This route covers Segment 18 of North Carolina’s 1150-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail. From the secluded beaches of Ocracoke Island to the tourist bustle of Nags Head, the route captures the many aspects of North Carolina’s easternmost parts. These barrier islands, or “banks,” are rich with history, wildlife, and scenery. They are also the site of some of the most extreme weather in the country. Situated as it is—far out in the ocean, where two major ocean currents collide—the region has earned its nickname, “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
- Ocracoke Village, a quaint and quiet town at the western end of the segment
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore, encompassing the beaches for nearly the entire segment
- The Ocracoke pony pens, which hold the descendants of a horse herd that once roamed on the island
- The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which tells the story of the over 2,000 shipwrecks off the coast of North Carolina
- The Open Ponds Trail, a sandy track through maritime forest near Buxton Woods
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, at 208 feet the tallest brick lighthouse in North America, and the most recognized symbol of the Outer Banks; it is open for climbing in the summer.
- The historic Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, the original site of the forerunners to the U.S. Coast Guard, which is now a museum
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a renowned haven for waterfowl, especially in the winter
- The historic Oregon Inlet Life-Saving Station
- Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, a 1,000-foot fishing pier originally built in 1939 and reconstructed several times, most recently in 2011, which is now part of the North Carolina Aquarium
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the largest and highest dune complex in the eastern United States
Features: Swimming — Views — Wildlife
Camping on the beach is prohibited throughout this segment of the MST. Please camp only in legal campgrounds.
Hunting is allowed on Ocracoke Island outside the village; however, hunting on the beach is extremely rare. Other than on Ocracoke Island, the trail is not on any land that is open for hunting in this segment.
The western end of this segment is at the Cedar Island Ferry Terminal in Carteret County and the eastern end is at the highest point on the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Dare County. The segment includes 81.6 miles of trail plus two ferry rides; note that the listed mileage includes the ferry ride between Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands and thus is greater than the actual mileage. The ferry between Cedar Island and Ocracoke Island takes about 2½ hours, and the ferry between Ocracoke and Hatteras Island is about 40 minutes.
As of 2016, the one-way ferry fare between Cedar Island and Ocracoke Island is $15.00 for cars, $3.00 for bicycles, and $1.00 for those on foot. The Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry is free. Reservations are highly recommended in the summer. Ferry schedules and reservations are available online
or by phone (1-800-By-Ferry), and schedules are posted at the terminals.
There are MST blazes—a 3” white circle—on the trail in Jockey’s Ridge State Park and a few places in the Buxton Woods area. In addition, there are mileposts on the beach every 0.5 mile on Ocracoke Island. Otherwise, the trail is not marked in this segment.
For more information about this segment, including camping, lodging, parking, shuttles, resupply information, and trail angels, as well as detailed, turn-by-turn directions, download a trail guide
from the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
The Outer Banks are a highly dynamic landscape. The forces of storms, tides, winds, and currents constantly rearrange the sand that forms these islands. Most of the land south of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse did not exist a hundred years ago; on the other hand, in 1999, beach erosion forced relocation of the lighthouse 2,900 feet west from its original site. For the MST traveler, this means that the trail is constantly changing. What is an easy stroll on the beach today may be completely impassable after the next storm, and vice versa.
Other factors affect one’s ability to access the beach. Tides are a major consideration: A reasonably wide beach at low tide may be completely covered at high tide. Tide tables should be considered an essential tool for traversing this segment. Parts of the beaches may be closed at certain times of the year to protect turtle or shorebird nesting sites. And strong winds may influence the direction a day traveler chooses to go.
For all these reasons, the route outlined here should be considered an approximation only. The route assumes the trail user will stay on the beach in most places, but keep in mind that NC 12 parallels the MST virtually its entire length, and prudence or legalities may dictate using this as an alternate route.
This segment includes crossings of two narrow bridges. One, a temporary bridge over a small inlet at Mile 57.0 eastbound (24.6 westbound), is extremely narrow, but is very short. At the time of this writing, the inlet has filled in, and it may be possible to continue on the beach to avoid the bridge. The other bridge, the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge between Hatteras and Bodie Islands (Miles 65.0-67.4 eastbound, 14.2-16.6 westbound), is a bit wider but is still quite narrow. The 2.4-mile route is harrowing. We recommend that you use your best judgment about how to cross these inlets.
Above all, avoid placing yourself at risk whenever possible!
This segment passes through several well-known and important birding areas, including National Wildlife Refuges and National Seashores. The area is home, especially in winter, to numerous species of waterfowl, including large concentrations of snow geese and tundra swans.