A Weekend Backpacking Trip to Portsmouth Island, NC
Ever since I learned about Portsmouth, I wanted to go. I actually didn’t even learn about Portsmouth from word of mouth or even literature – I learned of Portsmouth’s existence while planning a cycling trip Ocracoke. While looking at a Google Satellite Map of Ocracoke, I noticed that the next island over was labeled as Portsmouth. I zoomed in on the Google Map and noticed there was a town on the island. I was instantly intrigued and wanted to find out more.
Doing research on the internet about Portsmouth, I was surprised to learn that there was relatively little information about the island, with just a few eyewitness testimonies describing the village and the journey there with Rudy Austin. There also weren’t many pictures. Being that Ocracoke is so popular and well known, I wondered why Portsmouth wasn’t.
Now that I have been to Portsmouth – I have learned that it was an instrumental part of american history. Portsmouth was a bustling British Colonial town in 1753, being loyal to the throne for the last 23 years of British rule in the colonies. Portsmouth was a critical shipping port for receiving goods from England. The large ships from England would deliver goods to Portsmouth, and then the goods would be transferred onto smaller ships for delivery across the 28 ft deep Pamlico sound to the North Carolina mainland. The infamous Blackbeard pirate knew this – which is why he selected the Ocracoke / Portsmouth area for his tyrannical rein. Blackbeard would hide his ship 4 miles away off Ocracoke – and then wait for English ships to hit ground while navigating the treacherous Outer Banks which were going to and from Portsmouth. After the ships ran aground – Blackbeard would pounce. Let’s not forget that Blackbeard was also a “Robin Hood” type character – as the goods he regularly got from Portsmouth ships were so plentiful, he would donate the excess to common folk. In 1753, the colony of North Carolina did not have a capital yet. Because of it’s population and logistical importance, Portsmouth was selected to be the first British Colonial General Assembly of North Carolina. Therefore, one could consider Portsmouth the first capital of North Carolina for approximately 13 years, until the formal capital of New Bern was selected in 1766.
What we have with Portsmouth is a concept similar to current Old Salem in NC, or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia – except without commercialization or tourists. Despite now being mostly civil-war era buildings left standing, Portsmouth is a perfect time capsule that is undisturbed by any modernization or complexity. When you are there, you can really feel like it was to be a new-world colonist. Exploring Portsmouth Island definitely has the feel of a place that once was. Behind the beach dunes or around the remnants of former beach boat docks, it’s easy to tell where walking paths and roads that led to town once were, which are now 50, 100, or 200 years overgrown and impassible. In your mind you can imagine colonial townsperson walking to and from the beach for recreation – or the 700 confederate civil war troops station on the island trying to get around.
Even as somewhat experienced backpackers who are all still young and in great shape, the environment on Portsmouth was the harshest I’ve ever encountered. With absolutely no fresh water, no cover from sunlight or heat, little to no escape from bugs, and being open to elements or storms – we learned that about two or three days on Portsmouth is about all the body can handle, even if you wish to stay longer. The weather for our trip was perfect – a low temperature of 55 and high of 71, and sunny for the weekend. But even at 71 degrees, we were overheating from many hours in the sun, and seeking refuge. The issue is if you setup a shade tarp, the bugs like shade too – and being in the shade just means being eaten alive. We all also ended up drinking much more water than we thought. Each person in our trip brought between 6 and 10 liters of water – and all of us were nearly out by the end of our two night backpacking stay. We packed in “heavy” with water in our packs, but then also just externally carried lots of water with our hands, lugging it in for the one or two mile hike. Without carrying in additional water, there would be no way to backpack on the island for a couple days. One thing we didn’t have the time to explore or test was all the still-water ponds on the island. There may be freshwater ponds around the island that you could use a water filtration device for – but the ponds are mostly stagnate and likely tainted with salt anyway. However, I do believe there are likely some fresh rainwater ponds, puddles, or drifts around the island in a dire emergency. However in a true emergency within the summer months – the stationed rangers in the village would be available for your assistance, so long as someone can get there.
