Every vacation destination has its own unique draw to potential visitors, whether it's a national monument, a fantastic shopping or dining scene, or an exotic locale that's meant for total relaxation. Many newcomers to the Outer Banks are surprised to learn that this destination has all of these attributes and more, and it can be hard to narrow down the overflowing list of "must-sees" or "must-dos" that have to be squeezed into a 1-2 week OBX vacation.
Experienced Outer Banks travelers attest that a local ferry ride either to or from the barrier island shorelines is a huge part of the fun, and a relaxing 2.25 hour cruise across the Pamlico Sound is certainly a welcome diversion for many road-weary travelers.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation's (NCDOT) ferry operations had humble roots, dating back to the first privately run ferry which was owned by Capt. Tillet, and made runs across Oregon Inlet for Hatteras Island visitors who were coming from the Northern Outer Banks beaches.
This set-up consisted of a tug-boat and barge that could shuttle a small handful of cars to the other side of the inlet, and noticing its usefulness to both locals and visitors, the NCDOT stepped in and began subsidizing the business from 1934 - 1950. Capt. Tillet's ferry service was eventually sold to the state in 1950, and had made an impression in the process. The NCDOT soon realized that a more advanced ferry service would be a blessing to a number of coastal areas, including hard-to-get-to North Carolina locales, like Hatteras or Ocracoke Islands.
Today, the NCDOT has seven different routes spanning the coastline, 24 ferries in operation, and over 400 workers. Of those seven routes, three are concentrated on the southern Outer Banks, including the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry, the Swan Quarter ferry, and the Cedar Island ferry.
Along with the Swan Quarter ferry, the Cedar Island ferry arrives and departs from Ocracoke Island. Located 20 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, it's no surprise that these two ferries are also the longest ferries in the NCDOT's routes, (at 2.25 and 2.5 hours respectively.)
The Outer Banks terminal on Ocracoke for both the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferries is pretty hard to miss. To access it, travelers simply have to drive along NC Highway 12 until they run out of road. At the very end of Highway 12, and located at the eastern corner of Ocracoke Harbor, lies the large ferry terminal with 6 lanes to stack vehicles, a check-in station, a Visitors Center, and even a nearby soundside beach.
All visitors to Ocracoke Harbor will notice the ferries churning in and out of the Ocracoke Harbor, as the ferries that service both the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter routes are among the largest in NCDOT's fleet.
Essentially, the NCDOT operates three classes of ferries: the Hatteras Class, which is the smallest and is generally used for short runs like the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry route, the River Class which is slightly larger, and the Sound Class. The Sound Class ferries weigh around 300 tons and can accommodate 50 vehicles and 300 passengers, and all of the ferries that service the Cedar Island / Ocracoke route are of the Sound Class variety.
This makes them an impressive site just sitting on the docks, but after boarding, visitors will be even more enthralled when they step out of the vehicle and take a look around.
The majority of ferries that service the Cedar Island / Ocracoke route have two outdoor decks. One on the "second" level, above the parked vehicles, and a smaller one on the very top level, which features incredible Pamlico Sound views. Visitors are also welcome to stroll around the first level, and head to both to the front and back of the boat, to watch the water churn underneath as the ferry makes its' slow progress across the sound.
On rainy or humid days, the ferries feature extensive air-conditioned interior lounges, also located on the second level, that have a combination of bus-like bench seating and tables which are ideal for playing cards or board games. Some of the newer ferries even have flat screen TVs throughout the lounge, and all ferries have vending machines with snacks and drinks, hot coffee available for purchase, and restrooms located within the lounge and / or on the first level.
As mentioned, the trip is approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, (although this is subject to change in rough weather conditions), and is basically a straight, 22 mile shot across the sound. Travelers will be able to get a distant look at both Ocracoke Village and Cedar Island, but for the rest of the trip, the only scenery is open water and the occasional passing trawler or shrimping boat. Despite the supposed lack of scenery, many vacationers find the trip simply enthralling, with crabs and small fish visible just under the waters' surface on a clear day, and cormorants, pelicans, and plenty of seagulls flocking around the boat virtually any time of year. The best time to travel, however, is in the evening around sunset, as the ferries offer an other-worldly view of the sun dipping into the Pamlico Sound.
