Located on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina and featuring three beautiful undeveloped barrier islands, Cape Lookout National Seashore is a must see National Seashore. Cape Lookout National Seashore preserves a 56-mile area that features many historical landmarks, including two historic villages on Core Banks, Shackleford's wild horses, and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. The area was first recognized for protection in 1966 and was later named a North Carolina Natural Heritage Area in 1986.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is quite unique due to all three of the barrier islands having no direct road access. Visitors have to complete a boat ride that takes you three miles off-shore to the islands where you can learn about the history of the area and participate in some fantastic recreational activities. You can go swimming, fishing, birding, beach driving, climb the lighthouse, do a village tour and even pop into the visitor center located on Harkers Island. One of the more unique activities is to search for horses on Shackleford Banks, which you can do on your own or go on a guided ranger tour.
While camping is allowed on certain parts of the three islands RVs are not recommended due to the sandy roads. There are private RV campgrounds close by, or you can bring a 4x4 via a ferry and camp within the park. Cape Lookout National Seashore is open every day of the year and peak season runs from April until November.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is located in the eastern region of North Carolina and is situated very close to the town of Davis. Since the park is quite large there are multiple places to enter and exit, some of them only via private ferry services.
While there are some small towns located near Cape Lookout National Seashore we recommend that you bring everything you will need to enjoy your visit, otherwise you may not be able to find what you are looking for on the three islands. Some of the towns close to Cape Lookout National Seashore include Harkers Island (around six and a half miles or 36 minute ferry ride), Marshallbery (around 24 miles or an hour and a half drive and ferry ride) and Beaufort (around 33 miles or an hour and 40 minute drive and ferry). The closest city to the park is New Bern, which is around 67 miles to the north-west.
Accessing the park can be done via numerous private ferry routes depending on which area of the shoreline you would like to visit. Car ferries are also in operation but park staff recommend that only 4x4s come over from the mainland due to the risk of getting stuck in the sand. This includes RVs, so if you are traveling in the area with an RV we recommend that you park it and take over the ferry for the day.
There is parking available for 4x4s who come over on the car ferry.
No public transportation is available to Cape Lookout National Seashore.
While there is no RV camping allowed at Cape Lookout National Seashore there are some options if you are looking to stay within close proximity. We recommend you stay on Harkers Island as it is close to the ferry over to the seashore.
On the island there are a mixture of overnight, monthly, and permanent RV sites that are known for being flat and featuring gravel pads. Many of the sites on the island also have the option of 50 amp electrical hookups if you are looking for a little luxury in your camping experience. Other great amenities include laundry facilities, showers, toilets, water collection points, bike paths, a playground and even a pool!
Due to the area being extremely popular during summer it can be hard to reserve a site unless you do so well in advance. If you are interested in staying on Harkers Island it is best to enquire early so that you don't miss out on the chance to stay in this lovely area.
While there is plenty of walking to be done within Cape Lookout National Seashore there are only two marked trails, both of which are located on Harkers Island. The trails are both relatively easy and they are suitable for people of all ages. The Soundside Loop Trail (which is around a mile in length) will take you on a winding walk through the maritime forest, behind the Harkers Island Visitor Center to the marsh. The Willow Pond Trail (which is around a third of a mile in length) gives you a different option as it circles the pond that it is located behind the Core Sound Waterfowl and Heritage Museum. The two trails also connect up so it is possible to walk both one after another.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is a fantastic place to visit for those looking to explore historic places. Once a lively sea side home to many, Portsmouth Village is now a great example of a previous way of life. The village is a protected historic and archaeological site and features guided tours seasonally and exhibits on "lightering", community life, and tours of the Theodore and Annie Salter House and Visitor Center, the School, the Post Office and General Store, and the U.S. Life-Saving Station. Please note that Portsmouth Village is only accessible by boat and is open to the public seasonally.
Love to go birding? If so, you will be very happy to know that Cape Lookout National Seashore is a fantastic birding destination. The park has more than 250 species that call the area home and birding is an activity that can be enjoyed all year-round. If you are in the park during the off-season this is a great time to view shorebirds, hawks, and songbirds, along with ducks and geese that are common during the winter months. If you want a bird checklist brochure you can download one from the park website.
One of the main attractions at Cape Lookout National Seashore is the opportunity to climb the historic steps of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. The climb is open from May until September and there is a total of 207 steps to make it to the top. Be aware that this is the equivalent of climbing a 10 storey building and climbers who are 12 years old or younger must be supervised by someone 16 years of age or older.
During the summer months there are many different ranger programs that are available for visitors to Cape Lookout National Seashore. Most of the programs at the park are interpretive talks or guided walking tours but there are also some special programs, including looking for wild horses with rangers. There are also some films playing daily at Harkers Island Visitor Center and you can also explore the now empty Portsmouth Village. For more information on ranger programs check out the park website.
There is no better way to spend a hot summer day than by going for a relaxing swim. Visitors to Cape Lookout National Seashore will be happy to know that swimming at the beaches is renowned for being very enjoyable and the water is very warm. There are multiple beaches for you to choose from but please note that there are no lifeguards on duty at any area of Cape Lookout National Seashore.