Hike-in Required
No
Open Year-round
Yes
Guided tours
Yes
ADA accessible
No
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

Shackleford Banks is an undeveloped barrier island that is part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Other islands in this protected chain are popular for boat tours, offroad driving, and a historic lighthouse, but those are all elsewhere. Shackleford Banks is known for wild horses. They number more than 100 here, though you will never see that many at once. They typically wander in family groups of one stallion, a handful of mares, and sometimes foals.

Shackleford is not the only Outer Banks island with wild horses, but chances of seeing them here are good, and the journey is half the appeal. You can get here only by boat. Motoring or paddling your own boat is an option, but there are also ferry services from Beaufort and Harkers Island. The ride takes 20 minutes each way and allows a couple of hours for exploring the island. Ferries depart daily, but the schedule depends on the day and time of year.

Once on the island, you are free to roam around. There are no real trails here, but you can walk the same sandy paths that the horses follow. Look for horses in the dunes, on the beach, and near marshes further inland. They may be found anywhere and at any time of day, but your best chances are mornings and evenings when the weather is cooler and they come out to graze. Remember that these are wild animals, and they are not to be fed, petted, or approached too closely. They are accustomed to the presence of humans, but they will defend their personal space. Keep at least 50 feet away, and remain aware of where all the horses are if you get between any of them.

No one knows the exact origin of the herd, but they have been here for centuries and are genetically traced to Colonial Spanish stock. It is likely that some were abandoned here by Spanish explorers or later settlers, and they survived and adapted to this harsh environment. There is little freshwater to be found on the island, and weather can be extreme, but the horses are hardy.

In addition to the horses you may enjoy looking for birds, dolpins, other animals, shells and sharks' teeth, or simply lounging on the wide and sandy beach. When visiting Shackleford Banks, come prepared for conditions. Summers are hot and buggy, winters are cold, and the sun is intense at any time of year. Bring sunscreen, insect repellent, drinking water, snacks, and extra layers for wind and rain. There is a toilet at the ferry dock, but there are no other facilities. Dogs are allowed on the ferries and the island, but they must be kept on a leash and under control at all times. Dogs and horses can be dangerous to each other, so they should not be allowed to interact closely.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Spring
Summer
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

None

Pros

Wild horses. Uncrowded beach.

Cons

Access by boat only. No real trails on the island.

Pets allowed

Allowed with Restrictions

Features

Bird watching
Whale watching
Backcountry camping
Family friendly
Guided tours
Vault toilet
Wildflowers
Wildlife
Fishing

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Lodging + Camping

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