Cape Lookout National Seashore | CAMPING

Camping on the beach at Cape Lookout National Seashore

Camping on the beach at Cape Lookout National Seashore

I know that tent camping on the beach has been highly romanticized. Movies have been made about it and songs have been sung about it, but in my opinion, camping in a tent on the beach sucks, especially at a place like Cape Lookout National Seashore in the summer. It’s not so much that sand is going to get on and in everything. It’s not that you will be sleeping with sand clinging to your body, with limbs rubbing together like sandpaper. It’s the fact that on the islands of Cape Lookout there is no respite from the sun because there is no shade. You can’t even retreat into your tent because it’s hot and humid in there during the day. You can’t spend the hottest hours at a local restaurant. You are stuck on a beach for 24 hours a day with nowhere to hide. I would definitely think twice about tent camping from June through the end off September. I did it for two days and it was miserable (camped on both North Core Banks and South Core Banks). If you are on the islands to fish during the fall or spring, the heat may no longer be a factor, but the sand always will be. I’ve camped “on the beach” in Florida, but the campsites are shaded and actually off the sand. At Cape Lookout National Seashore, you are actually “on the beach.”

With that said, free camping is allowed on the ocean beaches and the sound-side shores at Cape Lookout National Seashore, with some exceptions. No permits are necessary unless you have a large group of 25 or more. If that’s the case, visit the park’s Special Use Permit-Camping Groups web page for details. There is a charge for the permit.

Exceptions to being able to camp anywhere on the beach are as follows:

  • No camping on segments of beach that are closed for bird and turtle nesting seasons. Areas closed will be marked with signs.
  • No camping can be done within any of the historic districts, within 100 yards of the cabins at Great Island (South Core Banks), or within 100 feet of any man-made structures such as signs, pavilions, wayside exhibits, etc. This shouldn’t be a problem, for the point to camping on the beach is most likely to get away from the crowds.
  • You can tent camp between dunes, but not on them (those in vehicle campers cannot camp between the dunes).
  • If you are camping on the ocean side, the main thing to be aware of is that the tide can come in, so be sure you pitch your tent or park your camper above the high tide mark. To be safe, just camp next to the dunes, as that is plenty far enough from the water to avoid getting flooded at high tide. Also be sure that there is room for other vehicles to pass between your campsite and the water during high tide.
  • The tide affects the sound as well, so be sure that you don’t put your tent where it will get flooded. In reference to the Sound, I specifically say “tent” because vehicles have very limited access to the sound, so most likely you will be walking in and using a tent if that’s the side you want to camp on.

If you care camping at Shackleford Banks, you must walk in and carry all of your equipment because vehicles are not allowed on the island. Since vehicles are allowed on North Core Banks and South Core Banks, this is where most of the camping is done, mainly in a tent or in a camper attached to a pick-up truck, though I have seen trucks pulling small pop-up campers. Be sure you have a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle—do not attempt to drive on the beaches in a 2-wheel drive because you will get stuck. Even all-wheel drives are risky, especially ones with low clearance.

Typical 4-Wheel Drive vehicle for fishing and camping on the beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore

Typical 4-Wheel Drive vehicle for fishing and camping on the beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore

There is no food available on the island and limited fresh water, so you must bring everything with you. If you left a vehicle at the ferry dock (for a fee, this can be done), you can always return as a walk-on passenger, go shopping, and bring back your own supplies. You may even be able to work something out with the ferry operators for bringing you supplies. My bet is that anything can be done for a price, so don’t hesitate to ask. You can buy ice and gas on the South Core Banks at the Great Island cabin complex. Dump station for vehicle campers are also located at the Great Island cabin complex and at the former Long Point cabin complex (cabins were destroyed in 2019 by a hurricane, but restrooms, showers, and dump station still exist).

Be careful about storing your food. Raccoons live on the island, and they will chew through your tent to get to food. I didn’t have a problem, but I did find all sorts of tracks around my tent when I woke up that weren’t there the night before. Also, there are no trash cans on the island, so you must bring everything back with you. If you have a vehicle, keep the trash inside so the animals don’t tear into the bags.

Camp stoves and grills with closed sides and bottoms are allowed on the islands for cooking except for at Portsmouth Village, the Cape Lookout Village, on cabin or house porches, and wooden structures (including boardwalks) associated with the lighthouse.

There are restroom facilities at locations on all the islands, but if you venture off from civilization to have your own secluded spot, you won’t have access to these. The parks asks that you head into the dunes or to a spot where people are unlikely to walk, dig a hole, and do your business in that, then cover everything up. If you want to use a restroom, they are at the following locations:

Shackleford Banks

  • Composting toilets (aka Port-a-Potties) are near the west end docks and at Wades Shore just east of the docks.

South Core Banks

  • Modern restrooms are at the Light Station Visitor Center. There are also outdoor showers for rinsing off, but you can’t use soap.
  • Composting toilets are along the sandy service road that leads to the point of Cape Lookout.
  • Modern restrooms and showers are at the Great Island Cabin Complex. You can also buy ice and gas here, though probably at outrageous prices. Water is available during the summer. These services are open to all visitors, not just those who are renting a cabin.

North Core Banks

  • Modern restrooms and showers are at the former Long Point Cabin Complex. No drinking water is available.
  • A composting toilet is on the road from the beach to Portsmouth Village, but good luck getting there because this road is often flooded.

You can make a campfire as long as it is on the ocean beaches and below the high tide mark. However, you will need to bring your own wood. While you can use driftwood, there’s not much of it and it may well be too wet to burn. Do not use wood from shipwrecks. These wrecks are marked, and there are a few of them on the beaches.

Shipwreck on the beach at Cape Lookout National Seashore's North Core Banks

Shipwreck on the beach at Cape Lookout National Seashore’s North Core Banks

During the summer be sure to bring insect repellent. If a breeze is blowing, the bugs aren’t bad, but on a stagnant day you won’t be able to get away from them. I found North Core Banks to have the most insects, both mosquitoes and biting flies, and they got worse as you worked your way north. I didn’t encounter any at all on Shackleford Banks or South Core Banks, but the breeze was blowing. Locals claim they are bad on all the islands during the right conditions, so be prepared.

And finally, I was able to get cell service at all spots on the islands.

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Last updated on March 17, 2024
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