Planning a Trip to Cape Lookout
By Martha Chitwood
, last updated November 17, 2011
Planning a trip to Cape Lookout National Seashore on the North Carolina coast presents so many exciting recreational opportunities that it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Don't let the abundance get the best of you. Relax, take a look at all that this beautiful barrier island park has to offer, and get ready for a vacation you will never forget.
Comprising a string of barrier islands known as Shackleford Banks and Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore is located south of the more well-known Outer Banks of Ocracoke, Hatteras and Nag's Head. Owned and administered by the National Park Service, the national seashore covers 54 miles of shoreline, with a wealth of undeveloped marshland, dunes and beaches to explore.
To reach Cape Lookout from the Raleigh area and Interstate 95, take US 70 east to Morehead City and Beaufort. If you're coming from Wilmington or other points south via US 17, get on NC 24 in Jacksonville and head for the coast.
The Visitor Center on Harkers Island is the only section of Cape Lookout National Seashore that is accessible by car. Follow NC 1332/1335 (Harkers Island Rd.) off US 70 east of Beaufort to get there. The rest of the islands in the park can be reached only by boat. You can use your own personal watercraft, or ride any of the passenger ferries that run from the mainland towns of Beaufort and Morehead City, and from the island communities of Harkers Island and Ocracoke. Ferries from the towns of Davis and Atlantic can accommodate 4-wheel-drive vehicles in addition to passengers. All ferry services are privately owned and operated independently of the National Park Service.
Once you're on the Banks, you can visit the actual point of land that lends the national seashore its name, location of the historic Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Depending on the season, you may climb the lighthouse, or just enjoy the adjacent visitor center and tour the museum housed in the former quarters of the lighthouse keeper. Nearby is the Cape Lookout Village Historic District, home of a historic U.S. Coast Guard station. West of the cape is Shackleford Banks, where you can watch the wild horses that live there, or simply enjoy the beach.
Northward from the lighthouse is a 45 mile stretch of the islands of South Core Banks and North Core Banks. Camp in a tent or stay in a park service cabin, and immerse yourself in the many joys of the barrier islands, including swimming and snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking, bird watching and stargazing. At the far north edge of the park is Portsmouth Island, where the historic district preserves an abandoned town you can tour on your way to a pristine stretch of beach on the Atlantic.
Although the national seashore as a whole is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, certain facilities and attractions on the property are subject to seasonal availability. The Light Station Visitor Center, the Keeper's Quarters Museum, and the Portsmouth Village Visitor Center are all open April through November, while Harkers Island Visitor Center closes only on New Year's Day and Christmas Day. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is open for climbing only during the summer. The various ferries to the islands usually operate from around mid-March to early December each year. You can book rustic rental cabins operated by the National Park Service at Great Island and Long Point from April 1 through the first week of December.