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Summering at Cape Lookout National Seashore: The Logistics


The historic lighthouse and wild horses are two good reasons to visit Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Cape Lookout National Seashore is a wilderness vestige of North Carolina's barrier islands. Not as developed as its northern sibling, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, it offers a wilder beach vacation, one definitely worth pursuing if you enjoy sun, sand, water, and solitude.

Though there is some proposed wilderness on Shackleford Banks, currently there is no officially designated wilderness within Cape Lookout's 28,243 acres. Still, the challenges in reaching the 56-mile-long seashore help preserve many of its wilderness characteristics. Most of the seashore is comprised of tidal flats, beach, marshes and grasslands, but there is a tiny pocket of maritime forest of live oaks and even a wild band of horses.

While the challenges that must be overcome to visit this seashore might seem a bit daunting at first, with a little homework you can easily pull off a wonderful visit.

How Can You Reach Cape Lookout?

Cape Lookout is composed of three barrier islands -- North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks. While there are no bridges from the mainland to any of these three islands, there are a number of ferries that will get you there. Some of those can haul your vehicle with you, but most are really little more than skiffs that can carry a dozen or so passengers across Core Sound:

* A passenger ferry runs from Ocracoke Island in Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the northernmost tip of Cape Look where historic Portsmouth Village is located.

* A vehicle-and-passenger ferry runs from the town of Atlantic to Long Point on North Core Banks.

* A vehicle-and-passenger ferry runs from the town of Davis to Great Island on South Core Banks.

* And passenger ferries run from Beaufort, Harkers Island, and Morehead City to Shackleford Banks and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

You're best advised to make a reservation for a ferry crossing, whether you're taking your rig with you or not. For a list of authorized ferry operators, and contact information, visit this site.

There also is a vehicle-and-passenger ferry that runs from Cedar Island to Ocracoke at Cape Hatteras. This comes in handy if you plan to visit the two national seashores as it negates a looonnnngggg drive from Harpers Island to Cape Hatteras.

The drive from Davis to Cedar Island is about 20 minutes, and the one from Atlantic to Cedar Island is about half that. Keep these times in mind if you're planning to use this route to head over to Cape Hatteras, as there's nothing worse than arriving at the ferry landing to see the ferry heading away from the dock.

Where Will You Stay

You basically have three options for overnight stays on Cape Lookout National Seashore -- pitch a tent, car camp, or rent one of the seashore's Spartan yet utilitarian cabins.

* Camping is primitive (see attached brochure). There are no designated campgrounds on the three barrier islands, and there are very few amenities.

You pretty much pitch your tent where you like, with a few restrictions: No tents may be set up on dunes themselves, although you can pitch among dunes; wherever you camp, there must be enough room on the high-tide side of your tent for a vehicle to pass; no camping within 100 yards of the lighthouse or any of the cabins; no camping within 100 feet of shade shelters or restrooms; no camping in areas closed for turtle or shorebird nesting, and; no camping within either historic Portsmouth Village or Cape Lookout Historic Village.

Vehicle camping is allowed only on North Core and South Core islands.

Whether you're tent-camping or car-camping, be sure to pitch your camp above the high tide line. Otherwise you could find yourself being awakened in the middle of the night to water lapping at your toes, or rising in the morning to discover your rig has sunk to its hubs in the sand.

There are no camp stores on the islands, so be sure to bring all the food you need, and a hefty stock of water. Not only could the nearest water source be a good distance away from your camp, but, as the seashore notes, "weather conditions may unexpectedly render these sources unfit for drinking."

Be prepared to securely store your food, as raccoons have been known to break into coolers, and seagulls are always looking for a bite.

Campfires are permitted (bring your own wood, as driftwood can be limited and it's illegal to burn any ship timbers that storms might expose), but only below high-tide lines.

* There are two areas with cabins, one on North Core Banks at Long Point and one on South Core Banks at Great Island. These are not log cabins in the Rocky Mountain or Appalachian Mountain style, but perhaps closer to fishing camp cabins.

At Great Island, "there are 21 individual, rustic cabins that vary in age and condition. Cabins sleep from four to 12 persons in bunk-bed style. Some cabins have screened porches. Most are wired for generator use. Visitors supply their own generator. Each cabin has a hot water heater, table, chairs, and a kitchen with cabinets, propane oven/stove combination and a private bath. Visitors need to provide their own linens, bedding and cookware." Rates range from $73 to $168 per night depending on the season and how many bunks you need.

