If you’re looking for a beautiful and serene coastal getaway, Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina is definitely worth a visit. Part of the National Park system, this stunning stretch of coastline is located on the southern end of the Outer Banks and is home to miles of pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and breathtaking scenery. This is a complete guide to an unforgettable adventure on Cape Lookout and the South Core Banks, one of North Carolina’s breathtaking barrier islands.
About The Cape Lookout National Seashore
Cape Lookout National Seashore comprises three different islands: North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks. Each island offers something different to visitors, so it’s worth exploring all three if you have the time. This article focuses on Cape Lookout itself and the South Core Banks, but we loved exploring Shackleford Banks as well! You can check out our complete guide to Shackleford Banks if you are interested in observing the wild horses that roam on the remote island!
The Harkers Island Visitor Center is the perfect first stop before venturing out to experience the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The visitor center is located on the mainland and provides a wealth of information about the seashore, its history, and the activities available to visitors. Here, you can pick up maps and brochures, speak to park rangers, and purchase souvenirs.
The center also offers exhibits on the maritime history of the Outer Banks, including the history of the lighthouse and the local fishing industry. With a wealth of information, the Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center is a great resource for planning how to spend your trip to this stunning coastal destination.
Hours: Open daily from 9-5; closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
Getting There: Taking The Ferry To Cape Lookout National Seashore
Getting to Cape Lookout National Seashore takes a bit of extra effort, but it is still easily accessible. The closest major airport is in Raleigh, North Carolina, about 3.5 hours away by car. Once you arrive in the area, you’ll need to take a ferry to the islands. The ferry departs from Harkers Island and takes about 20 minutes to reach Cape Lookout and the South Core Banks across the stunning turquoise blue waters of Back Sound and Barden Inlet. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, pelicans, and osprey along the way!
Island Express Ferry Service
Island Express Ferry Service is a ferry service provider authorized by Cape Lookout National Seashore and the National Parks Service. Each passenger is allowed 2 carry-on items, such as a backpack and a chair. Taking the ferry offers passengers a perfect opportunity to appreciate the Cape Lookout National Seashore from the water while enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells during the adventure over to explore.
Harkers Island to Cape Lookout
- Duration: 20 minutes each way
- Cost: $22/adult, $15/child, $7 pet (roundtrip)
- Reservations are recommended and can be made online through Island Express Ferry. We found reservations a necessity even during the winter season in March as only limited trips are offered. We were also told that the ferries departing from Beaufort get canceled more often than the trips from Harkers Island due to high winds.
- Departs From: 1800 Island Road, Harkers Island North Carolina (Location of the Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center)
- Schedule of Departure Times (you will schedule your pick-up times when you arrive to claim your tickets):
If you are interested in taking a ferry from Beaufort, there is an option with Island Express Ferry to travel to Shackleford Banks. If you want to travel to Cape Lookout and Cape Lookout Lighthouse, you will have to take the ferry from Harkers Island. You can also choose a combo trip to Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout when departing from Harkers Island, which we found to be the best option for exploring all that the Cape Lookout National Seashore has to offer. Check out our travel guide to Shackleford Banks North Carolina for more information about seeing the wild horses and pristine beaches of this undeveloped island that make it such a unique and unforgettable experience.
Taking Your Vehicle To Cape Lookout
If you are looking to bring your 4WD vehicle over to the South Core Banks and Cape Lookout in order to explore the island further or camp, there are a couple of private ferry options for this as well, departing from Davis North Carolina.
- Davis Shore Ferry Service: Rates will be higher for vehicles, starting at about $85 roundtrip. See a full breakdown of costs here
- Cape Lookout Cabins & Camps: Offer vehicle ferry as well as side-by-side rentals. Vehicle ferry trip starts at $100 roundtrip. See a full breakdown of costs here
Best Things To Do At Cape Lookout & The South Core Banks
Once you arrive at Cape Lookout there are plenty of things to do on this wild, beautiful, and remote island. Here you can find some of the most beautiful and pristine stretches of coastline in the country. Relax in the sand, swim in the clear waters, or explore the tidal pools and sand dunes. If you’re feeling more adventurous, there are plenty of other activities to try as well, including surf fishing, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding.
