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Destination - Cape Lookout is primitive, isolated and unspoiled

Whether in your own boat or by ferry, a cruise to Cape Lookout National Seashore provides a chance to explore a serene, natural world.

Whether in your own boat or by ferry, a cruise to Cape Lookout National Seashore provides a chance to explore a serene, natural world.

“Of all the wonderful cruising around MoreheadCity, my favorite is sailing to the lighthouse on Cape Lookout National Seashore,” says David DeBuisson of Beaufort, N.C., owner of the Pecan Tree Inn bed and breakfast. DeBuisson keeps a Tartan 30 in a marina on the Newport

River. “We sail out for overnight or a weekend, when we can get away.”

From MoreheadCity you can head out through Beaufort Inlet, then east to the marked channel into Lookout Bight, inside the southern tip of the Outer Banks. An alternative route — a narrow, winding and often-shoaled channel east from Beaufort through Back Sound, Lighthouse Channel and Barden Inlet — is best for those with local knowledge. Or leave the driving to others and take a ferry from MoreheadCity, Beaufort or HarkersIsland.

Lookout Bight, inside the hook of Cape Lookout near the lighthouse, forms a deep, protected harbor where American merchant ships hid from marauding German submarines during World War II. The DuBuissons like to anchor here, particularly in the fall. The barrier island (South Core Banks) with 20-plus miles of pristine Atlantic beach is almost deserted at that time of year. “[It’s] more unspoiled than the Virgin Islands,” he says.

That unspoiled character is deliberate. “Cape Lookout is the only significant wild seacoast left in North Carolina, and the most isolated,” says park ranger Karen Dye. “[The park] is an International Biosphere Reserve preserving wild habitat for plants and animals.” Among them are loggerhead turtles that nest on the beach, 275 species of birds and feral horses of Shackleton Banks.

Unlike Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Cape Lookout National Seashore is undeveloped, with no roads or services, few facilities and no manipulation or stabilization of the dunes. Wind, wave, tide and current shape the sands. The islands — North Core Banks, South Core Banks, Shackleton Banks and several smaller marshy islets — are accessible only by boat, though beach vehicles are ferried to Long Point on North Core and Great Island on South Core. Primitive camping is allowed anywhere with a permit, and a few rustic rental cabins stand near Cape Point. Keep in mind that you must bring all supplies and water, carry in and carry out.

You can anchor out and land anywhere in the park. Unloading is allowed at the ferry dock. Throughout the season day-tripping boaters raft off the beach or land their small boats on the sand (near the lighthouse is popular). Rangers warn of the shallows outside the channel.

Cape Lookout’s 163-foot double-walled masonry tower was built in 1859 to replace a 107-foot octagonal wood tower built in 1812. The tower’s “diagonal checker” pattern is aligned so its black diamonds face north and south, and the white diamonds east and west. Cape Lookout is said to be the only lighthouse with this unique day mark.

The 1812 tower had 13 oil lamps to warn mariners away from the shoals that extend 10 miles out, part of the so-called “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The present tower originally had a First Order Fresnel lens that concentrated a fixed white light visible for 18 miles. A clockwork device added in 1914 changed the characteristic to one flash every 15 seconds. Since automation, two 1,000-watt airport beacons each produce an 800,000 candlepower light visible for 20 miles. (The original lens is being used in Southeast Light on Block Island, R.I.)

The lighthouse walls are 9 feet thick at the entrance door, tapering to 1 foot, 7 inches at the top. You’ll climb 201 iron spiral stairs and pass through an iron hatch to reach the gallery outside the lantern room. En route, you can rest at seven landings and check the view at each of 10 windows. Few get to see the 360-degree panorama of ocean, sound and islands from the top, since the National Park Service hasn’t completed renovations. Only 250 visitors can climb the tower by reservation on each of four annual open houses. Boardwalks lead from the lighthouse across the grasslands and dunes to the Atlantic beach for sunbathing, swimming and the superb fishing. Even on a crowded day you can find an isolated section of sand.

The duplex dwelling near the lighthouse once housed two deputy keepers. It’s now a visitors center, the starting point for ranger-led programs during summer, and a museum. Displays inside feature Cape Lookout’s tower, light and keepers, plus other Outer Banks lighthouses and lightships. The shell exhibit intrigues children, who often try to match what they’ve collected with that which is displayed. Docents often give shells to youngsters who return from the beach empty-handed.

Nearer Cape Point are the rental cabins, education center, a lone private home, and park headquarters, which occupy the former U.S. Lifesaving station, Coast Guard station and 1859 keeper’s house. A special treat is landing on Shackleton Banks, across Barden Inlet from the lighthouse, to watch the feral horses, descendants of those brought by 16th-century Spanish explorers and later settlers. You’ll usually spot the horses grazing in bachelor bands and harems consisting of a stallion, his mares and foals. The horses roam the 1-by-9-mile island freely, though rangers maintain the herd at about 120 animals to ensure their health and preserve the habitat. The horses shelter among the few trees, remnants of extensive maritime forests. Rangers say that over the centuries, settlers cut the trees to build homes and boats, and hardy grasses have taken over.