Cape Lookout National Seashore is one of America's few remaining undeveloped coastal barrier island systems. It encompasses about 29,000 acres of islands, most of which run roughly parallel to the eastern shores of Carteret County. The system is bounded on the north by Ocracoke Inlet and on the south by Beaufort Inlet. Three islands make up the 56-mile seashore: North Core Banks, also known as Portsmouth Island; South Core Banks (including Cape Lookout); and Shackleford Banks. While each of the islands is distinctive in history and characteristics, all three are remote and virtually unspoiled by the hands of humans.
Stopping first at one of the Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Centers is a good idea before you take off for the islands. These attractive visitor centers, located in Beaufort and on Harkers Island, are open seven days a week from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM except some holidays, and provide a wealth of information to visitors. Of particular interest is the film at the Harkers Island Visitor Center that gives information about barrier islands and their special characteristics. Park rangers and volunteers can answer questions about transportation (only by boat), camping, kayaking and more. Passenger ferry service to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Core Banks leaves from the visitors center. Limited ground transportation on the islands can be arranged with the ferry prior to departure. Passenger ferry service to Shackleford Banks leaves fromt he National Park Service's Beaufort Visitor Information Center on front street in Beaufort. Private ferry services leaving from the towns of Dvis, Atlantic and Ocracoke provide access to other areas of the park. For more information on getting to the islands, see the Ferries section of our Getting Here, Getting Around chapter. For information about the on-island accommodations, see the write-ups for Long Point Cabins and Great Island Cabins in our Hotels and Motels chapter.
Congress authorized Cape Lookout National Seashore to be included in the National Park System in 1966. The National Park Service (NPS) manages authority over the seashore.
Bear in mind, when planning a visit to any of the islands, that they really are undeveloped. No amenities such as water fountains or places to buy beach umbrellas or suntan lotion are available. Whatever you need for your trip, you must bring with you, and when you leave, you must take everything out with you. See our chapter on Camping for more details.
The seashore's pristine ocean beaches are an incomparable escape for anglers, sunbathers, surfers, snorkelers and shell collectors. Other recreational pursuits in the park include picnicking, primitive camping, migratory waterfowl watching and hunting.
The area is noted for its natural resources. Birds and animals are the only permanent residents. Loggerhead sea turtles nest on the beaches each summer and seldom nest any farther north. The park is an internationally recognized bird habitat area. Raccoons, rabbits, wild horses, a variety of insects, snakes and lizards are also among the park's permanent residents. Ghost crabs, mole crabs and coquina clams populate the beaches.
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse, 3 miles from the southern tip of South Core Banks, is still an active aid to navigation. The first lighthouse was built on Core Banks in 1811-12 and was painted with red and white stripes. But the current lighthouse, completed in 1859, wears a distinctive black and white diamond pattern. Visitors are welcome in the restored lighthouse keepers' quarters, which houses a small museum featuring exhibits on the lighthouse and its keepers. Orientation and information, as well as sales area that carries books, souvenirs and water are also provided at the Light Station Visitor Center. Other associated structures are also preserved near the lighthouse where there are shelters for picnicking, a swimming beach and a boardwalk that leads from the lighthouse area, over the dunes, to the ocean beach.
In 2010, after completing historic preservation, the lighthouse was opened to the public for climbing to the top. Be prepared for a strenuous climb: the 207 steps to the gallery is roughly equal to climbing a 12-story building! Tickets are required to climb the lighthouse and climbs take place on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the open season of May 14 through September 20, 2014. Climbs will begin every 15 minutes from 10 AM until 3:45 PM. The lighthouse may close at any time if weather conditions are determined to be unsafe. Ticket prices are $8 for adults; $4 for children (12 and under and at least 44 inches tall), for senior citizens (62 years and above) and for individuals with a permanent disability. Please be aware that all climbers must be at least 44 inches tall and that no one may be carried. All children must be accompanied by an adult. Shoes must be worn. Cash and credit cards are accepted.
