Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on December 1, 2023.
Portsmouth Island (also known as North Core Banks) sits across Ocracoke Inlet from Ocracoke Island and is one of the most beautiful places in North Carolina. The once-inhabited village here predates many of the Outer Banks towns we know today.
We’ve been lucky enough to visit this wonderful place and think everyone should too, including you!
Before you visit, though, the rich history of Portsmouth Island needs to be told, along with how you can reach it and what you need to bring, too. Hold on as we take a ride to an amazing place along the North Carolina coast.
Here’s a guide to everything we cover:
- Where is Portsmouth Island?
- Portsmouth Island Quick Facts
- History of Portsmouth Village
- How to Visit Today
- Camping Info
- What to Bring Before You Go
- Places to Go on Portsmouth Island
- Ready to Visit Portsmouth Island?
- Things to Do Near Portsmouth Island
Where is Portsmouth Island?
Glance at any North Carolina map and you’ll see that Portsmouth Island is one of the state’s most isolated places. It technically lies within Carteret County (home of Beaufort, Morehead City, and Atlantic Beach) but the island is part of Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Is Portsmouth an island? Yes, Portsmouth is the northernmost island of Cape Lookout, which ends before Ocracoke island and the southern end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Portsmouth Island Quick Facts
Any available information about Portsmouth Island is thanks to the hard work of the Friends of Portsmouth Island.
- Many people also know Portsmouth Island as North Core Banks.
- However, Portsmouth Island is a tidal island separated from the rest of North Core Banks.
- The tidal flats between Portsmouth and North Core Banks are typically flooded but sometimes dry up enough for 4WD vehicles to pass through
- However, Portsmouth Island is 99-percent only accessible by boat.
History of Portsmouth Village
- Today, Portsmouth is an uninhabited island, but that was not always the case.
- Portsmouth Village was authorized by the North Carolina Colonial Assembly in 1753.
- As we mentioned, the village predated most Outer Banks towns in existence today.
- Fort Granville, a fascine battery, was established and briefly manned on Portsmouth Island beginning in 1757. It was decommissioned in 1764.
- Beyond Fort Granville, the island primarily provided storage and support to the area’s shipping industry. Ships used Portsmouth Island to transfer cargo to lighter boats that could navigate Ocracoke Inlet’s shallow waters.
- By 1770, Portsmouth Village quickly grew to become the largest town on the Outer Banks, thriving as a shipping port.
- The island enjoyed nearly a century of growth through the late 1700s and early 1800s
- Portsmouth Village supported two-thirds of North Carolina’s exports and 1,400 vessels in 1842.
- This growth continued, but environmental changes diminished Portsmouth Village’s importance. Ocracoke Inlet started to shallow, and a heavy storm created a new, much deeper inlet at Hatteras to the north.
- Portsmouth Village’s population reached 685 by 1860.
- However, the Civil War and approaching Union soldiers forced many of them to leave for the relatively safer mainland.
- After the war, the shipping industry gave way to fishing as the remaining residents’ primary occupation.
- Portsmouth Island’s first life boat station was established in 1875 and its second was built in 1896.
- Population decline continued. By the 1970s, 3 permanent residents remained on Portsmouth Island.
- In 1971, one of the last residents, Henry Pigott, died. Marion Babb and Elma Dixon, the two remaining Portsmouth residents, relocated to the mainland shortly afterward.
- Cape Lookout National Seashore was established in 1976, with Portsmouth Island included within its boundaries.
- Many of the village’s old buildings and the Life-Saving Station have been preserved, and some of them are open to visitors.
- Camping is allowed on the beach, but not in Portsmouth Village.
- Every other even-numbered year (ex. 2022, 2024), the Friends of Portsmouth Island and Cape Lookout National Seashore coordinate and sponsor a “homecoming,” where everyone is welcome to visit.
How to Visit Today
As we mentioned, certain conditions allow a 4-wheel drive vehicle to reach Portsmouth Island. However, Portsmouth Island is mostly only accessible by boat.
There are plenty of Portsmouth island boat tours. Our favorite is Portsmouth Island Adventure is led by an Ocracoke local, and you’ll see signs advertising their services near the Cedar Island/Swanquarter Ferry Terminal. The trip out to Portsmouth Island depends on the weather.
