Traveler's Checklist: Cape Lookout National Seashore
Cape Hatteras is a lot of fun, and has a great support infrastructure for the traveling public. But sometimes it's nice to dial things back a bit, plan on a little more self-sufficiency, and see how things used to be on the Outer Banks.
Cape Lookout offers just such an opportunity, as there are no roads linking the seashore to the mainland. As a result, if you want to visit, you need to take a ferry. Only two of the seashore's three islands are open to vehicles -- North Core Banks and South Core Banks. And you don't take a vehicle unless 1) It's a four-wheel drive, 2) You know about reducing the air pressure in your tires and have a means for reinflating them, and 3) You're comfortable driving in sand, which can feel a lot like driving in snow.
For those who go without a vehicle, visits to Cape Lookout range from daytrips to visit the lighthouse or Shackleford Banks to view wild horses to extended treks equipped either with a backpack and requisite camping gear or a reservation in one of the cabins at either Great Island on South Core Banks or Long Point Camp on North Core Banks.
To help you plan and enjoy a visit to Cape Lookout National Seashore, here's Traveler's Checklist for the seashore:
* Stop at the Harker's Island Visitor Center
This beautiful facility will help orient you to the seashore, provide you with a wealth of knowledge on the islands and their natural and cultural history, and give you a chance to ask any questions you might have arrived at Cape Lookout with, stamp your National Park Passport, and buy any books, postcards, or other memorabilia you want to purchase to remember your visit to the seashore.
* How do you reach the seashore's islands?
With no bridges leading to the seashore's three islands from the mainland, or even knitting the three together, you'll need to find someone with a boat to carry you onto the islands. There are several ferry services that will provide this task for a fee (usually $10-$15 per person, much more if you want to bring your rig). Some carry just passengers in small open skiffs, others can handle vehicles and passengers.
Currently there seems to be enough passenger ferries to haul you to Shackleford Banks or to the lighthouse on South Core Banks without a reservation. For those heading to the cabins or planning to take a vehicle along to North Core Banks or South Core Banks, you'd be wise to make a reservation so you travel when you want to, not when the waiting list clears.
If you're planning to visit Portsmouth Village on the tip of North Core Banks, there is only one passenger ferry heading out from Ocracoke, North Carolina, and so reservations become a bit more important.
For a list of seashore-approved ferry services, check out this page.
* Interested in spending a night or more in one of the seashore's cabins?
Make a reservation early in the year. The seashore starts taking reservations in January, with surf anglers getting a short jump on other beach-goers. The high season, at least for surfcasters, is the fall, beginning right after the Labor Day weekend and running into November, and thus you'll encounter the most competition for those dates. The summer vacation season is not quite as popular, and so you stand a good shot at landing a cabin or your preferred dates if you act early.
But there are some things to keep in mind if you think a cabin ($75-$168 per night, depending on season) stay on the national seashore is for you:
* These are decidedly rustic cabins, akin to "hunting cabins." Walls and ceiling are plywood, the floor is somewhat dated Linoleum. The bathroom comes with a shower, with hot and cold running water.
* There's a working kitchen sink, dated gas oven, and a serviceable bathroom. There's also a screened-in porch and a grill outside.
* Sleeping accommodations are on twin-sized bunkbeds and, in some cabins, roll-out cots. For germophobes, lying down to sleep on mattresses that have been used by more than a few others might be tough to do.
* Come summer these cabins get hot. For those who stay at Long Point Cabins, electricity is provided and there are ceiling fans to move the air. At Great Island, the cabins are wired for electricity, but you have to provide a generator to provide the juice.
Frequent visitors to these cabins come not only with generators, but often with window air-conditioners, which, sigh, are noisy for those in neighboring cabins without their own air-conditioners or ear plugs.
* You need to keep a wary eye on seagulls, which have become attuned to the sound of the grill's grate being adjusted. Within minutes of rattling our grate there were dozens of seagulls perched on our cabin's roof, just waiting for us to turn our backs. We did, ever so briefly, and turned our eye back on the grill to see that a seagull had pulled a steak off of it.
