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Escaping the Crowds at Cape Lookout National Seashore

Cape Lookout National Seashore is a far cry from its northern neighbor, Cape Hatteras National  Seashore. Whereas Cape Hatteras NS is easily accessed by car and enjoys a lot visitors, Cape Lookout requires you to take a ferry and is far less developed.

And that’s what we loved about it!

Cape Lookout preserves 56 miles of undeveloped shoreline on three barrier islands just south of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They call this area the Crystal Coast and we can easily see why! The water between the islands is crystal clear and teeming with life. Indeed, we really enjoyed watching a flock of pelicans and a pod of dolphins chasing down a school of fish right off the beach in front of us. 

Unless you have your own boat, you’ll need to take a ferry to access the beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

What to Do If You Only Have One Day
Visiting Cape Lookout NS takes a bit of planning. You need to acquire ferry tickets and if you are planning on visiting in the warmer months, I would purchase those tickets in advance. I suggest one of two trips for your one day visit: take the ferry from Ocracoke Island to Plymouth Village Historic District or take the ferry from the Harkers Island Visitor Center to explore Shackleford Banks and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. 

We chose to visit Shackleford Banks and the lighthouse and we are really glad we did, even though it was cool in November when we visited. 

The ferry dropped us off at the Shackleford Banks first, allowing us time to explore the smallest of the three islands and search for wild horses. We spent about an hour hiking the island and could have easily spent longer hanging out and exploring. Once we got off the ferry, we were alone within minutes. 

Pro Tip: Check the beach for the horses.

The wild horses of Shakleford Island are one of the major attractions of this otherwise uninhabited island/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

We expected to find the horses inland where there was more vegetation and shelter from the wind. Nope! They were right on the beach, munching on the sparse grass.

The ferry picked us up and took us to South Core Banks where the lighthouse is located. A note on the ferry: it is fairly easy to get on and off the ferry at both the dock at the visitor center and the dock at the lighthouse. Getting on and off at Shackleford Banks is a bit more difficult because there is no dock. 

The lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are informational displays that are quite informative. It is an easy walk to the beach from there. 

The boardwalk makes it easy to walk from the dock to the lighthouse to the beach along the Atlantic Ocean/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

What to Do If You Have Longer Than a Day
We wish we had allocated more time to stay here. If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, you can take the ferry over to the island allowing you to drive to remote camping spots along the beach, perfect for a roof-top tent or an appropriately-equipped camper van. 

There is also a cabin village that has a bunch of rustic beach cabins you can rent at recreation.gov. They look like an amazing way to get away from the world. 

Final Thoughts on Cape Lookout National Seashore
What makes this place tough to enjoy for a day trip is precisely what excites us about coming back to this park site, especially compared to many of the other nearby park sites to the north. 

Cape Lookout NS looks to be about the perfect place to get away from the crowds and enjoy the undisturbed beach on your own. 

For more info on this site and nearby battlefields, check out our article here.

Header photo: By Paul Terry/Courtesy of NPS

Grant and Bonnie Sinclair are the founders of the travel blog, Our Wander-Filled Life. Both Georgia natives, they’ve lived in the Southeast their entire lives, and currently reside in Woodstock, Georgia, where they both work as high school teachers. When school is out, they hit the road to explore and learn more about the country through its national parks.

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