A Complete Guide To North Carolina’s Shackleford Banks

A wild horse with a beautiful mane and a branded symbol on its left hind leg on Shackleford Banks. Bushy green trees provide a nice backdrop, making the auburn horse standout.

Shackleford Banks, located on the southern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is a secluded and remote barrier island that offers visitors an idyllic escape where you can leave the stress of everyday life behind for a while. Shackleford Banks is a true paradise for nature lovers with its pristine beaches, wild horses, and abundant wildlife. In this article, we will explore everything you need to know to plan a memorable visit to this unique and beautiful destination!

About Shackleford Banks

Part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, Shackleford Banks is the southernmost island of the Cape Lookout National Seashore and part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

At 9 miles long and less than a mile wide, it is now a standalone island, although it was one attached to Cape Lookout (now separated by the Barden Inlet). Home to over 100 wild horses that have been living on the island for over 400 years, Shackleford Banks also has the largest maritime forest in the park and long stretches of saltmarsh, in addition to a long stretch of white sandy beach on its southwest shore.

Two horses grazing on Shackleford Banks off the coast of North Carolina. The Bardon Inlet waterway can be seen in the background as well as the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Wild horses feeding in the saltmarsh on Shackleford Banks


While narrow, Shackleford Banks is long so be prepared for plenty of walking while you explore this unique island! As you can see, the island sits east to west, protecting Beaufort and Harkers Island from southwestern storms rolling in across the Atlantic Ocean.


The peak season for visiting Shackleford Banks is during the summer months. This being said, if you don’t mind some cooler temperatures, visiting in the shoulder seasons can make for an unforgettable trip! During our visit in March, we encountered smaller crowds and mild temperatures where it felt like we practically had the whole island to ourselves. There is something special about visiting places in the less busy times of the year, where you can slow down and experience more presence and mindful moments as you appreciate the beauty with a sense of peaceful seclusion.

As it is a barrier island, it is normal to experience windy conditions throughout the year. In addition, there is limited shade on the island. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks as you won’t find any food on the island either. In addition, be sure to check for ticks and/or bring insect repellant.

A wild horse lays down to take a rest on Shackleford Banks off the coast of North Carolina.

Taking The Ferry To Shackleford Banks

How do you get to Shackleford Banks? Shackleford Banks is a remote and undeveloped island that is only accessible by boat or ferry. There are a few ways to make the journey across the astonishingly clear and turquoise waters to the island’s sandy shores and although it is a bit of effort, it is absolutely worth it!

Island Express Ferry Service

Island Express Ferry Service is a ferry service provider authorized by Cape Lookout National Seashore and the National Parks Service. Each passenger is allowed 2 carry-on items, such as a backpack and a chair. Taking the ferry offers passengers a perfect opportunity to appreciate the Cape Lookout National Seashore from the water while enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells during the adventure over to explore the islands.

The Island Express Ferry dropping Cape Lookout National Seashore visitors off on Shackleford Banks. The Cape Lookout lighthouse can be seen in the background.
Island Express ferry beaching on Shackleford Banks. Cape Lookout lighthouse in the background.

Beaufort to Shackleford Banks

  • Duration: 25 minutes each way; drop off at the west end of Shackleford Banks
  • Cost: $20/adult, $13/child, $7 pet (roundtrip)
  • Reservations are recommended and can be made online through Island Express Ferry. We found reservations a necessity even during the winter season in March as only limited trips are offered. We were also told that the ferries from Beaufort to the east end of Shackleford Banks get canceled more often than the trips from Harkers Island due to high winds.
  • Departs From: 600 Front Street, Beaufort North Carolina (Beaufort Visitor Information Center)
  • Schedule of Departure Times (you will schedule your pick-up times when you arrive to claim your tickets):
A view from the Cape Lookout National Seashore visitor center looking at an old anchor from a wrecked ship. You'll also see a small marina with ferry boats as well as other national park service boats.
Island Express Ferry docked at the Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center on Harkers Island

