Are you looking for a great place to go camping in the Outer Banks? Cape Lookout National Seashore might be just the place for you. Personally, I think it is one of the best camping experiences in the Outer Banks! After our weekend trip taking the ferry and camping on the beach, I have everything you need to know for your next adventure including restrooms, cabins, beaches, and more!
Cape Lookout and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse are part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore in the Outer Banks (of North Carolina) and managed by the NPS. I have previously written about Shackleford Banks which is also part of the national seashore. You can get to the island by ferry or private boat and there are many things to do while visiting, including camping, fishing, birding, hiking, and more.
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In this blog post, I will cover how to camp at cape lookout national seashore with tips that will help make your experience as good as possible!
What is Cape Lookout National Seashore
Cape Lookout National Seashore is a set of barrier islands covering a 56-miles (90-km) section of the Crystal Coast in North Carolina, running from the Ocracoke Inlet to Beaufort Inlet. It is part of the National Park System and was created in 1966. As I have mentioned before, I really do prefer the Southern area of the Outer Banks as it is wilder, harder to get to, and therefore not as developed as its northern neighbor.
How to get to Cape Lookout National Seashore
Well, it depends on what you want to do! For day trips take a passenger ferry from either Beaufort or Harker's Island. You will have the option of stopping by Shackleford Banks first, or you can go directly to Cape Lookout. Also, if you are one of those minimalist campers and get everything into 2 bags, you can also use the passenger ferries to get to Cape Lookout for camping.
However, if you are like the rest of us who like to have a few extra amenities while camping, then you are probably going to want to bring your car. And for that, there are two ferry services that take cars. Although, there also passengers too.
Both go out of Davis one is the Cape Lookout Cabins & Camps (don't let the name fool you, they do not manage any cabins or camping, that is all done through the NPS) and one is Davis Shore Ferry Service. They can accommodate 4 to 6 cars depending on the ferry. It costs $80/85 per vehicle or at least a regular size car and then $16 for adults. We reserved with each of the companies.
Davis Shore is very organized over the phone (you can only make reservations over the phone [both companies]) they take your credit card and will charge you if you cancel within 24 hours. You will get an email confirmation. Cape Lookout Cabin & Camps Ferry Service is a little more loosey-goosey.
They don't take credit card information over the phone (therefore you will not be charged if you don't show up which could be a bonus I guess) and do not send any confirmation. That worried me and I ended up calling the day before we left to make sure they still had our reservation.
Space is limited and you must make select a return time when you make your initial reservation. However, you will see later that you can call and ask to be moved up if there is space.
Davis Shore Ferry Service
148 Willis Road, Davis, North Carolina 28524
Reservations: (252) 729-3474
Ferries operate (weather allowing) March 15 – December 31 (closed Dec 24-26) and may be increased or decreased based on seasonal demand. As far as I can tell, they only have 1 ferry.
Departures from Davis: 7:00 am, 9:00 am, 11:00 am, 1:00 pm, 3:00 pm
Returns from Great Island: 8:00 am, 10:00 am, 12:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 4:00 pm
Cape Lookout Cabins & Camps
125 Grady Davis Lane, Davis, NC 28524
Reservations: (252) 729-9751 or (252) 729-9752
Ferries seem to run all year. Times adjust for seasonal demand (Labor Day Weekend and October) and/or weather conditions. They have 2 ferries: Miss Tempie and Miss Brenda.
Departures from Davis (Miss Tempie): 7:30 am, 9:30 am, 11:30 am, 1:30 pm, 3:30 pm.
Departures from Davis (Miss Brenda): 8:00 am, 10:00 am, 12:00 pm, 2:00 pm,4:00 pm.
Returns from Great Island (Miss Tempie): 8:30 am, 10:30 am, 12:30 pm, 2:30 pm, 4:30 pm.
Returns from Great Island (Miss Brenda): 9:00 am, 11:00 am, 1:00 pm, 3:00 pm, 5:00 pm.
I recommend that you take a car to Cape Lookout if you were interested in doing camping fishing etc. Any activity you might have extra equipment that you would not be able to take on a regular passenger ferry. Alternatively, you can rent a 4 x 4 vehicle (Kubota) from the ferry service that you can load up with your equipment.
Or you can rent one on the island. There is a concessioner who rents them out at the Cape Lookout visitor's center and people use them for fishing and getting around the island.
The ferry takes 30 minutes to cover the three-mile boat ride.
Can you stay on Cape Lookout?
