Cape Lookout National Seashore | GETTING THERE

Passenger ferry to Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Passenger ferry to Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout Lighthouse

No bridges lead to any of the three barrier islands that make up Cape Lookout National Seashore, so you will have to take either a private boat or a public ferry. Approved park concessionaires run ferries to all three islands. Concessionaires can change with every contract renewal, so be sure to check the official Cape Lookout National Seashore’s List of Authorized Ferry Services web page for the current ferry operators.

Shackleford Banks

No vehicles are allowed on Shackleford Banks, so ferries to the island carry passengers only. The current park concessionaire, Island Express Ferry Service, runs two ferries to Shackleford Banks, one from the Harkers Island Visitor Center and another from the town of Beaufort, North Carolina. The ferries serve two distinct purposes, so be sure you make reservations for the correct one. The ferry from Beaufort goes to the west end of the island, and this is the one to take if you want to go to the beach. The Harkers Island ferry goes to the east side, and this is the one to take if you want to see the wild horses. The east end has more vegetation—even a maritime forest—so this is where the horses tend to be. Although I did not visit the beaches at Shackleford, the ferry captain said that the beaches at Cape Lookout (South Core Banks) are better, plus there is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and the Cape Lookout Village Historic District, which is now a ghost town, so there are more things to do.

There is no docks on the east side of Shackleford Island. The ferry captain will get as close to shore as possible, but he can’t run the boat up on the shore. Therefore, you must jump from the boat and into the water. It shouldn’t be past your knees, but most likely your footwear will get wet, so make sure you wear proper shoes such as sandals or watershoes. I am not sure how you get off the ferry on the west side of the island since I did not visit that side, but I did’t see a dock on recent satellite imagery, so just wear shoes that you don’t mind getting wet.

The ferry from Harkers Island to Shackleford also stops at South Core Banks. The boat drops off passengers at Shackleford first, then cruises a short distance to the dock near the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

South Core Banks

Davis Shore Ferry from Davis, North Carolina, to Cape Lookout National Seashore's South Core Banks

Davis Shore Ferry from Davis, North Carolina, to Cape Lookout National Seashore’s South Core Banks

There are two locations that you can get to on the South Core Banks by ferry: the south end of the island near the Cape Lookout Lighthouse Complex (passenger ferry) and the center section of the island, the Great Island cabin area (vehicle ferry). The ferries depart from different locations and are run by different companies.

The majority of tourists to Cape Lookout National Seashore are day-trippers, and their #1 destination is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse complex (Visitor Center, Keepers’ Quarters Museum, Lighthouse) and the beaches near the lighthouse. Island Express Ferry Service runs a passenger ferry from the Harkers Island Visitor Center (20 minute ride) and from Beaufort, North Carolina. The Beaufort ferry takes longer and has limited departure and return times, so the Harkers Island ferry should be your first choice unless you live in Beaufort or the Harkers Island ferry is sold out. When making your reservation you only pick a departure time; pick your return time at the ticket office on the day you depart. Plan wisely, for there aren’t many places on the island where you can go to get out of the sun.

Even though you are dropped off at the Lighthouse Complex and are on foot, you won’t be stuck at the lighthouse area. The Core Sound beaches are right at the dock, and it’s just a quarter-mile walk to the Atlantic Ocean beaches. Furthermore, Island Express Ferry Service runs a Beach Shuttle to the beaches at the very tip of the island, Cape Lookout (it’s a 4-mile round trip walk otherwise). The route also goes through the Cape Lookout Village Historic District, and you can hop off and hop back on the next shuttle that passes by once you have seen the village. There is a charge for this shuttle in addition to the ferry ticket price.

Vehicles (4-Wheel Drive highly suggested) are allowed to drive on the beach at South Core Banks, but you can’t use Island Express Ferry Service to get there, as its ferries are for passengers only. Cape Lookout Cabins, Camps and Ferry runs a vehicle ferry from Davis, North Carolina, to the Great Island cabin complex. The ride takes about 45 minutes, and it is not cheap—prices start at $135 and go up depending on the size of your vehicle and the number of passengers (you pay for both). Reservations are required and the slots fill up quickly, even in what most people would perceive to be the “off-season,” fall and spring. This is because these times are the best for fishing, and people take their vehicles to go fishing.

Typical 4-Wheel Drive vehicle for fishing on the island of Cape Lookout National Seashore

Typical 4-Wheel Drive vehicle for fishing on the island of Cape Lookout National Seashore

The ferry also takes passengers (without a vehicle) who just want to visit the beaches for the day. Furthermore, while many people who are renting cabins bring their 4WD vehicles, if you are satisfied with the beaches close to the cabins, you can go on foot and take the ferry. A park Ranger will pick up you and your gear at the dock and transport everyone to the cabin.

North Core Banks

Morris Marina Ferry from Atlantic, NC, to the North Core Banks

Morris Marina Ferry from Atlantic, NC, to the North Core Banks

There are two ways to reach North Core Banks (other than with your own boat), but only one is available from Cape Lookout National Seashore. A ferry from Atlantic, North Carolina, run by Morris Marina takes vehicles and walk-on passengers to the center section of the island at the former Long Point cabin complex (destroyed by hurricane in 2019). Reservations are required, and remember that spring and fall is prime fishing season and the ferry is just as full as during the summer season. I went over on the Thursday after Labor Day and the ferry was full—I was the only one not going for fishing. The ferry ride takes about 1 hour.

The second way to get to North Core Banks is to take a passengers-only tour boat from Ocracoke Island to Portsmouth Village and the beaches at the northern tip of the island. Ocracoke is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and for most people visiting Cape Lookout National Seashore, Ocracoke is too far away to make a trip to Portsmouth Village feasible. It would require 500 miles of round trip driving or a 5+ hour round-trip ferry ride from Cedar Island (35 miles north of Harkers Island). Visit the Getting to Portsmouth Village web page for details.

Back to the Top


With a few exceptions, use of any photograph on the National Park Planner website requires a paid Royalty Free Editorial Use License or Commercial Use License. See the Photo Usage page for details.
Last updated on March 18, 2024
Share this article