Harkers Island to Shackleford Banks

  • Duration: 25 minutes each way; drop off at the east end of Shackleford Banks
  • Cost: $22/adult, $15/child, $7 pet (roundtrip)
  • Reservations are recommended and can be made online through Island Express Ferry. We found reservations a necessity even during the winter season in March as only limited trips are offered
  • Departs From: 1800 Island Road, Harkers Island North Carolina (Location of the Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center)
  • Schedule of Departure Times (you will schedule your pick-up times when you arrive to claim your tickets):

We highly recommend scheduling a combo trip to Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout! This can only be booked out of Harkers Island and costs a bit more ($30/adult and $20/child), but it’s worth it. We found it the perfect way to spend the day experiencing all this area has to offer including wild horses, an iconic lighthouse, pristine beaches, and amazing shelling. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for dolphins, we were treated to quite the show during our visit!

If you are an experienced paddler, you could also consider kayaking to Shackleford Banks, which is about a 5-mile roundtrip route across Back Sound. Beaufort has a public boat ramp that you can launch from on the east end of Front Street (Lennoxville Road). If you are interested in a kayaking adventure during your visit and need a rental, Beaufort Paddle offers rentals right on the waterfront.

Beaufort itself is a great day trip on this part of North Carolina’s coast! Check out these 35 fun things to do in Beaufort, NC!

Best Shackleford Banks Things To Do

Observe The Wild Horses

The story goes that the wild horses living on Shackleford Banks are descendants of a herd that survived a Spanish shipwreck 500 years ago. The horses are said to share genetic ancestry with Spanish mustangs and there are currently around 130 roaming the island, split up into roughly 25 harems and 7 bands of bachelors.

Two wild horses grazing on the island of Shackleford Banks.

Also called Banker Horses, or Banker Ponies, they are somewhat related to other horses found on the east coast as they have been found to share some genetic history and general adaptation to life on the outer banks. Other wild horses on the east coast include herds living in Corrolla farther north on the Outer Banks and the Chincoteague Ponies on Assateague Island.

Two beige, wild horses on Shackleford Banks standing face to face.

While the horses are studied to understand more about how horses live in the wild, they are mostly left to their own devices. They are tracked for research purposes and veterinary care is brought in if absolutely necessary.

In addition, there are management practices enacted including the removal of young horses (who are adopted out to the public) in order to ensure the populations can be sustained by the island’s natural environment.

While it might be hard to believe that a small remote barrier island could sustain over 100 horses, the herds are able to survive off of what the island itself has to offer without intervention. They feed off of island grass and marsh and get fresh water from various pools and ponds or by digging in the sand and waiting for fresh water to seep through.

A wile male horse overlooking Shackleford Banks as it stands on a tall dune.
A Stallion standing watch over his harem

Stay at least 50 feet away from the horses during your visit for their protection and yours. Admire their ability to live on a small remote island that often experiences harsh conditions, marvel at their social interactions, and gain a greater appreciation for this magnificent species and their storied past.

Three horses grazing on Shackleford Banks off the coast of North Carolina. Small green bushes and partial clouds make for a soft but beatiful backdrop.

Explore Shackleford Banks’ Beaches, Shells, & Tidal Flat

With close proximity to the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current, Shackleford Banks’ uninhibited stretch of beaches make it a prime destination for shelling. Particularly after the tide goes out, you can stroll along the beach or wade out on exposed sand bars and have some spectacular finds. We were stunned at how clear the water is along the island’s shores and how the waters evolve into a bright turquoise color like something you might expect to find in the Caribbean. The “Crystal Coast” got its name for a reason.

A few visitors can be seen in the distance walking along the shore of Shackleford Banks.

With wild horses grazing in the saltmarsh, views of Cape Lookout Lighthouse across the inlet, and vibrant blue waters crashing to the shore, strolling around Shackleford Banks feels like a dream. Sit and listen to the waves rolling in, collect unique and colorful shells strewn around in the sand from depths beyond your wildest imagination, and take some time to appreciate a little slice of natural paradise, unadulterated by the outside world. The beauty and power of the natural world are on full display all year long at Shackleford Banks.

