Cape Lookout National Seashore: An Adventure on the Crystal Coast

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Doug Butchy
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A trip to Cape Lookout National Seashore, a section of narrow islands hugging the coast of North Carolina, begins with a drive over low bridges through the iridescent green of a coastal estuary.

You’ll want to pull over and throw your kayak in the water for a quick trip through this maze of marsh grass and oyster banks. However, you have to keep going and going past Harkers Island and through towns noted only by one road sign until you see Davis and veer slightly off of the main road to catch the local ferry. It is worth taking some time in the ferry office to hear a few sentences in the local brogue. The islands have been pretty isolated since the final European settlements in the 1700’s, so the local dialect is an eclectic mix of English, Scottish, and Irish accents. The people, often called Hoi Toiders for the way they pronounce high tide, are warm and sturdy.

The final destination at the end of a meandering drive and a half-hour ferry ride? Long stretches of stunning, undeveloped beaches and endless ocean.

The Outer Banks, as they are called locally, were not always so free of people and their stuff. Native Americans lived and fished here for millennia until the first Europeans arrived in the 1500’s. After John White’s Lost Colony on Roanoke, just north of the National Seashore, Europeans did not attempt to colonize the banks for about a century.

There's a reason it's called the Crystal Coast.
There's a reason it's called the Crystal Coast. Marshall Hedin

However, the beauty and bounty still called. The Banks served as a haven for pirates, hosted a bustling port in Portsmouth, and later an active fishing and scavenging village. You can still visit a preserved version of Portsmouth. Hurricanes and storms made it difficult to sustain life on the island and the last residents left in the 1970’s.

Despite the lively history, this part of the Banks feels like a wild place mostly left to steady humid winds, skittish birds, wild horses, and lumbering sea turtles (and some biting flies, depending on the season). The beaches are wide and the ocean views completely open, undulating with cresting waves. The dunes are high in some places and covered in sea oats, a magical plant that traps sand and continually builds the dunes. If you turn your back to the ocean and walk, in a short time you’ll be on the sound side of the island, an intracoastal waterway between the banks and the mainland. At the northern end of the cabins on the South Core Banks, you have access to marsh and Core Sound. It is shallow here (2-4 feet) so you can walk through marsh or kayak for miles.

Wild horses roaming Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Wild horses roaming Cape Lookout National Seashore. Doug Butchy

In short, this 56-mile stretch of barrier island, just 3-miles off the inland coast of North Carolina, is a place where time stands still and endless adventure awaits.

How to Get There

Kayaks being ferried across.
    Jennifer Jones
Kayaks being ferried across. Jennifer Jones

You can only get to the banks by ferry or by personal boat. The National Seashore lists approved ferry services for both the South and North Core Banks.

For the Southern access, you’ll take the ferry from Davis. For the Northern access, you leave from Atlantic. You can reserve the ferry online, but, usually, the ferry office will call to confirm and verify what kind of vehicle you plan to take. The ferries are small, so it is important to get the length of your vehicle correct. If you're planning a day trip, you can just walk on, but you’ll have to tell them if you are bringing a kayak.

You can get to a smaller part of the Banks called Shackelford, from larger tourist towns like Beaufort and Harkers Island and can even find a ferry service that takes you directly to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. However, these sections are very crowded in the summer months and won’t give you the deserted island feel.

Where to Find Adventure

Sandy double-track carving down the island.
    Jennifer Jones
Sandy double-track carving down the island. Jennifer Jones

While many think of beach vacations as long walks and sitting on the shore with a good book, the Cape Lookout National Seashore offers a much more adventurous coastal experience. The ferries are often overflowing with people transporting their adventure vessels of choice, from surfboards, to paddleboards, to kayaks and fishing equipment. Upon arrival, there are myriad methods of adventure.

You do have to search a bit for a good break if you plan to surf, but there are plenty of places with small shoals that can churn a decent wave. Kayaking is also a popular and worthwhile endeavor, both in the ocean and along the more peaceful soundside. If you're a runner, you could probably run a marathon's distance without seeing a soul. And the fishing is worth writing about. It's arguably best in the fall, but since the banks push out closer to the Gulf Stream than other sections of the Atlantic Coast, surf fishing is certainly still viable all year round and can yield prizes like bull Red Drum.

Another unique way to find adventure at Cape Lookout is by driving. While there are no roads that resemble anything close to paved or hard-surfaced, there is a 15-mile stretch of sandy double-track that cuts down the middle of the island from the rustic Great Island Cabins to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, offering an Endless Summer type feel. And you can even drive on the oceanside beaches, which is a great way to reach remote camping or shelling spots. (Although driving over the dunes and on the soundside is off-limits.) You'll probably want to be somewhat experienced with driving in sand, or you could risk spending a good part of your vacation digging out the car or walking back to the cabins, and having a truck with 4-wheel-drive is probably you're best bet. If you don’t have 4 wheel drive, you need to deflate your tires.

Constructed in 1859, the Cape Lookout lighthouse is a fantastic place to visit while on the island.
Constructed in 1859, the Cape Lookout lighthouse is a fantastic place to visit while on the island. Doug Butchy

Visiting the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is great option for adventurers of all ages. The present-day structure, which rises 163 feet above the earth, was constructed in 1859 and was the second lighthouse to have been erected here. Complete with interesting Civil War history and antiquated charm, climbing to the top of the lighthouse is an enjoyable activity. The best part, though, is standing at the edge of the point awash in the blue water that gives this area its "Crystal Coast" nickname and feasting your eyes on the unruly Atlantic stretching to the horizon.

Where to Stay

The rustic cabins of Cape Lookout National Seashore.
    Jennifer Jones
The rustic cabins of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Jennifer Jones

Both the North and South Core Banks offer cabins, tent, and truck camping.

Tent camping on the beach can be an incredible experience, but you’ll need to choose your season and watch for bad weather. Many people drive campers onto the beach. This gives some protection from insects, from storms, or just from an especially windy day when sand can ferociously blow down the beach. The cabins are rather rustic with sinks, stoves, bathrooms, and bunk beds. That’s it. These cabins are meant as basic shelter with the expectation that most of the day will be spent outdoors.

North Core Banks, Long Point Cabins: 20 cabins with 6 bunk beds each. Most of these cabins are duplexes, have electricity with some offering air conditioning. This may seem like cheating to stalwart outdoor enthusiasts, but if you have ever been to the South in July, you will understand the attraction. It is hot and the air is thick with humidity.

South Core Banks, Great Island Cabins: 25 cabins ranging from 4-12 guests in each. These cabins all have big screened in porches and no electricity. However, they offer boxes for generators if you want plug in. Beginning and ending the day on the screened porch with a view of the dunes and the ocean is enough in and of itself to make this whole trip worthwhile.

The cabins are open from March through November. The busiest times are in the spring and fall. In the fall, the cabins fill with guests on a quest for fish.

The rangers explain that you need to make reservations far in advance for these popular seasons.

Weather: Coastal weather can be unpredictable. A pop up summer storm can easily blow over, taking unstaked tents away with it. There's not much shelter if you don’t secure a cabin, so take a hard look at the weather if you plan to tent camp on the beach.

In the end, the drive and the ferry are well-worth the days of serenity and adventure. In the modern world of high rise condominiums and apartments, it feels increasingly difficult to find access to beaches not privately owned or bustling with human activity. The Cape Lookout National Seashore is a rare exception, where solitude and spectacular coastal scenery both beckon and await.

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