Cape Lookout National Seashore Camping – Know Before You Go

Cape Lookout National Seashore camping is an experience like no other.  With 56 miles of beach and free camping, this is the place to get away.

In fact, Outside Magazine named Cape Lookout the best park in North Carolina.

Cape Lookout National Seashore runs all the way from Ocracoke inlet down to Beaufort Inlet.  It is comprised of several small islands and four main islands – North and South Core Banks, Shackleford Banks, and Portsmouth Island. 

As this is a primitive place with limited access to facilities or supplies, there are certainly some things you need to know before visiting.

Destinations

There are actually several places to go and camp on Cape Lookout National Seashore. Let this be your guide to which island is best for you and how you can get there.

The islands of Cape Lookout are only accessible by ferry or private boat except for the visitor centers in Beaufort and Harkers Island which are considered part of the shoreline.  For a zoomable map from the National Park Service, click here.

Where you take a ferry from depends on which island you are going to and the information out there can be a little confusing. In short, there are four main islands but the most popular island, South Core Banks, has two places you can go): 

Lighthouse, Village, and Point of Cape Lookout (located on South Core Banks) 

This is the most popular destination for day trips. Here you can access the lighthouse near the dock or the historic village and the Point of Cape Lookout which are a few miles south.

Getting there

This spot can be accessed directly by passenger ferries from Harkers Island or Beaufort.  The same company, Island Express Ferry Service, runs passenger ferry services out of both towns.  

If you want to take a vehicle, you will have to take a ferry from Davis to the Great Island Cabin Area and drive down the beach to get there (more information on this destination below).  

The Lighthouse

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is perhaps the biggest attraction in Cape Lookout.  It stands 163 feet tall and takes 207 steps to reach the top.  

The current lighthouse was built in 1859 as an upgrade to the previous lighthouse which was built in 1812.  It was determined that the previous lighthouse was not tall enough and needed more up-to-date lenses.  

Fun facts: 

  • The center of the black diamonds on the lighthouse point north and south while the white diamonds point east and west.  
  • During the civil war, the Union captured the area and used the lighthouse for navigating the coast.  In 1864, confederate troops snuck behind enemy lines and tried to blow up the lighthouse! The explosion did not take down the lighthouse but destroyed many of the stairs and, as iron was unavailable during the war, the damaged stairs were replaced with wood.

The lighthouse can be visited and climbed by visitors from the third week in May to the third weekend in September, Wednesday through Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday). Tickets can be purchased at the LIght Station Visitor Center from 10 am to 3:50 pm (last climb starts at 4 pm) and are $8 for adults and $4 for children (under 12) and senior citizens (over 62).

For anyone visiting The South Core Banks, visiting the lighthouse is highly recommended.  Click here for the most up-to-date information on visiting the lighthouse from NPS.

The Historic Village and The Point of Cape Lookout

The Point of Cape Lookout

Beginning near the lighthouse and continuing south is designated as the Cape Lookout Historic Village. It consists of about 30 different buildings scattered over 800 acres with some informational signs giving the history. Visitors are free to walk about reading the signs and learning the history of the area.

The southern point of Cape Lookout is about 3 miles south of the lighthouse. A ferry service (large truck that you can ride in the back that is sometimes given the misleading name of “mule train”), can take you for $13 but only runs during certain months so check the schedule here. Alternatively, you could walk to the point if you’d like to visit.

Great Island Cabin Camp (located on South Core Banks)

This is the area for cabins on South Core Banks as well as beach access if you plan on driving up and down South Core Banks. This is not the area to visit if you’re just here for the day as this is far from the lighthouse and historic village.

This part of the South Core Banks is accessed by ferries out of Davis, NC. There are two ferry companies, approved by the National Park Service, that take both passengers and vehicles: Davis Shore Ferry Service and Cape Lookout Cabins & Camps Ferry Service. Ferries are pretty expensive for vehicles and there are space limitations for passengers so make sure to check their website or call to check and reserve your spot before you go.