At Long Point, "there are 20 units with a sleeping capacity of six bunk-bed style. Each unit has a hot water heater, individual propane heating system, lighting fixtures, a combination sleeping-eating area with ceiling fans, table, chairs, a kitchen with cabinets, oven/stove combination and a private bath. Each unit is approximately 500 sq. ft. Visitors need to provide their own linens, bedding and cookware. Duplex cabins share porches and decks." Rates range from $84 to $145 per night depending on season and whether the unit you want has air-conditioning.

Here are the details for renting one of these units:

Both the Great Island and Long Point cabins will open on Friday, March 25, 2011 and operate until Monday, November 28, 2011.

Please note changes to the reservation procedure for the 2011 season: there is a new initial two-week reservation period exclusively for fall dates – traditionally the busiest part of the season.

During this period, beginning on January 10, 2011 and ending January 21, 2011, reservations for September 6, 2011 through November 28, 2011 will be taken. During this two week period reservations will ONLY be taken for cabin use beginning on or after September 6th.

The entire 2011 season (including fall dates) will be open for reservations beginning on January 24, 2011.

Reservations for the Great Island cabins can be made through the National Park Service by calling (252) 728-0942, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Reservations for the Long Point cabins can be made through the National Park Service by calling (252) 728-0958, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Getting Around the Seashore

If you're simply day-tripping on the seashore, take a look at the park map and the ferry routes will pretty much help you decide where to go.

If you take one of the passenger ferries to Shackleford Banks, you can arrange a predetermined time for pickup and also have the ferry take you over to Cape Lookout Light before returning to the mainland.

If you're planning to overnight, tent campers can stay on any three of the islands, while vehicle campers or those renting cabins head to either North Core or South Core banks. Without a vehicle, how much exploration you do on any of these islands comes down to how far you can, or want to, walk.

For instance, on South Core Banks it's about 10 miles from the cabins to Cape Lookout with its lighthouse and historic U.S. Coast Guard Station, so you'll likely want to have a vehicle with you if you're staying in a cabin or pitching a tent. And not just any vehicle, but one with all-wheel or four-wheel drive.

And there are some thinks to keep in mind if you drive on the seashore, as the Park Service points out:

A vehicle can be a great way to reach a remote camping spot or to go surf fishing or shelling. But, unless it is driven carefully, a vehicle can also cause damage to the environment.

Unlike other area beaches, Cape Lookout does not have any paved or hard-surface roads within its boundaries. All driving within the park is done on sand.

Driving is allowed on the open oceanside beach, seaward of the dunes and down to the tide line as well as on the trail behind the dunes called the "back road." No vehicle may be driven on or over the dunes or on the soundside beach.

There is no way to drive from South Core Banks to North Shore Banks. If you want to visit both, you'll have to return to the mainland and take the respective ferries.

Reaching Portsmouth Village is best done from Cape Hatteras. From Ocracoke a passenger ferry runs to Casey Island where you'll find the historic village, and an historic U.S. Life-Saving Service station.

What Can You Do in Summer At Cape Lookout National Seashore?

* While the prime fishing season is in fall (hence the more expensive and more in demand cabin rentals), fishing takes place year-round, with catch ranging from bluefish and flounder to Spanish mackerel and striped bass.

* There also are excellent shelling opportunities on both Shackleford Banks and near historic Portsmouth. A limit of two gallons of shells per day can be taken off the seashore. Among the shells that can be found are Scotch Bonnets, the official seashell of North Carolina.

* Another lure at Shackleford Banks is the wild horse herd. With roughly 100 individuals, this herd is a popular attraction and in summer rangers lead hikes to see these animals, although if you're camping or exploring the island on your own you could encounter them as well.

Like the western mustangs, eastern horses were reintroduced to North America by European explorers and settlers. Records show horses living on the Outer Banks for centuries. Genetic research shows evidence of Spanish ancestry in the Shackleford herd. Shackleford adults average 12 hands in height, with a range of11 to 13 hands (4” per hand) at the withers (between neck and back). The Banker horses, also called ponies, found up and down the east coast are somewhat related to each other in that they share a similar genetic base and a history of adaptation to life on the Outer Banks.

* Of course, there's also swimming, but there are no lifeguards. With the ever-present danger of rip tides, you need to be careful heading into the water.

