Atlantic Ocean.

The island is fourteen miles long – at its widest, in the village, it’s a good 3 miles across, but the skinny parts are no more than 300 yards from water to water. Sometimes, during hurricanes and strong nor’easters, the sound and sea meet to shake hands in the middle.

This fragile “ribbon of sand” has a rich and wonderful human history from the Native Americans who seasonally fished here, the pirates who partied here, the pilots who guided sailing ships through the inlet, the Lifesaving servicemen who risked their lives to save the victims of the infamous Graveyard of the Atlantic, the long-suffering womenfolk who tended salt-sprayed gardens and sand-dusted homes, the commercial fishermen, the fowl hunters, the clam diggers and clam canners, the mainlanders who made Ocracoke an early tourist destination, the U.S. Navy men stationed here in WWII, the Army Corps of Engineers who built the road and dunes, the visionaries who established the first National Seashore encompassing all the island’s oceanfront property, the entrepreneurs who developed businesses to accommodate the growing number the visitors, and all the hardy people who were born here or came here, who work, play, or live with saltwater in their veins.

Despite the wealth of history and culture (and the museums and exhibits where you can learn more), most visitors come to Ocracoke because of our beach ­­– the thirteen miles of clean, pristine, undeveloped beach! In 2007, Dr. Stephen Leatherman (a.k.a. Dr. Beach) named Ocracoke the Best Beach in America, and it’s easy to see why: there’s nothing out there but sun, sand and sky. The National Park Service operates a campground adjacent to the beach, and there is even a lifeguarded area with nearby restrooms. Sections of the beach are open to four-wheel drive vehicles, with some restrictions. There are popular spots where you you’ll meet lots of other beachgoers, but you can easily find your own secluded, private piece of paradise.

When you’re ready for a break from the waves and sunshine, you can amble around Ocracoke Village, visit the little shops, eat great food, and see the small-town sights. With no chain restaurants, hotels, or stores to be found, Ocracoke remains quirky and unique.  

Click on image to see if you qualify as a dingbatter.
Click on image to see if you qualify as a dingbatter.
Photo by Heather Johnson, circa 2011

The majority of Ocracoke’s restaurants serve seafood, locally caught and brought in that very day. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, try your luck at clamming or fishing, for a true home-cooked meal. A local coffee shop, slushy stand or candy store will satisfy that sweet tooth of yours. Pick up a beach read at a local bookstore, or the library. Sign up for surf lessons at a local surf shop, or rent a bike and spend the day exploring the unique stores and meeting the locals. It’s been a source of quiet amusement to the "Ocockers," or locals, that some out-of-state summer tourists who read of the best beach award will roll onto the island, expecting a touristy Myrtle Beach, with billboards, chain hotels and restaurants. Some are actually affronted by a lack of standard touristy surroundings. No, Ocracoke is instead about beauty, a quieter time and place and renewal.

Tiny Ocracoke Island has withstood hurricanes and erosion throughout the years, and industrialization and urbanization has passed it by. If it’s relaxation you’re seeking, we promise you will find exactly what you are looking for: a beach, a small village, miles of soft sand, lazy waves and the chance to truly escape.



Useful Links for visitors

Ocracoke is an island on North Carolina's Outer Banks with fewer than 1000 year round residents. It's a small island, and a big vacation spot. You will find loads of great information and further links for planning a visit at the official Ocracoke Island website!

The island has miles and miles of undeveloped beaches that are all part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

If you are part of the 99%, you will have a magical experience riding across the water on one of our public ferries. Feeling zippy? Got a plane? You can also fly into Ocracoke.

Many visitors come to Ocracoke to enjoy fishing, water sports, our spectacular beaches, yummy restaurants, a lively music scene, unique craft galleries, and maritime history. We hope you will decide to visit.