Camping on the Coast - Cape Lookout National Seashore

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When summer hits, everyone and their brother seems to head for the beach. If you love the sun, surf, and sand, but aren’t a fan of beach crowds, Cape Lookout National Seashore could provide the breathing space you’ve been searching for. 

The northern portions of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, including Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head have blossomed into touristy destinations over the past few decades. If you want a wilder, natural, more private beach adventure, you’ll want to head south. The southern Outer Banks, including Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, are far less developed, providing a calm, peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of summer vacationers.

Cape Lookout National Seashore protects the southernmost section of the North Carolina Outer Banks (OBX), just east of the mainland. This thin strip of sandy terrain features 28,000 acres of pristine marshland and saltwater beaches. 

Both the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores are run by the National Park Service. Cape Lookout gets a fraction of Hatteras’ millions of annual visitors. So if you want an out-of-the-way beach destination, it doesn’t get much more out-of-the-way than this.

How to Get to Cape Lookout National Seashore

The only way to get to Cape Lookout is by boat. If you don’t have a boat, don’t worry. There are several private ferry services authorized by the National Park Service that run to the Seashore’s main barrier islands. 

Passenger ferries depart from nearby Ocracoke, Beaufort, and Harkers Island and will drop you (and pick you up) on the island’s sound side beach. Ferry services usually run from April to November and may require reservations, especially during the peak of summer. 

Check the NPS website for a list of authorized ferry services and their contact information before you head for the Seashore. 

Can I Drive on Cape Lookout?

4WD vehicles with an ORV Beach Driving Permit are only allowed on two of the Seashore’s islands - North Core Banks and South Core Banks. You’ll need to take one of the vehicle ferries that depart from Davis and Atlantic, NC to get there. 

Cape Lookout does not have modern paved roads. All the driving is done on good old-fashioned sand.

Vehicles may drive on the open oceanside beach. However, wild off-roading could get you thrown off the island. 

Due to the relative fragility of the natural dunes, local wildlife, and the location of endangered sea turtle nests, driving on or over the dunes is strictly prohibited. Driving also isn’t allowed on the sound side of the islands. Instead, keep to the trail behind the dunes (affectionately called the “back road” although it is more of a trail than a road) and designated “ramps” from the back road to the beach.

Staying at Cape Lookout National Seashore

Camping on the beach at Cape Lookout provides ample opportunity to view brilliant sunsets, dramatic sunrises, and star-studded dark skies in between. If you want vacation memories, pitching a tent directly on the sands of this National Seashore is one sure-fire way to make them. 

Camping is free, although you’ll need a special permit if there are more than 25 overnight campers in your party. 

Camping on Cape Lookout is strictly primitive. Because there are no designated campgrounds within the National Seashore, you’ll have extremely limited access to supplies and modern facilities. Pack everything you’ll need, including plenty of water, sunscreen, and bug spray. 

Be aware of the tides and high tide line when choosing a beach campsite. If you aren’t careful, your gear could end up underwater or wash out to sea. 

You’ll also want to follow Leave No Trace principles. With few modern facilities and almost no trash receptacles, visitors need to pack out anything they pack in. If you plan to stay overnight, you should also bring a camp shovel. You’ll need to bury all human waste above the tide line. 

There are some reservable, rustic, wooden cabins located at Long Point and Great Island. These non-electric cabins offer gorgeous pristine beachfront views. The cabins are wired for 110-volt electricity, but campers must supply their own generator. Each cabin has bunk beds and mattresses, a propane stove, and a charcoal grill. You’ll want to bring charcoal, a cooler, food, cookware, and bed linens. 

The Long Point Cabin area was damaged during Hurricane Dorian in 2019. As of 2022, these cabins are not available for public reservation. 

Renting a cabin at Cape Lookout National Seashore can be pricey, particularly during the height of beach season. However, even these rustic buildings can be a welcome respite from a flimsy tent, especially during strong winds or the violent thunderstorms that often sweep through during the summer months. 

What To Do At Cape Lookout National Seashore

Aside from the standard beach activities like swimming and sunbathing, there are plenty of things to keep you entertained at Cape Lookout.