The Cedar Island site of this route is similar to Ocracoke's ferry terminal in that it has lanes for cars to park, a check-in station, and a Visitors Center with vending machines, restrooms, area information and even a small gift shop.
However, the Cedar Island area is completely unique, and has a handful of other amenities that visitors should consider exploring while waiting for their ship to come in.
Behind the Visitors Center, and on either side of the ferry traffic lanes, guests will find a small handful of rustic trails that lead out to the Pamlico Sound. This stretch of mainland shoreline has remarkably wide beaches and larger, almost ocean-like waves, in addition to small handfuls of shells and ghost crabs that patrol the beach. For visitors who have a few extra minutes to spare, a quick walk along the Cedar Island beaches is well worth the time, as it gives vacationers a chance to admire the Pamlico Sound from an entirely new perspective.
There are a handful of convenience stores and tackle shops in the 20 mile stretch between Cedar Island and the next largest city, Beaufort, (which is worth a visit itself), but not much else, so travelers are advised to stock up on any necessary supplies well before they head onto NC Highway 12 towards the ferry docks.
Reservations, rates, and departure times
The Cedar Island Ferry has set departure times from both Ocracoke and Cedar Island that change with the season. In the winter months, the Cedar Island ferry generally has 3-4 runs from both terminals, and in the summertime, this increases to 6 to account for the increased traffic to and from the Outer Banks.
Though times may vary annually, generally the first ferry to leave Cedar Island departs at 7:00 a.m. with the last ferry departing at 4:00 p.m. On Ocracoke, the first ferry departs at 7:30 a.m., and the last ferry leaves at 4:00 or 4:30 p.m. The ferries run every day of the year, including holidays, and only deviate from their schedules for extreme weather conditions or other emergency conditions, (such as road closures on Ocracoke or Hatteras Islands.) For a current ferry schedule for all routes, click here.
Due to the limited space and the average 2 hour interval between departure times, advanced reservations are highly recommended. Thankfully, ferry reservations are easy to make, and travelers can simply reserve online, or by calling 1-800-BY-FERRY.
Rates are consistent throughout the season, but vary depending on the type of vehicle. For example, a cyclist will pay much less than a truck with an extended camper or a vehicle towing a boat. Larger vehicles should definitely reserve well in advance, however walkers or cyclists generally have no problem hopping on and catching a ride.
Once you're made your reservation, be sure and be at the ferry terminal at least 30 minutes before your departure time to check-in, or else your reservation will be cancelled. This is a necessary NCDOT rule, as due to the capacity and size of the ferries, it generally take about 20 minutes to load all the vehicles on board.
If you have not made a reservation, the ferries usually have a "waiting list" line, and if any spots become available, these vehicles can drive on board on a first come, first serve basis. Though usually at least a spot or two opens up for virtually every ride, travelers are still encouraged not to take their chances, and simply arrive with a reservation in hand. Once you've arrived, the check-in attendant will provide you with a boarding ticket. Hold on to this, as you'll need to present it to a second attendant before driving on board.
In addition, you'll need a valid driver's license to check-in, and motorists should be prepared for random inspections performed by the US Department of Homeland Security. Though very rare, these inspections or inquiries are occasionally performed to ensure travelers' safety, and ferry users should simply be aware of the possibility.
Tips and tricks for travelling aboard the Cedar Island ferry
- If at all possible, try to catch an afternoon or evening crossing for one of the best sunsets you'll see on your Outer Banks vacation. With miles of open water in every direction, travelers will find themselves canopied with pink and purples skies, and incredible front-row sunset views, especially from the ferry's scenic top deck.
- Bring along some board games and catch up on family time. The ferry lounge has tables and booths set up so that travelers can break out a board game or deck of cards and enjoy a little entertainment with the sound views in the background.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions. The NCDOT staff are trained to deal with common vacationer questions and are happy to assist in any way they can.
- Be sure and bring extra drinks and snacks along, or pick some up at the Visitors Center at either terminal. Travelers are advised, however, that alcoholic beverages are not allowed on the ferry, and smoking is also not allowed on any section of the ferry, including inside your vehicle.