One of the surprises of Portsmouth to us was just how supported and “alive” the Island is. We really thought we were going to a deserted island, but it was actually anything but that. Right after we jumped off Rudy’s boat, we noticed lots of national park signage and markers. Then during our weekend stay, we almost always had beach neighbors nearby (RV campers and fishermen), and Saturday afternoon was very busy with big rigs and four-wheelers going by. Everyone waves hello, and some of the big-rig trucks are really neat to see, all-black with pirate flags and such. There were also daily federal ranger patrols. The federal rangers start their four-wheeler patrol at 9:00 AM on the south-end of Portsmouth Island. By 10:00 AM they are making it to the northern beaches where most campers are. The rangers turn around at the end of the northern beach and go back – so at around 10:00 – 10:30 AM they pass the northern beach campers twice within a 10 minute period. We were warned on two separate instances for having our dog off leash – and parking our 4×4 in the wrong place. This was a little annoying of course and hurt the “on your own” mentality a little bit. However, it’s nice to know that in an emergency – you would just need to make it to 10:00 AM the next morning to alert someone. I also presume from a military standpoint, the federal rangers are needed because the land must to be regularly patrolled to make sure no foreign nations are popping up their submarines and setting up a base or encampment of some kind. Sounds crazy I know – but we have to patrol our shores for national defense.
For those of you who visit Portsmouth by 4×4 from Morris Marina ferry – FYI – to protect the dunes, vehicles need to be parked in FONT of the brown marker signs. The federal ranger told us to draw an imaginary line between the marker signs and park in front of that line. But we quickly found that parking in front of the marker signs can also mean your car ending up in the ocean at high-tide – so finding an overnight parking spot can be tricky – or you can risk a $200 dune preservation ticket from the ranger to save your car instead. And of course – do not park or drive on a dune or even small mounds that could be somehow considered dunes of any kind or you will get nailed. The federal ranger will just follow the beach tracks over the dunes to your car.
As far as camping on Portsmouth beach – it was wonderful. We ended up camping at mile marker 1, which seemed to be a good spot that was in-between the road to the village and Rudy’s beach dropoff. It also had some nice dunes to nestle in. I would recommend camping in a dune-bowl if you can find one, which is down in a bowl and away from the high winds. The beaches are windy and relatively free of bugs – the beaches and ocean swimming were the best escapes from them. The night sky and the stars were incredible. It doesn’t get darker anywhere in the United States than Portsmouth island because how far out from the mainland it is. Ocracoke is easily visible from many areas in northern Portsmouth – just stand on top of almost any northern Dune, visit th northern-most beach, or life saving station to get a view of modern society (and cell phone coverage). So you know – there is one bar strength basic voice Verizon and AT&T coverage on Northern Portsmouth – but no Sprint or TMobile. You may have to stand on a dune to get coverage. At night sometimes the coverage would come and go. We used pre-distributed UHF radios to communicate and find each other. We could actually talk to each other across Ocracoke and Portsmouth with them and while they were coming to us with Rudy.
As for seasonal backpacking on Portsmouth – I could really only recommend backpacking on Portsmouth in spring or fall. The high temperature for our early May weekend was 71 and it was already almost unbearable for two days in the sun, with the amount of water we had. A typical July summer day of 85 – 90 degrees would be downright uncomfortable and dangerous, and it would be hard to carry enough water for two days like that. Those who have 4×4 vehicles have shady air conditioning retreats – but if you’re backpacking, there is no escape. Additionally, the bugs are still small in spring – I can’t imagine what the bugs would be like by July / August when there are twice as many of them that are twice as big. Another thing to consider is sunlight, which is less in the fall. So really the best time to go backpacking on Portsmouth is May – which is cool, without big bugs, and light until 8:30 PM. April could still be cold and wet, and June you’re dealing with high temperatures, big bugs, and scary heavy thunderstorms that can washout your camp into the ocean, making you retreat camp behind the dunes.
If you’re thinking of making a fire on Portsmouth – think again. There is hardly any decent wood around for burning. There are some washed up tree bits and construction drift from Ocracoke, but otherwise making a fire is impossible unless someone brings firewood in a 4×4. Luckily we did have someone in a 4×4 join us with enough firewood for a few hours – and it was good at keeping the bugs away at night. We were able to use a large driftwood tree as a group chair, and a half-door that washed we could use as a ground table. Another one is no hammocking – there is nothing to tie a hammock to. One more pro tip: bury things in the shady sand to keep things cool as a natural refrigerator.
Being that we were a young and fun group – we also brought lots of alcohol along with our water, and spent most of the weekend pretty tipsy. The backpacking drink of choice for the trip was red wine – either box red wine or pre purchased and emptied into large canteens like platypus bottles. Some people brought 180 proof vodka and gatorade / soda. Being that we pretty much started nefariously drinking Friday afternoon on the Swan Quarter ferry, we ran out of alcohol by Saturday evening – which was probably a good thing for our hydration.