Whether you camp for a weekend, explore the islands on foot by hiking the many trails that wind through the dunes and forests, take a guided tour, or explore by UTV, you will be immersed in this beautiful natural environment and walk away with a deeper sense of connection to this magical place.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse & Lighthouse Keeper’s House
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is one of the most iconic landmarks on the North Carolina coast and can be seen 20 miles out to sea. Standing 163 feet tall and flashing every 15 seconds, the lighthouse has been guiding ships safely through the local shoals for over 150 years. The black and white diamond daymark pattern (black diamonds north/south and white diamonds east/west) of the lighthouse, painted in 1873, is instantly recognizable and has become a symbol of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. This painting of the tower makes it appear to change color when seen from different directions and is the only lighthouse in North Carolina that has this unique feature.
The lighthouse keeper’s house, located directly in front of the lighthouse, is also a fascinating piece of history. Built in 1887, the house was home to the keepers and their families for many years. Today, visitors can tour the house and learn about the daily life of the lighthouse keepers, as well as the history of the lighthouse itself. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Keeper’s House are both must-see attractions for anyone visiting the national seashore and offer a great opportunity for learning during your trip.
- The lighthouse tower is typically open for climbing (207 steps) in the summer months. It is currently closed for maintenance and is expected to be reopened by 2025
Explore with a UTV Rental
If you are looking to explore the island further and did not travel over to Cape Lookout with your vehicle, you can reserve a rental right at the Lighthouse Visitors Center.
Rentals range from 3-6 passenger 4WD Kubotas and Kawasakis ranging in price from $125-$200 for a half day (4 hour) rental. There are also full-day (8 hour) options. Reservations are recommended and can be made online through Island Express Ferry Services.
Take a Narrated Beach Shuttle Tour
Offered every hour or every 30 minutes on various days throughout the week depending on the season. We happened to be sitting next to a local legend who runs the tours during our ferry ride over and were instantly convinced to take the tour so that we could learn more from him and gain some of the intricate knowledge he has of Cape Lookout National Seashore and surrounding towns he has gained over the years as a local.
Learn about Cape Lookout and South Core Banks’ history and ecology while sitting open air in the bed of a pickup truck during this narrated tour. You can be driven through the historic village and get dropped off at the Point for shelling, and choose when to be picked back up depending on the adventure of your choosing. We highly recommend taking advantage of this tour if you do not plan to rent a UTV or bring your vehicle so that you can have a more immersive experience and explore more of the island during your visit.
Island Express Ferry Service Beach Shuttle Tour: $13/person. You can reserve online or once on the island. Tours may book up quickly during the busier summer months so can be a good idea to plan ahead!
Learn About The Island’s History While Touring Cape Lookout Village Historic District
The historic village is about 2 miles south of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Travel through sandy paths and maritime forests to travel back in time to see how the community that previously existed on the island once lived. Here you can see historic homes as well as the previous US Life-saving station and US Coast Guard station.
The historic village can be accessed by 4WD vehicles, such as a UTV rental or taking the private vehicle ferry over from Davis, North Carolina. You can also be taken through the village on the beach shuttle tour if you elect that option!
Shelling On The Beach & At Cape Lookout Point
One of the most popular things to do on the South Core Banks and at Cape Lookout Point is shelling. The seashore is home to a variety of seashells, including conch, scotch bonnets (North Carolina’s state shell), knobbed whelk, Atlantic Moon Snail, helmet shell, and coquina which can be found along the beaches and in the shallow waters. With its wide expanses of sand and proximity to the powerful Gulf Stream and Labrador Current, the seashore is the perfect place to search for these treasures. Just be sure that anything you are collecting is an empty shell and is not still housing anything living! Visitors are limited to 5 gallons of shells per day.
If you do not plan to take a tour or a rental to Cape Lookout Point, don’t worry! It is a short walk to the beach from the Lighthouse Visitor Center (where there is also a small gift shop, restroom, and. covered pavilion).
Cape Lookout National Seashore Camping
Camping on Cape Lookout and the South Core Banks is an unforgettable experience for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. The seashore offers several camping options, including primitive camping on the beach and cabin camping. On the South Core Banks, you can camp in designated areas along the beach, fall asleep to the sound of the waves, enjoy astonishingly dark skies and bright stars, and wake up to breathtaking sunrises. There are limited amenities and no trash cans on the beach, so visitors must bring all their supplies, including water and firewood both on and back off the island.
Primitive Beach Camping
South Core Banks and Cape Lookout offer 24 miles of beach for tent and vehicle camping.
- Restrooms, public showers, and drinking water are available seasonally (near the lighthouse and from a spigot on the back road near the boardwalk to the beach)
- Dump stations for vehicle campers are available at Great Island and near the point of the cape.
- There are no paved roads so if you plan to arrive with a vehicle, ensure it is 4WD
Great Island Cabins
Interested in a nature-centric stay? The Great Island Cabins are another excellent option if you are looking for a slightly different experience than beach camping. With no paved roads, you will need a 4WD vehicle to access the cabins.
