Cape Lookout National Seashore | KAYAKING AND CANOEING

Kayaking on the Core Sound at Cape Lookout National Seashore

Kayaking on the Core Sound at Cape Lookout National Seashore

About fifteen minutes into kayaking on Core Sound from North Core Banks I had only reinforced my opinion that paddling on the ocean, lake, or pond is what my daughter would call, “BORRRING!” However, the Cape Lookout National Seashore has an entire Paddling the Sounds web page, complete with suggested water trails for the Outer Banks Scenic Byway (download Water_Trails PDF), so I guess some people do enjoy this type of paddling experience. To me, a river or swamp are the only bodies of water worth paddling, for I like to see new stuff, maybe shoot some rapids, or weave in and out of channels that lead to wildlife possibilities.

Core Sound is basically a giant, shallow lake, and while satellite photos on Google Maps make it look like a really neat place to explore due to the contours of the shore and what appear to be islands you can paddle to, you are basically paddling along shores lined with marsh grass and out to islands with shores lined with marsh grass. I will admit that I was there in the summer (early September), and that if it were the spring when animals were being born, paddling the Sound might be more interesting, but I saw more beer cans than birds during my expedition.

Islands in Core Sound shown on the satellite maps are just patches of marsh grass, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Islands in Core Sound shown on the satellite maps are just patches of marsh grass, Cape Lookout National Seashore

You can also paddle on the open ocean, but other than for exercise, I can’t imagine wanting to battle waves just to see beach—the very same beach you will see at the beginning, middle, and the end of your trip. It’s not like there is an island or something you can paddle to and explore.

Many of the suggested water trails listed on the Outer Banks Scenic Byway brochure that involve Cape Lookout National Seashore consist of paddling from the mainland to locations on the islands. For example, you can paddle from the Harkers Island Visitor Center to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. In fact, only one water trail launches from and goes to another point on one of the islands. This is probably because launching a watercraft on Core Sound from North Core Banks or South Core Banks is not that easy. First off, you have to get to one of the islands, and ferries for vehicles or large amounts of gear are not cheap. Second, once you get your vehicle to the islands, while there are plenty of access ramps that lead to the beach, there are only a few ramps that lead to the Sound (and of course there aren’t any at all on Shackleford Banks because you can’t drive your car).

Kayaking from the Mainland to the National Seashore

I did not kayak from the mainland to the islands, nor would I ever consider it. My hour on Core Sound was enough, so I can’t image crossing an uneventful body of water for multiple hours and then having to go back the same way, but as they say, to each to his own. The Outer Banks Scenic Byway brochure has sixteen suggested trips and lists mileage for each one. Not all involve the three islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore, nor are these suggested paddles the only way to go. The suggested paddles all end up at a landmark on one of the islands, such as a cabin complex or the lighthouse—which probably makes the most sense—but you can land on the islands anywhere you’d like as long as you can find some sort of beach and not walls of march grass. Check a Google satellite map to see where the beach is versus the vegetation.

The distance averages about 3 miles from mainland to an island, so that’s probably 1 to 1.5 hours of paddling, maybe 2. You can paddle back and forth, plus spend some time on the island, in a day. Camping is allowed anywhere on the islands (with some exceptions), so you can spend the night if you’d like. Check out the Camping web page here on National Park Planner for details. No permits are needed, but the park does ask that you file a float plan at the Harkers Island Visitor Center if you depart from there. Otherwise, just let somebody know where you are going and when you will be back.

There’s not much danger in crossing either Core or Back sound. The deepest spots are around six feet, no cargo or cruise ships ply the waters, and it’s fairly calm, similar to a large lake. When I launched from North Core Banks the water was barely ankle deep in many of the spots I wanted to go, so I had to get out and drag my kayak until I found deeper water. Remember, the Sound is affected by the tides, both water level and currents, so figure out how to read the tide charts and plan accordingly (see How Tides Affect Your Paddling). Also, there are private boats zooming around, so be on the lookout for them. There is no food, and water is only available at certain locations on the islands, so bring your own.

Kayaking from within the Islands

Assuming you must take a ferry to either North Core Banks or South Core Banks, there are two options for kayaking once you get there. One option is to travel on the vehicle ferry as a passenger and bring your kayak with you. If this is the case, the only feasible launch point is the ferry dock. You could launch from there and then camp from place to place, or just make a day of it and return on the last ferry back to the mainland. Note that you cannot bring a kayak on the ferry to Shackleford Banks because the boats are for passengers only.

