Published by Christina Riley. Last Updated on February 29, 2024.
At roughly 56 miles of beaches and barrier islands, it’s impossible to explain Cape Lookout National Seashore in just a few paragraphs, so we’ve created this guide.
This article also shares the best things to do in Cape Lookout National Seashore.
We’ve divided this guide into the following sections:
- Where is Cape Lookout National Seashore?
- Getting to Cape Lookout and Portsmouth Island
- Getting Around Cape Lookout
- Where to Stay (Cabins and Camping)
- Tips Before You Visit
- Leave No Trace
- Things to do in Cape Lookout National Seashore
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse
- Shackleford Banks Wild Horses
- Things to Do Nearby
- Crystal Coast (near Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks)
- Outer Banks (near Portsmouth Island)
Skip ahead to any of the sections mentioned above or keep reading about how to reach Cape Lookout National Seashore after we explain its location in Eastern North Carolina.
Where is Cape Lookout National Seashore?
Cape Lookout National Seashore runs north to south from Portsmouth Island near Ocracoke Island to Cape Lookout near Harkers Island. Of our national parks in North Carolina, this is the only one that requires a boat ride to reach.
A 56-mile stretch of beaches and barrier islands, Cape Lookout National Seashore is divided into two Core Banks—North Core and South Core Banks.
- North Core Banks include Long Point Cabin Area, which is much more remote than the South Core Banks, and Portsmouth Island.
- Visitors typically visit the South Core Banks for Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Shackleford Banks, The Point, and cabins at Great Island.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is considered part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, which also includes:
How to Get to Cape Lookout National Seashore (Ferry Directions)
Unlike Cape Hatteras National Seashore, you’ll need a boat to reach Cape Lookout National Seashore.
- Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks Ferry
- Our preferred way to get to Cape Lookout is to book our ferry in advance through Island Ferry Express from Harker’s Island. They are the only authorized ferry service to drop off at Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Shackleford Banks.
- Book your round-trip tickets online, but arrive early enough to check in and receive your physical ticket from the ticket office before your departing ferry.
- Great Island Camp and Cabins Ferry: To reach the Great Island Camp and Cabins, you’ll ferry from Davis, north of Harkers Island. Here are two authorized ferry services from Davis, both vehicle and passenger ferries:
- Portsmouth Island Boats: There are plenty of Portsmouth island boat tours from Ocracoke Island.
- Our favorite is Portsmouth Island Adventure, led by an Ocracoke local, and you’ll see signs advertising their services near the Cedar Island/Swanquarter Ferry Terminal.
- The trip out to Portsmouth Island depends on the weather and wind conditions. Your tour could be canceled the morning of if conditions aren’t good.
- Tours will take you to the beach (for shelling), the historic Portsmouth Village, or both. In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, a channel separates the village from the beach.
Getting Around Cape Lookout National Seashore
Here are a few ways to get around Cape Lookout National Seashore, depending on which place you’re visiting:
- Rent a UTV on Cape Lookout: Want to ride a UTV down to The Point on Cape Lookout? Island Express also rents 4-wheel-drive UTVs. We did this during a recent trip and enjoyed it for two reasons:
- 1) More time spent exploring and less walking
- 2) The UTV provided us with some shade and the ability to bring more stuff for a day on the beach!
In our experience, booking your UTV and ferry tickets in advance is best to ensure availability. I found driving relatively easy, though the road can be deep at points.
- Cape Lookout Beach Shuttle Service: If you don’t want to rent a UTV but still would like transport to The Point, there is a Beach Shuttle truck service from the Light Station to The Point. It operates from May to September. It is a first come, first served and tickets can be purchased at the shop on the island.
- Drive at Cape Lookout: If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can also drive at Cape Lookout, but we did see several trucks that needed help getting out of the sand, so it’s only recommended for experienced all-terrain drivers. As mentioned, vehicle ferries depart from Davis, NC.
Where to Stay on Cape Lookout
Camping is permitted on Cape Lookout National Seashore and may be one of the best ways to see the clear night skies.
- Cabins: From March to November, you can rent rustic wooden cabins. They are located at Long Point on North Core Banks and Great Island on South Core Banks, and reservations for the season often sell out quickly in January.
- Tent Camping: While you cannot camp inside Portsmouth Village, camping is allowed on the beach. All camping is primitive, and the island has no designated campgrounds. You won’t need a permit to camp on Portsmouth Island, but a Special Use Permit is required for groups of 25 or more.
Essential Tips Before You Visit
Before you visit Cape Lookout National Seashore, there are many essential things to remember. We’ve consolidated them all into these tips and hope you’ll find them helpful:
- Leave no trace. Cape Lookout is a wild and protected seashore. Pack out everything you bring and bring along a back for trash.
- Glass is prohibited on the island, so plan to bring alternative containers for adult beverages.
- Keep your tent campsite 100 feet from docks, wells, shade shelters, or other structures.
- If you plan to stop at Shackleford Banks, please stay at least 50 feet from the wild horses. It is illegal to touch or feed wild horses. Not only is it dangerous to you, but it could be deadly for the horses.