- 23 wooden beachfront cabins ranging in size from 288-960 sq feet
- Amenities: Each cabin contains bunk beds and mattresses, a private bath with a sink and shower stall, a hot water heater, and a table and chairs. Small kitchens are equipped with cabinets and a propane oven/stove. There are no refrigerators and no electricity. A grill is just outside each cabin. Bathroom facilities with showers are also centrally located within the camp.
- Cost: Nightly rates ranging from $80-$180
- Reservations can be made online through Recreation.gov
Enjoy Pristine Beaches & Wildlife
While many people think of the beach as a place for relaxation, we would challenge you to make it a more active experience when visiting Cape Lookout. With so much to discover, it is the perfect opportunity to traverse the island looking for wildlife and observing the unique ecology that exists.
During our trip, we saw a large pod of dolphins fishing in the waves just offshore and it was such a special experience. Be on the lookout for dolphins, a variety of bird species, sea turtles, and other species that call this island home or use it as a quick stopping point during their yearly migration.
Visiting Cape Lookout: What To Bring & Planning Ahead
- Plan your visit in advance: Cape Lookout is a popular destination, so it’s a good idea to plan your trip well in advance, especially during peak season (May-September). Be sure to make reservations for ferries, tours, rentals, and camping or lodging options you may need.
- Be prepared for the weather: The weather at Cape Lookout can be unpredictable, so it’s important to pack for a variety of conditions. Bring rain gear, warm clothing, and sunscreen. Check the weather forecast before you go. Sunscreen and bug spray are also great items to pack and have on hand for your visit!
- Bring plenty of water and snacks: There are limited options for food and water at Cape Lookout, so it’s a good idea to bring your own supplies. Make sure to pack enough water to stay hydrated throughout your visit.
- Respect the wildlife: Cape Lookout is home to a variety of wildlife (including wild horses on Shackleford Banks). Be sure to keep a safe distance from the animals and avoid feeding or disturbing them in any way. Only take shells that are empty!
- Leave no trace: As with any outdoor destination, it’s important to leave the area better than you found it. Make sure to pack out all your trash and leave the natural environment undisturbed.
- Follow park rules and regulations: Cape Lookout is a protected area, so it’s important to follow all park rules and regulations. Be sure to stay on designated trails, respect park closures, and follow any posted signs or instructions.
Fulfilling Travel Tips
A trip to Cape Lookout is the perfect opportunity to spend time intentionally connecting with nature and allowing yourself to become fully immersed in the present moment. Before your trip, consider setting an intention to engage your senses as much as you can as you experience all that this majestic landscape has to offer.
Feel the breeze on your face and the sand between your toes, and listen to the birds chirping in the maritime forest or the sounds of the waves crashing to shore in an array of blue, turquoise, and white. Smell the salt in the air and notice how different it feels to walk in sand versus the roads and paths of the mainland. Notice as many of the tiny details of the island as you can as you soak it all in so that you can continue to savor your memories and experiences long after your trip has ended.
Nature is healing and spending time on a remote island like South Core Banks and Cape Lookout can offer amazing benefits if you are intentional about how you spend your time. Make the most of each adventure you have by taking the time to fully appreciate each place you go and connect with it in as many ways as you can. The most fulfilling trips are often not just about where you go or what you do, but the deeper how and why that makes it more meaningful.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO CAPE LOOKOUT
Reserve Your Ferry:
- Island Express to Cape Lookout from Harkers Island
- Island Express Combo to Shackleford Banks & Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Local Camping Options:
Camping is a great way to live in harmony with nature and bring the outdoors right outside your door!
- Tent Camping on Shackleford Banks
- Tent, car camping, or truck campers on Cape Lookout or the South Core Banks
- Oyster Point Campground (reservation and walk-in primitive sites) in the Croatan National Forest
- Cedar Point Campground (electric or primitive sites with a bath house in the Croatan National Forest)
North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is full of great campsites, ranging from RV resorts to no-frills National Forest campgrounds. If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks, campgrounds, and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.
If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through Outdoorsy or RV Share. We used both of these services when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!
Other Area Accommodations:
If you are looking for other accommodations, you can find plenty of great stays not far from the pristine beaches in this area. Booking.com is a great resource that allows you to compare prices easily and lock in the best rates for stays ranging from hotels to private rentals! Some spectacular coastal areas to consider for your stay include:
Please respect the island and its inhabitants during your visit and follow Leave No Trace principles.