You betcha! There are 2 options: cabins or camping. The cabins on Cape Lookout ain’t cheap. There are 26 cabins that are between $120-180 a night (depending on capacity) and that’s for a primitive cabin (you only have to look at the photo gallery on the NPS site to see, and I think the outsides which are in pretty bad shape look better than the insides!).
Quite frankly, I think you’re better off paying for the ferry with your car if it is a 4 x 4 and can handle driving on the sand. If it can’t, you can rent one of the Kubotas, the price includes the ferry and fuel.
When you arrive at Cape Lookout with your car, you will drive off the ferry and enter Land at Great Island Camp where you will be greeted by a National Park volunteer who will check your permit/sticker. If you come without a car, they will check you into your cabin.
Cape Lookout Fees
There is no cost to visit the park. There is a cost to access (ferry) the island unless you come by private boat. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is not open for climbing (there is repair work to be done during the winter of 2021 and it will not re-open until 2023) but when it is open, there is a fee to climb it. You can visit the lighthouse keeper's home (it's a museum) for free.
There are various tours led by guides that have a fee. Island Express Ferry Service, the same company that runs the ferry service from Beaufort and Harker's Island also runs a beach shuttle that will take you from the Cape Lookout Lighthouse visitor's center to the beach. The current cost for that is $13.
NEW for 2021, ALL vehicles need a permit to drive on the islands. You must purchase the permit prior to arriving. Once you arrive, the NPS volunteer will give you a sticker for your car. It is $25 and is good for 1 year.
Tips for driving at Cape Lookout National Seashore
Remove the air in your tires. Once you have your permit and are checked in you need to remove the air in your tires. Have a tire gauge so you will know how much air you let out, it will depend on the vehicle (for our GMC Canyon truck we went to 21 PSI). You should keep the air lowered in your tires until you return to shore.
The ferry services have air compressors on the other end so you can refill your tires when you return (although we used our own). Everyone we saw refilling their tires on the island got stuck right before the ferry dock!
Make sure to have at least half a tank of gas. Make sure your vehicle is in good shape and has plenty of gas before you start the drive. It can take longer during the summer months. You use way more gas than you think. And you will burn oil too, so have an extra bottle in your vehicle. Always have spare water.
Other items you should carry in your car: air pump, air compressor, shovel, boards or bridges for gaining traction, oil, fire extinguisher, coolant.
Plan for motion sickness. Depending on the wind and waves, the ferry ride can get rough. Also, the sandy road gets narrow, curvy, and bumpy at times so be prepared for the car ride and make sure to bring something to alleviate that. I have been using PSI bands for more than a decade and they worked perfectly for me.
Driving in the sand can be a daunting task. Our training at White Pocket more than prepared us for the roads on the island! Stay on your toes. If you don't, the car can skid and take off unexpectedly. Make sure you maintain a certain speed. If you go too slow, you'll dig down into the sand.
Sliding is more likely if your tires are spinning in place or sliding sideways down a steep hill of loose sand. When driving on beaches with varying traction surfaces, head for firmer ground to minimize the risk of getting stuck. Try to avoid stopping on the sand. This can cause the car to sink and get stuck.
You can drive either on the beach or on the “back road.” Back road indicates the back of the beach or dunes, (weird I know!) but you cannot drive the whole length of the island on the beach. There are closed areas and you are forced to detour onto the back road.
Tips for camping at Cape Lookout National Seashore
Be Prepared. There are no stores of any kind on the island. You must bring anything you need including plenty of water and food. If weather becomes an issue, you may stay longer than expected. Cape Lookout National Seashore is an isolated area so make sure you're prepared for any emergency and bring a first aid kit.
Campfires: Fires are permitted (there are rules) but you need to bring your own firewood. Make sure to bring your own fire starter (matches can get damp). It is generally always windy so fires should be built on the beach and not in the dunes where a spark can be picked up by the wind and start a fire.
You will need a hearty tent. Bring tents with screens for protection from insects. You will need some sort of shade as well (we have a Kelty Big Shady). The weather is unpredictable. The average winds are 10-15 mph but can get up to 30-45 (the ferries will not operate in winds over 30 mph). Tie everything down and ensure your tent can handle it. It's a good idea to bring some sort of rain protection in case there are overnight showers.
Cape Lookout is pet-friendly. If you have pets, bring them as well! Cape Lookout National Seashore is pet-friendly, though for safety it's best not to let dogs run off-leash. Not all passenger ferries allow pets, so check ahead.