Fishing

North Carolina’s barrier islands offer some of the best surf fishing opportunities on the East Coast. Depending on the time of year, anglers can catch everything from small spots and croakers to massive red drums. 

State fishing regulations regarding size and daily limits are strictly enforced, and sportsmen must have a valid North Carolina Coastal Recreational Fishing License (CRFL).

If fresh fish isn’t your cup of tea, visitors can catch blue crabs (particularly on the sound side of the islands) or dig fresh clams for dinner.

Kayaking

Cape Lookout is one of the leading kayaking destinations in the Mid-Atlantic. With 112 miles of uninterrupted coastline, and conditions ranging from glass-smooth marshes to roiling surf, the Seashore has something exciting to offer paddlers of all experience levels.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse

With its signature black-and-white diamond pattern, Cape Lookout Lighthouse is a North Carolina icon. The beacon stands 163 feet above the sand and was built in 1859. The lighthouse is a popular destination for day-trippers and is only a short hike from the lighthouse ferry dock. 

Visitors usually have the opportunity to climb to the top of the lighthouse (for a small fee) and experience the absolutely breathtaking views from the top. However, the lighthouse is currently closed to the public due to recently discovered structural concerns. It should reopen sometime in 2023. 

In the meantime, the lighthouse is still worth a visit and offers some great photo opportunities. You can also tour the Keeper's Quarters Museum and visit the Light Station Visitor Center to learn more about the lives of the historic “keepers of the light.” These brave, isolated lighthouse keepers saved many ships from a perilous fate in the treacherous waters off the coast of NC, often dubbed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic”. 

Portsmouth Village

Historic Portsmouth Village is located on Portsmouth Island, the northernmost island of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. It is located just south of Ocracoke Island. 

Established in the mid-1700s, Portsmouth was once a bustling sea village. Today, the village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places although the site is mostly vacant.  

Portsmouth Village is owned by the National Park Service, which offers historic walking tours and informational exhibits of the School, Post Office, General Store, US Life-Saving Station, Methodist Church, and the Henry Piggot House. Henry Piggot, who died in 1971, was the last permanent resident of Portsmouth Island. 

Like the rest of Cape Lookout National Seashore, Portsmouth Village is only accessible by boat. Several private ferry services transport visitors to the site from April to November. 

Birding

If you are a birdwatcher with a fascination for seabirds, Cape Lookout offers fantastic birding opportunities year-round. Over 250 species of birds call the shores of Cape Lookout home. You can view everything from tiny songbirds to large herons along the waters of the Seashore. Bring your birding binoculars. 

Wild Horse

The National Park Service and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses work together to maintain a healthy herd of wild horses on Shackleford Banks (which is the southeasternmost region of the Cape Lookout National Seashore). 

These wild horses are believed to be the descendants of Spanish Mustangs from the 1500s. They ended up on the barrier island when their transporting ship met a dreadful fate off the coast, during a time before the guiding Cape Lookout lighthouse steered ships safely away from those treacherous waters. 

Spotting the horses can sometimes be tricky, but it is an experience well worth the effort. Remember that these are wild horses, so don’t feed them and keep a respectful distance. Although they are stunning, they can be unpredictable. 

Stargazing

I left the best Cape Lookout activity for last. The Seashore is the first location in the Atlantic Coastal Region to be certified as an International Dark Sky Park. 

The certification was issued by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and “recognizes the exceptional quality of the night skies of the park and the opportunities it provides for astronomy-based experiences.” 

Cape Lookout has little ambient light after the sun sets, which offers views of the night sky that will knock your socks off. Whether you’re interested in astronomy or not, seeing the night sky on Cape Lookout should be on your bucket list. I’ve only witnessed scenes like this in some of the remote wilderness areas out west. 

Conclusion

Cape Lookout National Seashore is one of the best places for beach camping on the East Coast. There’s plenty to do, plenty of privacy, and plenty of peace and quiet. 

Although Cape Lookout makes a great day trip for vacationers staying in nearby Beaufort or Atlantic Beach, it is worth a vacation stay all on its own. Once you catch a glimpse of that gorgeous star-studded night sky, you’ll wonder how you ever settled for a trendy beach vacation at a bustling tourist destination.

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