CARTERET COUNTY — Many trips to Cape Lookout National Seashore’s uninhabited barrier islands, which are only accessible by boat, begin in either Beaufort or on Harkers Island, where the park’s two visitor centers are located.
At both locations, you’ll find park staff ready to help you plan your outing to the “56 miles of undeveloped beach stretched over three or four barrier islands from Ocracoke Inlet on the northeast to Beaufort Inlet on the southeast” that have no paved roads, concession stands, bathhouses or trash cans but there are daytime activities with rangers, historic villages to visit and even a mid-19th century lighthouse to climb, according to the national park website. To really take in the island, primitive camping and rustic cabin rentals are an option.
“Park staff is available to answer any questions about visitor curiosity. They are also available to help people plan their trips or prepare for their adventures. Staff may also know of upcoming events or special happenings taking place in the park at a moment’s notice,” said Chief Park Ranger B.G. Horvat.
Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, the Harkers Island Visitor Center, 1800 Island Road, features exhibits on the historic Portsmouth Village, island ecology and Shackleford Banks horses, children’s activities, a book store, park information and will show on request “Ribbon of Sand,” a 26-minute film that takes the viewer on a tour of the natural barrier island ecosystem.
There are two nature trails at the Harkers Island Visitor Center as well. The self-guided Soundside Loop Trail is three-fifths of a mile along the eastern shore of Harkers Island and meanders through maritime forest and saltmarsh and the third-mile Willow Pond Nature Trail hugs the edge of a restored freshwater pond.
At the Beaufort Visitor Center in historic downtown at 701 Front St., open 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. daily, visitors can view maps, exhibits and brochures as well as learn more about the murals in the visitor center during the program, “Art of the New Deal.”
The building that houses the Beaufort Visitor Center was once the post office for the waterfront town. In 1940, Simka Simkhovitch, as part of the New Deal, painted murals that reflect the maritime history of the area.
The program, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. each Sunday from June 23-Sept. 1 at the Front Street entrance, helps visitors learn how New Deal art like Simkhovitch’s, served to unite and inspire a nation during the Great Depression.
Horvat said these New Deal-era murals capture scenes from Cape Lookout National Seashore places, resources and historical events, such as the lighthouse, Canadian geese feeding, or the sinking of the Chrissie Wright schooner in 1886 to name a few.
“The program has been offered since 2017, and from research and local ties to Beaufort’s old post office and those murals, it has evolved into an exceptional presentation of national and local history revisited,” he said. “Folks’ connections to the meanings of the art, the old post office lobby, and the stories researched by the park ranger create an opportunity to make personal connections to a time gone by.”
After popping in the visitor centers to learn more about the national park’s history, habitats and ecosystems, head to the ferry gateways for a quick ferry ride to North Core Banks, South Core Banks or Shackleford Banks, the barrier islands making up the park.
These islands are only accessible by boat, and rides can be coordinated with Island Express Ferry Service if you don’t have access to a private boat. The authorized ferry operator makes trips throughout the day from the ferry gateway at Beaufort Town Docks, 600 Front St., and from the Harkers Island Visitor Center.
Call the ferry at 252-728-7433 or visit its website for times and fees. There are a handful of additional ferry services that leave from different communities and can be found on the park service website.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
For a bird’s-eye view of the barrier islands, head to the 1859 Cape Lookout Lighthouse, which opened May 15 for climbing.
Visitors can climb the lighthouse from 10:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays until Sept. 15, depending on the weather. The lighthouse will also be open for Memorial Day Monday, May 27, and Labor Day Monday, Sept. 2. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for ages 62 or older and 11 and younger, all available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Tickets can only be purchased in-person at the site the day of the climb.
Horvat said if you’re planning to climb to the top of lighthouse, his best advice is to plan ahead and make sure everyone in the group is at least 44-inches tall, and that anyone under 12 will be climbing with someone responsible and at least 16 years old.
“Check the weather ahead of time also, as the lighthouse will close suddenly if the inside of the lighthouse reaches a heat index of 103 degrees, if lightning strikes come within 10 miles of the area, if heavy rain begins to pool or create slippery conditions, and also if winds reach gusts of 39 mph, or sustain at 32 mph,” he said. “Safety-related closures like these do occur annually, and Rangers will err on the side of caution in conditions that even come close to these benchmarks for safety’s sake. Other than that, a decent pair of closed-toe shoes, are required for the climb up the 207 stairs to the gallery. And, don’t forget your camera, as the view is phenomenal on a clear and sunny day.”
Visitors should also bring sunscreen, bug spray, water and snacks, and plan to pack out any trash as the park is a trash-free zone, according to a release from the park, and be prepared for the climb, which is equivalent to climbing a 12-story building. For more information, check the park website.