- Vacationers who are staying south of Ocracoke will need to catch a second ferry, the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry, to access Hatteras Island and the northern Outer Banks beaches. Happily, this ferry is free, lasts just 40 minutes, and departs every half hour or hour (depending on the season) from 5:00 a.m. until midnight.
For a fun start to an Outer Banks adventure, consider making a grand arrival via the Cedar Island ferry. This gentle, 2.25 hour ride is often just the thing vacationers need to get them out of travelling mode, and into vacation mode. It's also a fantastic way to discover secretive and smaller parts of the southern Outer Banks shoreline, as well as a gas-saver for vacationers travelling from the southern or western parts of the county.
Regardless of your reasons, however, you're sure to find a slow, lazy ride aboard the Cedar Island ferry well worth the trip. A fantastic vantage point for gorgeous sunsets, and one of Ocracoke's only lifelines to the mainland, the Cedar Island ferry is an Outer Banks institution that's fun, relaxing, and offers a world of incredible views.
What is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry is a public vehicular ferry that provides service from Cedar Island on the mainland of North Carolina to Ocracoke Island. It is run by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and is one of three ferries that service isolated Ocracoke Island.
Who runs the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry is managed and run by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Ferry Division.
Where is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry crosses the Pamlico Sound, and its terminals are located in Cedar Island on the N.C. mainland, and on the edge of Ocracoke Village on Silver Lake.
How much is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
The cost to ride the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry varies by vehicle / passenger type. Passengers are charged $1 per crossing, while standard cars and trucks less than 20 feet are charged $15 per crossing, and larger vehicles are charged $30 to $45 per crossing.
How long is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry ride?
The total crossing time for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry from either terminal is 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Are there motels near the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
There are motels close to both terminals of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, which includes one next to the ferry docks in Cedar Island, and several that are located within a mile of the Ocracoke docks in Ocracoke village.
What are the attractions near the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
The Cedar Island ferry terminal is close to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, Harkers Island, and other landmarks of the Down East community. The Ocracoke Island ferry terminal is on the edge of Ocracoke Island, and is close to the Ocracoke Lighthouse, a number of shops and restaurants, and the famed Ocracoke beaches.
Can you take pets on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Pets are allowed on the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, and dogs can exit the vehicle and explore the main deck once on board, provided they are on a leash at all times. Owners will want to be careful in the warm summer months, as the decks may be too hot for dogs’ paws.
Can you walk onboard the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Passengers are permitted on the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, at a charge of $1 per crossing. A passenger lounge is located on each of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island ferries.
Can you ride a bike on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Cyclists are welcome on the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, and are charged $3 per crossing.
Can you take a vehicle on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
All vehicles that are legally allowed on the road are permitted on the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry. Fares vary for vehicles based on type, (motorcycle, car, ATV, etc.), as well as length.
Can the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry accommodate large vehicles?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry can accommodate large vehicles, such as RVs or trucks with trailers, however the fare is based on length, and is progressively higher for longer vehicles.
Should you make a reservation for the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
It is highly recommended that all travelers make a reservation for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, as space is limited, and the ferries only run a few times per day.
What happens if you don’t make a reservation for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry?
Travelers who do not have a reservation for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry will be directed to a stand-by lane, and will be allowed on the next available ferry on a first come, first serve basis, after travelers who have existing reservations.
How do you make reservations for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry?
Travelers can make reservations for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry by calling 1-800-BY-FERRY, or via the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s website at https://ferry.ncdot.gov/.
Do you need a ticket to board the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry?
Travelers should make a reservation to board the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry. Once they check in for their scheduled departure, they will be given a ticket to display in their vehicle, which is required to board the ferry.
What are the busiest days for the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Saturdays and Sundays are generally the busiest days for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, due to weekly vacationers heading to Ocracoke Island.
When is the best time of day to go on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Generally speaking, the earliest ferries that depart at 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. are the least crowded for the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, but this can vary based on the day and season.
Are there restrooms on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
There are public restrooms on board the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry.
Can you smoke on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, which includes passenger lounges, exterior decks, and inside personal vehicles.
Can you drink alcoholic beverages on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Alcoholic beverages (aka open containers) are not allowed on the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry.
