Take a quick and scenic ferry ride with your experienced guide over to the pristine Outer Banks Island of Shackleford Banks, which is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. There, you are introduced to the wild horses of Shackleford Banks. After the tour, you are directed to one of the best shelling beaches in all of North Carolina, where you can spend some time shelling your way down the beach with Cape Lookout Lighthouse off in the distance. Shackleford is well known as one of the best shelling destinations on the East Coast.
Located on the edge of North Carolina and serving as a midway point between the Outer Banks and the Crystal Coast, Cedar Island is a relatively undiscovered gem that feels miles away from the rest of the world. Close to historic and natural attractions, miles of barrier island shoreline, and the state-run ferry to Ocracoke Island, a Cedar Island vacation can be as relaxed or adventurous as a family wants, with ample opportunities to explore costal North Carolina’s great outdoors.
Visitors won’t find big amusement parks, malls and shopping centers, or active nightlife scenes on Cedar Island, but they will find plenty of wildlife, water in every direction, and unlimited peace and quiet. Ideal for slower-paced vacations that revolve around fishing, shelling, kayaking, boating, hiking, and taking in nightly sunsets, Cedar Island is a great destination to get away from it all.
Cedar Island Activities
Vacation fun on Cedar Island revolves around the water. With more than half of the island earmarked as part of the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, expect to spend plenty of times outdoors on your next getaway.
Swimming / Beaching
With a number of waterfront vacation rental homes, campgrounds, and even a small motel located just steps away from the 30-mile wide Pamlico Sound, Cedar Island has more than enough quiet and isolated beaches to go around. Because the Pamlico Sound is shallow for miles, with little to no waves, it’s an ideal spot for families with young swimmers, and there are plenty of sandy soundside beaches to set up a beach chair or two.
Tip: You may want to bring a pair of water shoes for lengthier explorations. While the Pamlico Sound generally has a shallow and sandy bottom, there may be stray oyster shells or muddy and grassy areas where water shoes will come in handy.
Fishing can be enjoyed in a number of ways on Cedar Island, and it’s easy to cast a line from a kayak, a boat, or from a sound-facing beach. There are several tackle shops in the area where anglers can pick up bait, gear, and all the supplies they need, as well as several charter businesses close by for anglers who want to enjoy both inshore and offshore adventures.
A long walk along the shoreline on Cedar Island can result in some unique finds, as the Pamlico Sound and Core Sounds both have fair share of weathered and ancient shells that have found their way to the local shores via the nearby inlets.
For even better beachcombing grounds, take a passenger or 4WD vehicular ferry from the nearby towns of Davis, Atlantic or Harkers Island to the barrier island beaches of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which is renowned as one of the best shelling destinations in North Carolina.
Horseback riding is another popular activity on Cedar Island, thanks to its remote local and miles of desolate and undeveloped shorelines. There are stables available for visitors who want to have an adventure, which are located close to the Cedar Island ferry docks, and for a more wild experience, visitors can also catch a private ferry or a boat ride to nearby Cape Lookout, where wild mustangs roam free along the beaches, just as they have for hundreds of years.
Kayaking is easy to enjoy on Cedar Island, thanks to miles of estuaries, canals, and open sound waters in every direction. There are several boat launches in the area, which includes one near the Cedar Island ferry terminal, and several near the bridge that crosses the Merkle Hammock Creek and Thorofare, and visitors can also easily launch a kayaking adventure from virtually any soundside beach.
Recent renovations to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s boat ramp at Driftwood Drive, (next to the ferry docks), has made boating easier than ever in this on-the-water community. A number of RV parks, campgrounds and vacation rentals may also offer their own private boat launches, and there are additional launch points throughout the island, and in neighboring communities such as Beaufort, Morehead City and Harkers Island.
Cedar Island is a great place for birdwatchers due to its unique landscape that combines salt marshes, maritime forest, soundfont shoreline, and much more. Cedar Island is also a part of the Atlantic Flyway, attracting countless migrating birds every year, and is also close to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum on Harkers Island, which is a great destination to learn more about the feathered residents that call Cedar Island home.