At the northernmost end of Core Banks at Ocracoke Inlet is the historic Portsmouth Village. The village was established in 1753 to serve as the main port of entry to several coastal communities. Named for Portsmouth, England, the port village was busy with "lightering" incoming vessels, an unloading and reloading process that allowed vessels to pass through the shallow Ocracoke Inlet. During its heyday in the 1860s, the village had a population of 600. After Hatteras Inlet opened, and in the wake of the Civil War, the village became less important in its port services. From 1894 to 1938, the population of Portsmouth centered on fishing and the U.S. Life-Saving Station. After a severe hurricane in 1933, the village population declined, and by the early 1970s, no year-round residents remained. Today, Portsmouth Village looks much like it did in the early 1930s. A reunion of descendent's, family, friends and the public occurs every other year in Portsmouth Village. The next Homecoming, as these reunions are called, will be in 2014. Structures that are not under historic leasing are maintained by the Park Service as visitor centers and museums with exhibits. New exhibits were installed in the summer of 2009 at the Theodore and Annie Salter House Visitor Center, school, post office and U.S. Life-Saving Station. The Friends of Portsmouth Island have renovated and furnished the Henry Piggot house and it will be open to visitors this year. Portsmouth Village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Looking east from Fort Macon, Shackleford Banks is the island across Beaufort Inlet. It stretches 9 miles east to Cape Lookout (South Core Banks) and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the south and Back Sound on the north. The island's sound side has long been a favorite weekend destination for residents escaping the peopled mainland beaches. The rock jetty is a favorite spot for anglers. Shackleford Banks officially became part of Cape Lookout National Seashore on the first day of 1986. Until then, the island was dotted with cabins or camps that former banks' residents and their descendants used as getaway shelters.
The acquisition of Shackleford Banks meant removing the structures and the livestock that had been left to roam the island. Before 1986, the island was home to hardy herds of wild cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and horses. Only the horses remain today. These famous horses have roamed free for centuries. The exact route of the ancestors of these small, hardy horses to this barrier island is unknown, but genetic research shows evidence of Spanish ancestry in the herd. More than 100 horses roam the island, having divided themselves into harems (one or sometimes two stallions, some unrelated mares and their foals) and bachelor bands (males without females). These groups of horses find their own food on the island; they are sometimes found in the maritime forest, but mostly graze in the marshes, swales and dunes. Fresh water is available in numerous pools and swales along the length of the island. The horses are managed in as much of a hands-off manner as possible, though when the horse population is high, some horses are removed for adoption. The horses are co-managed by the National Park Service and the Foundation for Shackleford Horses Inc. Visitors should remember that they are wild animals and, for your safety and their well-being, the horses should not be approached any closer than 50 feet.
Shackleford Banks was named for John Shackleford, who purchased the land (which became the island) in 1723. Permanent residents once populated communities on Shackleford. New England whaling vessels visited the area as early as 1726. By 1880, six crews of 18 men from Diamond City were whaling off the banks' shores. The whalers were a hardy people and included the Davis, Moore, Guthrie, Royal and Rose families — names still common in Carteret County. Whaling was the backbone industry of this island. Local merchants sold the oil as lamp and lubricating oil or used it to make soap. Whale bone was valuable in making corset stays, ribs for umbrellas and other items. They sold the rest of the whale to be used as fertilizer. The largest community on Shackleford was Diamond City, at the east end of the island. By 1897, about 500 people populated this community, which included church buildings, stores and a school. The population grew in the 1850s because of a boom in the whaling industry. East of Diamond City, across what is now Barden's Inlet, was the Cape Lookout Light Station. West of Diamond City was Bell's Island, a settlement known for bountiful persimmon trees. The western part of Shackleford Banks was known as Wade's Shore. Two hurricanes that closely followed each other in 1896 and 1899 convinced most island inhabitants to move to the mainland. Many moved their homes by boat to Harkers Island or to the Promise Land section, as they named it, of Morehead City. Others resettled in the Bogue Banks community of Salter Path.
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