- There is a restroom in the Visitor Center at Cape Lookout and the Theodore and Annie Salter House on Portsmouth Island. There’s also a compost toilet past the lifesaving station on Portsmouth Island.
- Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and bug spray. Besides the cabins, your campsite, and the few Cape Lookout National Seashore buildings, there is very little shade and many bugs.
- Bring closed-toe shoes because critters love uninhabited islands!
- Bring enough fresh water and food for your trip.
- Pack clothing that can handle unpredictable weather.
- Bring all the camping supplies you’ll need if you’re staying overnight.
The Best Things to Do in Cape Lookout National Seashore
Now that you’re ready, here are the best things to do in Cape Lookout National Seashore, starting with its beautiful and primarily secluded beaches.
Enjoy Quiet and Secluded Beaches
The beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore are impeccable. Whether near the Lighthouse on Cape Lookout, across the water at Shackleford Banks, or Great Island, a day at the beach here is hard to beat.
These beaches have few crowds, given Cape Lookout’s undeveloped and rural nature.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Cape Lookout Lighthouse is on the South Core Banks, and the Keeper’s Quarter dates back to the mid-1800s and stands 163 feet tall. Iconic for its distinctive black-and-white diamond pattern, this North Carolina lighthouse may be the most recognizable.
Cape Lookout also features a remarkable and nuanced history, with places like the historical Portsmouth Island allowing a peak into settler life. As mentioned, the island is on the northern point of Cape Lookout and is an excellent getaway from Ocracoke Island.
Portsmouth Village was a bustling seatown a century ago, but it has since been abandoned and preserved by the National Register of Historic Places.
Watch Shackleford Banks Wild Horses
There are many bucket-list-worthy things to do in Cape Lookout National Seashore, but we highly recommend you find the herd of wild horses that roam freely in Shackleford Banks.
Just across the water from Cape Lookout Lighthouse, this is one of the most iconic places to visit in North Carolina. Enjoy a day at the beach here, watch the horses from a safe distance (at least 50 feet!), and consider yourself lucky to be here.
We certainly have and can’t wait to do it again!
Throughout the year at Cape Lookout National Seashore, you’ll find birds passing through. You can scope out over 250 species, making birding a year-round activity at Cape Lookout.
Here are a few species and the ideal times to find them:
You can paddle the diverse waters of Cape Lookout National Seashore with a paddle or a canoe.
- Sounds: You’ll find tamer waters between the coast and the barrier islands, ideal for beginner paddlers. The Core Sound and the Back Sound offer a mix of shallow waters and marshes to explore. Because these waters are too shallow for powerboats, kayak fishing is popular for anglers seeking a catch at Cape Lookout.
- Inlets and Surf: The waters on the Atlantic side of Cape Lookout are more challenging and rewarding for paddlers.
Regardless of where you paddle at Cape Lookout National Seashore, please prepare with proper safety equipment and follow tide predications from NOAA.
Also, you must possess a valid North Carolina Coastal Recreational Fishing License (CRFL) to fish at Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is one of the best places for shelling in North Carolina! Our favorite place for shelling at Cape Lookout is The Point.
Due to its unique location jutting into the Atlantic, The Point sees northern and southern currents. Because of this, a wide variety of shells can be found, including whelks, scotch bonnets, and conchs.
The best time of day to go shelling is early in the morning, at low tide, or after a storm. Visitors to Cape Lookout can collect up to five gallons of shells per day and only for non-commercial use. If a creature still inhabits the shell, please leave those shells and only take empty ones.
Did you know that Cape Lookout National Seashore is one of the best places to stargaze in North Carolina? In 2021 it was designated as an IDAP (International Dark Sky Park due to its incredible night skies with minimal light pollution!
Campers on Cape Lookout often see the Milky Way with an unaided eye. If you want to join a tour, the National Parks Service and The Crystal Coast Stargazers host events.
Learn About Cape Lookout National Seashore’s History
Cape Lookout National Seashore was established by Congress in 1966, but its history goes back much further. Whalers, fishermen, and other seafarers inhabited the islands before the US Government intervened.
You can learn about the history of Cape Lookout National Seashore in multiple places.
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse History: A small Keepers’ Quarters has been converted into a Museum commemorating Cape Lookout Lighthouse’s history and those who used to care for and operate it.
- Portsmouth Island: The Theodore & Annie Salter House and Visitor Center has exhibits detailing Portsmouth Village’s history and its importance to the region.
There are some exciting events held at Cape Lookout National Seashore, and we think you should know about these:
- Horse Sense and Survival Tours: Through a physically strenuous tour (held monthly from June to November), you learn about the lives of the Shackleford Banks wild horses. To join a tour, you must reserve a spot by contacting the Harkers Island Visitor Center (252-728-2250 ext. “0”) and book a place on an Island Express Ferry for the corresponding day.
- Portsmouth Homecoming: Typically held in April on even-numbered years, the Portsmouth Homecomings welcome everyone, and you can either boat there yourself or via tour from Ocracoke Island.