Restaurants and Nightlife
Though Cedar Island is nicely isolated, there are a couple of restaurants and eateries on the island itself to enjoy a quick bite or a tasty meal after a long day at the beach. In addition, Cedar Island is a roughly 30-45 minutes’ drive away from Beaufort and Morehead City, where dozens of pubs, restaurants, and nightlife destinations can be found.
Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge
The Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge is easily the region’s largest attraction. Comprising of approximately 11,000 acres of brackish marshlands and 3,480 acres of pocosin and woodland habitat, the refuge is a great place for boating, fishing, hunting, kayaking, birdwatching, and hiking.
Established in 1964, the refuge is one of the more isolated national refuges in coastal North Carolina with just 20,000-30,000 yearly visitors, and no primary visitors’ center or on-site museum or facilities.
That said, there are rugged walking trails and boat ramps within the site, which are accessible via multiple spots along N.C. Highway 12, which cuts directly through the refuge terrain. For more information on the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Cedar_Island/about.html.
Other Cedar Island Attractions
Cape Lookout National Seashore
Located just across the Core Sound from Cedar Island, the Cape Lookout National Seashore is a natural barrier island shoreline that’s renowned for excellent shelling, fishing, surfing, and other outdoor adventures and activities. Take a privately managed ferry from the nearby towns of Atlantic or Davis to explore Portsmouth Island, the northernmost island of the National Seashore, and home to the historic Portsmouth Village – an abandoned island community that has been perfectly preserved since the last residents left in the 1970s.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Just to the north of Cedar Island lies the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which is another Mecca for beachgoers and anyone who enjoys swimming, surfing, shelling, fishing and more. To reach the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, visitors can hop on the 2.5 hour-long ferry from Cedar Island to Ocracoke Island, which has 13 miles of stunning and undeveloped beaches, as well as historic Ocracoke Village, which is filled with unique shops, restaurants, and attractions.
Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum is located in the nearby town of Harkers Island, and is a great place to uncover the unique culture and geography of the Down East region of the Outer Banks. From decoy carving and quilting demonstrations, to hiking and experiencing the beauty of the maritime forest on the Willow Pond Trail, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum has a little something for everyone. For more information, including hours of operation, visit their website at https://www.emeraldislerealty.com/business/core-sound-museum.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway
Cedar Island is part of the Outer Banks Scenic Byway, which is one of only 150 National Scenic Byways in the country. The byway consists of 138 driving miles and 25 ferry-traveling miles, and visitors can enjoy a hefty part of this stunning drive simply by following N.C. Highway 12. For a lengthier exploration of the byway, make a loop at Harkers Island, which is another hidden gem of a community in this isolated section of the North Carolina coast.
Cedar Island Ferry to Ocracoke Island
Visitors coming to Cedar Island from the north, or Cedar Island vacationers who want to explore something new, can hop aboard the Cedar Island ferry to connect with neighboring Ocracoke Island.
The Cedar Island - Ocracoke ferry is operated by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division, and is a vehicular ferry that crosses the Pamlico Sound to and from Ocracoke in a 2.5-hour long ride.
There are approximately 3-4 crossings per day, daily, from both the Cedar Island and Ocracoke ferry terminals. Both ferry terminals have visitors’ centers with restrooms and vending machines, and the ferry itself has outdoor decks, an indoor passenger lounge, vending machines, and restrooms as well.
There is a fee to use the ferry, and reservations are strongly recommended – especially in the summer months when the trip is popular with both Crystal Coast and Ocracoke Island vacationers. For more information on the Cedar Island – Ocracoke ferry, which includes online reservations and current schedule, visit the N.C. Ferry System’s website at https://www.ncdot.gov/travel-maps/ferry-tickets-services/Pages/default.aspx.
Cedar Island is a wonderful destination for any family that loves outdoor adventures and easy-going vacation. Just barely off the beaten path, and not as popular as its Outer Banks or Crystal Coast neighbors, Cedar Island is a great destination to uncover a hidden jewel of a vacation spot that’s hidden in plain sight along the North Carolina coastline.