Seeing wild horses in North Carolina's Outer Banks is a treat! Ever since watching Nights in Rodanthe (after reading the book) while living on the other side of the country, I've wanted to see the gorgeous manes of these wild horses along the beaches and islands of the Outer Banks! (I also wanted to spend a weekend in a house on the beach with Richard Gere, but that is a whole different blog post!)
One of the first things Mr. Misadventures and I did when we moved to North Carolina in February of 2020 was head for a weekend at the beach to seek out these beasts.
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Wild horses have been roaming North Carolina's Outer Banks ever since European settlers arrived there centuries ago. The history of these beautiful animals in North Carolina is a fascinating one. The earliest records date back to the early 1700s when explorers had brought horses with them on their journey across the New World.
These Colonial Spanish mustangs are likely the survivors of shipwrecks and were stranded in the Outer Banks centuries ago. Or they could have also been left behind by the first explorers. No one knows for sure.
With their long, flowing manes and wild eyes the wild horses are truly a sight to behold. Though it is illegal for people to approach them closely (they are protected by law from harm and harassment) many visitors come every year just for an opportunity to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience to see them.
My own experiences have been exceptional. I have seen horses on every visit and I have truly enjoyed observing the area's oldest and most beloved residents. I am so glad that I live close enough that I can see them year-round. Most people that come to visit this beautiful stretch of coastline want to see wild horses at least once! And you should definitely make it part of your itinerary.
So where do wild horses live, where are the best places to see them and how can you find them? I've got you covered! Here are the 3 places where you can see wild horses: Corolla, Shackleford Banks, and Carrot Island. P.S. you'll notice that Rodanthe is not on this list 😉
In a world of endless asphalt and concrete, Shackleford Banks is an oasis for those looking to escape (I would highly recommend Cape Lookout for the same, but alas, no horses there). The warm sun contrasts with cool (yet wild!) waves and there are miles upon miles of sand where you can clear your mind.
One of the reasons I put this location first is that it is my favorite and a much quieter part of the Southern Outer Banks off the North Carolina coast. I also put this spot first because it is my favorite, but none of them are “perfect” they all have pros and cons.
There are 140 horses on the island is several herds, however, visitors can only access them via boat or kayak, which means that you have to plan ahead for this one! It takes approximately 30 minutes to get to the island via ferry which you can take from either Beaufort or Harker's Island.
There are no cars allowed and you are limited to what you can take on the ferry, so this is best for a day trip or half-day depending on what you are doing. It is possible to see horses from the beach. Mr. Misadventures and I saw horses on the beach, in the marshes, and in the interior of the island.
Read my entire post on Shackleford Banks to get all of the details and information you need!
How many wild horses are in Shackleford Banks: 140
Carrot Island – The horses on Carrot Island are a little different from the herds on Shackleford Banks and in Corolla. They are not wild, but rather feral, and are descendants of livestock that was brought to the island in the 1940s. Carrot Island is part of the Rachel Carson reserve was designated as a part of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1985. The only way to get there is from Beaufort and there is only 1 tour operator that can take you. The boat ride is literally five minutes!
There are fewer horses on the island but we did see them on both the beaches and the marshes.
Read all the details about seeing horses on Carrot Island in my Beaufort post.
How many wild horses are on Carrot Island: 40
If you are checking out horses in Shackleford Banks and Carrot Island I highly recommend checking out Beaufort and staying at the Inn on Turner.
The wild horses in Corolla in the Northern Outer Banks are the most popular likely because they are the most accessible. The upside is that if you have a 4×4 capable of driving on the beach, you can get to them whenever you like. Meaning you don't have to rely on a ferry schedule.
If you don't have a 4×4 or aren't comfortable with driving in the sand, the good news is that there are a few tour companies like Wild Horse Adventures Tours and Corolla Outback Adventures (which my friend Tanya did) that can take you out there. This area is popular as it is close to all the other Outer Bank attractions and towns where hotels and home/condo rentals are. The downside is that it is crowded.
The loose band of horses in this area is a herd called the “Corolla wild horses” that roam freely along the northern beaches of the Carova all the way up to the Virginia border. With long, flowing manes and gentle eyes, it's hard to believe that these beautiful animals thrive in this sandy terrain!
The one cool thing about the location of these horses is that you can rent a home along the beaches they roam. You can rent to home or condo and if you are lucky you could be drinking your morning coffee or pre-sunset cocktail and see them write from your window or deck. That is not something you can experience at the other 2 locations.
How many wild horses are in Corolla: 100
If you aren't renting a house or condo and prefer RVing or camping, check out the new Outer Banks West/Currituck KOA in Coinjock, my friend Tanya stayed there recently and I am checking it out soon!
Important things to Note
- These horses are WILD and are protected. You may not approach within 50 feet (a school bus) of them. You will need a telephoto or zoom lens to capture them.
- The horses are under the protection of federal and state law depending on where you are.
- The Shackleford Banks horses live on federal land as Shackleford Banks is part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. These horses are co-managed by CALO and the non-profit organization: Foundation for Shackleford Horses.
- Carrot Island is part of the Rachel Carson Reserve and those horses live on state government land which is part of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management Coastal Reserve program. These horses are managed by the Coastal Reserve.
- Management means they have a breeding program to the extent that they track manage contraception (via a dart) to manage herd size/growth.
- The horses in Corolla are managed by a non-profit called the Corolla Wild Horse Fund and (they also have a museum) who assist with emergencies regarding the horses in this area, DNA testing, soil, and plant studies, maintain the fencing, and public education.
- Do NOT feed the horses ANYTHING. Humans and their food are a danger to the herd's survival.
- Horses and hurricanes. These horses have lived in these areas for hundreds of years and have adapted to the weather including hurricanes. Drone footage taken of a herd on Shackleford Banks when the eye of a hurricane was passing by showed that the horses were standing in a circle shoulder to shoulder with the young and elderly horses protected in the middle. These are resilient creatures!
The Outer Banks is a dream destination for many people, but not everyone knows how to find these wild horses. Luckily, there are these 3 places where you'll be able to see them. Each has its own uniqueness and all of them are special. Be sure to explore them all! The wild horses are an iconic symbol of the area, and it is worth seeing for yourself.
If you have any chance of getting sea sick while taking a boat, water bus, or ferry, I HIGHLY recommend PSI bands. I have used them for more than a decade, and they work! I gift them to friends all the time and keep a spare set in my glove compartment for visitors who may also get car sick.
How about you? Have you seen the wild horses in the Outer Banks? What was your experience like? If you haven't, is it on your bucket list? Do share!
If you are out west and are looking to see wild horses in Arizona, take a day trip from Phoenix to see the Heber horses!
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