Cape Lookout National Seashore is a 56-mile-long grouping of barrier islands that lies off the North Carolina coast, just south of Cape Hatteras. This national park features undeveloped beaches, a historic lighthouse, the remnants of an 18th-century village, wild horses and migrating waterfowl. It’s also great for stargazing.
The one-time town traces its history back to 1753, when the North Carolina colonial assembly created Portsmouth Village to support a fort at the northern tip of Cape Lookout to protect British ships from pirates. Although the village was abandoned in 1971, a cluster of hardy buildings still stands. The National Park Service offers maps and a recorded walking tour of this “ghost” village.
Throughout the year, a remarkable array of wildlife is found among the islands of the national seashore. More than 250 species of birds can be spotted here, including hundreds of thousands of double-crested cormorants, which call the North Carolina coast their home during their spectacular annual winter migration. More than 100 wild horses roam the Shackleford Banks in one of the last remaining herds on the East Coast, while sea turtle hatchlings get their start on the sandy beach.
The national seashore’s black-and-white diamond-patterned Cape Lookout Lighthouse was built in 1859 to alert ships to this precarious stretch of ocean, dubbed the Graveyard of the Atlantic. After some much-needed repairs, the lighthouse is due to reopen in 2023 when visitors can once again climb the 207 steps to the top.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is the first certified International Dark Sky Park on the Atlantic coast. Astronomy Night Star Parties allow visitors to gaze at the celestial skies unfettered by light pollution. Afterward, spend the night in one of the rustic wooden cabins on Great Island, or camp on the beach with your own tent.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is accessible via ferry from the mainland or from Ocracoke Island (which is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the north). Most ferries are passenger only; small vehicle ferries operating out of Davis and Atlantic can be used to reach the cabin camps.
Start your visit at the visitor center on Harkers Island, which is connected by a bridge to the mainland. From there, take the year-round 20-minute ferry ride to either the Cape Lookout Light Station or the Shackleford Banks to view the wild horses. For more information, go to nps.gov/calo/index.htm.