Sky, Sea, Shells, and Sand
Cape Lookout National Seashore is a low, narrow, ribbon of sand running from Ocracoke Inlet on the northeast to Beaufort Inlet to the southwest. These barrier islands56 miles longconsist of wide, bare beaches with low dunes covered by scattered grasses, flat grasslands bordered by dense vegetation, and large expanses of salt marsh alongside the sound.
Wind, waves, and currents are continually at work reshaping these low-lying islands; one big storm can bring about extensive changes. In such an environment only the most tenacious plants can survive the constant battle. The grasses are the most important plants because their deep roots help anchor the sand. All plants in the park are protected by law. Please do not pick them.
Humans, too, have found this environment difficult but protective and bountiful. A 1590 map of Cape Lookout calls the area promontorium tremendum"horrible headland"in recognition of the area's treacherous shoals. Behind the islands are sheltered anchorages that can shield a vessel from a Northeaster or, as in World War II, an enemy submarine. For centuries whaling and fishing were important industries on the Outer Banks. In the 1800s the settlement of Diamond City on Shackleford Banks was famous for the excellent salted mullet it shipped. The secret lay not in the quality of fish but in the care Diamond City processors took in cleaning, salting, and packing the fish. Today, commercial fishing continues even as the forces of nature shape and alter these islands.
From the large whelk to the five-petaled sand dollar, shells are abundant in number and variety on Cape Lookout's beaches. Seashells are made by living animals. If you find a shell with a live creature inside, please put it back in the same spotthis is that animal's home.
Loggerhead sea turtlesa threatened speciesthrive in the waters of Cape Lookout. Sections of the beach are closed to vehicles during nesting times.
Since 1859 the Cape Lookout lighthouse has guided mariners through hazardous waters. It served as the prototype for all of the Outer Banks lighthouses.
Chartered in 1753, Portsmouth Village was one of the first settlements in the region. It once was home to more than 500 people; today it is uninhabited.
Seagulls are among the more than 275 species of birds that can be seen in the park.
Grasses such as sea oats act as an anchor of the islands. Without their root system protective dunes would quickly erode, and the land would wash away.
Plants and Animals Near Portsmouth Village much of the land is awash at high tide; only a few areas support vegetation. Scattered groves of trees grow on Core Banks, particularly at Guthries Hammock. The Cape Lookout Bight area and Shackleford Banks have large dunes, and at Shackleford you will find the park's most extensive maritime forest. The abundant vines seem to be at war with the trees. The island's changing geography produces strange and beautiful "ghost forests"trees killed by advancing sand and salt spray leave their sun-bleached skeletons protruding from the sand.
Rabbits, river otters, and raccoons are some of the native mammals found here. On Shackleford Banks horses have become wild and adapted to their environment over the past centuries. The islands are an excellent place to see birds, particularly during spring and fall migrations. Occasionally an arctic bird appears, and a few pelagic (birds of the open sea) visit the area. A number of tern species, egrets, herons, and shorebirds nest here. On Core Banks are Fowler's toads, tree frogs, and diamondback terrapins. Loggerhead turtles climb the beaches at nesting time.
People on the Islands From the time of the first human settlements, local inhabitants were interested in trade and fishing. Portsmouth Village was established by the North Carolina assembly in 1753. The village served as a lightening port for the heavily loaded ships that could navigate the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean but not the shallow waters of the sounds. Goods were unloaded at Portsmouth Village, stored in warehouses, and transported to mainland areas by smaller boats that could navigate the shallow sounds. Marking the shoals and safe channels was important to fishing and shipping. Lighthouses were crucial to this effort. The lighthouse at Cape Lookout was completed in 1859 as a replacement for one built in 1812. It has survived hurricanes and war.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is a changing environment where nature, when left relatively undisturbed by humans, maintains a balance. You can be a part of this balancing act by observing park regulations. Please help us protect this park for you and for future generations.
Exploring Cape Lookout
Visiting the Park
Start your visit to Cape Lookout National Seashore at the visitor center on Harkers Island, open daily except Thanksgiving Day, December 25, and January 1. From I-95 take US 70 east to Otway, NC, and follow the signs to the visitor center. No roads or bridges go to the national seashore islands; all access is by toll ferry or private boat. Passenger ferries leave from Beaufort and Harkers Island, 4-wheel-drive vehicles ride the ferries leaving from the towns of Davis and Atlantic. A North Carolina state ferry goes between Cedar Island and Ocracoke. For ferry schedules and toll information contact the park or check for "Ferry Services" at www.nps.gov/calo.
Conditions on the Islands
Facilities: The park is undeveloped and has no maintained roads. A picnic area is on the mainland by the visitor center; restrooms are few and far between. Supplies: Be prepared to carry with you everything you need. The islands have no stores or restaurants. Nearby mainland towns offer most supplies.
