Why Portsmouth Island is the Ultimate OBX Day Trip

 Portsmouth Island OBX Day Trip
If you're looking for the best day trip on the Outer Banks, one that your family will remember fondly for years to come, then look no further than Portsmouth Island. Few visitors to the OBX are even aware of this small 13-mile long island, let alone the unparalleled beauty and splendor that it offers those willing to take the trip to its shores. So grab the cooler, some sunscreen and the camera. We're headed to Portsmouth Island, the last wild island frontier of the OBX.



A Little History Lesson

European Settlers Arrive

Like all of the barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks, Portsmouth Island owes its formation to the shifting currents, winds, and weather dominated by the Atlantic Ocean. However, we need not go that far back in history to give a little perspective on why Portsmouth Island became an important part of OBX culture and history. When European settlers came to the OBX, they quickly found Portsmouth Island. At the time, the primary shipping inlet was the Ocracoke Inlet between Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island. As early as 1752, Europeans began settling the island and quickly built a rather large village. By 1770, Portsmouth Island was the largest European settlement on the Outer Banks. By 1860, and the outbreak of the civil war, there were 700 permanent residents on the island.

Civil War

At the outbreak of the Civil War, it was obvious to everyone along the Outer Banks that Portsmouth Island (along with several other points along the south Atlantic coast) would be strategic points for both the Union and Confederate Army. Soon, residents began leaving the island for fear of the inevitable Union invasion of the Island. Few ended up returning. The Civil War was, in fact, the beginning of the end of Portsmouth Island's hay day. Some hardy residents remained, and shipping (along with fishing) did continue to be a vital part of the island's viability, but never again would it return to its pre-civil war levels. 

End of An Era and New Beginnings

With the advent of the railroad and the shallowing of the Ocracoke inlet, along with new inlets along the OBX, it became clear that Portsmouth's time had passed as a viable and competitive center of shipping. As the years moved along, the residents did the same, migrating to the mainland or Ocracoke...a now bustling fishing center. In 1956, there were only seventeen permanent residents listed. However, with the loss of the permanent residence, a future paradise was born, thanks to the Cape Lookout National Seashore. After years of neglect, in 1976 the National Park Service took over the administration of the island and began a forty year renovation of the remaining buildings, preserving them in their original historic state for visitors to see today.

Getting There 

Getting To The Island

Getting to Plymouth Island is going to be half the adventure. But no "ultimate" day trip would be complete without a few challenges. The best way to get there is to head to Ocracoke Island. From all points North, you will take Highway 12 S to Hatteras, and from their take the ferry to Ocracoke Island. For information on the Ocracoke Ferry click here. Once in Ocracoke, you really only have two options. The first option is to rent a small Carolina skiff and head over to the island, which is only recommended if you have some prior boating experience. Option two, which is by far the best one, is to take the Portsmouth Island ATV tour, which is a guided tour on ATVs. This tour includes the ferry to the Island. It is important to note there is no public ferry from Ocracoke to Portsmouth Island and there is no NC State Ferry System coverage.

Things to Do 

Things Do On The Island


The beaches on Portsmouth Island are remote...and with few visitors, they are truly spectacular. There are no piers, no houses, no lights. Standing on a beach on Portsmouth Island today would look the same as it did 200 years ago, and that is just the way we like it. For those who love seashell hunting, this is a paradise. Without the typical crowds, there is almost no limit to the unique things you'll find. Conchs, whelks, and sand dollars are all commonly found on the shores. Due to the beach's gentle slope to deeper waters combined with smaller surf, shells on Portsmouth Island tend to have a gentler trip to shore...thus preserving many in pristine condition.

ATV Tours

This is by far the best way to see the island. With these guided tours you get to travel the old dirt roads, and cruise along the beach. With the friendly and knowledgeable staff, you'll be sure to see all the highlights of the island, including the old historic village. Tours are $90.00 per person and include the ferry ride, seashell hunting, swimming and a mile hike through the historic village. If you want to know more about taking an ATV tour, contact the good folks at Portsmouth Island Tours, they will get you set up for a wonderful day on the island. 


Camping is a great way to spend time on the island. No permits are required unless you have a party of 25 or more. Campfires are allowed below the high tide mark. Make sure to bring all the food and water you'll need as there are no services on the Island. It is also important to note that you cannot camp in Portsmouth Village. Camping regulations do change, keep abreast of the current regulations by visiting the National Parks Service site. 

Historic Portsmouth Village

Portsmouth Village allows visitors to step back in time and explore what life must have been like on this remote island so many years ago. Thanks to the renovation of the buildings, you'll be able to appreciate the hardy nature of the inhabitants of Portsmouth Village. The village has several buildings that are open to the public. There are guided tours during the season, or you can download an audio tour on your cell phone for a self-guided experience. There are restrooms, but it is important to note that the houses on the island are not handicap accessible.


If you love surf casting then you are going to fall in love with Portsmouth Island. With miles of beaches, you'll be able to find that quiet spot that is all your own. All North Carolina fishing permits and laws are applicable. Pompano and Black Drum are two popular fish that you'll find in the waters along Portsmouth Island. However, any common fish found along the Outer Banks will be present, including flounder, mackerel, tuna and mullet. In the fall and spring, make sure to seek out the schools of puppy drum that cruise past the island during their annual migrations.Looking for more information about fishing on the OBX? Check out our previous post: Everything You Need To Know About Fall Fishing Charters On The OBX. 


Tips While Visiting Portsmouth Island

  • The island is essentially not handicap accessible at this time. The Portsmouth Village buildings do not have ramps or handicap restrooms. 
  • There are no paved roads on the island. If you do decide to come from to the island from Atlantic, NC (from the south) you will want 4 wheel drive.
  • The Island has no store, or facilities so anything you need to a day, or camping trip you must bring with you. 
  • Water is available but it is recommended you bring plenty. 
  • There is no driving in Portsmouth Village.
  • Medical facilities are non-existent. Be prepared!
  • There is no fuel on the island. 
  • Mosquitoes are plentiful year-round. Bring bug repellant. 

Like we said at the beginning of this post - Portsmouth Island is the ultimate day trip. Getting to the island might not be easy, but the reward is well worth it. One of the great benefits of an OBX vacation is the sheer amount of activities, history, and attractions that are available to our visitors. We hope you make the most of your vacation, and explore our unique culture and history with your family. If you are looking for that perfect vacation home on the OBX that puts you in the heart of all the best attractions, then click the link below and begin your OBX vacation planning today.

 Portsmouth Island OBX Day Trip Pin

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