Essential Summer Guide '14: Cape Lookout National Seashore, A Slice Of Wild America

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Cape Lookout Light rises about South Core Banks/Kurt Repanshek

Dancing on the morning breeze, the sea oats sway to and fro while the Atlantic surf crashes the beach. Two surfcasters, knee deep in the water, wait for the inevitable bite. This is seashore perfection: no crowds, no boom boxes, no wafting sunblock mixed with the fresh ocean air. It doesn’t get much better if you’re searching for a slice of wild America.

Cape Lookout National Seashore on the North Carolina coast comes without frills. You need a ferry, or your own boat, to reach its trio of barrier islands. But once you do, it’s as if you’re on your own island, as uncrowded as it is.

Mid-June found us on South Core Banks in a no frills, $75-a-night, wood-frame cabin. There were wooden bunks with mattresses (bring your own linens), plywood floors, walls, and ceilings, running kitchen water, and a bathroom with shower and toilet. Electricity is only provided if you bring your own. But we weren’t expecting a four-star accommodation. Simply a spot on one of the wildest beaches in the National Park System.

There are ten national seashores in the National Park System, with amenities ranging from dunes to pitch your tent among and the Spartan cabins at Cape Lookout to pricey beachfront rental houses just beyond the National Park Service boundaries.

At Cape Lookout, not only do we share meals with the omnipresent, and quick-to-pounce-on-a-morsel, seagulls, but we are also a short stroll across the sand and through the sea oats to the pounding surf. Swimming here comes with risks, as the long currents that rake the beaches can be treacherous for swimmers. That said, the cautious and watchful can enjoy the refreshing water in between relaxing on a beach blanket while catching some rays. Don’t want to chance the currents? Spend the day beach-combing; the shelling here can be amazing. Among the possible finds is the Scotch, or Ridged, Bonnet, the North Carolina state seashell.

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The historic Keeper's house and daytrippers below the light/Kurt Repanshek

During our stay, pink sunrises and Technicolor sunsets launched and shuttered each day. In between those displays, we explored. You can get around by foot or sea kayak, but South Core Banks also features a back road between the sand dunes and Core Sound that visitors in four-wheel-drive rigs can negotiate. After dropping the air pressure in the our rig’s tires to 15-20 psi, we bounce this route south to Cape Lookout with its lighthouse, visitor center, and historic U.S. Coast Guard Station. Here the day-trippers who motor out from Harkers Island across Back Sound are numerous, and their music reaches to the top of the 207-step Cape Lookout Light. The views from atop the light—south to Shackleford Banks with its feral horses, west to Harkers Island and the mainland, north towards Portsmouth Village, and, of course, east out across the Atlantic—are breathtaking...as are those 207 steps to the top of the light!

Back at our cabin later that evening, with the steaks on the BBQ out front and cold drinks in our hands, the sunset flashes its display to the west. Overhead, the ever-present seagulls perch on the roof. Our only regret is that we didn’t bring any surfcasting gear to provide fresh fish for the grill.

If you go: Cabin reservations can be made in January. The high season is fall, when the fish are running and the surfcasters are thick. If you plan a midsummer escape, consider a Long Point Cabin, as they have electricity and ceiling fans. If you opt for those at Great Island, consider packing a generator and window air-conditioner. Plan a spring visit and scan the offshore waters for Humpback and Right whales heading north for the summer. Do consider a visit to Portsmouth Village, which dates to the late-1700s when it was established as a seaport. Just pack lots of bug repellant and comfortable walking shoes. After you tour the village, take the 3-mile hike through the false maritime forest (Boys Scouts planted this forest in the 1950s, it wasn’t naturally occurring) and out to the coast, where you’ll find excellent shelling opportunities. Check the seashore’s calendar to attend a ranger-led tour to Shackleford Banks to view the horses.