The adventure of getting to Portsmouth is a ton of fun – it’s a challenge within itself. Everything from planning the timing of ferries, to getting ahold of Rudy and making sure he doesn’t forget about you, to even finding Rudy on Ocracoke, to hoping your friends 4×4 doesn’t get stuck in the middle of the island, to whimsical weather that could derail everything, to finding each other on a deserted island, it’s a ton of fun. Our backpacking group was large – 13 of us. And being that we are all working young professionals, not everyone could come together at the same time. We ended up coming in three separate groups – two groups on Friday, and one group on Saturday. As a backup plan, we had reserved a camp sight on Ocracoke Friday night in case Rudy could not take us to Portsmouth on Friday because of weather. The Ocracoke camp sight ended up being useful for the third group who got to Ocracoke after midnight on Friday.
• The first group: three people and a dog came in a 4×4 Subaru from Morris Marina Ferry, and drove up 13 beach miles to milepost 1.
• The second group: seven people in two cars came from the Swan Quarter ferry to Ocracoke, then Rudy to the Portsmouth Beach drop off. Then we hiked 1.5 beach miles to milepost 1 with all our stuff.
• The third group of three people and two dogs had to work Friday, and came very late-night Friday and made the last midnight ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke, then they camped at the Ocracoke campground Friday night. Saturday morning, at 11:30, they met Rudy in Ocracoke and were taken to the Portsmouth Village dock. They did the Portsmouth road hike to the beach, and it to our mile marker 1 campsite by 12:30 Saturday afternoon.
There are four different ways onto Portsmouth Island:
1) Mainland NC State Ferries from Cedar Island or Swan Quarter to Ocracoke. Then Rudy to Portsmouth.
2) Cape Hatteras NC State Ferry which runs until midnight to opposite side of Ocracoke, then a 13 mile road drive to downtown Ocracoke. Then Rudy to Portsmouth.
3) Morris Marina ferry takes people and 4×4 cars but only to the south end of Portsmouth Island 13 miles from the village. There are NC State rental cabins at the south end of Portsmouth and Morris Marina.
4) Portsmouth ATV Excursions is a company that boats people to Portsmouth for guided ATV daytrips.
Our main itinerary was as follows:
1) Leave NC Triangle (Raleigh / Durham) area by 8:30 AM Friday morning for three hour drive to Swan Quarter.
2) Catch the 1:00 Swan Quarter ferry to Ocracoke (2 hours, 40 min ferry)
3) Arrive at Ocracoke 3:40 PM, drive off ferry and park across street in visitors lot.
4) Walk over to and eat 4:00 lunch at S’Macnallay’s restaurant on the water which is right next to visitors lot.
5) Load up packs out of car and meet Rudy at 5:00.
6) Arrive at Portsmouth island 5:30 either beach or town drop off.
7) Hike to mile marker 1 by 6:30 and have camp setup by 7:30 PM (dark at 8:15 PM in early May)
1) We had Rudy pick up eight of us and two dogs at the village on Sunday 12:30. We left the beach at 11:00 AM to meet Rudy at 12:30 and barely had enough time. One other group went back via 4×4 to Morris Marina ferry and left camp at 11:00 AM to make the 1:00 Morris Marina ferry off Portsmouth.
2) Then we had lunch on Ocracoke at Howards, went to the Ocracoke beach fast, and caught the 3:40 Swan Quarter back to mainland.
3) Arrived back in NC Triangle area ~10:30 PM.
Meeting and working with Rudy Austin was an experience. Working with Rudy means calling him or his brother Donald’s personal cell phones and working out an arrangement. Make sure to understand that Rudy is a person to – and if he doesn’t pickup – just leave a voicemail and then call him later in the day. When making a reservation, he will tell you to call him a week before – and then again a few days out – and then again the day of to make sure he can take you because of weather. Luckily – we had his brother Donald’s cell phone which was very helpful. Rudy is always out and about and busy – Donald was much more responsive on the phone and helped us schedule pickup locations and meeting times with Rudy. I will not provide Donald’s cell phone here but you could potentially ask Rudy for it.
