THE DRIVE FROM BEAUFORT TO CEDAR ISLAND features exceptional views of bays and little inlets off the east side of the road. All of them are part of Core Sound, the long and shallow body of water created by the barrier islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Called Core Banks, these islands stretch from near Ocracoke to the north to Cape Lookout at the southern end, not far from Harkers Island. Also part of the national seashore is Shackleford Banks, a nine-mile island near Cape Lookout famous for its population of wild horses.
Cape Lookout became a national seashore in 1976, much to the chagrin of some of the local people. They didn’t like the government telling them how to act on land they had been using for generations. They had built fish shacks on the islands and had brought over thousands of old cars and trucks to drive on the beach. When a vehicle became stuck in the sand or quit running, they just left it there and brought over another one. Of course, one of the first orders of business for national seashore officials was to remove these old fishing shacks and vehicles and let the people know that a new sheriff was in town.
The main appeal of Cape Lookout National Seashore is that you can’t get there by road. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are still allowed in some places on the beach and sand backroads, but you have to ferry them over. Unlike Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the north, Cape Lookout has very few visitor services. Concessionaires operate two small fishing camps, but mostly the islands consist of miles and miles of undeveloped barrier islands and associated soundside marsh.
The national seashore preserves two historic villages. Portsmouth Village lies at the northern end, across the inlet from Ocracoke. Cape Village lies at the southern end, near the lighthouse. The most well-known landmark is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse near Cape Point (not to be confused with the cape of the same name in Cape Hatteras National Seashore). Over 160 feet high, Cape Lookout Lighthouse has been guarding the treacherous shoals off Cape Lookout since 1859.
You can get to Cape Lookout National Seashore by private boat or commercial ferry service. Passenger ferries for the lighthouse area and Shackleford Banks operate out of Morehead City, Beaufort, and Harkers Island. Passenger ferries for Portsmouth Island operate out of Ocracoke. Vehicle ferries operate out of Davis for South Core Banks (lighthouse area) and Atlantic for North Core Banks (Portsmouth Island area).