Cape Lookout is a 55-mile stretch of three undeveloped barrier islands on North Carolina’s Southern Outer Banks. Just a 1-hour drive from Emerald Isle, this National Seashore is a must-see during your visit to the Crystal Coast.
Cape Lookout is just 3 miles offshore and accessible only by boat, either your own or a ferry. There are several cities that provide transportation, depending on your needs and the time of year. Large passenger ferries, some carrying up to 49 passengers, depart from Beaufort and Harkers Island and deliver visitors directly onto the sound-side beach. Smaller passenger ferries are used for service from Ocracoke to Portsmouth and from Beaufort and Harkers Island. You can also take a vehicle ferry from the towns of Davis and Atlantic. A vehicle can be a helpful way to navigate the islands and reach remote destinations; however, there are no paved roads on Cape Lookout, so make sure it has four-wheel drive.
Passenger ferries will dock right by one of the most popular attractions, Cape Lookout Lighthouse. It stands 163 feet tall and is visible at least 12 miles out to sea. First constructed in 1812, the lighthouse is one of the very few that operate throughout the day, and is the only structure in the United States to bear the checkered daymark pattern. Make sure to wear good shoes, as it takes 207 steps to make it to the top—the equivalent of a 12-story building! If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during a full moon, make sure you take the Moonlight Lighthouse Tour, offered once a month between May and October.
If the climb to the top of Cape Lookout Lighthouse wasn’t enough exercise for you, continue your day by exploring the natural wildlife of Cape Lookout. Hiking on Cape Lookout is like making a pilgrimage to solitude, as the further away you get from the ferry landings, the more serene the island becomes. Anyone who appreciates the outdoors will find the rugged atmosphere inviting and enthralling. Hiking the islands allows the chance to see wildlife on the ground, in the air, and in the sea, providing a better understanding of barrier island ecology.
Spring and fall at Cape Lookout offer what many consider to be some of the best fishing on the Atlantic Coast, and the most popular fishing method for island visitors is surf fishing. Virtually any stretch of beach will do. Just cast your line right off the shore and see what hits. You’re most likely to catch red or black drum or channel bass, but you could also find yourself reeling in flounder, bluefish, or cobia. For a more guided fishing experience, you can book a charter fishing trip. The Gulf Stream is a just a 15-mile boat ride away, and provides some of the best big-catch fishing north of Florida. Be sure to get a valid North Carolina fishing license and review all the state and federal fishing regulations before you go.
For those of you who need more than a day trip to Cape Lookout, you may choose to pitch a tent and spend the night camping on the beach under the stars. Make sure to come fully prepared for this more primitive style of camping. There are no bathhouses, concession stands, or trash cans. But it’s worth it to experience the serene seashore at night. Imagine finding bioluminescent plankton washed up on the beach near your tent—the sand looking as if it were filled with tiny stars!
A wealth and variety of activities awaits you at Cape Lookout. From fishing to birding, camping, or learning about the rich history of the Cape Lookout Light Station—there is something for everyone! It’s the ultimate Outer Banks adventure.