Adventure Pet-Centric

Idyllic Ferry Ride to See Historic Cape Lookout Lighthouse in North Carolina

No trip to North Carolina’s southern Outer Banks is complete without taking the ferry to visit the Cape Lookout Lighthouse (see a video on Instagram) on the National Seashore. A National Park Service (NPS) beach, it features 343 shoreline miles and 12,063 marine water acres. It should be the #1 family attraction to see. I visited with my daughter, son-in-law, and our family’s three retrievers (Perry, Teedie, and Parker) in August.

You cannot drive to see the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. It’s the southernmost lighthouse on the Crystal Coast along the Outer Banks and is only accessible by private boat or authorized ferry service. 

Island Ferry Express is the NPS concessionaire that offers the only public ferry service to Cape Lookout. Even though an adult ticket costs $22 and $15 for a child, there is no better investment for a fun beach vacation.

You can catch the ferry from either the Harkers Island or Beauford ferry terminals. Buy your tickets online in advance to guarantee the departure time. Otherwise, you might have a 30-minute or hour wait until there is room on the next ferry. This is a very popular excursion with locals as well as visitors.

Tip: Your leashed dog can accompany you on the ferry if you purchase the $7 pet ticket to Cape Lookout! 

Cape Lookout Ferry Trip Preparations

There are no food concessions on the National Seashore, so you should bring bottled water and snacks. You’ll also want to pack beach towels, recliners, toys, and shovels. And if you decide to bring your dogs, don’t forget the pet snacks and water bowl.

I also recommend packing a hoodie as you’ll be pretty chilly sitting in a wet bathing suit on your ferry trip back to the terminal. My favorite is a dark hoodie that won’t show the sand or mud from walking on the beach with my dog.

Luckily, adidas offered to send me an Essential full-zip hoodie which I tested for warmth on my trip to Cape Lookout. I wore it after I came out of the sound so I wouldn’t get sunburned walking down the beach. It also came in handy during the chilly ride back to the ferry terminal in a wet bathing suit.

I also think the Adicolor Classics Adibreak track pants would make a good choice to wear in the spring or the autumn when you take the ferry to walk on the beach. Your legs will get cold when it gets windy.

Shackleford Banks’ Wild Horses

Colonial Spanish Mustangs

The wind whips the boat as the pilot navigates the ferry past the dock. Soon we were flying out on the open water.

Cape Lookout’s distinctive black and white lighthouse loomed in front of us. But the necklace of sandy beachfront seemed flung across the Atlantic Ocean. 

I breathed in the bracing salt air, a perfume that I wish I could bottle and wear during the cold months of winter. Gulls shrieked in the skies.

“Horses to your left! See them swimming.”

Pilot

The ferry employee then recounted the legends (as opposed to historical fact) of the Colonial Spanish wild horses swimming ashore from sinking ships. I couldn’t believe that I could see the wild horses descended from the Spanish mustangs now swimming at Shackleford Banks.

Credit: National Park Service

Tip: You can book the combo Shackleford Banks/Cape Lookout ticket for $30 (adult) and $20 (child). Your first stop is Shackleford Banks. Then you catch the ferry to Cape Lookout.

Graveyard of the Atlantic

Cape Lookout Lighthouse sparkled like a diamond leading boats past the dangerous shoals and perilous channels as they navigated North Carolina’s Crystal Coast. Due to the number of maritime accidents, the Outer Banks was known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

The Cape Lookout Shoals are sandbars that jut out over 10 miles to the ocean and can capsize a boat. 

Today its black-and-white-diamond paint scheme serves as a beacon to tourists who arrive at Harker’s Island to take the ferry over to the National Seashore.

Managed by the National Park Service, Cape Lookout National Seashore (CALO) features miles of undeveloped beach. But seeing the lighthouse is the #1 priority. The wildness of the seashore reminded me of my visit to Howth Beach outside Dublin as well as the Big Island of Hawaii.

