There is a magical barrier island where the Atlantic Ocean kisses the clear white sands of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast – this fifty-six mile seashore is anchored by a mighty lighthouse – Cape Lookout…
I am a NC native and feel blessed to have spent the majority of my life only a few hours from the NC Outer Banks. These unique barrier islands are filled with beauty, history and a battered resilience unlike anywhere on earth.
NC’s coast is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because our barrier islands protect the mainland and inter-coastal waterway with sand, dunes and hard to navigate shoals. The waters of NC are a deep emerald crystal green, yet the amount of hidden and ever shifting underwater barrier shoals can make this a trap for ships. Pirates like Blackbird and Stede Bonnet frequented these waters. The NC Coast (northward up towards Roanoke/Nags Head) was the first English attempt at colonization (The Lost Colony).
For centuries the barrier islands of North Carolina have been a guardian of the coast from hurricanes, to pirates, wars (WWII for example)…and you can experience the raw beauty of the Cape Lookout National Seashore with a short boat ride from Harker’s Island or Beaufort NC
This area of NC is known as The Crystal Coast and is anchored by popular beach towns like Atlantic Beach, Morehead City port, Beaufort and Emerald Isle. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time in this area growing up as my grandmother had a condo at AB for many years. I’ve continued to make the same coastal pilgrimage most summers.
And while this area has tons of developed beachfront property – you won’t find a more scenic and peaceful spot on the Atlantic ocean than a day relaxing at Cape Lookout.
I made the journey with friends over the Fourth of July weekend. We packed our coolers and plenty of sunscreen and drove from Atlantic Beach to Harker’s Island (accessible via bridge). Harker’s Island is fairly rustic, sprinkled with beach homes and a shop or two. This land is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The road dead ends at the Cape Lookout National Seashore Museum and port.
The museum is worth touring before you get on the ferry – it gives you a historical and ecological view of the region and nature from the shifting sand dunes and importance of lighthouses along the NC Coast.
If you don’t have time to take the ferry – you can see the lighthouse from this spot – in the far distance.
My friends and I boarded the official park concessionaire ferry just after ten a.m. (Island Express Ferry).The sun was already burning bright and felt like a sauna. The coastal breeze was a cool relief as we hit the water. I definitely recommend booking the ferry in advance (online) otherwise it will sell out!
I wore all my UPF (sun gear) Columbia Gear and piled on the sunscreen. I have fair skin and don’t ever tan – burning is my curse.
En route to Cape Lookout, the ferry stops at the nearby Shackleford Banks where you can get off (some enjoy picnicking on this neighboring barrier island). The Shackleford Banks are known for their wild horses – that are descendants of horses that swam ashore from shipwrecks centuries ago. These are wild and hearty horses – enjoy at a distance.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse stands glorious guarding the tip where the sound meets the Atlantic ocean. The ferry pulled into the sound side….we would catch the return ferry around 4:30 back to the mainland/Harker’s Island.
Cape Lookout Seashore is fifty-six miles of undeveloped land…most enjoy spending the day by the water (sound or ocean side) and touring the lighthouse. You can also take a sand buggy to seashell collecting spots ten minutes from the dock. Some choose to rent ATVS for the day to tour the island, including driving by historic ghost remnants of old houses that are weathered by salt and time.
As you get off the boat there is a nice gift shop that sells snacks. You can also use the public restrooms and find shaded seating.
After grabbing a few drinks from the gift shop, we decided to hang out on the ‘Sound Side’ most of the day. The water was so clear blue green I felt as if I were in the Bahamas. The calm waters on the sound side were peaceful and perfect for swimming.
As the day wore on boats docked in the sound near the swimmers. Cape Lookout is on the Core Sound…sounds are extremely important parts of the NC ecosystem…click here to learn more.
Lovely as the beach is- the main attraction for me is the lighthouse! I love lighthouses and Cape Lookout with its diamond patter holds a special place in my heart. There is something spiritual about the imagery of a lighthouse against rough waters – a place to pray and just enjoy the view – even in tough times.
Unfortunately due to some structural rehab – you cannot currently climb to the top of Cape Lookout (honestly okay with my tired knees), but you can tour the historic lighthouse keepers quarters. The house museum includes several exhibits about the history of the lighthouse, life of a keeper and even World War II…A friendly summer volunteer (a modern day light keeper) was super helpful in given us the tour and sharing her summer tales of living on a desolated piece of paradise – the edge of the NC world…
Link to Cape Lookout National Seashore Website
We strolled to the Atlantic side later in the day and looked for seashells…while we didn’t find anything remarkable many sea shell enthusiasts often find large conches and other creatures washed up on shore.
The one mistake I made (and it was a big one) was I forget to reapply sunscreen on my feet. I ended up with the worst sunburn ever – I couldn’t walk for two days after this beach day. But luckily the rest of me didn’t get burnt…you live and learn.
After catching the ferry back to Harker’s Island, we headed to historic Beaufort for dinner and dessert.
Beaufort has lots of great restaurants, but my favorite standby is The Dock House – with ice cream at The General Store. The Beaufort Coffee and Chocolate Shop is a must for bean fans.
Beaufort is known as ‘the pirate city’ – the one time home of Blackbeard. You can learn about Beaufort’s important nautical history at The Maritime Museum. It is one of the most historic towns in NC and the Atlantic Coast – with charm and grace to boot. I’ll focus a blog specifically on Beaufort soon…
Beaufort NC sunset