Tours will take you to the beach (for shelling) or the historic village, or both. In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, a channel separates the village from the beach.
Your boat captain will share a lot of knowledge and tidbits about Portsmouth Island, from its heyday through today.
There is a lot of uneven terrains and loose sand on the island, making it not wheelchair accessible.
Camping on Portsmouth Island
While you cannot camp inside Portsmouth Village, camping is allowed on the beach. All camping is primitive and there are no designated campgrounds on the island.
When camping, please keep the following in mind:
- Keep your campsite at least 100 feet from docks, wells, shade shelters, or any other structures.
- Bring all food and fresh water you will need during your visit.
- There is a restroom in the Visitor Center.
- Leave no trace. There are no trash cans on the island, so you must take all trash with you when leaving.
- You won’t need a permit to camp on Portsmouth Island, but a Special Use Permit is required for groups of 25 or more.
What to Bring Before You Go
Beyond public facilities that include compost toilets, there are no amenities on Portsmouth Island.
We highly recommend you bring the following for your trip:
- Closed toe shoes: Critters love uninhabited islands!
- Enough fresh water and food for your trip.
- A hat and sunscreen: There’s very little to no shade on the island.
- Insect repellent: Mosquitos, chiggers, and ticks love this island, especially during the summer months.
- Clothing to handle unpredictable weather.
- All camping supplies you’ll need if you’re staying overnight.
Places to Go on Portsmouth Island
A mix of preserved old buildings and beautiful scenes await on Portsmouth Island. Here are places to see as you walk around:
- The Beach: As we mentioned, depending on what you arrange with your boat captain, you may be going to the beach or the village, or both.
- Theodore & Annie Salter House and Visitor Center: Exhibits detailing Portsmouth Village’s history and its importance to the region are displayed here. Restrooms are also inside.
- The Post Office/General Store: Portsmouth Village’s post office also served as a general store. It closed in 1959, but you can have a look inside. There are wanted signs from a forgotten era, offering rewards in gold.
- Methodist Church: Religious services are recorded on Portsmouth Island as far back as the late 1700s. The only church that still stands today is methodist. It was built after the previous one was destroyed by a storm in 1913. The church bell no longer works due to excessive usage.
- The School: The Portsmouth Village School that stands today is the last remaining schoolhouse. It was closed in 1943.
- The U.S. Life Saving Station: The station on Portsmouth Island was built according to the Quanochontaug-type Brant Rock Station in Massachusetts. Shingles are found throughout the exterior, which is why it’s known as a “Shingle-style” station.
We think these are the places you’ll find more interesting, but it’s easy to fall in love with this island from any angle.
Ready to Visit Portsmouth Island?
The future of Portsmouth Island, as with anywhere along our coast, is fairly uncertain. Recent severe storms and the changing nature of the area’s waters serve as a warning that this place may not always stand the test of time.
However, it has for now, and as its old buildings and beautiful scenery continue to shine, Portsmouth Island will remain on our NC Bucket List. There are also other ways to enjoy the island, like going on a Portsmouth island fishing tour or one of the Portsmouth island ATV tours.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to visit, we’d love to know what you thought of this place. Feel free to let us know in the comments below or by email.
You’re also welcome to share your Portsmouth Island travel adventures with our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.
Things to Do Near Portsmouth Island
Before you get in touch with us, here are some of our favorite things to do nearby, both north and south of Portsmouth Island.
You can reach Ocracoke Island by ferry. From the mainland, you can arrive either from Cedar Island or from Swanquarter. The Hatteras Island ferry is free and leaves more often. Ocracoke Island is a hard place to top, with its pristine beaches, great restaurants, the overall relaxing vibe of Ocracoke Village, and its unique local history.
More Cape Lookout National Seashore Attractions
Across the shallow water from there is Shackelford Banks, also known for gorgeous beaches and for the wild horses that roam its shores.
Read More: How to See OBX Wild Horses
If you continue north from Ocracoke, you’ll ferry over to Hatteras Island. The nearest attraction to the Ferry Terminal is the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. It’s one of a few maritime museums in North Carolina and offers great exhibits covering our coast’s relationship with the waters that surround us.