If you are looking for wild horses in the Outer Banks while also having the opportunity to spend the day at the beach collecting shells, look no further than Shackleford Banks!
It is less crowded than some of the other parts of Outer Banks, less developed, and less commercial. You can get to Shackleford Banks by ferry from 2 locations: Beaufort or Harker’s Island. After our first lovely weekend in Beaufort (North Carolina) and our encounters with feral horses on Carrot Island and the wild horses on the west end of Shackleford Banks, we headed to Harker’s Island to catch the ferry to the east end of Shackleford Banks.
Harkers Island is in a region known as Down East and is a 3-hour drive from Raleigh. Its main tourist attraction is access to Cape Lookout Lighthouse and National Seashore and Shackleford Banks. Shackleford Banks is the southern-most barrier island in Cape Lookout National Seashore. From Harker’s Island, you can take a ferry to either location. There is one ferry service, Island Express Ferry Service, it is the same company we used to take the ferry from Beaufort and they are fantastic. They are the only concessioner authorized by NPS but don’t let that go to their head. They are super professional, great crew, modern boats.
We purchased tickets ($18 per person/$11 for children 3-11) for the very first ferry at 8:15 am. The same ferry goes from Harker’s Island to Shackleford Banks and then onto Cape Lookout (no price difference) and you can visit Shackleford Banks first to see the horses and then head to Cape Lookout after. (Return ferries from Shackleford Banks are on the hour and half hour.) There were 40 people on the ferry, the majority of which went to Cape Lookout directly. Only 6 of us got off at Shackleford Banks.
After being dropped off we headed for the interior. About a mile in we saw a group of 6 horses. We were downwind so we were able to approach the herd easily and with a telephoto lens, Mr. Misadventures got great shots.
As we got closer 1 horse watched us as we cautiously approached.
Seeing that we were no threat and that we were keeping distance they continued grazing on the marsh grasses. After 30 minutes of watching, we began walking towards a ridge where we spotted another group. We were hoping to see a new foal that had recently been born in the early spring.
This was a small group of 3. We spent a little bit of time with them and moved on. The entire morning we had the beautiful Cape Lookout lighthouse on the horizon as our constant companion.
Continuing on our way, we came upon a group of 5 with one resting on the ground. She wasn’t pregnant but had a yearling from last year(?) with her. They were resting so we moved along and came up to another 2 horses. They didn’t like our presence so we didn’t disturb them further.
After a couple of hours of horses, we went to the beach to look for some shells. We got a little bit of shell fever the last time and Mr. Misadventures had a picture in his mind that he want to take with a shell. Do you think Mr. misadventures laid down on the wet beach to get this photo? If you guess yes you’d be right!
The real prize is sand dollars but we didn’t see any of those. We walked the beach for an hour and then turned around and headed back towards the lighthouse and had lunch on a washed-up piece of wood enjoying the quiet. There was absolutely no one!
Afterward, we headed back into the inner island to look for horses as we made our way to the ferry pick-up point.
As soon as we moved inside we came upon 4 horses grazing. At this end (east) of Shackleford Banks, there are close to 100 horses (140 total on the entire island). They are said to be descendants of Spanish shipwrecks and have lived on the island for many generations. They have survived storms and hurricanes. They eat the native grasses on the island and have freshwater sources in the interior. Their biggest threat is humans. Humans not following guidelines and humans attempting to feed them is the biggest source of danger.
Remember to keep 50 feet/25 meters (the length of a school bus) between you and the horses, don’t block their path, and back away slowly if they seem bothered by your presence. Also, please put your camera on silent mode for your camera (test this out before you arrive) and don’t use flash.
As we returned, we passed all the groups of horses that we had seen in the morning and decided that for the last hour of our walk/hike we would go back along the beach. As we came up over the dunes, we spotted a group of 6 horses grazing very close to where the edge of the dune and the beach meet with the iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the background we could not have asked for a better shot with models for Instagram!
We continued walking back closer and closer to our landing point which was directly across the water from the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. We spotted five more horses. There was one older one who was very grumpy. He kept getting annoyed with some of the other horses and running after them. Mr. Misadventures had turned his back to walk towards me and just missed catching one of these temper tantrums with his camera! It was funny because he was much smaller than the others but kept running after them and biting their backside. The younger ones tried to kick them off. He had so much hair over his eyes I’m not sure if he could really see what he was going for anyway!
The return ferry was right on time and as we leaving, the group that had just been dropped off got a front-row seat of the 6 horses at the beach. It was definitely their lucky day! They didn’t have to do the 5 miles of hiking that we did to see the horses. They literally walked off the ferry onto the beach and saw 6 horses straight away. It was as if they were ambassadors greeting the new visitors to the island. I’m pretty sure those visitors were extra lucky the day we went and that this is not an everyday occurrence.
Tips for Visiting Shackleford Banks
Word of caution, it ALWAYS seems to be windy so head protection, clothing that blocks the wind, and sunscreen are important! We saw lots of under-dressed folks who looked pretty miserable. You might get a windburn and may have chapped lips at the end of the day. If you are staying on the beach, shoes are less important, but if you are walking in the interior of the island, you will at minimum need hiking shoes, at best tall boots or Bogs which is what we wore (also happened to be great for walking in the water’s edge while looking for shells).
The interior is marshy and muddy (at least in the spring and winter). Even if you are able to avoid the mud, there are lots of plants that prick and sting including cacti sand spurs, and nettles. Plus you’ll want something hardy if you step in a pile. There are horse droppings on all the trails. Hard to avoid! If you are going to do a lot of hiking (like we did) I also recommend compression socks under those boots!
