Thinking of visiting Cape Lookout Lighthouse and/or The Cape Lookout Bight?

Cape Lookout Lighthouse aerial viewVisitors come to Cape Lookout National Seashore primarily to take advantage of the recreational opportunities found on the islands of Cape Lookout and Shackleford for sights, sounds, and shelling. Others are drawn to the park because they are interested in lighthouses or wild horses. Total recreational visits to the park are over 500,000 people per year.

The months of June, July, and August receive the highest visitation, especially on weekends primarily from day users. During a typical year, December through February are the months with the lowest visitation. The majority of visitors to Cape Lookout National Seashore come from within North Carolina. Traditionally these visitors have made trips, sometimes for generations, to this section of the coast for summer visits. However, an increasing number of park visitors come from all fifty states and many foreign countries. At H2O Captain we welcome all visitors to this wonderful national resource of the seashore which belongs to all of us!


Cape Lookout is the southern point of the Core Banks, one of the natural barrier islands on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. It delimits Onslow Bay to the west from Raleigh Bay to the east. Core Banks and Shackleford Banks have been designated as parts of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. –Wikipedia

There is no way to drive to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. A private watercraft or authorized permittee of the National Park Service, e.g. H2O Captain Eco-Tour Private Boat Excursions, is required to reach the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse FerryThere are no wild horses at Cape Lookout. Shackleford Banks, the southern-most barrier island in the Cape Lookout National Seashore, is home to more than 100 wild horses. Venture out by boat to enjoy the rare privilege of watching wild horses that live without the help of humans.

The light station at Cape Lookout was authorized in 1804 and four acres of land were purchased from Joseph Fulford and Elijah Piggot the following February.

The first Cape Lookout Lighthouse was built in 1812, but at 96' foot tall, it was too short to be effective for mariners traveling through the dangerous offshore Diamond Shoals. The current Cape Lookout Lighthouse was built to replace the original structure and was officially lit on November 1, 1859.

It is a red brick tower, 163 ft high; a spiral iron staircase winds to the top. The first-order Fresnel lens displays a fixed light that can be seen 18 miles in good weather. This tower is the first of this new style to be built along the Outer Banks. It is one of the very few lighthouses that operate during the day. It became fully automated in 1950.

Fun Fact
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the only such structure in the United States to bear the checkered daymark, intended not only for differentiation between similar light towers but also to show direction. The center of the black diamonds points in a north-south direction, while the center of the white diamonds points east-west.

On May 20, 1861, North Carolina joined the Confederacy and all of the lenses were removed from the coastal lighthouses and navigational beacons to prevent Union forces from using the lights to navigate the coast. Union troops captured the nearby Beaufort and Morehead City in 1862 and, by the end of the next year, a third-order Fresnel lens was installed in the Cape Lookout lighthouse. On April 2, 1864, a small group of Confederate troops under the command of L.C. Harland snuck through Union lines and out to the lighthouse. Their attempt to blow up the lighthouse was unsuccessful, however, the explosion did destroy the lighthouse oil supply and damaged the iron stairs. With iron unavailable during the war, the damaged sections of the stairs were replaced by wooden ones. The Fresnel lenses from all the North Carolina lighthouses were found in 1865 in Raleigh. The lenses were shipped back to their original manufacturers to be checked out and repaired. In 1867, the temporary wooden stairs were replaced when iron once again became available after the war and the original first-order Fresnel lens was reinstalled.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse at dawn

On March 26, 2021, it was announced that The Cape Lookout Lighthouse would be closed to the public for climbing this summer season due to concerns for public safety. During a pre-season safety inspection conducted in January, officials found what they call serious concerns with the flooring, rails, as well as separations between the iron stairs and masonry, cracks in the iron landing plates and separation from the iron stairs and central support. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse Keepers Quarters Museum located near the base of the lighthouse will remain open.

When the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is open for climbing from the third week in May to the third weekend in September.  Self-guiding tours of up to 10 people begin at 9:30am, every 15 minutes throughout the day Wednesday-Sunday.  Tickets that can be purchased at the Visitor's Center by the Lighthouse are either $5 or $10, depending on your status.

Warning: The climb to the top is strenuous. It may be hot, humid, noisy, and dim inside the lighthouse. Climbing the 207 steps to the gallery is roughly equal to climbing a 12-story building. The stairs are narrow and groups going up will share the stairs with groups returning to the bottom.

Visitors with heart, respiratory, or other medical conditions -- or those who have trouble climbing stairs -- should probably not attempt the climb. Visitors who do not wish to climb can view the outside "View from the Top" exhibits located near the lighthouse Keepers' Quarters, the panorama located in the Keepers' Quarters Museum.  The Lightkeepers House has been turned into a small museum.  There is no fee for entry.

A total of seven coastal lighthouses dot North Carolina's shoreline from the Outer Banks to the Brunswick Islands. Though long ago they protected adventurers from our treacherous shores, today they draw visitors for some of the most incredible views you will ever see.  Taking your family to visit all 7 Lighthouses in NC? can take your car to 6 of them, but our lighthouse, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the southernmost lighthouse on the Crystal Coast along the Outer Banks and is only accessible by boat.   H2O Captain will get your there and back safely and all passengers will be on cushioned seats to absorb all the big waves!
The seven standing North Carolina Lighthouses:
• Currituck
• Bodie Island
• Hatteras
• Ocracoke
• Cape Lookout
• Oak Island, and
• Bald Head Island.

The Cape Lookout Bight is a magical place where the ocean meets Barden Inlet. Most often we place the boat just a few short yards from the ocean at the tip of The Bight. This is the Cape Lookout area that the commercial ferry and most private boaters do not go to! Enjoy the peaceful time there, while swimming/wading on either side of this huge sandbar with shallows on the ocean side and a quick slide into 24’ of water on the protected side. Walking on either side will also provide you some good shelling! Ask Captain Mark for your official H2O Captain Shelling Bag.

Climbing the Cape Lookout Lighthouse
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is closed for climbing this year. During a pre-season safety inspection in February 2021, engineers discovered serious concerns with some structural elements. Due to these concerns, the lighthouse will not be open this year. To address these issues and other needed repairs, Cape Lookout Lighthouse is scheduled to begin a major renovation beginning the fall/winter of 2021. We expect the renovation to take two years to complete. The lighthouse will reopen in 2023 (exact date to be determined).