I was very excited about this day of adventure. We had an early start which proved to be a benefit as our one-hour drive to Harkers Island was gorgeous at this time of day. There were beautiful water views, cozy cottages, small postage stamp size towns, sea birds and fishermen.
The Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center is located at the eastern end of sleepy Harkers Island. We found one of the ample parking spaces and made way to the ticket window to buy our Island Express Ferry Service tickets for both Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout Lighthouse. We had only a few minutes to wait until we boarded the ferry boat and headed out.
Tips: Grab a shell bag when you purchase your tickets! I noticed people grabbing them but wasn’t aware what they were until we arrived at Shackleford Banks – it would have been very useful! Tip #2 – Be sure to bring all the food, water, and supplies you will need as there are no concessions.
After a short ride, we came upon Shackleford Banks. From the boat, we could see part of the herd of wild horses which was exciting. The ferry made its way to shore and due to arriving at high tide, it was a little precarious getting off the boat for the handful of us getting off to explore.
As the ferry motored away, I could feel the remoteness of this undeveloped island. Sea birds called overhead as we waded in places to make our way around a point that would bring us to a beach. The other people who disembarked made their own way and soon, our family was alone. While the kids took a dip under dad’s careful eye, I went for a solitary walk along the beach; my most favorite thing in the world to do.
On my journey, I spotted dolphins playing in the surf, picked up shells (including lots of lettered olives) and a skate egg case (also known as a mermaid’s purse). Unfortunately, I also encountered a dying loon who I desperately wanted to help but there was nothing that I could do.
With all this walking, I didn’t see any wild horses but due to the high tide, we were told they like to stay on the opposite side of the island. I returned to the family and we made our way back to pick up the ferry. It was at the ferry stop that we finally spied the wild horses grazing in the distance. Mia was over-the-moon with the sightings.
Did you know? The wild horses of Shackleford Banks are descended from Spanish horses from 400 years ago. They are left to live as they are although studies are conducted on their health and behavior.
The ferry arrived and we made our way across Barden Inlet to Cape Lookout. Our first stop was to purchase tickets to ascend the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Luckily, we had only a half-hour wait which was plenty of time to use the facilities and soak in the beauty surrounding us.
Tip: It is important to purchase your lighthouse admission tickets right when you arrive. Self-guiding tours are limited to 10 people at a time. This can lead to long waits for tours in the busy season.
We approached the lighthouse and stored our belongings at the base (visitors cannot take anything up other than a phone and/or camera) and a park volunteer gave us a brief history and a safety speech before it was our time to ascend.
We began the strenuous climb to the top. It is a bit daunting as there are 207 metal stairs which is roughly equal to climbing a 12-story building. Slowly, we made our way up the corkscrew staircase. On the landings there are open windows allowing for brief moments of luscious breezes and stellar views.
Finally, we made it to the very top of the lighthouse and stepped out onto the gallery. The view is swoon-worthy! You can see miles of pristine undeveloped coastline and the Cape Lookout Village Historic District. We took laps around the gallery taking in all the views. The Park Ranger also allowed those interested to climb a few more stairs and see the lighthouse lens and mechanics.
Once we descended, we made our way to where we could catch a ride to the point of Cape Lookout. For a small fee, the Beach Shuttle Truck Service takes visitors on a bumpy ride to the point with a few stops to point out things along the way. The most amazing sight we saw was a Peregrine Falcon in action. This fast-flying falcon was on the hunt as he dipped and dove down in search of a meal. The driver even commented he had never seen a display quite like that.
Soon enough we were at the tip of Cape Lookout. This thin spit of land makes one feel thousands of miles from civilization. There is nothing here, except sand, sea, sun and shells! Come at the right time and you can fill your shell bag here for sure.
We walked to the Atlantic side of the point where the water was rough and waves crashed. It was a beautiful backdrop for the picnic lunch we brought with us. After lunch, Drake and Mia did a little bodysurfing but it made me nervous so I talked them into enjoying the Onslow Bay side which offered much calmer waters.
The bay side was perfect! We floated around enjoying the gently lapping water. We realized that there were sand dollars under our feet and we could pull them up with our toes! Drake and Mia loved feeling the scratchy bottoms of the sand dollars on their hands before returning them into the ocean.
The pick-up truck returned to take us back to the ferry landing. I took one more moment to soak in the paradise around me and vowed to visit again.
Tips: There are no services or shade out on the point. Whatever you bring you MUST pack back out. Do NOT collect sand dollars that are purple or grey. They are alive and must be returned to the water.
We caught the ferry to return to Harkers Island and the Visitor Center. We toured the museum to answer the last few questions before Drake and Mia got sworn in as Junior Rangers of Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Troy really wanted to visit the town of Oriental, which is known as the “Sailing Capitol” of North Carolina. Since we were only a bit over an hour away, we took a family vote and decided to continue our adventure!
To get to Oriental, we had to take the Cherry Branch Ferry, part of the free ferry services in North Carolina. We arrived at the ferry terminal just in time to drive right on. Soon we began the beautiful 20-minute journey to Minnesott Beach. We sat in the bed of the truck and watched the gulls call overhead and felt the cool breeze on our skin.
After exiting the ferry, it was a short drive to Oriental. This sleepy little village with only 900 residents is quaint and home to more sailboats than you can imagine. We stopped at a local gas station to inquire about dinner choices. The friendly employee recommended Brantley’s Village Restaurant. You could tell the moment you stepped in that this was a locals place as the staff knew most of the customers by name. Brantley’s is nothing fancy, however, had reasonable southern-inspired fare.
We made our way back to the ferry and to our delight, our return trip to Cherry Branch was right at sunset! We watched the sky turn colors and the sun slowly slide to the horizon. It was the perfect ending to a magical day.
Keep posted for our next destination adventures: The Outer Banks of North Carolina!