Friday, October 14, 2016

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Cape Lookout Lighhouse

Virginia was still damp and drying out as we headed south to North Carolina's lower Outer Banks. We had visited Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Corolla and the Bodie Island Lighthouse on a prior visit but had never been to the lower North Carolina barrier islands.
Threats of bad weather persuaded us to make camp inland rather than on the islands themselves. Havelock, a small city situated about half way between historic New Bern and the ferries that would take us to the Outer Banks was the perfect spot.
We parked the Behemoth at a Marine Corp Air Station called Cherry Point where a nicely remodeled MWR park provided a home base.

North Carolina has an amazing network of passenger ferries as part of its public transportation system. They connect the lower barrier islands to the mainland and are a delightful way to travel. Some were as small as 10 passenger water taxis and others big enough for the Behemoth.

Our first experience with the ferry system was a trip to Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Cape Lookout and the Shackleford Banks can be reached by private boat or by ferry from the National Park Visitor Center at Harker's Island.

Wild Banker horses at the Shackleford Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

The National  seashore is made up of 3 barrier islands. Island Express Ferry Service carried us the 3 miles out to Cape Lookout with a short stop at the Shackleford Banks to drop off 4 passengers who were interested in shelling. We were told that the long narrow beach of Shackleford is one of the best in North Carolina for shell hunting.  Shakleford is also home to a protected herd of wild horses whose ancestry is linked to Spanish Conquistadors by local legend and proven by DNA testing. We were able to see a few of them grazing on the sea oats as we got close to the drop off point.

View from the dock

Island Express dropped us off a short distance away at the dock near the Cape Lookout lifesaving station. The island is only a few miles long and about 3/4 mile wide. We started our exploration on the bay side where the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and museum are located.
The National Park Visitor Center was manned by a couple from Charleston who were volunteering at the lighthouse for 3 weeks. Charlotte explained to us that they spend 5 days on island with 2 days off each week.  Their duties include manning the Visitor Center, watching over the museum, and keeping the public areas neat. It sounded like a great way to spend 3 weeks and we put it on our list of possibilities for a future visit.

Trails on island are a combination of sand and boardwalk to protect the fragile dunes. One of the boardwalks lead us to the lighthouse and the Lighthouse Keepers quarters which now serves as a museum. The lighthouse is usually open through the 3rd weekend in September but closed early this year due to threat of storms.

Cape Lookout Light is painted white and black in a distinctive diamond pattern. It is 163 feet tall and can be seen almost 20 miles out to sea.
The museum tour is self guided and told us a lot about the southern Outer Banks.  Area history is rich with stories of storms and shipwrecks as well as its roll in the Civil War and in WWII when German U boats sank more than 80 vessels in North Carolina waters.

The back porch of the museum had a row of rocking chairs that invite you to rest a while and enjoy looking out over the bay. Bayside is where those with private boats drop anchor. There were several boats the day we visited and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves floating in the water and visiting back and forth.

Oceanside beach
Fred enjoyed the waves

Cape Lookout's ocean beach was voted #1 in USA Today's 10 most beautiful National Park Beaches contest for 2016.  It was easy to see why.  We walked the boardwalk path across the dunes to find waves rolling onto a pristine sand beach dotted with seaweed and seashells. There were surfers and body surfers and surf fishermen with plenty of room for them all to play.  Fred couldn't stay out of the water and I must have walked a mile down the beach.  It was lovely. We stayed until we started to feel crispy from the sun and then headed back to the dock.
Island Express sent a smaller boat to bring us back so the ride wasn't as smooth but we did see plenty of pelican's and a couple of dolphins in the channel.