Cape Lookout National Seashore is a lesser-known coast just south of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The park consists of three barrier islands and, unlike Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the north, is far more undeveloped.
This park offers 56 miles of protected beach on Shackleford Banks, North and South Core Banks and is part of the Crystal Coast (or sometimes the Southern Outer Banks).
The main thing to know about visiting this national seashore is you will need a ferry or your own boat to get there. There are no bridges to the islands. You can take a vehicle on two of the islands to get to a remote camping spot or do some fishing but the Park Service does require an Off-Road Vehicle Certificate before you go.
We really enjoyed exploring Shackleford Banks and South Core Banks by the lighthouse. It was so much less crowded than the Outer Banks, even in the off-season, and we loved it.
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What to Do at Cape Lookout National Seashore
The only place you can visit of Cape Lookout NS with a car is the Harkers Island Visitor Center. The visitor center has exhibits on the seashore and serves as the terminal for one of the ferries to the islands.
To truly experience the seashore, you will need to get out to at least one of the islands. Without your own boat, you’ll need to take a ferry and you should plan to buy your tickets in advance.
We did a two-stop ferry ticket to Shackleford Banks and the lighthouse, spending about four hours exploring the park. Honestly, we could have stood to spend even more time on Shackleford Banks and wish we did.
Hiking Shackleford Banks
The ferry dropped us off on the beach and we immediately set off to the interior of the island to look for the famed wild horses. One thing to bear in mind is there is no dock on the island, so your feet might get a bit wet getting off the boat’s boarding ladder.
We hiked inland for about half an hour, eating lunch along the way, looking for the horses. I expected due to the cooler weather and abundance of vegetation, the horses would be hanging out among the small hills to get a break from the wind.
We started to cut out to the coast and almost immediately found a pair of horses right along the beach munching on grass.
We walked back along the beach and marveled at how clear the water was. There is a good reason they call this area the Crystal Coast. Our hour on this island was up far too soon.
Still, exploring the island was easily our favorite thing about this visit. If I had it to do over again, I would certainly spend at least another hour or two walking this island, exploring. Just understand that there is no shade and no services on the island.
Exploring the Cape Lookout Lighthouse
After grabbing the ferry to South Core Banks, which has a developed dock, we arrived right by the lighthouse. That means someone who has more difficulty getting around could easily just take the ferry to the lighthouse and not have any difficulties getting on and off the boat.
The area around the lighthouse is all on a boardwalk, making it quite easy to explore the Keeper’s Quarters, were it open. Sadly, it was closed due to COVID-19 when we visited, as was the lighthouse. Still, the Park Service does have informational signs about the Keeper’s Quarters and the view from the top of the lighthouse located right there.
From there, you can take the boardwalk through the dunes out to the beach. Further up the beach, we could see plenty of folks who had come to fish right off the beach.
While out on the beach, we spotted lots of pelicans and a pod of dolphins chasing after a school of fish… so cool!
The best part of this? There was plenty of solitude to enjoy. We got to just enjoy being at the beach without the crowds at all.
See Portsmouth Village
Portsmouth Village is the perfect day trip from Ocracoke Island if you are staying there. Located at the north end of Cape Lookout NS, this historic fishing village was established in 1753 and lasted until 1971.
There are 21 buildings preserved by the park service and there are often tours. We did not visit this site due to a lack of time on this trip but really wish we did.
Where to Stay at Cape Lookout National Seashore
We decided to stay about 35 minutes away in the more developed area of Atlantic Beach. We found the DoubleTree at Atlantic Beach quite comfy with a great view of the beach. The hotel is great and the restaurant did a great job of social distancing during COVID-19.
If you are looking for something in terms of a rental, there’s a ton both on Atlantic Beach or closer to Cape Lookout NS.
If camping is your thing, you can find plenty of places to camp on the beach. There are no designated campgrounds but you can camp anywhere on the islands (with a few restrictions).
You can also camp in your vehicle on the beach. Honestly, this would be the perfect place to camp in a rooftop tent or in a four-wheel drive camper van.
There are also rustic cabins in the Great Island area with a bathhouse which would make a great location for an extended getaway.
Exploring the American Revolution in Eastern North Carolina
The National Park Service preserves two Revolutionary War battlefields in eastern North Carolina: Moores Creek National Battlefield and Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
Moores Creek National Battlefield is about 3.5 hours southwest from Cape Lookout NS. Guilford Courthouse is 5.5 hours west. While neither are particularly convenient to the seashore, they both make a good stop on the way home depending on which direction you are headed.
Moores Creek National Battlefield
Moores Creek NB preserves 88 acres surrounding the Moore’s Creek Bridge where Patriot forces ambushed the Loyalist militia which was marching south to Wilmington.
The Patriots removed most of the planks of the bridge and smeared lard over the remaining wood, forcing the Loyalist troops to cross single file and slowly. The Patriots fired upon the Loyalists as they crossed, killing many and forcing even more into the frigid 6-foot deep creek below.
The battle lasted about three minutes and was the first significant victory of the war. The Patriots captured quite a few troops and weapons, along with the modern-day equivalent of more than one million dollars in currency.
As always, hit the visitor center when you arrive for an excellent video about the battle. Then take about an hour to walk the loop around the battlefield. It is not long and an easy walk. There are some interpretive signs along the way. There is also a brief nature trail through the pine forest.
All told, plan on spending about 90 minutes visiting this battlefield, learning about the battle.
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
Guilford Courthouse NMP preserves the much larger battle that the Americans lost to win the war. General Nathanael Greene’s Patriot forces faced off against General Cornwallis’s British forces following the battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens.
Another brief battle, lasting only 90 minutes, the British were outnumbered two to one yet still defeated the Patriot forces. That said, the British lost about a third of its army, forcing Cornwallis to withdraw from North Carolina, eventually leading to the battle of Yorktown where the British were soundly defeated.
The Patriot forces were able to keep the majority of its force intact and were able to secure South Carolina and North Carolina for the Patriot cause.
Like Moores Creek NB, your first stop should be the visitor center for the excellent film and exhibits on the battlefield. After that, take the time to drive the loop around the battlefield doing the driving tour.
In all, plan on spending about an hour here.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Cape Lookout National Seashore
Cape Lookout NS is the perfect place to get away from the crowds found in the Outer Banks. The lack of easy vehicle access makes it a lot easier to find some solitude.
Depending on what you want to do, you could spend half a day out on the islands enjoying the beach or several days camping on the beach or staying at the cabins.
Even in the off-season, we were surprised at how much we enjoyed our time here. We only spent one day but would gladly come back to spend an extended time enjoying the backcountry of this park.
While visiting this park does require some advance planning, it is more than worth it.