To meet Rudy, we parked in the national park visitors lot on Ocracoke directly across from the NC ferries at Silver Lake Harbor. Then you will either find Rudy at some docks just past the S’Macnallay’s restaurant, or near a large yellow crane at the top of the lake harbor near the big ferries. Rudy is definitely a salty dog-type character. When we met Rudy on Ocracoke for the first time, he pulled up and just yelled “alright, everyone in the boat!”, and continued to take us there. Since it was high tide – he could drop us off on the beach. The beach drop off was a rush I’ll never forget – Rudy tells you to hurry quick and jump off the boat and get your things. After jumping out of Rudy’s boat in waste-high ocean, someone has to hold the boat in place as an anchor so it doesn’t drift away. Then other people have to unload the packs and take the packs to the beach. During the unloading craziness, Rudy continues to yell “hurry up!” and “go faster, or I’ll run aground!” During the process we dropped a few things in the water and scrambled to get our heavy packs out of the boat, which was at above-head height. Finally – as rudy drifted away after unloading – we were now separated by around 100 ft – with waves crashing around us I verbally yelled to him “Sunday! 12:30 village!” Rudy heard me and gave me a thumbs up – supposedly confirming that he would pick us up off this deserted island at that time and location.
Probably the biggest surprise of the trip was the village itself. We decided to be picked up from the village Sunday afternoon – so we had to hike to the village on our way out. Many people in our group didn’t want to go to the village – they heard the hike was bad and the town was boring and bug infested. But to load up 8 people and 2 dogs into Rudy’s boat – we really had no choice but to meet him at the village as loading from the water could capsize his boat. Depending on the type of person you are – you may love or hate the hike to Portsmouth Village. As young outdoor enthusiast backpackers who enjoy the outdoors and appreciate a good challenge – we ended up absolutely loving the hike to the village. The dunes were beautiful and the washed out swamp section was a fantastic experience. We have all been backpacking in beautiful mountain areas and terrains before – but never a flooded swampy deserted beach island to get back to civilization. In fact, we realized that finding a place to truly backpack to at a beach was unique in itself. Earlier on the hike in, the third group who came late met a ranger in town that showed them a local trick to avoid bugs. There is a certain bush that grows on the island that you can cut a piece of, and use it as a personal bug swatter. The bugs hate the smell of the plant, and it’s a useful tool in acting as a fly swatter. Basically you fan yourself with the plant and swat any bugs. It was actually really helpful. I forget the name of the plant but we have it pictured. The hike to Portsmouth was a unique experience and one that we were proud to have on our list.
From April to September – there are two volunteer park rangers stationed and living in Portsmouth separate of the federal rangers who are doing daily patrols. It turns out Rudy is in communication with the pair of rangers stationed in the village, and the rangers actually knew we were coming to meet Rudy at 12:30 on Sunday and were expecting us! We thought we were hiking on a deserted island – but to our great surprise, before we got to the lifesaving station – the rangers were on the trail with an ATV waiting for us. We had no idea they knew about us. The rangers were so helpful and happy to see a young group of backpackers come through town. They loaded up all our packs on the ATV, and took them through town to Rudy’s boat for us. We sat with them at the Life Saving Station for around twenty minutes or so, and they told us stories about Portsmouth and their volunteerism over the years. The rangers were a great pleasure and made the town feel very welcoming.
The town itself is very impressive as well. I was surprised to learn that basically the whole town is a museum, inside and out. There are exhibit signs in front of every building and everything was very well kept. You can go in some of the buildings and overall it was really neat. We all wished we would have had another hour or two in the village to look around (even the people who didn’t want to go in the first place) It also really gave us the sense of what living like a colonial on a beach island would have been like.
Our trip to Portsmouth went without a hitch – and while there is much presumed complaining about the bugs and elements – it was actually a total blast the whole time – we were all sad to leave. It was a wonderful experience to be “on your own” in such a novel place. Portsmouth Island truly is a hidden secret of North Carolina and even the United States. Portsmouth is one of the last, if not totally last, remaining perfectly preserved colonial towns, on an island. It doesn’t get much cooler than that!
If the big outdoorsy backpacking trip isn’t for you – Portsmouth Village is still a wonderful day trip if you are looking for a day to blow on an Ocracoke vacation. Take the kids and dogs to Portsmouth Village – pack a lunch or two with some water, and schedule 4 to 5 hours for exploring the town before Rudy picks you up again.
Perhaps in the future – when Rudy Austin retires – the state will start running a small ferry service to Portsmouth. I also wonder why North Carolina or the Feds haven’t put any marketing or tourism dollars into Portsmouth, for making it a more accessible tourist attraction like Old Salem or Colonial Williamsburg. At least for now, until then, we can still experience Portsmouth as it should be.
GPS of hike from mile marker 1 to Portsmouth Village: https://www.strava.com/activities/569991911
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GPS of my 5k beach run from mile marker 1 to the end of northern beach and back: https://www.strava.com/activities/569436588
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Here are some maps for planning your own trip: