Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on February 29, 2024.
This expanse of undeveloped beaches provides a peaceful environment to explore this preserved land. One of the most incredible things to do at Cape Lookout is to visit the iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse, a structure that has withstood the test of time and remains a popular tourist attraction today.
The 1800s-era structure stands 183 feet tall and is one of the most recognizable edifices on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.
There’s so much more to do at Cape Lookout, including hiking, fishing, and touring historic villages, but in this guide, we’ll focus on the NC lighthouse’s history and how best to enjoy it.
Here’s how you can navigate this guide to Cape Lookout Lighthouse:
- Where is Cape Lookout Lighthouse?
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse History
- How to Reach the Lighthouse
- What to Do at Cape Lookout Lighthouse
- Other Things to Do at Cape Lookout
Read More: The North Carolina Bucket List Book
Where is Cape Lookout Lighthouse?
Address: 1800 Island Rd, Harkers Island, NC
As mentioned above, Cape Lookout Lighthouse is on the untouched Cape Lookout Seashore. The Cape Lookout islands are three miles off the mainland, and accessible only via boat.
The Lighthouse is found on the South Core Banks and stands guard over North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse History
- The current Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the second structure to be constructed here.
- The first lighthouse was built in 1812 after eight years of construction. At the time, it was the fourth lighthouse in North Carolina and was 96 feet tall.
- However, it was soon realized that the 96-foot lighthouse was too short to effectively light the deadly Lookout Shoals.
- Congress approved a second lighthouse in 1857, completed two years later. This lighthouse was 163 feet tall and still stands today.
- The lighthouse used a first-order Fresnel lens, which amplified the light’s brightness. When North Carolina joined the Confederacy in 1861, all the lenses were removed to keep Union forces from using them. The lens was restored after the war was over in 1867.
- The lighthouse was painted with its distinctive black-and-white diamond pattern in 1873. The diamonds distinguish direction; North and South from East and West.
How to Reach Cape Lookout Lighthouse (Directions)
We’ve alluded that the only way to reach Cape Lookout National Seashore, and the Lighthouse, is by boat. Here’s how to get to Cape Lookout and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
The Island Express Ferry Service is your best bet for reaching Cape Lookout.
This licensed ferry service departs from Harkers Island and has multiple destinations along the Seashore.
You could previously ferry to Cape Lookout from Beaufort but its agreement with the National Parks Service expires in January 2024.
If you want to go straight to the Lighthouse, we recommend boarding at Harkers Island, only a 20-minute ride to the Lighthouse. The ferry is a fantastic experience even before you arrive at Cape Lookout; enjoy the cool breeze and beautiful ocean sights.
What to Do at Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Cape Lookout Lighthouse is truly a sight to see. The Lighthouse’s size, combined with its iconic checkered pattern, immediately draws your attention.
Once on the island, pause for a moment and soak in the scenery of the Lighthouse.
The top thing to do at Cape Lookout Lighthouse is to climb the 207 stairs to the top of the structure. The spiral staircase will deposit you at the top, where you’ll be greeted with gorgeous, expansive views.
However, the Lighthouse is closed for entry and climbing until 2025 due to the need for repairs.
More Things to Do Near Cape Lookout Lighthouse
While the Lighthouse is one of the biggest attractions on the undeveloped Cape Lookout islands, there are other things to do to fill your time here. There is a nearly unlimited range of outdoor activities, including fishing, birding, boating, hiking, and horse-watching.
Nearby, a small Keepers’ Quarters has been converted into a Museum commemorating the Lighthouse’s history and those who used to care for and operate it.
The Lighthouse became automated in 1950, but the Keepers’ Quarters Museum is a great place to glimpse the Lighthouse’s history.
A Light Station Visitor Center is also on the South Core Banks boardwalk near the Lighthouse. The Center is one of the few places on the island with amenities like restrooms, rinse areas, first aid, and more.
This is a convenient location to stop by as you make your way to the Lighthouse, as there are informational materials and a bookstore here.
The beaches near the Lighthouse are also a great place to spend time. Given Cape Lookout’s undeveloped and rural nature, there are very few crowds on Cape Lookout’s beaches.
You’ll likely have vast patches of beach to yourself to enjoy.
Explore Cape Lookout
Get around the island by hiking, renting a UTV, or hopping on the Beach Shuttle. This service, also operated by the Island Express Ferry, will take you to and from the Lighthouse to the point of Cape Lookout.
It’s an excellent way to explore some more of the island.
Cape Lookout is made even more unique due to the herd of wild horses that calls the island home. The horses roam freely in Shackleford Banks, just across the water from Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
You can travel to Shackleford Banks by Island Express and you can combine the Lighthouse with this wonderful space in an entire day.
Cape Lookout also features a remarkable and nuanced history, with places like the historical Portsmouth Island allowing a peek into settler life.
Portsmouth Village was a bustling seatown a century ago, but it has since been abandoned and preserved by the National Register of Historic Places.
The Village is on the northern point of Cape Lookout but is an excellent stop if you have more time.
Typically, your best bet for reaching Portsmouth Island is by hiring a boat from Ocracoke Island.
Make sure you bring plenty of sunscreen and bugspray because you won’t be able to buy any on Portsmouth Island. Trust me when we say that you’ll need both!
Drive the Outer Banks Scenic Byway
Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Harkers Island are near the southernmost point of the Outer Banks Scenic Byway, one of NC’s most beautiful scenic byways.
Continue on US 70 East, and you’ll eventually meet NC Highway 12, which will eventually take you to Nags Head. Of course, you’ll need to ferry to Ocracoke Island from Cedar Island, then from Ocracoke to Hatteras.
The byway is officially 140 miles and takes almost 7 hours to complete from start to finish.
Towns Near Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Cape Lookout Lighthouse and its surroundings are only reachable by boat, but there are still some interesting small towns nearby. Here are a few of them.
Harkers Island is the closest town near Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and it offers lovely views of Cape Lookout Lighthouse from afar. Here are some other reasons to spend more time on Harkers Island:
- The Core Sound Waterfowl and Heritage Museum is also here, near the Island Express Ferry Terminal.
- There are also two marked trails on Harkers Island, the only two officially marked trails in Cape Lookout National Seashore. They include the Soundside Loop Trail (4/5 mile) and the Willow Pond Trail (1/3 mile) behind the Core Sound Waterfowl and Heritage Museum.
20 miles from Island Express Ferry Service on Harkers Island (30 minutes away)
Beaufort is within a reasonable drive from Harkers Island. We find Beaufort a wonderful place, home to chic boutiques, a friendly community, and these places to visit:
- Grab some grub at Beaufort Grocery CO and Moonrakers. The latter will give you a nice view of boats, Taylor Creek, and Carrot Island.
- The wild horses of the Rachel Carson Reserve were the main reason we first stopped by Beaufort, and we were hooked on the town. You don’t need a lot of luck to see the horses from the waterfront, but you can get a closer look by hiring a boat to the Reserve.
- Crystal Coast Ecotours are a great option, and they offer dolphin cruises, too.
- You can also come here to visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum. They have some cool things to see throughout the year, but watch for special events.
23 miles from Island Express Ferry Service on Harkers Island (35 minutes away)
Morehead City is just a few minutes away from Beaufort and is another one of our favorite coastal towns. You could easily drive to the Island Express Ferry Terminal from Morehead City and we’ve conveniently done so a few times.
You should also consider the Carteret County town and here’s why:
- This community has a lot going for it, such as the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in June and the North Carolina Seafood Festival in the fall.
- The Morehead City Waterfront sees a lot of traffic in the summer as people embark on evening strolls and visit one of the many amazing restaurants here.
- We highly recommend Sanitary Fish Market for dinner! And stop by The Friendly Market and pick up some freezer meals for your beach week.
25 miles from Island Express Ferry Service on Harkers Island (40 minutes away)
We keep returning to Atlantic Beach and I don’t see us forgetting about this fun place on Bogue Banks. Here are some reasons why it’s one of our favorite bases for visiting Cape Lookout Lighthouse:
- At least once or twice a year, you can find us parked at Atlantis Lodge. This family-owned hotel has been around for decades, and we’ve enjoyed it for birthdays, anniversaries, and weekend getaways.
- Some excellent restaurants are up and down NC-58 (Fort Macon Rd).
- We’re also big fans of Crystal Coast Brewing, a newer brewery with taps and cans for you to take home.
- Fort Macon State Park (northeast of Atlantic Beach) might be one of the smallest state parks at only 424 acres, but it’s still one of the most visited.
37 miles from Island Express Ferry Service on Harkers Island (1 hour away)
- Grab dinner at Gaffer’s, a donut from Flip Flops Donuts, and fill up your cooler with fresh seafood to cook at your rental from Capt’n Willis Seafood.
- The Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier has been a family-owned pier since 1971 and is a popular spot for fishing.
- Emerald Isle Woods Park is a shaded nature preserve with 41 acres, dedicated to disc golf, trails, and boating access.
- The NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is between Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle, and fantastic for all ages. There’s also an excellent outdoor area with a wooden walkway to various displays and exhibits.
More Things to Do at Cape Lookout and Nearby (NC Travel Guides)
In many NC Travel Guides, we’ve covered Cape Lookout Lighthouse and nearby places. Here are a few of them.