Clothing: There is little shade or shelter on the islands, so bring protective clothing, a hat, and sunscreen. Water: Take it with you! Water is a necessity; you can dehydrate quickly on the islands in hot weather. Insects: From May to October insects can be a problem. Cape Lookout has mosquitoes, sand gnats, and chiggers. Bring ample insect repellent. Ticks live on Shackleford Banks; check yourself often. Trash: Carry all trash out with you. Do not bury trash; this harms the natural environment. Pets: Pets on a six-foot leash are allowed in the park. The park is a sea turtle and shorebird nesting area, and pets can threaten or harm wildlife. At certain times of year sections of beach are closed to protect shorebird and turtle nesting. Please observe posted regulations.
Camping: The park has no developed camping facilities. Camp near the beach in insect season to catch the ocean breeze. At other times, shrub and grassland areas offer more pleasant camping. Make sure your tent is strong, can withstand wind, and has adequate mosquito netting. Carry extra-long pegs that hold in sand. Swimming: There are no lifeguarded beaches. Rip currents occur along the beach, creating dangerous water conditions. Never swim alone. Use caution in and around the water, and watch children closely. Boating: Make sure you have current navigational charts aboard and follow marked channels. Because the sound is shallow, it is easy to run aground.
Accessibility: We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information go to a visitor center, ask a ranger, call, or check our website.
Firearms: For firearms regulations check the park website.
Source: NPS Brochure (2014)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Assessment of Coastal Water Resources and Watershed Conditions in Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NRWRD/NRTR-2004/322 (Michael A. Malin, Virginia L. Johnson and Matthew R. McIver, February 2004)
Atlantic National Seashores in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption (Stephen Saunders, Tom Easley, Dan Findlay and Kathryn Durdy, ©The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and Natural Resources Defense Council, August 2012, all rights reserved)
Barrier Island Ecology of Cape Lookout National Seashore and Vicinity, North Carolina (HTML edition) (Paul J. Godfrey and Melinda M. Godfrey, 1976)
Bird Counts & Monitoring Reports
Cultural Landscape Report: Cape Lookout Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Carteret County, North Carolina (Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. and John Milner Associates, Inc., May 9, 2005)
Cultural Landscape Report: Portsmouth Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Carteret County, North Carolina (Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. and John Milner Associates, Inc., December 2007)
Endangered Plant Species Annual Reports
Engineering Study of Cape Lookout Lighthouse (Stanford White Associates, May 12, 2005)
Gateway to the Atlantic World: Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study (David E. Whisnant and Anne Mitchell Whisnant, March 2015)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Cape Lookout National Seashore NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2017/1491 (C. Schupp, August 2017)
Historic Resource Study for History of Portsmouth Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina (George J. Olszewski, September 1970)
Historic Structure Report: Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Cape Lookout National Seashore (Joseph K. Oppermann, December 2008)
Historic Structure Report: Historic Resource Study for History of Portsmouth Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina (George J. Olszewski, September 1970)
Historic Structure Report: Henry Pigott House, Portsmouth Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore (Joseph K. Oppermann, December 2015)
Historic Structure Report: Mason-Willis-Dixon House, Portsmouth Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore (Joseph K. Oppermann, December 2015)
Historic Structure Report: Portsmouth Methodist Church, Portsmouth Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore (Joseph K. Oppermann, December 2015)
Historic Structure Report: Tom & Lucy Gilgo House, Portsmouth Village, Cape Lookout National Seashore (Joseph K. Oppermann, December 2015)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms
Cape Lookout Coast Guard Station (Felix Revello, September 3, 1988)
Cape Lookout Light Station (Survey and Planning Unit Staff, September 12, 1972)
Cape Lookout Village Historic District (Ruth Little and Claudia Brown, August 19, 1998, amended February 2000)
Portsmouth Village (Lenard E. Brown, June 1977)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Cape Lookout National Seashore NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SECN/NRR-2017/1434 (JoAnn M. Burkholder, Elle H. Allen, Carol A. Kinder and Stacie Flood, May 2017)
Nesting Success Reports
Nutrient Composition and Selection Preferences of Forages by Feral Horses: The Horses of Shackleford Banks, North Carolina (Sue Stuska, Shannon E. Pratt, Heather L. Beveridge and Mike Yoder, 2009)
Shackleford Banks Wild Horses Herd Findings Reports: 1999 • 2000 • 2001 • 2002 • 2003 • 2004 • 2005 • 2006 • 2007 • 2008 • 2009 • 2010 • 2011 • 2012 • 2013 • 2014 • 2015 • 2016 • 2017 • 2018 • 2019 • 2020 • 2021
State of the Park Report, Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina State of the Park Series No. 14 (2014)
Vegetation and Ecological Processes on Shackleford Bank, North Carolina (HTML edition) Scientific Monograph Series No. 6 (Shu-Fun Au, 1974)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 24-Feb-2022