Cape Lookout Light Station & Village
The seasonal Cape Lookout Light Station near Cape Lookout Lighthouse is connected to the passenger ferry dock on South Core Banks and open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Here, visitors will find programs and restrooms, shade shelter, first aid and a beach wheelchair.
This is also where visitors should head if they want to attend ranger programs at Lighthouse Beach.
Meet at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday through Friday for a 20-minute presentation on the “Crystal Coast’s scenic beauty, rich culture and history, along with the challenges ahead.” This program starts at 10:30 a.m.
And at 2:15 p.m., meet a ranger for a 45-minute beach walk or interactive demonstration that begins at 2:30 p.m.
To reach the Cape Lookout Village Historic District, head south from the light station to the point of the cape. The nearly 810-acre area includes the former Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station, the decommissioned Cape Lookout Coast Guard Station, the remains of a World War II Army coastal defense complex, as well as several former fishing cottages and vacation homes. For more details, visit the website.
If your destination is Shackleford Banks, ferries leave for the west end of the island from the Beaufort Visitor Information Center throughout the year and from the Harkers Island Visitor Center, the ferries head to the east end of the island during the summer and by special request during the rest of the year.
For a guided tour of Shackleford Banks, plan to attend Rove with a Ranger. Meet at the Island Express Ferry Service ticket booth in Beaufort at 9:15 a.m. each Friday from June 21 to Aug. 30. Ferry fees apply, call the ferry office for tickets.
During this program, a park ranger will lead a morning walk through Shackleford Banks to spot wild horses or bird watch. The park recommends attendees bring water, snacks, binoculars or camera, sunscreen, bug spray, and a pair of water-walking shoes. After the walk, visitors can spend the day at Shackleford.
You can also join a ranger for Horse Sense & Survival Tours throughout the year to for an “in-depth look at wild horse behaviors and the management practices needed to maintain a wild horse herd,” according to the website, which lists dates and times. Reservations are required for the program, which take place one Saturday a month.
“The wild horses are only on Shackleford Banks, there are approximately 117 in the herd. They are amazing to witness, but visitors should remember to keep their distance in enjoying their view,” Horvat said. “We recommend keeping a bus length away, about 50 feet, as any wild animal may react differently to different people. Please adhere to this thoughtful rule and take plenty of photos to help you remember your moment with this wonderful resource.”
Junior Ranger Program
Though designed for ages 5 to 13, all are welcome to participate in the Junior Ranger program. Activity booklets can be picked up at the Harkers Island Visitor Center, the Beaufort Visitor Center, the Light Station Visitor Center, and the Great Island and Long Point Cabin Camp Offices.
“Kids, along with their family, can learn about the park’s history, plants, and animals by taking part in the Cape Lookout National Seashore Junior Ranger activity booklet,” said Horvat.
“The Junior Ranger activities within offer all an opportunity to explore Cape Lookout while learning more about this area of the country, about the National Park Service, and its role in preserving our cultural and natural resources for this, and future generations,” he said. When the booklet is completed, drop off or mail it to any of the park’s visitor centers for correction by park staff.
“Successfully completing the activities results in receiving a Cape Lookout Junior Ranger badge and certificate. While the program is meant for kids, ages 5-13, all may partake” said Horvat.
“Over a century ago, Portsmouth was a bustling sea village. Today, the village stands in stark contrast to its days filled with sounds of fisherman, children playing, lifesavers practicing their rescue drill, the tinkle of livestock bells and the call of ‘Mailboat!” Yet, all has not been lost, the echoes of the past seem to surround you there, inviting you to explore and to imagine daily life in that harsh environment,” said Horvat.
The historic Portsmouth Village on Portsmouth Island is at the northern end of Cape Lookout National Seashore’s boundary on North Core Banks.
The historic village visitor center located in Theodore and Annie Salter House, just on the right of the path from the Haulover Dock, is open seasonally from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday until the end of October.
Though the last resident left in the early 1970s, many of the buildings remain including the school, post office and general store, and the U.S. Life-Saving Station, the Methodist church and the Henry Piggot House, which are open to the public seasonally.
Shuttles to Portsmouth Village leave from Ocracoke. Contact Rudy Austin’s Portsmouth Island Boat Tours passenger ferry service for more details and ferry schedule at 252-928-4361.
Spend the Day
“If not participating in a program, there are a myriad of reasons to come and enjoy Cape Lookout National Seashore,” Horvat said.
“Taking in a day at the beach, looking for shells along the shoreline, capturing photos from around a natural landscape of barrier island ecosystem, surfing, surf fishing, camping in a remote and wild setting, seeking solitude, visiting remnants of the past people who lived on the banks, and hiking and wildlife viewing come to mind in what else there is to do on the beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore,” he said. “But, by all means, please stop by, or call the Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Harkers Island Visitor Center for orientation and help in planning your trip.”
The visitor center phone number is 252-728-2250 and folks may also take a look at the website for more information, or follow the Facebook page for notifications on park happenings.