History of Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Completed in 1812, the original Cape Lookout Lighthouse cost $20,679 to build. The wood-frame octagonal tower featured a brick staircase. It was painted in red and white stripes. James Fulford earned $300 a year as the first lighthouse keeper.

But the lighthouse was not tall enough so complaints from mariners multiplied. After 45 years of use, the U.S. Congress appropriated $45,000 to build a new lighthouse at Cape Lookout.

In 1859, the new 163-foot tall lighthouse opened for business. A spiral iron staircase wound to the top. 

Most importantly, it featured the first-order Fresnel lens. This allowed mariners to see its fixed light from 18 miles in good weather. According to the NPS, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse was the first of this new style tower to be built along the Outer Banks.

Historic Keeper’s House

It wasn’t until 1873 that a house for the lighthouse keeper (known as the keeper’s quarters) was completed. What a lonely exile to be stationed on a deserted seashore, especially during the hurricanes and storms that wracked the Outer Banks. 

Then in 1907, with the construction of additional quarters, a keeper’s family could join him. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse once employed a principal keeper as well as two assistant keepers plus their families. 

“Despite its dynamic nature, Cape Lookout has a long history of human settlement. There is much to explore, including the lighthouse Keepers’ Quarters, historic Coast Guard station, and the surviving structures of the Cape Village Historic District.”

National Park Service

Tour Cape Lookout Museum

Today visitors can tour the present Keeper’s Quarters which operates as a museum at Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Curious about the role of the lighthouse in 19th-century America? Wonder how a family managed their solitary life stationed at the lighthouse? 

Learn all these facts and more through the Keepers’ Quarters exhibits on the U.S. Lighthouse and U.S. Life-Saving Services, the lives of the keepers, and the history of the Cape Lookout light on the ground floor. (Visitors cannot tour the second floor, as it is private.)

The museum is open seasonally from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm from March to October. Admission is free to the Keeper’s House.

Historical Significance

In an age before the airplane existed, the ship served as the only way to travel to other countries, such as the Caribbean islands.

For the captain piloting a vessel on the Atlantic coast, it was a dangerous enterprise to navigate the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The OBX lighthouses saved many from shipwreck and death.

“I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve.” –

George Bernard Shaw

You cannot walk away from the Cape Lookout Lighthouse without feeling gratitude for this beacon that served mariners more than a century ago.

Climbing the Cape Lookout Lighthouse Stairs

Closed until 2025

Unfortunately, you cannot currently climb the Cape Lookout Lighthouse’s spiral staircase. According to the NPS, the lighthouse is undergoing extensive renovations through 2025. 

But you can circle around the base, touch the surface, and look up to the top. In addition, NPS installed four different “View from the Top” signs. For example, they show maps of the panoramic views if you were looking to the west, east, north, or south.

Looking to the north, I would see where the wild horses now roam.

“Shackleford Banks and Core Banks were connected by land until 1933 when a major hurricane opened Barden Inlet.”

National Park Service

I also learned that the inlet has been maintained by dredging, tides, and storms!

Seven OBX Lighthouses

Cape Lookout is one of seven lighthouses in the Outer Banks (OBX) which you should try to visit on your summer vacation. But they are located quite a distance from each other so it might take you multiple trips to the region.

I have been obsessed with OBX lighthouses since I was 10 years old. In fact, I visited the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on my summer vacation. I remember climbing the steep stairs, enthralled by the bird’s eye view that awaited me after my “perilous journey” up the steep stairs.

I think even as a child I was fascinated that mariners once depended on a solitary building to guide them to safety on a dark and stormy night. They were stalworthy.

“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other.”

Virginia Woolf

Ferry Trip Home

You will need to book your return ferry trip when you purchase your roundtrip ferry trip from Island Express Ferry. If you are mentioned during the hottest period (between 10 a.m and 2 p.m.), you probably don’t want to underestimate how hot you will feel, especially if you bring young children or pets.

We took the 11:45 a.m. ferry to Cape Lookout and booked the 4:15 p.m. trip back to Harkers Island. There was a LONG line of people trying to get an earlier ferry. If there is space, the ferry captain might let you return on an earlier ferry boat.

