MAY 24 2022    
Camping on the Coast - Cape Hatteras National Seashore
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Camping on the Coast - Cape Hatteras National Seashore

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Camping on the coast is altogether different from camping in the mountains. Falling asleep to the sound of crashing surf, waking to the song of seabirds, and walking from your tent straight into the ocean are just a few unique experiences beach camping has to offer. 

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides some of the best coastal camping opportunities on the East Coast. This tract of public land features 70 miles of uninterrupted coastline, stretching from Oregon Inlet to Ocracoke Inlet on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It encompasses three North Carolina barrier islands - Bodie Island, Hatteras Island, and the remote Ocracoke Island (which can only be reached by boat or ferry). 

The area also includes a large strip of land on the sound side of NC Highway 12. The National Seashore is fairly contiguous and is only dotted by the small NC villages of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras.

What To Do at Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Numerous boardwalks, nature trails, and four-wheel-drive access ramps are scattered through the National Seashore, providing easy ways for visitors to enjoy the Atlantic Ocean and the natural landscape. 

With miles of uninterrupted beaches and its seclusion from commercial and residential development, Cape Hatteras National Seashore regularly makes both national and international “Best Beaches” lists. Although Cape Hatteras draws almost a million road trippers each year, the National Seashore has plenty of quiet spots to help you get away from the beach crowds. 

Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers plenty of opportunities for adventure. The area is ideal for surf fishing, bird watching, kayaking, surfing, swimming, sunbathing, and beachcombing. There are also several historic lighthouses and visitor’s centers within the National Seashore that are well worth a visit. 

Cape Hatteras National Seashore is also a duck hunting paradise. Although waterfowl hunting is only permitted in certain areas, the National Seashore draws hundreds of hunters to its shores each winter. 

There are multiple beach access points that feature spacious paved parking lots, well-maintained restrooms, and convenient showers. Many visitors opt for more spontaneity and simply drive down NC Highway 12 until they find a spot to pull over. Then they march over the dunes to the oceanfront. However, Cape Hatteras’s dunes are fragile, and excessive foot traffic degrades their integrity, damages important seagrasses, and may endanger crucial sea turtle nesting sites. For these reasons, using designated beach access points is strongly recommended. 

Camping in Cape Hatteras National Seashore

There are no commercial hotels within the boundaries of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Most visitors to Cape Hatteras are daytrippers from nearby tourist towns like Kitty Hawk and Nags Head. However, if you’re an adventurer who craves a slightly wilder beach vacation, Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers four fabulous campgrounds.

Oregon Inlet Campground

Oregon Inlet Campground is the northernmost campground in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The oceanfront is just a short walk from the campsites and you can see Bodie Island Lighthouse, which is particularly stunning to watch at night. 

Open year-round, the campground features 107 sites. Forty-seven of those sites have electrical hook-ups, and running water and flush toilets are located throughout the campground. This is the only campground in Cape Hatteras National Seashore that has hot water showers, which is a major perk if you’re camping in cooler weather. 

Oregon Inlet is the best-rated campground in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The facilities are incredibly clean and well-maintained. 

Cape Point Campground

Cape Point Campground is located further south, right on the point of Cape Hatteras. Several sites have a great view of the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which casts light across the campground through the night. The beach is just a short stroll from the campground. 

There are 202 sites available with same-day reservations only. The campground is only open from early May to late November, but it is busiest during the summer months. Visitors should be aware that all of Cape Point’s campsites are wide open to the summer sun. With no shade, temperatures often spike to uncomfortable levels, so bring plenty of water and sunscreen. 

The campground has working showers and flush toilets, but no electrical hookups. The restroom doesn’t even have an outlet you can use to charge your phone, so plan accordingly. 

Frisco Campground

Frisco Campground is located on Hatteras Island about 6 miles west of the lighthouse. Its proximity to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse means the beacon sweeps over the campground through the night. 

Frisco Campground is open from early April to late November and has 127 sites with no electrical hook-ups. Each site has a paved parking pad, a picnic table, and a charcoal grill. Since there are no open fires allowed in the campground, campers will need to make do with their charcoal grill to roast marshmallows for smores. 

Frisco is nestled between the sand dunes and a shrub thicket, and a public boardwalk allows campers easy access to the ocean. However, the walk is a bit long and takes you over a high dune, which can be exhausting if you’re toting heavy coolers or a bunch of fishing gear.  

The sites are spaced pretty far apart, so campers can enjoy some privacy, even during the busiest time of year (between Memorial Day and Labor Day). Make sure to pack your bug spray, because the ticks and mosquitoes can be bothersome in the warmer months. 

The campground also has modern restrooms with flushing toilets, running water, and outdoor showers. However, the showers do not provide hot water, so be prepared to rinse off beach sand in cold water. 

Ocracoke Campground

Located 9 miles south of the Ocracoke Island Ferry Terminal, Ocracoke Campground is the southernmost campground in the National Seashore. Open year-round, the campground hosts 136 sites and welcomes RVs under 40 feet. However, the campground does not provide electricity for campers. 

The ground at Ocracoke Campground is pretty sandy, so extra-long tent stakes are a must, especially since the campground can get fairly windy at night. 

Like all of Cape Hatteras’s campgrounds, Ocracoke Campground is pet-friendly. It also offers grills, flush toilets, and cold showers (which are actually a relief during the hot summer months). 

All of the campsites are located in the open, and the lack of shade can make the summer heat feel extra oppressive. Pack your sunscreen and drink plenty of water. You’ll also want to bring the citronella candles and bug spray if the weather is warm. The gnats and mosquitoes come out in full force after the sun goes down. 

Beach access is less than 100 yards from the campground, but it provides a path to one of the most gorgeous beaches on the East Coast. 

North Carolina Coastal Camping FAQs

If you’re unfamiliar with coastal camping or North Carolina’s Outer Banks, you probably have tons of questions. Here are some brief answers to a few common questions about Cape Hatteras National Seashore. 

What is a National Seashore?

A unique part of the US National Park system, there are 10 sites designated as national seashores. These sites are designed to preserve long stretches of breath-taking coastlines along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts.

What are the Outer Banks?

Frequently abbreviated as OBX (especially by the locals), North Carolina’s Outer Banks is a string of barrier islands that stretches over 200 miles. These barrier islands separate the Atlantic Ocean from the Currituck, Albemarle, and Pamlico Sounds. 

Can You Camp Directly on the Beach on the Outer Banks?

Camping directly on the beach is not allowed on the OBX. However, there are several well-maintained campgrounds located just behind the dunes that allow easy access to the ocean. 

Can You Drive on Cape Hatteras National Seashore?

Cape Hatteras is one of the few coastal areas that still allow 4WD vehicles to drive directly on the sandy beach, and this is one of the best ways to explore the oceanfront. Driving both to and on the beach allows visitors to pack all their fishing and/or beach-going gear, take to the sand, and explore Cape Hatteras’s miles of pristine shoreline. 

The National Park Service (NPS) requires an off-road vehicle (ORV) permit to run on designated ORV routes at the Seashore. Permits can be purchased at several NPS stations on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. Applicants must watch a brief 10-minute video on beach driving safety and display their permit in the windshield of their vehicle at all times. Drivers must remain on ORV routes to preserve the OBX’s fragile dunes and avoid hefty fines. 

What is Special About Cape Hatteras National Seashore?

Established by Congress on August 11, 1937, Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the United States’ first National Seashore. 

This stretch of coastline preserves some of the wildest parts of North Carolina's Outer Banks. A perfect place for surf fishing and birdwatching, the Seashore also features several historic light stations, including Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, and Ocracoke lighthouses. 

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