Davis Shore Ferry Service (Vehicle & Passenger Ferry)
148 Willis Road
Davis, NC 28524
252-729-3474

Cape Lookout Cabins & Camps Ferry Service (Vehicle & Passenger Ferry)
125 Grady Davis Lane
Davis, NC 28524
252-729-9751

Shackleford Banks

Shackleford Banks is where the wild horses live. It is a pristine island with no driving allowed. You are allowed to camp but advised to follow leave no trace guidelines.

Shackleford Banks can be reached from either Beaufort or Harkers Island. The same company, Island Express Ferry Service, runs passenger ferries out of both places (no vehicles allowed on Shackleford Banks) as well as sunset cruises and tours. Check their website or call for different options and for booking:

Island Express Ferry Service
600 Front Street
Beaufort, NC 28516
252-728-7433

Island Express Ferry Service (Passenger Ferry)
1800 Island Road 
Harkers Island, NC 28531
252-728-7433

North Core Banks

North Core Banks hosts 20 cabins called Long Point Cabins and ferries leave from Atlantic, NC. For more cabin information or to book a cabin, click here. While there are beds, bathrooms, and propane stoves, cabin renters are expected to bring their own cookware and bed linens.  There is beach access here, plenty of coastline, and camping is allowed along this beach but you’ll need a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Ferries are run by Morris Marina Ferry Service for both vehicles and passengers and they can only be booked by phone:

Morris Marina Ferry Service
1000 Morris Marina Road
Atlantic, NC 28511
252-225-4261
Contact Ferry for Schedule

Portsmouth Island

This is by far the most difficult part of Cape Lookout National Seashore to get to but everyone that visits agrees that the journey is well worth it. Portsmouth Island is truly a hidden jewel of North Carolina.

Portsmouth Island is home to the historical Portsmouth Village which was established in the mid-1700s. The village has been abandoned for 50 years and is full of history.

Portsmouth Island can be reached from either Atlantic, NC or from Ocracoke island on the Outer Banks. Camping is permitted anywhere but there are often strong winds so campers are not advised to set up on the oceanside beaches. Instead, look for trails on the west side of the sand dunes that lead into more forested areas where you’ll be better protected or try to find a nice spot on the sound-facing beaches.

There are also 20 cabins that can be booked with the National Park Service at recreation.gov. These are supposedly listed with the Long Point Cabins which are located on North Core Banks so the website is very confusing. Because of this, it’s best to call, email, or use the chat feature on their website to make sure you’re booking the right place.

Most people get to Portsmouth Island from Ocracoke Island which is the best option if you don’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. To reach Ocracoke Island, you have to take a 2-3 hour ferry ride from either Swan Quarter or Cedar Island, NC. The island is only three miles south of Ocracoke Island so it’s possible to rent a small skiff and go yourself or take the popular ATV tours.

For Vehicles trying to reach Portsmouth Island, there is a small ferry service that leaves from Atlantic, NC. There are only a couple ferries per day and they do not hold many vehicles so you are advised to book well ahead of time:

Morris Marina Kabin Kamps & Ferry Service, Inc.
1000 Morris Marina Rd.
Atlantic, North Carolina 28511
Phone: (252) 225-4261
Fax: (252) 225-0366
Email: [email protected]

Cape Lookout National Seashore Camping

Camping is permitted, without a permit, throughout most of Cape Lookout National Seashore.  This includes both tent camping and RV/Campers. Keep in mind that there are no roads, only beach to drive on and while 4-wheel drive is not required for Cape Lookout, it is highly recommended.

There are no designated campsites and camping is totally primitive.  

This is where you cannot camp:

  • On top of dunes
  • Within 100 feet of wells, shade shelters, bulletin boards, docks or other structures and at least 100 yards from any cabin or house
  • Harkers Island (except in designated campgrounds)
  • Portsmouth Village
  • Cape Lookout LIght Station complex
  • Cape Village
  • Long term parking areas
  • Property held under private lease

With so much shoreline, it should not be a problem to avoid these areas.  Here are a few things to remember:

  • Pack out all of your trash.
  • You are allowed to burn driftwood but you won’t find enough for a good fire so bring wood if you want a fire. Also, fires should be below the high water mark.
  • There are limited facilities for food, water, and ice so come fully prepared and don’t depend on these facilities for something you need.
  • Cars are not allowed at Shackleford Banks, so if you want to camp there you must carry all of your gear (this is why not many people camp there).
  • There are raccoons so store your food where they can’t get it and don’t leave food in your tent while you’re away. Raccoons can and will chew holes through tents to get to food.