Can you fish off the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Passengers are not allowed to fish off the sides of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry.
How many vehicles can the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry carry?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry can generally accommodate about 40-50 vehicles, however this number varies based on vehicle type and length.
Are there vending machines on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
There are snack and beverage vending machines on board the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, which are located in the passenger lounge. Additional vending machines are found at the two terminals in Cedar Island and Ocracoke village.
Is there food onboard the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
There are vending machines with snacks and drinks on the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, as well as several restaurants and convenience stores for more substantial fare close to the two ferry terminals.
Is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry air conditioned?
The passenger lounge of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry is climate controlled, and is heated during the winter months, and air conditioned during the summer months.
Is there a passenger lounge on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
There is an expansive passenger lounge on each of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island ferries, which includes seating, a handful of tables, vending machines, and other necessities.
Is there internet access on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Limited wireless internet access is available on a number of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island ferries.
Can you get out of your vehicles on the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
All passengers are welcome to get out of their vehicle and explore on the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry, however, they must wait until the ferry has departed the docks, and is in motion.
Can you feed seagulls off the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Feeding seagulls off the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry is prohibited.
When does the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry board?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry starts boarding approximately 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time. All reservation holders must be checked-in 30 minutes before their departure.
What happens if you miss the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
Passengers who miss the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry will be directed to a stand-by line, where they will be allowed on the next available ferry, after passengers with existing reservations.
How late does the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry run?
From late September until late May, the last ferry Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry departs both terminals at 4:30 p.m. From late May until late September, the last ferry departs the Cedar Island terminal at 6:3 p.m., and departs the Ocracoke terminal at 9 p.m.
How early does the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry start running?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry starts running at 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m., depending on the terminal, (Cedar Island or Ocracoke), as well as the time of year.
How often does the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry run?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry has three crossings per day in the off-season months, (traditionally late September until Late May), and five crossings per day during the summer months.
Does the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry run in storms or hurricanes?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry does not run in hurricanes, tropical storms, or other severe weather conditions, due to safety concerns.
At what wind speeds does the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry stop running?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry generally suspends operations at high wind speeds of approximately 30-35 mph sustained winds or more.
Where are the docks for the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry?
The docks for the Cedar Island terminal of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry are located on the northern edge of Cedar Island, where N.C. Highway 12 ends. The docks for the Ocracoke terminal are located on the edge of Ocracoke Village, close to the Visitors Center and public day-use parking area.
How far is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry from Ocracoke village?
The Ocracoke terminal of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry is located within Ocracoke village at the end of N.C. Highway 12, and is within walking distance of a number of area shops, restaurants, motels and accommodations, marinas, and attractions.
How far is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry from the Ocracoke beaches?
The Ocracoke terminal of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry is roughly 3-4 miles away from the local beaches. An ORV ramp for 4WD vehicles is also found on the edge of Ocracoke village. (A beach driving permit from the National Park Service is required to drive on the beaches of Ocracoke Island.)
How far is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry from the Ocracoke wild ponies?
The Ocracoke ferry terminal is approximately 7 miles away from the Ocracoke Pony Pen, which is the best vantage point to catch a glimpse of the wild Ocracoke ponies.
How far is the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry from Hatteras Island?
The Ocracoke terminal of the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry is roughly thirteen miles away from the Hatteras – Ocracoke vehicular ferry, which provides transport to Hatteras Island via a free, hour-long shuttle across Hatteras Inlet.
Has the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry ever run aground?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry has run aground on several occasions, however recent dredging operations in Ocracoke Inlet and the Pamlico Sound has resulted in a deeper and safer route for the ferries.
Does the Ocracoke - Cedar Island Ferry operate year-round?
The Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry does run year round, however, the number of crossings per day is reduced to three crossings versus five in the off season months, which is generally from late September until late May.
Can you drive to Ocracoke Island?
The only way to access Ocracoke Island is by ferry. There are two ferries that depart from the mainland, (the Ocracoke – Cedar Island Ferry and the Swan Quarter Ferry), and a third, free ferry that accesses Ocracoke via Hatteras Island.