A wild horse poses for the camera on Shackleford Banks in front of the Cape Lookout lighthouse.
Wild horse on Shackleford Banks with the Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the distance (one of the several Outer Banks Lighthouses)

On the east side of the island just north of the ferry drop-off, you can also explore a tidal flat that is alternatively submerged in water and exposed to the air as the tide moves in and out. One of two tidal flat areas in the Cape Lookout National Seashore, this flat muddy area exposes oysters and a variety of other unique life in this area when the tide recedes. A great place for some further exploration and another opportunity to learn more about the ecosystem that exists on Shackleford Banks.

A large patch of oysters in Shackleford Bank's tidal flat.


Looking to immerse yourself further in the breathtaking landscapes of the Cape Lookout National Seashore? Camping along the sandy beaches of Shackleford Banks would make for an unforgettable experience. Unlike some other National Park camping experiences, camping at Shackleford Banks is remote and primitive. There are no facilities (outside of a seasonal restroom available at Wade Shore) and it is imperative to follow Leave No Trace principles and carry out any and all trash.

On Shackleford Banks, only tent camping is permitted and permits are generally not required unless you plan to camp with a large group of 25 or more.

Camping Information:

  • Have proper food storage to keep your belongings and the wildlife safe
  • Small campfires (3 feet in diameter max) allowed in damp sand below the high tide line
  • Camping limited to 14 nights
  • Cost: just the price to get to the island (such as by taking the Ferry)

Fulfilling Travel Tips

As the first line of defense, barrier islands like Shackleford Banks stand tough in the face of the harshest storm conditions and are ever-changing. The island itself and the horses that have inhabited it for over 400 years are a symbol of resilience and the beauty and growth that can result even from the harshest conditions. A beautiful reminder for all of us as we explore their home for a while.

A trip to Shackleford Banks is a prime opportunity to spend time intentionally connecting with and appreciating wildlife that can leave you feeling more connected to the world around you and more aware of the impact your presence has on the species around you.

Nature is healing and spending time on a remote island like Shackleford Banks can offer amazing benefits if you are intentional about how you spend your time. Soak in the sounds of the wilderness, sit in awe at the simplicity of an undeveloped shoreline, and leave stressors behind while focusing on finding rare shells or trying to capture the essence of the wild horses roaming wild and free. Shackleford Banks is your ticket to an escape into nature that leaves you fulfilled, energized, and humbled.

A female hiker stands on the shore of Shackleford Banks and watches a wild horse grazing in the tall grass


Reserve Your Ferry:

Local Camping Options:

Camping is a great way to live in harmony with nature and bring the outdoors right outside your door!

  • Tent Camping on Shackleford Banks
  • Tent, car camping, or truck campers on Cape Lookout or the South Core Banks
  • Oyster Point Campground (reservation and walk-in primitive sites) in the Croatan National Forest
  • Cedar Point Campground (electric or primitive sites with a bath house in Croatan National Forest)

North Carolina’s Crystal Coast full of great campsites, ranging from RV resorts to no-frills National Forest campgrounds. If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks, campgrounds, and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.

Our other favorite resources for finding great campgrounds and campsites include Campendium, RV Life, and iOverlander

You can also check out HipCamp and TheDyrt for more unique camping experiences and accommodations.

If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through Outdoorsy or RV Share. We used both of these services when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!

Other Area Accommodations:

If you are looking for other accommodations, you can find plenty of great stays not far from the pristine beaches in this area. Booking.com is a great resource that allows you to compare prices easily and lock in the best rates for stays ranging from hotels to private rentals! Some spectacular coastal areas to consider for your stay include:

Please respect the island and its inhabitants during your visit and follow Leave No Trace principles. In the past, horses have died due to being fed by visitors. Keep your distance while observing so that they can continue to live out their lives while staying healthy and safe.

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