Cape Lookout National Seashore | BEACHES

North Core Banks at Cape Lookout National Seashore

North Core Banks at Cape Lookout National Seashore

I visited beaches at North Core Banks and South Core Banks, but not at Shackleford Banks. Because a boat or ferry is required to visit any of the islands, it sure is a lot of effort and expense to visit beaches that aren’t all that great. Other than the fact that you have the opportunity to visit an undeveloped beach, you can find better beaches in Florida, or if you want to stay in North Carolina, at Cape Hatteras National Seashore (undeveloped as well, and you can drive to them). Also, there are no lifeguards at any of the beaches at Cape Lookout National Seashore. Swimming is at your own risk.

On North and South Core Banks (can’t speak for Shackleford) there are rarely any areas of powdery sand, as the beaches have either been packed hard by the waves or riddled with tire track due to driving on the beach.

Tire tracks are on nearly all of the beaches of North and South Core Banks in Cape Lookout National Seashore

Tire tracks are on nearly all of the beaches of North and South Core Banks in Cape Lookout National Seashore

Furthermore, the words “mosquito” and “beach” should never be mentioned in the same sentence together, but here at Cape Lookout they go hand in hand unless a breeze is blowing. There are also biting, greenhead flies and deer flies, which are what I have always called horse flies. I saw deer flies bigger than hornets, a good 1 inch in length. Those are flies right out of a science fiction horror movie! North Core Banks had the most bugs, especially near Portsmouth Village at the very northern tip of the island. I did not encounter any mosquitoes at South Core Banks or on the east side of Shackleford Banks, though a good breeze was blowing most of the time. The locals tell me the mosquitoes are there and that I just got lucky. Keep in mind that I am talking about the summer months. The National Park Service warns that the bugs are around from May through October.

I tested the waters at a number of places on both South and North Core Banks. It’s hit or miss as to the quality of the seafloor, for in some spots there are so many broken shells that you might as well be walking on glass. I guess this is why shelling is such a big draw, because there are billions of them on the beach. In some spots they are so thick that when you drive over the area it sounds as if you are driving on a gravel road. What I found is that if you pick a spot with a “shelly” bottom, just move to another location. You would think the entire island would have the same seafloor, but the geology is constantly changing, and the floor can be nice and smooth a mile down the beach. Of course without a vehicle you don’t have many options, so just hope the area you land at isn’t so “sea-shelly.”

Abundant shells on the beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore often make the seafloor unpleasant for bare feet

Abundant shells on the beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore often make the seafloor unpleasant for bare feet

On the positive side, if you have a 4-Wheel Drive (North and South Core Banks only), you have 20-something miles of beach on each island to explore. Shelling is excellent on South Core Banks and decent on North Core Banks. Other than that, the beaches on each of these islands are pretty much the same.

You can also swim in the Core or Back sounds, but access is very limited and there are no beaches (just shoreline with grass). Furthermore, the water is not deep at all—in some areas no deeper than ankle deep—and the summer sun can actually heat it up until it becomes unpleasantly hot. I only recommend swimming in the Sound for toddlers, and only if the water is at a decent temperature.

Typical Core Sound shoreline on North Core Banks at Cape Lookout National Seashore

Typical Core Sound shoreline on North Core Banks at Cape Lookout National Seashore

SHACKLEFORD BANKS BEACHES

Island Express Ferry Service operates passenger ferries to both ends Shackleford Banks. If you are going for the beaches, depart on the ferry that leaves from the town of Beaufort, North Carolina (see the Getting There page for details). This ferry drops off passengers on the west side of the island where the terrain is mainly beach. The east side, where the ferry from Harkers Island lands, is comprised of salt marsh and grass land, and while you can still swim—and I can attest to the fact that the water is quite nice—there isn’t much of what anyone could consider a beach. The east end of the island is more for people who want to see the wild horses that roam the island.

East coast of Shackleford Banks along Barden Inlet, Cape Lookout National Seashore

East coast of Shackleford Banks along Barden Inlet, Cape Lookout National Seashore

SOUTH CORE BANKS BEACHES

The most popular destination for tourists is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse Complex located at the southern end of South Core Banks. Island Express Ferry Service operates passenger ferries to Cape Lookout that leave from both Beaufort and Harkers Island and land at a dock near the lighthouse. Beaches on the Sound-side of the island are right next to the dock. To get to the ocean beaches you can take a boardwalk through the dunes from the Light Station Visitor Center, a five minute walk.

Beach on the Sound near Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Beach on the Sound near Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Boardwalk to ocean beach from the Light Station Visitor Center on South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Boardwalk to ocean beach from the Light Station Visitor Center on South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Island Express Ferry Service also operates a shuttle bus service to Cape Point at the tip of Cape Lookout. The shuttle includes a narrated tour and passes through the Cape Lookout Village Historic District, a modern ghost town. For a schedule and fees, visit Island Express Ferry Service’s Beach Shuttle and Lighthouse web page.

The very tip of Cape Lookout, Cape Point

The very tip of Cape Lookout, Cape Point

If you bring your own 4-Wheel Drive vehicle on the ferry from Davis, North Carolina, you can pick any spot on the beach you like. I drove the entire island and can tell you that the beach is, for the most part, the same no matter where you go, but with a vehicle you can find a secluded spot away from the crowds.

NORTH CORE BANKS

The only way to get to North Core Banks, other than in your own boat, is via a ferry that departs from Atlantic, North Carolina. Nearly all visitors to the island are either coming to fish or for a beach vacation at the cabins at Long Point. If you have a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle, you can drive up and down the beach until you find a spot you like. As with South Core Banks, I drove the entire island and found one spot to be as good as the next.

End of the road at the northern end of North Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

End of the road at the northern end of North Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

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Last updated on March 15, 2024
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