* Backpacking on Cape Lookout
This is decidely for the more adventurous, as you'll need to carry your home and kitchen with you. Still, going to sleep, and waking up, to the sound of the surf is truly memorable. And you can supplement your diet with fresh seafood!
Now, there are no designated campgrounds on the seashore. Rather, you can pitch your tent just about anywhere, as long as you don't do it on sand dunes, within 100 yards of the lighthouse, within 100 feet of a restroom, dock, or shade structure or other facility, within any areas closed for nesting shorebirds or sea turtles, or in Portsmouth Village. (See the attached PDF for details on camping and where you might camp).
Also, the seagulls and raccoons that inhabit the islands are crafty and determined critters that will try to find ways to raid your food, so you'd be wise to invest in a sturdy container.
You can have a campfire, but you might want to bring your own wood as driftwood can be scarce, and you must build it below the high-tide line.
* Plan a visit to Shackleford Banks to spot wild horses.
Horses are the charismatic mega-fauna at Cape Lookout, and there definitely is something neat about spotting some of the 100-or-so horses on Shackleford Banks. While you sometimes will see some of the horses while taking a passenger ferry to visit the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, being dropped off at Shackleford for a few hours or an entire day to hike and look for the horses is a great way to enjoy the national seashore.
Spotting the horses isn't terribly hard, as they are spread out across the landscape. There also are some great birding opportunities here, and for those who want a day at the beach without crowds, the swimming, fishing, and shell-collecting on Shackleford is great.
You also can enjoy the island and its horses by joining one of the seashore's rangers for a day trip to Shackleford. These programs, dubbed "Horse Sense and Survival Tours," are offered on various dates in the summer and early fall months. They run roughly four hours.
* Climb Cape Lookout Light
Climbing to the top of this 207-step lighthouse is a great way to gain unique perspectives. From the gallery near the top you'll enjoy great views of South Core Banks and neighboring Shackleford Banks, have a bird's-eye view of the Keeper's House down below and the day-trippers who gather on the beach, and gain an appreciation for the keepers who had to keep the light lit before the arrival of electricity.
During the height of the season reservations ($8 for adults, $4 for kids to age 12 and senior citizens) are suggested, but you could get lucky by walking up.
Before or after climbing the lighthouse spend some time in the Keeper's House to learn about the light's history and those who kept the light lit.
Inside you'll be able to try lifting a 45-pound weight intended to give you an idea of how heavy the cans of kerosene were that the keepers had to carry to the top of the light twice-a-day.
Nearby is a nice visitor center, where you purchase tickets to climb the lighthouse. This facility also includes a small giftshop, and nearby are restroom facilities.
* Go birding
Birding on Cape Lookout is a great way to pass the time. There are more than a few egrets, laughing gulls, black skimmers, white ibis, brown pelicans, willets and terns to keep you busy pointing your camera or working on sketches.
There also are piping plovers and American Oystercatchers on the seashore, but they're a bit harder to spy, particularly because their nesting grounds are off-limits to vehicles and pedestrians.
* Visit historic Portsmouth Village
If you don't mind donating blood to the seashore's mosquitoes, schedule a visit to Portsmouth Village on the northern end of North Core Banks during the summer months. These blood-thirsty insects will keep you moving as you tour the village with its nicely kept buildings.
Once a bustling seaport dating to 1753 where goods were transferred from ocean-going ships to lighter boats that required less water to reach the mainland, today the village is a collection of historic homes and stores and even a restored U.S. Life-Service Station. In the station you can see a replica of the surfboats that were used to help rescue crew and passengers from foundering ships. Walking tours of the village (aside from the mosquitoes) let you peer into the past via residences, the schoolhouse, general store, and church.
After you tour the village, if you have time you can take a roughly 3-mile hike that takes you through maritime forest and out to the coast, where you'll find excellent shelling opportunities.
To reach the village, you need to make a reservation with Austin's Ferry (252-928-4361), which runs from Ocracoke. Just be sure to pack water, sunscreen, and bug spray.
If you're looking to experience a national seashore without 21st century conveniences and development, Cape Lookout should be added to your to-do list.