If you choose to wear tennis shoes they may get wet when getting off the boat and getting on the beach depending on when the tide is You can buy water boots at the gas stations surrounding Harkers Island. I saw several ladies with them and they are cute. Don’t think they will last a lifetime, but it’ll get you through the mud and sand on the outer edges of the island.
Shackleford Banks is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, so all the usual National Park Service rules apply. There are no lifeguards on the beaches and there are strong tides. It is recommended to stay close to the shore. (Also, sorry to be a downer, this area is also known for sharks.) Lastly, there are no trash cans or trash service, so you must pack out what you bring in. I bring an extra bag for picking up trash as I walk through the island.
East End vs. West End of Shackleford Banks
If seeing wild horses is your main goal, I personally think you have more opportunity on the east end as there is a larger population of horses. There are less than 20 on the west end, although I have seen horses both times I visited the west end. There are over 100 (although we saw around 20 total) on the east end. Both ends/sides of the island have beautiful beaches. The Atlantic-facing beaches have the best shells, which both ends/sides have. On the west end (which you access by ferry from Beaufort) the bayside beach is nice. However, on the west end, if you want to access the Atlantic-facing beaches you will need to cross a marshy field. There is a trail, but that trail has droppings and prickly plants that require heartier shoes, so if spending the day on the beach is your goal and don’t want to wear boots or hiking shoes, the east end (which you get to via ferry from Harker’s Island) has the access you want.
Whether you take the ferry from Harker’s Island to the east end of Shackleford Banks or from Beaufort to the west end of Shackleford Banks, the ferry ride is 15-20 minutes and costs $18. Beaufort is a 30-minute drive from Harker’s Island. Originally we had planned to go to Harkers Island on a Thursday morning which meant leaving the house at 4 am in order to get the 8:15 am ferry. Unfortunately, the weather made it impossible for the ferry to operate it was canceled and we pushed our trip one day. So Friday morning after spending a wonderful evening at the Inn on Turner in Beaufort we got up early and drove to Harkers Island to catch the ferry.
Accessing Cape Lookout Lighthouse and National Seashore
There are 3 ways to get to keep Cape Lookout Lighthouse. You can take the ferry from Beaufort (via Island Express Ferry Service for $40). You can take the ferry from Harker’s Island (via Island Express Ferry Service for $18). Or you can take the car ferry from Davis to Cape Lookout (via Davis Shore Ferry Service for $85 for a vehicle under 20 feet). The car ferry only takes 4 cars at a time and departs every 2 hours between 7 am and 3 pm. You MUST have a 4×4. Once you are there you can primitive camp (or rent a cabin), climb the lighthouse at Cape Lookout Light Station, or hang out on the beach and return on a ferry that departs every 2 hours between 8 am and 4 pm.
This is our next adventure so stay tuned!
Some FAQ about Shackleford Banks
- Shackleford Banks ferry: ferries can be taken from Harker’s Island or Beaufort. The company that runs the ferry is Island Express Ferry Service.
- Shackleford banks camping: It is possible to camp on Shackleford Banks. However there are NO cars, so everything you need for camping needs to go on your back!
- Shackleford Banks seashells: On our first trip to Shackleford Banks I was surprised to learn that you can freely collect seashells. Shelling is better on the Atlantic-facing side than the bayside is best after a low tide.
- Shackleford Banks tours: there are boat tours available, you may not see horses unless they are close to the beach, but you may see dolphins! Island Express Ferry Service runs tours on boats from Beaufort and Harker’s Island.
- Are there bathrooms on Shackleford Banks? No, there are no bathrooms! Everything is au nature, might I suggest you bring TP Kits??!! If you are taking the ferry from Harker’s Island there is a public restroom. If you are taking the ferry from Beaufort, there are 2 public restrooms within walking distance of the ferry dock.
- Are dogs allowed on Shackleford Banks? Yes, dogs are allowed but MUST be on a leash at all times.
- Where is Shackleford Banks? It is an island off the coast of North Carolina (part of the barrier island system on the coast of Carteret County.). The southern-most barrier island in Cape Lookout National Seashore.
- Where to stay near Shackleford Banks? Unfortunately, the only way to stay on the island is to camp and only with what you can bring on your back!
- Can you stay on Shackleford Banks? Yes, you can camp.
- Can you camp on Shackleford Banks? Yep. Camping is free and you can camp anywhere on Shackleford Banks. You do need to pick up a (free) camping permit and complete a trip report at the Rangers Station in Harkers Island.
- Can you drive on Shackleford Banks? There are no cars on the island.
- Can you kayak to Shackleford Banks? It’s a long paddle, but yes! You should know how to read and use a tide chart, but other than that it is “allowed.” However, you also need to kayak back, they are not allowed on ferries!
- What to do on Shackleford Banks? Plenty! Hike. Look for horses and other wildlife. Surf, kayak, swim, and enjoy other watersports. Hang out on the beach. Collect shells.
- What to bring to Shackleford Banks? Hat, sunscreen, layers of clothing, good shoes, water, and food. Don’t forget your camera!
- How long is Shackleford Banks? How big is Shackleford Banks? It is 9 miles long and 1 mile wide is its “fattest” part.
- How many horses on Shackleford Banks? There are approximately 140 horses. The NPS takes care of the horses to the extent they control birth and monitor the numbers, but they don’t feed or water them, or protect them during hurricanes.
How about you? Have you seen wild horses in the Outer Banks? have you visited Shackleford Banks in North Carolina? Have more tips to add? Do share!
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