Critters and creatures. There’s always something when you are in the great outdoors – bears in the mountains – and on these islands, it’s raccoons who are well-fed by scraps from all the fishermen but are still devious when it comes to getting into your food. Remember they have opposable thumbs and are crafty so things need to be locked down. They can and will break into tents but unlike bears, not your car!
While waiting on Mr. Misadventures to do his sunset shoot, I set myself up on the boardwalk just below the dune with a portable chair, a book, and a mosquito head net (looks like this). It is less windy on the lighthouse side of the island (the side where you can’t camp) and less wind means more bugs.
Mosquitoes, greenhead flies and deerflies (that bite), and gnats (that are just an annoyance). After the attack of mosquitoes in Crater Lake, I ALWAYS have my mosquito head net, it ain’t pretty but it does the job. We also wore insect repellent and sunscreen.
Getting to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse
If you are on the island with your car and going directly to the lighthouse from the ferry dock count for one hour, it took us 40 minutes. If you want to camp near the lighthouse (as we did) MM41 is the closest you can get to the lighthouse MM41A is right before the lighthouse and MM41B is right after the lighthouse (note the map you get from the NPS does not show an A and B, it only indicated one MM41.
There’s a big chunk of the beach between the two mile markers where the beach is completely off-limits from driving.
If you are arriving by passenger ferry, the lighthouse is on the side of the island where the ferries from Beaufort and Harkers Island drop their passengers. There are bathrooms, water, information, and a place to rent a Kubota or grab a shuttle. (However, the benefit of renting a Kabota on the mainland rather than the island is that you can load it up with your camping gear picnics beach stuff.
Otherwise, you are restricted to just whatever you can carry into bags did you do a passenger ferry.)
Things to do in the area when not camping
Cape Lookout is a great place to camp, but there are other to do besides camping. From kayaking and fishing to hiking and biking, there are plenty of ways for the whole family to enjoy themselves without having to rough it in a tent!
- Well, there's the beach of course, and all the activities associated with that! Swimming, shelling, games, reading, walking, etc.
- Kayaking: there are more than 100 miles of shoreline to explore, especially in the sound and inlets (as opposed to the open surf) they are often more accessible by kayak than any other method of exploring.
- Surfing and wind-surfing: not my cup of tea but people do it here!
- Mountain biking if you love the challenge of the sand!
- Cape Lookout Coast Guard Station. We visited the Coast Guard Station near MM43 and had lunch under some shady trees before heading to find a spot on the beach. There are historical buildings you can take a look at, but the 2 still-functioning buildings are used to house students from universities involved in dolphin and turtle studies and aren't open to the public.
- Don't forget the lighthouse, which was mentioned above. You can visit the Cape Lookout Light Station Visitor Center and Keepers' Quarters Museum (May-September).
- Birding: there are over 250 species that live or migrate through here depending on the season. We say plenty of Piping Plovers which are extremely amusing to watch as they run across the beach and search for food right after a wave hits. We also saw brown pelicans diving for breakfast in the morning.
- Last but not least is fishing, the main activity (besides camping and visiting the lighthouse) that people come for. We saw lots of that! The best seasons are spring and fall (which is why October is the high season for the ferries). In the spring folks that are fishing are looking for: bluefish, cobia, grey trout, red drum, false albacore (albies/little tunny), and striped bass. In the fall it's Spanish mackerel, bluefish, albies/little tunny, and red drum. Late fall (Nov/Dec) it's speckled and gray trout (at the rock jetty), false albacore (albies/little tunny), redfish/red drum, and striped bass.
And you can also do photography, which of course is one of the main reasons why we were there! Cape Lookout is difficult to access, you need the ferry to get to the island so that limits the access and there is not a lot of light pollution. Perfect for Milky Way shooting (or any other astrophotography.
The lighthouse also makes a great model for full moon shoots as well. We did a sunset photoshoot at the lighthouse and we walked from our campsite. That’s the only way you can get close enough to the lighthouse as there is no way to access it with a vehicle.
How weather can impact your trip
The wind is bad, no way to sugarcoat it. The sand will get everywhere and for Mr. Misadventures it was problematic for the camera. In extreme low light conditions such as Milky Way shoot the vibration from the wind disturbs the long exposure and causes blurriness. On the other hand, we watched the stars and Milky Way through the top of our Tepui (now owned by Thule) tent and it was gorgeous!
We planned on leaving on the 3 pm ferry, but Sunday night as we were scouting our location for the sunset shoot at the lighthouse we ran into a volunteer couple whose duty is maintaining the Keepers' Quarters and they said the passenger ferries weren’t running on Monday due to high winds and a storm coming through.
