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Maritimo 2023 M600 LEADERBOARD

Outer Reef's featured destination, Cape Lookout, needs our help

by Outer Reef Yachts 19 Oct 2022 15:35 PDT
Cape Lookout National Seashore © Outer Reef Yachts

Crystal Coast visitors who want a pristine beach environment won't have to venture very far, thanks to the outlying Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Following the outskirts of Beaufort, Morehead City and Cedar Island, and offering miles of undeveloped shoreline to go around, this uninhabited destination is a fine spot for adventurous shell hunters, fishermen, hikers, birdwatchers, and lighthouse fans to explore the Crystal Coast's wild side.

About the Cape Lookout National Seashore

The Cape Lookout National Seashore was established in 1966 and was designated as a North Carolina Natural Heritage Area just 20 years later. The National Seashore stretches for 56 miles and is a skinny collection of completely undeveloped barrier islands, known as the North Core Banks, the South Core Banks, and the Shackleford Banks. A 2011 hurricane has added a couple more inlets, breaking apart the original three barrier islands slightly, but virtually all areas of the shoreline are accessible by a passenger or vehicle ferry, or a personal watercraft.

The Cape Lookout National Seashore starts on the southern end of Ocracoke Inlet, or the northern tip of Historic Portsmouth Island, and extends all the way to the southern / western edge of the Shackleford Banks, which are found right across the sound from Downtown Beaufort. While rustic campgrounds and visitors' centers are found within the National Seashore, there are no commercial facilities, homes, shops, or any development whatsoever. As a result, it's a refreshing landscape for visitors who want to enjoy a natural Outer Banks setting.

Historic sites in the Cape Lookout National Seashore

Cape Lookout National Seashore is distinctive for a trio of natural features and/or historic sites:

Portsmouth Village, which is found on the southern end of Portsmouth Island, is famed as a historic village and a former popular port town along the North Carolina Coastline. Established in 1753, this now deserted community was one a thriving local port with a population that hovered around 1,000 by the 1860s. The opening of new inlets and the gradual closing / shallowing of the inlet near Portsmouth led to the village's decline, and the Post Office closed in 1959, further cementing its downfall. By the 1960s, the property was acquired by the National Park Service, and the last two residents on Portsmouth Island - two elderly women - finally left the community in the 1970s. Today, the former village is a perfectly preserved ghost town, with a local Methodist church, general store, and other residences still intact and open to visitors. It can be explored via an ATV tour, on foot, or via a 4WD vehicle, and is a unique step back in time to an eerily long-gone era.

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is located in the heart of the South Core Banks and is one of the most distinctive of the Outer Banks lighthouses, due to its diamond black and white pattern, and hard to reach 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 incredible panoramic views that extend from the open ocean to neighboring Harkers Island. Its beacon, which extends for 12-19 miles, can also be visible from veritably any soundfront home along Harkers Island or even Cedar Island.

The Banker Ponies are found throughout the South 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 National Seashore

The Cape Lookout National Seashore is easily the most difficult stretch of shoreline to reach along the Crystal Coast, but many longtime visitors attest that getting to these barrier islands is half the fun.

Visitors who have a skiff, John boat, or other seaworthy vessel in town can make their own way to the Cape Lookout National Seashore via an easy cruise across the Core or Back Sounds. Several boat ramps and launches can be found throughout Harkers Island, Cedar Island, and the town of Beaufort, and once on the island, it's easy to dock close to shore in the shallow sound waters and hop off to explore the scene. In fact, it's not unusual to spot dozens of small vessels docked along the soundside beaches in the summer months, when water and weather conditions are traditionally clear and inviting.

Although it's possible to access the Cape Lookout National Seashore via a kayak or canoe, it should only be tackled by very experienced paddlers. The currents close to Ocracoke and Beaufort Inlets can be especially strong for even the most dedicated paddlers, and the miles-long trek can tire any adventurer out and quickly.

Things to do on the Cape Lookout National Seashore

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.

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