"Wind, waves, the change of the tide, the slope of the beach and other factors can cause strong currents to be present in the water even on the calmest days. Ocean conditions can change from day to day and from hour to hour," seashore officials note. "Before going in the water, spend a few moments watching the waves. Wave patterns are a good indicator of the presence of currents and where deep water and other 'surprises' are located. Know what to expect before you go in the water."

Other water sports, such as kayaking and wind-surfing, or canoeing on the sound side, also are popular summer activities.

There are 18 shark species known to swim in the waters surrounding the barrier islands, including on the sound side. While park officials say it's "unlikely" you'll be attacked, they suggest you take precautions such as not swimming at night, dawn, or dusk when sharks might be feeding, swim in groups, and stay close to shore.

* Birding is popular in the seashore's marshes and grasslands.

* Not to be overlooked is climbing the 207 steps to the top of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. This might not be for everyone, as it can be "hot, humid, and noisy" in the lighthouse, according to park officials.

Last year the lighthouse was open for climbs on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, beginning at 10 a.m. with groups departing every 15 minutes until 3 p.m. But you'll need a ticket for this experience -- last year adult tickets were $8, half that for kids 12 and younger and senior citizens. It also would be wise to reserve your tickets, which can be done by calling (252) 728-0708.

What Do You Need To Pack?

This, of course, depends on whether you're day-tripping or over-nighting. But basics should include:

* Sunglasses

* Sunscreen

* Wide-brimmed hat

* Water

* Bug repellent

* Binoculars

* Swimming gear

* Camera

From those basics, you can add any camping items if you're staying overnight, fishing gear, kayaks, beach umbrellas, etc. And if you're planning beach driving, a compressor wouldn't be a bad idea so you can inflate your tires to their proper pressure after leaving the seashore. There are some models that can be powered up by plugging into your rigs power outlets.

Helpful Websites

Cape Lookout National Seashore:

Cape Hatteras National Seashore:

Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore:

Cape Lookout Cabin Rentals:

Cape Lookout bird checklist:

Cape Lookout authorized ferries:

Brochures ranging from cultural history to biting insects:

The Crystal Coast, a nonprofit that promotes North Carolina's Outer Banks and contains helpful lodging, dining, activity, and event information:

North Carolina fishing regulations:

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The info on this page is excellent for first-time visitors to Cape Lookout, one of my favorite places in the world! However, they might be surprised to see a lighthouse that looks nothing like the photo at the top. Cape Lookout Light is painted with black and white diamond shapes... see picture at

Pretty lighthouse picture, but which lighthouse is it? It's not Cape Lookout nor even Ocracoke.

The Cape Lookout has one of the more interesting daysmarks. The lighthouse appears to change colors depending on the side you see.

From the brochure:

The painted pattern on a lighthouse is known as a “daymark.” From the deck of
a ship at sea, it can be very difficult to tell one lighthouse from another. Daymarks
help to distinguish one lighthouse from another during daylight hours.
Originally, the new Cape Lookout tower was left a natural solid brick red. But by
1872, new light towers at Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island were built. Since these two
lighthouses looked the same as the Cape Lookout tower from a distance, it was
decided to paint each one with a different daymark. Cape Lookout was painted in

The daymark chosen for Cape Lookout was officially called a “diagonal checker”
pattern. Today, most people refer to this pattern as a “diamond” pattern.
This pattern has some unusual properties. Look at the two lighthouses in the left
margin. Do they look like the same lighthouse to you? They are both Cape
Lookout Light. The daymark is aligned with the black diamonds North/South
& the white diamonds East/West. This makes the tower appear to change color
when seen from different directions.

Cape Lookout is the only lighthouse to change like this, all others remain the same
regardless of viewing direction.

Jan is absolutely right, said the editor with the sheepish grin on his face.

The initial lighthouse photo accompanying this story was of the Highland Light at Cape Cod. We had posted a story on Cape Cod's 50th anniversary just the other day, and I used that photo to help illustrate that.

Not exactly sure how I uploaded it instead of the proper one, other than plain ole operator failure. NCresident's fine explanation of daymarks makes it impossible for me to tell that you that if you've seen one lighthouse you've seen them all....

I shall now return the Cape Lookout Light to its proper place with this story.

This is why we like you so much Kurt. You're OK bud.

I try, Ron, I really do try....

@Ron Saunders:

This is one of the many reasons why we like you so much Kurt.

There, I fixed it.

Anybody got any photos inside the cabins?  We're thinking about staying there.

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