North Carolina Safe Vacation: Cape Lookout

North Carolina Safe Vacation: Cape Lookout

Want to get that Outer Banks vibe without a ton of time in the car? Take a day trip out to Cape Lookout. On your way, make sure you check out the wild horses at Shackleford Banks.

Throughout the summer, NCND has been featuring trip itineraries for outdoor spots in North Carolina where it’s relatively easy to social distance. The beach in North Carolina is beautiful well into the fall, provided there’s no hurricane headed our way. Here’s an itinerary for a “safecation” to Cape Lookout and nearby Shackleford Banks. If you’re staying on Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach, or anywhere on the Crystal Coast, the day trip is a great way to inject a little bit of wild into your beach vacation.

Aerial view of Harkers Island, Cape Lookout, Shackleford Banks, and Core Sound. (Image: National Parks Service)

Take the Ferry

You can take a ferry from Beaufort or Harkers Island. We chose the Harkers Island option, which slightly cheaper, gives you the option to stop at Shackleford Banks on your way to Cape Lookout, and allows flexibility for your return. Harkers Island is a picturesque, 35-minute drive from Atlantic Beach.

The ferry runs every 30 minutes during the summer. Round-trip fare for an adult is $28 and you can book your slot ahead of time online. Each fare includes two pieces of “luggage.” (Most people bring chairs, umbrellas, coolers they can carry easily, or beach bags.)

During the pandemic, you must wear a mask while you’re in the ferry waiting area and on board the ferry.

Banker Ponies

You’ll need to keep your distance from the Banker Ponies, so take some binoculars or a telephoto lens to see them more clearly.

It’s about a 15-minute ride to Shackleford Banks, which has a herd of wild horses. The DNA in this group of “Banker Ponies” is unique to the horses on Shackleford Banks, our ferry captain told us. One theory says they’re descended from Spanish mustangs shipwrecked in the area during the 1500s. Another theory says they hightailed it out of a failed Spanish colony near the Santee River in South Carolina. They’ve adapted to beach life beautifully, sometimes wandering out to grassy areas at low tide and staying there until they can get back to the mainland at the next low tide. When fresh water is scarce, they’ll use their hooves to dig down to drinkable (but brackish) water.

We disembarked from the ferry at Shackleford Banks and spent the time until the next ferry came strolling around and looking for horses. We found one of the newer members of the herd.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse

The ferry trip from Shackleford Banks to Cape Lookout’s ferry dock is about a 10-minute ride over the very shallow Core Sound. The first lighthouse was built in 1812, one of several along the Outer Banks to warn ships away from land masses and shallow areas amidst “the Graveyard of The Atlantic.” (Blackbeard, for instance, wrecked near Beaufort and Theodosia Burr, Aaron Burr’s daughter, was lost at sea near Cape Hatteras.) The current lighthouse was built in 1857.

The keeper’s house and the lighthouse, viewed from the ferry. Some beach goers set up along the shores of Core Sound, which is shallow and calm.

You can’t climb the lighthouse during the pandemic, but you can explore the keeper’s house. Displays help you understand what life was like lighthouse keepers and their families. A short film teaches you about the area’s geography and wildlife.

Cape Lookout’s Ocean Side

Take a 10-minute walk across the island to the ocean side and enjoy the miles of beach that you have mostly to yourself. There are some four-wheel drive vehicles on the beach that have driven on the beach from more northern parts of the Outer Banks where car ferries are available. Every once in awhile, you’ll see a camper who has packed in from the ferry.

But mostly, it’s just you and the beach. After a spring and summer of dodging people in grocery stores, the wide open spaces are restorative.

Tip: If you don’t feel like walking, you can get a seat on a beach shuttle that takes you to remote parts of the beach. ($13 a person).

Sea Shells

There are more shells on the beach at Cape Lookout than there are on the Crystal Coast beaches. We didn’t find many that were still intact after being pounded by the surf, but the violet and white clam shell pieces are beautiful. I have a friend who polishes them up and makes necklaces, so I collected a few for her.

This year, I collected more than usual and sprayed them with several thin coats of polyurethane when I returned home for an eternally wet look. With some Gorilla Glue and an old glass tray from a discarded microwave, I made myself a little mosaic for my porch to remind me of my trip to Cape Lookout. Sometimes my house feels too crowded, with four young adult sons who’ve returned to the house during the pandemic, a geriatric dog, and a husband working from home. Looking at the mosaic reminds me of wide open spaces and that this is the year to make do and piece together something beautiful, despite all the challenges.

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