Above photo: Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Date unkonwn. U.S. Coast Guard Archives. Right: Beach at Cape Lookout. Courtesy National Park Service.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
It doesn't get quite as much attention as its National Seashore friend to the north, Cape Hatteras, but that doesn't mean that Cape Lookout doesn't contain many of the same features, plus additional ones like the Portsmouth Historic District and wild horses on one of its islands. And while it's understandable why people who've visited the beaches of either seashore have their preference, it's also a must for people who've not been to either, to take an outing on both to see for yourselves which North Carolina National Seashore is for you. Cape Lookout is a wild place with no development outside the ferry landing areas, which you must take, or your own boat, to get there. There's no roads, concessions, or stores, either. It's pristine and wild nature.
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Cape Lookout Then
It was determined early on that a lighthouse would be needed at Cape Lookout. Congress authorized it in 1804, but the first lighthouse, made of wood, wouldn't be built until 1812. It lasted until 1859, when the second taller lighthouse, which is the structure that remains, was constructed. It rose one hundred and sixty-three feet, towering above the first at ninety-six feet. The original lighthouse remained as keeper's quarters until 1868. During the Civil War, the Confederates removed the beacons, but when the Union won the battle at Fort Macon in 1863, they reinstalled the light. On April 2, 1864, Confederates attempted to blow up the lighthouse, but it was only damaged, not destroyed.
Portsmouth Village has been around since 1753, becoming one of the largest cities on the Outer Banks. For one hundred years, it would be a "lightering" village, where cargo from larger ships was transferred to smaller vessels that could make it through the Ocracoke Inlet shallows. By the time the Civil War occurred, forcing many residents to flee inland and never return, the village had receded to predominantly a fishing village, replaced by the railroad and other inlets with deeper waters. One hundred years after that, in 1971, the village was completely abandoned. When the National Seashore was established in 1976, two hundred and fifty acres were set aside to tell the Portsmouth story.
Photo above: George Riley Willis House, Portsmouth, Date Unknown, Scott Taylor, Historic American Buildings Survey. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Courtesy National Park Service.
Cape Lookout Now
Since 1976, the Cape Lookout National Seashore has been home to horses, the Lighthouse, the remaining structures at both Portsmouth Village and Cape Lookout Village, and visitors. At Portsmouth Village, there are twenty-one remaining buildings, including twelve dwellings, one which serves as the Visitor Center, a church, Post Office/General Store, a Life Saving Station, and others. Some of the buildings are open to visit during the summer season when tours are available. You can visit Portsmouth Village by using the Ocracoke ferry.
One of the unique opportunities at Cape Lookout is the opportunity to see horses in the wild. Legend says that the horses on Shackleford Banks are descendents of Spanish stallions lost in a shipwreck. They are wild and should be viewed, if visiting, with caution. We've probably shortchanged the main reason you'll come to Cape Lookout, and that's to take advantage of the wide and wonderful beaches. Yes, it is a bit of a trek to get there, with the ferry ride and limited access by vehicles, but a camping night or beach day, whether you like any of that history or not, is always a welcome addition to any vacation. And you might even decide to take a swim, fish, or just plain have safe and careful water fun.
T-Shirts and Souvenirs
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Things You Should Not Miss
1. One thing for almost certain, a visit to Cape Lookout National Seashore is bound to get you on or in the water, if only because if you wander outside the two mainland visitor centers, you're gonna have to take a boat to get there. Whether that be the short variety, 15-20 minutes from Harkers Island, or the longer, 3.5 hour ride from Beaufort, you'll already be starting on a national seashore vacation via water.
2. Visit the Portsmouth Village Historic Site and take a tour. They're offered June to September. You'll visit a once thriving sea village, and hear the stories of the lighthouse and community.
3. Head to the Shackleford Banks, the southernmost island, and witness wild horses, about one hundred of them, on an Atlantic Island.
4. Visit a Lighthouse and climb those steps. It's open for a self-guided climb in the summer season from Wednesday to Sunday. There is a fee to climb.
Photo above: Cape Lookout Life Saving Station, built in 1887, now converted into a house. Courtesy National Park Service.