The second option is to bring your kayak to the islands along with your 4-Wheel Drive vehicle (see Driving on the Beach for requirements). With a vehicle you can launch from places other than the dock and then paddle around the waters for a few hours before returning. There is also the option to explore a larger area and camp overnight, returning the next day (or days). However, this poses a problem in that you cannot leave your vehicle unattended for more than 24 hours without getting a Long Term Parking Permit and parking in a special parking lot, which may well be miles from the spot you would like to launch from. The parking lots are at the cabin complexes on either island and at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse Complex on South Core Banks. For information on getting a permit, visit the parks’ Special Use Permit-Long Term Parking web page.

Assuming you have a vehicle, where can you access the Sound? There are plenty of access ramps to the ocean beaches, but very few to the Sound. There is nothing stopping you from carrying your kayak from the back service road to the Sound at any point (assuming you can pull off the back road), but it might be a good, long walk to the water. The following are launches that you can drive to, or get pretty close to by driving.

South Core Banks

The most northern access to the Core Sound from South Core Banks is at the ferry dock at the Great Island cabin complex. All other access roads are south of the dock. You might think that you can drive on the back road or on the beach to the very northern tip of the island and launch at the Ophelia Inlet and then paddle around the corner to the Core Sound, but the road does not go all the way, and the beach is closed to driving a mile or so short of the northern tip.

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

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

Here are the options for launching a watercraft on South Core Banks:

1) Ferry Dock at Great Island cabin complex. However, I don’t think you can leave your vehicle here because it’s the waiting area and unloading point for vehicles using the ferry. There are a few short term parking areas in the cabin complex (this is a long term parking area for the island as well).

2) Guthries Hammock: A road to Guthries Hammock is just south of the Great Island cabin complex. When driving south from Great Island, just be on the lookout for a road to the right—there aren’t many. You can park your car at the end of the road, but just for the day.

2) Codds Creek: A road to Codds Creek is located between mile marker 36 and 35 (the beach has mile markers just like on a highway). As with Guthries Hammock, be on the lookout for a road heading towards the Sound. There is a dock at the end of a long boardwalk. You can park your car at the end of the road, but just for the day.

End of the road at Codds Creek at South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

End of the road at Codds Creek at South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Boardwalk at Codds Creek on South Core Banks leads from near the parking lot over the marsh to the water, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Boardwalk at Codds Creek on South Core Banks leads from near the parking lot over the marsh to the water, Cape Lookout National Seashore

3) Beaches at the Lighthouse Ferry Dock: You can park at the Lighthouse parking lot, but it’s a long walk to the ferry dock and beaches. Long term parking is available here as well.

For day trips, I’d choose Codds Creek as my launch site. For overnight trips you must park at the cabin complex or the lighthouse due to overnight parking restrictions.

North Core Banks

1) Access Road near Mile Marker 11: This is where I launched. The road ends next to a short channel, and a path has been cut through the grass to the channel. This is the northern most access point. Day trips only due to parking.

Short channel at North Core Banks leads to Core Sound, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Short channel at North Core Banks leads to Core Sound, Cape Lookout National Seashore

2) Access Road near Mile Marker 9: This road passes an old cabin and ends at the ruins of a dock. Day trips only due to parking.

End of the North Core Banks Mile Marker 9 Road to Core Sound, Cape Lookout National Seashore

End of the North Core Banks Mile Marker 9 Road to Core Sound, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Ruins of an old dock at the end of the North Core Banks Mile Marker 9 Road to Core Sound, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Ruins of an old dock at the end of the North Core Banks Mile Marker 9 Road to Core Sound, Cape Lookout National Seashore

3) Ferry Dock at the Long Point cabin complex. As with the ferry dock on South Core Banks, you can’t park here due to this being the staging ground for vehicles using the ferry, but there are some short term parking spots at the cabin area. This is also the location of the long term parking lot. (Note that the cabins are closed for good due to damage sustained in a 2019 hurricane.)

4) If you take the back service road south as far as you can, it dead ends at Core Sound and you can park right at the water. This is around Mile Marker 18. Day trips only due to parking.

Southern end of the back service road on North Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Southern end of the back service road on North Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Shackleford Banks

To the best of my knowledge, unless you have your own boat, you would have to paddle from the mainland to get to Shackleford Banks. The two ferries that go there are for passengers only, and they aren’t big enough to carry kayaks, other than perhaps inflatables in a carrying bag. Call the ferry and ask about this.

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Last updated on March 20, 2024
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