While you should be fully prepared for primitive camping, there are some limited facilities.  Remember, if you’re not using a restroom, instructions are to bury their waste above high tide.  Here is a breakdown of all the restrooms available throughout Camp Lookout:

  • Shackleford Banks – porta-johns near the west end docks and at Wades Shore east of the docks
  • South Core Banks – 
    • Light station visitors center – modern restrooms.  Also outdoor showers for rinsing off, no soap allowed
    • Porta-johns along the sandy service road leading to the point of Cape Lookout
    • Great Island Cabin Complex – modern restrooms and showers.  Drinking water is also available here for sale during the summer
  • North Core Banks
    • Great Island Cabin Complex – modern restroom and showers (for everyone, not just cabin renters)
    • Road from the beach to Portsmouth Village – composting toilet.  This road is often flooded though

Cabins on Cape Lookout

If primitive camping is not your thing or you don’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, cabins are for rent on both South Core Banks and North Core Banks (see sections above for more information).  The cabins have beds, bathrooms, and propane stoves for cooking but cabin renters are expected to bring their own cookware and bed linens.  

Frequently asked questions about Cape Lookout National Seashore Camping

  • What island is Cape Lookout on?
    • Cape Lookout is a collection of islands that includes Shackleford Banks, Portsmouth Island, North Core Banks, and South Core Banks.  The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is located on South Core Banks.
  • How Long is Cape Lookout island?
    • The total length of all Cape Lookout islands is about 56 miles.  The South Core banks holds about 21 miles of coastline and Portsmouth down to North Core Banks has about 18 miles. Smaller islands of Shackleford Banks and Portsmouth Island hold the rest.
  • What beach can you camp on in NC?
    • The only beach you can camp on in NC is in Cape Lookout National Seashore where you can camp almost anywhere along the coast.  There are other places in NC with campgrounds near the beach or just on the other side of the dunes, like Ocracoke Campground or Carolina Beach State Park, but Cape Lookout National Seashore is the only place in NC to camp directly on the beach.
  • Is it illegal to camp on the beach in North Carolina?
    • Yes except on Cape Lookout National Seashore.  At all other beaches, campers must be in designated campgrounds which can be very close to the beach (for example Ocracoke Campground) but are on the other side of the dunes.  Cape Lookout National Seashore hosts miles of coast where campers are allowed to camp on the beach.
  • What are the best beaches near me?
    • Some of the best beaches in North Carolina are: 
      • Carolina Beach
      • Wrightsville Beach
      • Cape Lookout National Seashore
      • Anywhere on the Outer Banks
  • How many steps are in Cape Lookout Lighthouse
    • 207
  • Can you go inside Cape Lookout Lighthouse?
    • Yes.  The lighthouse is open Wednesday through Sunday from the third week in May to the third weekend in September.  The first climb starts at 10:15 am and the last is at 4 pm. Tickets can be purchased at the LIght Station Visitor Center and are $8 for adults and $4 for children (under 12) and senior citizens (over 62).

Conclusion

Cape Lookout National Seashore camping is amazing and there is tons of shoreline where camping is permitted but most of it is only accessible to 4-wheel drive vehicles. If you are able to carry all your camping gear (e.g. backpackers), you can take a passenger ferry and walk up or down the coastline, or consider camping on Shackleford Banks where driving is not permitted. If you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, camping on Cape Lookout is a must!

For those not wanting to camp, it is definitely worth visiting the lighthouse and maybe getting a peak at the wild horses on Shackleford Banks. Also, cabins are available for rent on both South Core Banks and North Core Banks.

Cape Lookout lighthouse, North Carolina, lit up at night. The center of black diamonds indicate north and south and the white diamonds indicate east and west.

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