Read More: The NC Tripping Events Calendar
Ready to Visit Cape Lookout National Seashore?
While it’s impossible to explain Cape Lookout in a few short paragraphs, one word we’d use to describe it is “fascinating.” Full of natural beauty dominated by the water and ever-changing barrier islands, it’s hard to think of another more fitting word.
It’s another reason we feel so lucky to call North Carolina “home.” If you also live here and are familiar with Cape Lookout National Seashore, we’d love to hear from you.
In the comments, let us know about your favorite places to go. Don’t forget to share your Cape Lookout adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group!
Things to Do Near Cape Lookout National Seashore
Here are some of our favorite things to do nearby, starting with places north of Cape Lookout National Seashore and closest to Portsmouth Island! Here’s how we’ve divided this section:
- Closest to Portsmouth Island
- Ocracoke Island
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore
- Closest to Cape Lookout and the Shackleford Banks
- Morehead City
- Fort Macon State Park
- Atlantic Beach
- NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
- Emerald Isle
- Outer Banks Scenic Byway
Ocracoke Island is the perfect jumping-off point to Portsmouth Island, but we’re hooked on the former’s pristine beaches and untouched maritime forests, too. Here are a few reasons why:
- Explore the village by golf cart or by renting a bike and riding around. You’ll see things that are easily overlooked when driving a car.
- Springer’s Point Nature Preserve takes you through maritime forests before leading to the beach where Blackbeard was killed.
- You’ll likely visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse first thing, but don’t forget about the Pony Pen on the way to the Hatteras Ferry Terminal.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore protects 70 miles of shoreline on The Outer Banks, and was the first protected Seashore in the United States! This Seashore includes the barrier islands of Bodie, Hatteras, and parts of Ocracoke.
Visit the islands’ historic lighthouses and hop on these Outer Banks hiking trails for some of the best birding and wildlife viewing in North Carolina!
Some excellent spots along the way include the following:
Read More: Beautiful Outer Banks Vacation Rentals
Morehead City is about 30 minutes from Harkers Island and is a wonderful base for exploring Cape Lookout. Here are some of the best things to do there:
- In June, the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament brings people from all over to participate and watch, including the greatest basketball player who ever lived (Michael Jordan).
- The North Carolina Seafood Festival at the end of September and the beginning of October is another great event in Morehead City. I hope to participate as a judge at that fun event someday.
- Grab a bite at one of Morehead’s awesome restaurants. Our favorites include:
- 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 also offer dolphin cruises.
- Also visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum while in Beaufort. They have some cool things to see throughout the year but watch for special events.
- Grab some sandwiches for your time at Cape Lookout at Beaufort Grocery CO, or plan a cocktail and dinner afterward at Moonrakers. Moonrakers has a nice view of boats, Taylor Creek, and Carrot Island.
Fort Macon State Park
Fort Macon State Park is only 424 acres, making it one of the smallest state parks, but it’s still one of the most visited! Thanks to its convenient location near Atlantic Beach, visitors come to learn about the history of the Civil War at Fort Macon.
The Confederates took the fort at the start of the war, but Union forces regained it in 1862.
Explore the restored fort, browse the visitor center and museum, relax on the beach, or walk on the nature trails that wind through the park.
Some great restaurants up and down NC-58 (Fort Macon Rd.), including:
- Amos Mosquitos is a solid dinner spot, but get there as early as possible. We arrived at 5:00 pm on the dot and found a full parking lot.
- The Crab Shack in Salter Path has huge seafood portions and tons of hush puppies ready to fill you up.
- Crystal Coast Brewing is an excellent brewery with taps and cans to take home.
- Shark Shack is our go-to for takeout, especially when grouper bites are on the menu!
NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
There are four NC Aquariums and the closest one to Cape Lookout is the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. It is fantastic for all ages, and there is also an excellent outdoor area with a wooden walkway to various displays and exhibits.
As one of the most popular beaches in North Carolina, Emerald Isle is known for its beautiful sunsets, green water, and fantastic shops. It sits at the opposite end of Bogue Banks from Atlantic Beach.
- Among the most popular summer destinations, EI can get very busy and you’ll see why.
- The town’s shops and restaurants are ready to handle the traffic. Cap’n Willis Seafood Market has all you need to cook at home, too.
- Have dinner at Gaffer’s, a donut from Flip Flops Donuts, and grab some beer to take home from the Growler Bar Emerald Isle.
- And while in Emerald Isle, ensure you’re on the beach when the sun goes down. You’ll enjoy some of the best sunset views in all of North Carolina.
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 roads.
Continue on US 70 East, and you’ll eventually meet NC Highway 12, which will eventually take you to Nags Head. You’ll need to ferry to Ocracoke Island from Cedar Island, then from Ocracoke to Hatteras.
The 140-mile byway takes almost 7 hours to complete from start to finish.
More Things to Do Nearby (NC Travel Guides)
Our NC Travel Guides collection features these amazing places near Cape Lookout National Seashore. Here are a few of them.