A beacon of beauty, guiding sailors and watermen to the safe shores along the Crystal Coast. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse, dubbed the Diamond Lady by locals, is accessible only by boat and is a visit you sure won’t want to miss. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is located in the heart of the Southern Core Banks, and is known as one of the most distinctive of the Outer Banks lighthouses, due to its diamond black and white pattern, and remote locale. The lighthouse stands 163’ ft. tall into the sky, and was constructed in the late 1850s to protect and guide mariners through the deadly Graveyard of the Atlantic waters just offshore.
The lighthouse is seasonally open to climbers in the summer months for a small fee, and visitors who brave the 207 steps to the top will be treated to spectacular panoramic views that extend from the open ocean to neighboring Harkers Island. LEARN MORE
Tours and sightseeing cruises are available for visitors who want to experience the area’s creatures up close, although explorers are cautioned to keep their distance when encountering the Wild Shackleford Banks Ponies. Although they look tame, these horses are completely wild, and should never be approached by humans. The Wild Shackleford Banks Ponies are found throughout the Southern Core Banks and the Shackleford Banks, and are herds of wild horses that freely roam the shoreline. These horses are thought to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs who were shipwrecked along the coastline in the 1500s, and who apparently washed ashore and thrived throughout the centuries. Smaller but more bulky than traditional horses, these feral animals can be spotted throughout the National Seashore, often from the vantage points of vessels cruising through the sound waters.
How to reach the Cape Lookout
Plan your trip by taking the drive to the Down East community of Harker’s Island, where you can visit the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum to learn about the quaint local fishing villages and the heritage of this untouched area. Just a short stop further down the road you will find the Harkers Island Visitor Center where you can explore exhibits, watch the park films, walk the nature trails, and more.
Be sure to reserve a spot on the the Island Ferry Express for an “Experience to Last a Lifetime”. This ferry is the only authorized ferry to drop off visitors at Cape Lookout National Seashore and Shackleford Banks. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket office, but it is highly recommended to make a reservation in advance during the busy summer season. Don’t want to make the drive? Stop by the Beaufort Waterfront location, they have ferries leaving from Beaufort twice a day. Schedules may vary, so it’s recommended to call in advance.
Once a visitor has landed on the Cape Lookout National Seashore, they’ll find that despite the lack of any development or manmade attractions, there are plenty of ways to stay entertained, and unique facets of the seashore that can’t be found anywhere else along the Crystal Coast
Shelling – The Cape Lookout National Seashore is well-known as one of the best shelling destinations on the East Coast due to its geographic locale, its proximity to major transatlantic currents – the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current – its seasonal series of hurricanes and nor’easters, and its general desolation. As a result of these factors, shell hunters can expect to find a veritable wealth of treasures throughout the year, including Scotch Bonnets (the North Carolina State Shell), whelks, helmet conchs, Florida fighting conchs, tulip shells, scallops, olive shells, moon snails, augers, sand dollars, and so much more.
If possible, scour the beaches around the inlets after a passing storm or hurricane for the best chance of finding piles of valuable and rare shells. You’ll also want to arrive as early as possible – the secret is out, and in the summer, plenty of shell hunters make a trek to the National Seashore to patrol the beaches for exceptional finds.
Fishing – The same factors that make the Cape Lookout National Seashore a paradise for shell hunters also contribute to its reputation as a world-class fishing destination. Depending on the season, anglers can expect to reel in a wide variety of species simply by casting from the ocean-facing surf, including Spanish and king mackerels, cobia, flounder, spot, croaker, sea mullet, bluefish, puffer fish, sharks, and drum of all sizes. The best times for fishing are the mid-spring and fall months, (and especially the fall), when migrating species like the big red drum make their semi-annual appearance.
Birdwatching – There are hundreds of different species of birds that land on the Cape Lookout National Seashore, especially in the fall and spring months when migratory birds make a temporary stop within the park’s boundaries. Look for impressive coastal species that make regular appearances throughout the summer and shoulder seasons including egrets, herons, piping plovers, American oystercatchers, and ibises for some photo-worthy shots of the local wildlife at its best.
Hiking – Whether you are exploring the wide paths that wind through Portsmouth Village or just taking a stroll along the seashore, Cape Lookout is a fine destination to embark on a trek through miles of undeveloped terrain. Just bring along plenty of water and bug spray, as the mosquitos can be thick, and the facilities are obviously limited.
Watersports – Cape Lookout is a fine destination for swimming, surfing, kayaking, paddle boarding, and a myriad of other watersports that can be enjoyed along the sound or ocean-facing beaches. Use plenty of caution when taking a dip, (as there are no lifeguarded beaches within the seashore), and steer clear of the “points” or inlets where the currents can be swift and can change at a moment with an incoming or outgoing tide.
Special National Park Service Programs – the National Park Service (NPS) hosts a series of seasonal programs for visitors which can launch from Portsmouth Island, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Visitors Center, the Shackleford Banks, and other popular spots along the shoreline. From expert guided tours of the local horses or beaches, to special kids’ ranger programs designed for the National Seashore’s youngest visitors, there’s a lot to explore both on and off the beach with the help of a local expert. Check out the NPS’s website at https://www.nps.gov/calo/planyourvisit/ranger-programs.htm for a list of seasonal programs and events that coincide with an upcoming visit.
Tip: Pack light, but be sure to bring the necessities, you won’t find any stores or shops on this barrier island.