Cape Lookout National Seashore, located on the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, is a place where history, nature, and beauty converge to create a memorable experience for visitors. With its pristine beaches, diverse wildlife, and the iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse, this national seashore offers a unique blend of relaxation and adventure. In this blog, we’ll take you on a journey through the history of the island and the lighthouse while showcasing the natural wonders that make Cape Lookout a must-see destination.
The Lighthouse: A Guiding Beacon
Nicknamed the Diamond Lady, Cape Lookout Lighthouse stands as the most recognizable landmark within the national seashore and attracts more than half a million visitors a year. Its 163-foot height and unique black-and-white diamond pattern make it a striking structure against the backdrop of sandy shores and blue skies. To aid in navigation the black diamonds point north and south, and the white diamonds point east and west.
The lighthouse is more than just an architectural marvel; it’s a symbol of hope and safety for mariners throughout history. The light has saved countless ships from perilous waters, earning its place as an essential part of maritime history. Once night begins to fall, the Diamond Girl still flashes her light every 15 seconds.
A Glimpse into History
Cape Lookout National Seashore has a rich history dating back to the early 19th century. The current Cape Lookout Lighthouse was completed in 1859, as a replacement to the one built in 1812, and serves as a beacon for sailors.
Known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the treacherous shoals surrounding the Crystal Coast were a major threat to shipping and were responsible for sinking hundreds of ships navigating through the area. To keep mariners safe, the first life-saving station on Core Banks opened at Cape Lookout in 1888. A crew of “surf men” served at the station patrolling the beaches and manning the tower throughout the day and night, eventually evolving into the Cape Lookout Coast Guard Station, which remained active until 1982.
In the late 1800’s fishing became a lucrative job on the Crystal Coast, and settlements developed along the Cape Lookout National Seashore, including Diamond City, where some 500 people called the barrier islands home during the busy season. There is even evidence of a one-room schoolhouse and a post office on Cape Lookout with the wife of the lighthouse keeper serving as postmaster in the 1900s. The station keeper lived at the Cape year-round. Destructive hurricanes eventually chased families to the mainland in Harkers Island, Beaufort and Morehead City.
The lighthouse and the surrounding area played a significant role during the American Civil War. During that time the lighthouse was disabled, restored, raided, and finally repaired. During World War II, military presence at Cape Lookout expanded significantly. In 1942, the area became an anchorage for convoys traveling between Charleston and Chesapeake Bay. Most of the residences near the Coast Guard Station were occupied by Army personnel.
The lighthouse was automated in 1950. In 1976, Cape Lookout was officially established as a national seashore.
Natural Beauty Beyond Compare
Beyond its historical significance, Cape Lookout National Seashore boasts some of the most stunning natural beauty on the East Coast. The seashore spans more than 56 miles of undeveloped beach, dunes, marshes, and pristine waters, making it an ideal destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Wildlife enthusiasts will revel in the diverse ecosystem of the seashore. From the wild horses of Shackleford Banks to the numerous bird species that inhabit the area, you’ll find a wealth of opportunities for ecotourism and wildlife viewing. Don’t forget your binoculars, as Cape Lookout is a popular spot for birdwatching with pelicans, herons, and seabirds aplenty.
How to visit the Cape Lookout National Seashore
Without a road or bridge, the barrier islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore are only accessible by a boat. Many locals take their private boats to the island but there are options for visitors as well.
Passenger ferry service is available from Harkers Island to both Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout National Seashore. The 15–20-minute ferry ride can be an adventure in itself where you might catch a glimpse of dolphins and wild horses grazing on Shackleford Banks. The ferry drops you off at the Cape Lookout visitor’s center. While there are bathrooms and a few things for purchase at the visitor’s center, plan to bring your drinks, snacks, and other things you might need for a day at the beach including a leash for your pup. Also plan to bring back your trash.
If you want to take your own 4-wheel-drive vehicle, car ferries are available to Cape Lookout National Seashore from the town of Davis.
Once on the island, you can take a shuttle to Cape Point for some of the best shelling in the world, or you can rent four passenger Kubota UTVS to discover the island on wheels.
Activities at Cape Lookout
Cape Lookout National Seashore offers a wide range of activities for visitors to enjoy. Whether you’re interested in relaxation or adventure, there is something for everyone:
Lighthouse Tours: While the lighthouse is currently closed for climbing, learn about the history and significance of the lighthouse and tour the keeper’s quarters at the base of the Diamond Lady. The National Park Services estimates renovations to be completed by the 2025 climbing season and hopefully visitors will be able to enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding islands and the Atlantic Ocean from the lighthouse again soon.
Beachcombing: Stroll along the pristine beaches to collect seashells and admire the natural beauty of the seashore. Cape Point is a fantastic place to look for shells, and while it is a long walk from the visitor’s center, a shuttle is available, or you can rent one of the UTV’s and make the trek yourself.
Swimming and Sunbathing: The crystal-clear waters and sandy beaches are perfect for swimming and soaking up the sun.
Watersports: For the more adventurous, the oceanside waves can be perfect for surfing, boogieboarding, and bodyboarding. The Cape Lookout National Seashore is also a kiteboarder’s paradise.
Camping: Enjoy the serenity of Cape Lookout by taking along your tent and camping along the seashore or by renting one of the rustic National Park Service cabins which are open from March to November.
Fishing: The area is a popular spot for surf fishing, so don’t forget to bring your rod, reel and tackle. In the fall, serious fishermen put their vehicles on a ferry and drive up and down the shoreline looking for the big red drum that cruise through the area.
Nature Trails: Explore the seashore’s diverse habitats and ecosystems on the many nature trails available.
Visitors should not miss an opportunity to explore this newly certified International Dark Sky Park at night. With its official recognition by the International Dark Sky Association in December 2021, the park offers a pristine environment for stargazing and experiencing the wonders of the night sky. Away from bright lights, the park’s dark skies reveal a stunning celestial display, allowing visitors to see stars, planets, and constellations in all their glory.
Day or night a visit to Cape Lookout National Seashore offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the history, natural beauty, and serenity of the Crystal Coast. The iconic lighthouse and the unspoiled beaches are just a couple of reasons why this seashore is a treasured gem. So, whether you’re an adventurer, history buff, or astronomy enthusiast, make sure to put Cape Lookout National Seashore on your travel bucket list and experience the magic of this coastal paradise.