So the next morning we called the ferry office when they opened at 6:30 am (there IS cell coverage on the island!) and got on an earlier ferry. That’s the thing about this set of islands the weather is very unpredictable and you have to be ready for anything.
Frequently Asked Questions about Cape Lookout that weren't covered above!
Are there trash cans on Cape Lookout? What do you do with trash?
It is pack-in-pack-out. There is one dumpster on the island, mainly for folks renting the cabins. On a busy weekend, it gets full so don't count on it, instead bring your own bags and pack it out. Remember what I said about raccoons so you also need room in your vehicle to lock down whatever trash you create.
Are there restrooms on Cape Lookout?
There are some bathhouses around the cabins. Between MM41 and 42 there is a boardwalk area that has a restroom. At the lighthouse station, there is a large set of restrooms and water. Between MM43 and 44 there is a restroom.
For using the facilities while beach camping, follow the leave-no-trace rule. Cop a squat amongst the dunes for #1. For #2 dig a cathole (imagine a litter box and you’ll get the concept) 6-8 inches deep and bury your business. You should include a hand shovel for the necessities of life in your car kit! I also brought TP Kits.
Are there wild horses on Cape Lookout?
Nope. But they are nearby on Shackleford Banks. Here is all the information about seeing wild horses there.
What to bring with you
I think I covered most of the items you will need through the course of sharing about my trip to Cape Lookout, but just to summarize and put everything in one spit, here we go:
For the car:
- Air pump/air compressor
- Boards or bridges for gaining traction
- Fire extinguisher
- Rope for towing
For camping, besides all the usual camping gear, I recommend these additions
- Sunshade, we have a Kelty Big Shady we also have a Kelty Waypoint Tarp which we used in White Pocket, it really depends on how many people need to be covered and what you are using it for. In this case, we wanted to use it as an extra room for sitting, relaxing, eating with 2 chairs (also Kelty), our cooler, etc.
- Longer tent stakes – at least 12-inches long to go deep into the sand. Regular tent stakes may not be long enough.
- Hand shovel
- Tide chart – you need to camp above the high tide line and you should know when low and high tides take place. (Available for free at both ferry companies)
For surf fishing, the only fishing I've done is in Alaska, but I can tell you will need:
- A Coastal Recreational Fishing License (CRFL) to saltwater fish.
- There are NO stores on the island, so you will need to bring your own bait and fishing equipment.
- You will need multiple coolers of ice for your catches, there is no ice on the island.
- Most everyone we saw had some kind of rod holder, whether that was attached to their vehicle or something buried in the sand.
- Depending on the season, you could need waders!
- Sunscreen and REAPPLY
- Strong insect repellent and REAPPLY
- Tick remover kit (for your dog as well)
- A hat that provides sun protection
- Mosquito head net – you should spray it with insect repellent as well.
- Layers of clothing so as to not be too hot or cold, the weather seems to change every hour!
- Good shoes – there are A LOT of broken shells that can cut your feet. We brought our Bogs but didn't end up using them. I wore my Jambu Spirit Too Eco Vegan.
Cape Lookout National Seashore is a beautiful place to camp with plenty of opportunities for adventure. The secluded campsites and rugged terrain make it an ideal destination, but you need to plan ahead so that your trip goes smoothly. I hope that sharing the experiences I had during my 2 trips has provided some good info for you should you be planning a trip to this remote destination.
If you are extending your trip:
I have written about beautiful Beaufort and I think it makes a great home base for day trips or a great place to stay the night before your camping trip, but I did notice 2 cute bed and breakfasts that you may want to look into if you want a treat before or after your camping trip. They are Davis Bed and Breakfast (811 US-70 in Davis) less than a mile from the ferry dock and Otway House Bed and Breakfast (Otway, 368 HW 70E, technically in Beaufort, but on the edge) which is 9 miles from the ferry dock.
The beautiful and wild Cape Lookout National Seashore is a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors and explore nature. Camping is a must! I absolutely love it there and we will be going back again and again! I hope this post has provided you with all of the information that you need. Let me know if I have missed something!
If you have any chance of getting sea sick while taking a boat, water bus, or ferry, I HIGHLY recommend PSI bands. I have used them for more than a decade, and they work! I gift them to friends all the time and keep a spare set in my glove compartment for visitors who may also get car sick.
How about you? Have you camped in the Cape Lookout National Seashore? Are you motivated to do so? Do tell!
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