Soundside Trail & Willow Pond

If you have a 30-minute wait for your ferry at Harkers Island, discover surprising facts about the coastal habitat on Soundside Trail Loop and Willow Pond Loop. (Check out my post about this hike here.) The Soundside Trail is a three-quarter mile walk along Harkers Island’s shoreline. Your walk starts at the pier as the ferry boats.

Look to your left to see the distinctive black and white diamond-shaped Cape Lookout Lighthouse far in the distance. Although there is no National Park Service guided tour here, you can learn a lot about the ecosystem of the island if you read the signs.

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  • Mayi
    August 12, 2023 at 9:03 am

    Wow, what a lovely trip, I would love to do something similar. A horse riding trip would be the highlight.

    • Terri
      August 12, 2023 at 11:07 am

      You actually can’t get within 40 feet (a full bus length) of the wild horses. You can’t ride them. You also can’t feed them. But it still such a pleasure to see them in their wild habitat. They are beautiful!

  • Brittany
    August 12, 2023 at 12:07 pm

    What a great way to spend a summer day! Parker looks like he had a great time!

    • Terri
      August 12, 2023 at 7:03 pm

      Parker swam for the first time in the Atlantic Ocean. It was such a big moment for my two-year-old Golden!

  • Sara Essop
    August 12, 2023 at 12:35 pm

    I love visiting lighthouses and I would be so excited to see the horses swimming too!

    • Terri
      August 12, 2023 at 7:02 pm

      I was just thrilled when I saw the horses swimming in the sound.

  • Jasmina
    August 12, 2023 at 4:20 pm

    What a great way to spend some time. I haven’t seen the wild horses yet and I can only imagine how spectacular is seeing them in their habitat and swimming. Amazing!

    • Terri
      August 12, 2023 at 7:01 pm

      We have several locales on the Atlantic Ocean wheee you can see the wild horses dating back to the Spanish Colonials. I think these horses are so handsome.

  • Stephanie
    August 12, 2023 at 4:54 pm

    WOW, Cape Lookout Lighthouse looks like the perfect summer destination! I’d love to visit as I’m a huge fan of scenic places, lighthouses and history and this place has it all!

    • Terri
      August 12, 2023 at 7:00 pm

      I am sure you would love it. You really step back in time when you tour the keepers’ quarters.

  • Ashley
    August 12, 2023 at 5:37 pm

    What a fun trip! Looks like a great place to spend the day. I love touring lighthouses!

    • Terri
      August 12, 2023 at 6:59 pm

      OBX is famous for its lighthouses. They are so fun it to tour. You can only reach Cape lookout Lighthouse by boat.

  • Alison
    August 12, 2023 at 5:40 pm

    What a fun trip! I’ll be staying in Atlanta next year and will visit North Carolina so this is great!

    • Terri
      August 12, 2023 at 6:58 pm

      You will really enjoy this region of North Carolina. I hope you take the ferry!

  • Katy
    August 12, 2023 at 8:13 pm

    Lighthouses are so captivating for some reason! Love this.

    • Terri
      August 13, 2023 at 5:40 am

      I agree. So many writers have written about the symbolism of the lighthouse.

  • Pam
    August 13, 2023 at 10:36 am

    Seems like a great way to spend the day. I never heard of Cape Lookout down there, but with the ferry being the only way to get there, that makes sense! Good to know about the sun on the ferry ride and important to keep in mind, especially for the summer months. I love seeing the horses relaxing near the beach – always special!

    • Terri
      August 14, 2023 at 6:18 am

      I have vacationed for decades in OBX but I never stayed in southern Outer Banks. It was a great experience, especially exploring Cale Lookout.

  • Helena
    August 15, 2023 at 12:55 am

    Wow this looks like such a beautiful summers trip to take!

  • Patricia (Tish) Mikan
    August 21, 2023 at 8:50 pm

    The Lighthouse looks wonderful
    I definitely want to do that soon
    Thanks

    • Terri
      August 22, 2023 at 7:36 am

      The lighthouse is so impressive!