Cape Lookout National Seashore | PARK AT A GLANCE

Horses at Shackleford Banks

Horses at Shackleford Banks


Cape Lookout National Seashore is comprised of three barrier islands on the northern coast of North Carolina: Shackleford Banks, South Core Banks, and North Core Banks. The park is just south of another National Park, Cape Hatteras National Seashore. In addition to these islands, a small section on the eastern end of Harkers Island is part of the park. Only this section, which is where the main Visitor Center is, can be reached by car. To get to the other islands you will need either a private boat or a ferry.

Being more difficult to reach, Cape Lookout receives only a fraction of the visitors that Cape Hatteras gets, so those wanting to take the extra effort to get there will find less crowds and more seclusion. Unlike Hatteras, where modern life is just a short drive away, once you are on the islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore, you are on your own. Only minor conveniences such as ice and water are available, and then only seasonally. You must bring everything you need with you, including food.

For those with a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle, you can take a vehicle ferry to North and South Core Banks and are thus able to carry all supplies needed for an extended stay at the island. Camping on the beach is free. For those without a 4WD, cabins are available for rent on South Core Banks. You can bring your supplies by ferry, and the National Park Service will transport you to your cabin.

No vehicles are allowed on Shackleford Banks, but two passenger ferries bring visitors to either end of the island. On the west side are the better swimming beaches, while on the east side vegetation supports a herd of over 100 wild horses. You can camp on Shackleford, but you will have to backpack and carry all supplies with you. The island can also be reached by private boat or by kayak or canoe.

Cape Lookout National Seashore offers excellent fishing opportunities in the fall and spring and is a popular fishing destination. Waterfowl hunting is also allowed. For history buffs, the park is home to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, the Cape Lookout Village Historic District, and the Portsmouth Village Historic District. Each of the villages are now “ghost towns,” though Portsmouth has had many of its buildings restored. Oddly enough, Portsmouth Village cannot be reach from within the park. The only way to get there is from Cape Hatteras National Seashore where you can take a ferry from Ocracoke Island to the village. The park also has over 50 miles of beaches and has excellent shelling opportunities for those who collect seashells.


Harkers Island Visitor Center
April-November: daily from 9 AM to 5 PM (closed on Thanksgiving)
December-March: Monday through Saturday from 9 AM to 5 PM (closed Sundays, Christmas, and New Year’s Day)

Light Station Visitor Center and Keeper’s Quarters Museum
mid-March-October from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM

Cape Lookout Lighthouse Climbing
Closed for renovation until at least 2025

Portsmouth Village
April through October

Cabin Rentals
Mid-March through November 30th

Vehicle Ferry Services
March through November with limited service in December through February

Passenger Ferry to Shackleford and Cape Lookout
Year round, with more departures in the summer

The grounds of the three barrier islands that make up the park are always open to those with their own boats. Otherwise you are at the mercy of the ferry schedules.

Times can always change, so before making travel plans be sure to visit the National Park Service’s official Operating Hours and Seasons web page for Cape Lookout National Seashore.


There is no fee to enter Cape Lookout National Seashore, though there are fees for the ferry rides to the islands, to climb Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and to stay at the cabins. Camping on the islands is free.

See Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Fees and Passes web page for the latest fees.


Harkers Island Visitor Center
allow 1 hour

Portsmouth Village
allow 3-5 hours, plus travel time

Cape Lookout Lighthouse Complex
allow 1-2 hours, plus travel time

Cape Lookout Village Historic District
allow 1 hour by car, 2 by foot

Time spent on other activities is up to you.

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Last updated on March 20, 2024
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