Distinctive for its black and white diamond pattern, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the southernmost lighthouse that guards the Outer Banks, and is easily one of the most visited attractions on the refreshingly desolate Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Accessible only by a privately owned boat or ferry, the lighthouse may be a little hard to reach, but the ensuing landscape is well worth the trip. With beautifully undeveloped beaches in every direction, and panoramic views from the top of the 163’ ft. structure, planning a visit to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is a Crystal Coast adventure that visitors won’t soon forget.
The History of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse
The current lighthouse was built in the late 1850s, and is the second lighthouse to stand at this isolated spot along the National Seashore. Replacing an 1812 lighthouse that only extended 96’ ft. tall and was therefore ineffective for mariners well offshore, this “new” 1859 structure reached 163’ ft. into the sky, and was outfitted with a first-order Fresnel lens which allowed the beacon to illuminate the region. The ensuing 12-19 mile range of the light was essential, as Cape Lookout is adjacent to shifting sandbars and massive currents, and as a result, serves as the final resting place for centuries of shipwrecks.
Though it officially went into operation in 1859, it wasn’t painted its distinctive diamond pattern until 1873, which distinguished it from other lighthouses along the Outer Banks. (In fact, if it wasn’t for the different patterns of paint, the Bodie Island Lighthouse in the Northern Outer Banks and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse would be nearly identical.)
One of the reasons for the delay in the painting was the onset of the Civil War, which nearly destroyed the lighthouse in its entirety. After Union Troops took over the closest towns of Beaufort and Morehead City in 1862, the lighthouse became their property. In 1864, Confederate soldiers tried to destroy the structure by sneaking on to the isolated beaches, however this attempt to turn the lighthouse into ruins was unsuccessful. (The operation did severely damage the lighthouse’s staircase and its oil supply, however.) Regardless, after the war ended, the moderately-damaged lighthouse was returned to its former glory, and a better-performing iron staircase was installed to replace the original wooden one.
The lighthouse served the coastline admirably for nearly a century until it was automated in 1950, and eventually converted into a popular attraction within the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Visiting the Cape Lookout Lighthouse
The hardest part of visiting the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is simply getting there, but thankfully there are a number of options for reaching the site throughout the Crystal Coast.
Several passenger ferries regularly depart for the lighthouse from the towns of Beaufort and Harker’s Island, and there are also several privately-owned vehicular ferries that leave from the small northern towns of Davis and / or Atlantic on Cedar Island. Prices vary for ferry transportation, and reservations should be made well in advance – especially in the prime summer season.
Depending on your departure point, once you’re on board, it’s a scenic 20-45 minute cruise across the Back Sound or Core Sound to reach the Cape Lookout barrier island shoreline, and from there, visitors can easily follow the paths and boardwalks to reach the primary National Park Service’s (NPS) visitors center and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse site.
The original keeper’s quarters on the island has been converted to a small museum, and NPS rangers are generally on-site to answer questions about the lighthouse, and the surrounding beaches as well.
The lighthouse is also seasonably open for climbers, typically from mid-May until mid-September, from about 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. There is a small fee to climb the lighthouse, (generally around $8.00 for adults and $4.00 for kids), but visitors who make the trek up the 207 steps to the top will be rewarded with incredible views that encompass the mainland, the open ocean waters, and everything in between.
Visitors should also note that children should be at least 44” tall to climb the lighthouse, due to strong winds, and climbers who are 12 years old or younger must be accompanied by someone who is 16 years old or older. Also, shoes are required, and flip flops – although comfortable for the beach – are not recommended to make the trip to the top.
Tips for Visiting the Cape Lookout Lighthouse
- The facilities along the Cape Lookout National Seashore are limited to say the least. There are restrooms and water fountains close to the lighthouse, but not much else. As a result, visitors will want to bring along snacks, sunscreen, and especially big spray.
- If you go, make sure and reserve plenty of time to explore the nearby beaches! The Cape Lookout National Seashore is famous for its incredible fishing and shelling, and it’s definitely worth it to stick around and explore the shoreline.
- There is a “taxi service” of sorts once you arrive on the island that will take you to the best shelling and fishing beaches, (which are located around the point, or roughly a mile or two away from the passenger ferry docks.) The ride costs a little extra, but is a uniquely engaging way to explore the seashore in depth, as it passes old homes and communities, as well as miles of pretty shoreline.
- Want to stay longer? The National Park Service manages a handful of rustic beach homes within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. With amenities that can include A/C, handicapped accessible facilities, and stunning beach views, these properties are a viable option for visitors who want to explore the miles of shoreline in-depth.
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse might be hard to reach, but it’s certainly one of the most scenic lighthouses along the Southern Outer Banks. Surrounded by pristine beaches and miles of empty shoreline, history buffs, nature fans, and anyone with an adventurous spirit will feel right at home at this iconic Crystal Coast destination.