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Paddling in Eastern North Carolina, Part 5: Cape Lookout Day Trip

This is the fifth of six guides to paddling Eastern North Carolina. See Brad’s guides on Greenville’s Tar River, Bear Island, Devil’s Gut and Little Washington here.

Text and photos by Brad Beggs
Guardian columnist

Leaving the lighthouse.

Leaving the lighthouse.

The vast water of Back Bay spreads out before you. In the far southern distance, a black and white spire rises against the horizon. A few terns sail by on the wind, heading towards the Core Banks islands. Nothing but warm water, sky and sand in this corner of North Carolina.

At 56 miles long, Cape Lookout National Seashore (CALO) is the largest uninterrupted and pristine barrier island chain in the southeast. With the open water, variety of wildlife – birds, sea turtles, wild horses – and of course the majestic Cape Lookout lighthouse, CALO is one of the more exciting paddles in eastern North Carolina. A number of day and overnight paddles are possible from the National Park Service (NPS) Harkers Island launch point, but this day paddle is the classic water trail. The only thing you’ll miss during the daylight paddle is the Milky Way, luminous overhead, twinkling above your beach campsite.

The Main Paddle Trail | 4.7 miles one way (9.4 miles round trip)

Who Should Paddle This Trail

This trail is for you if

you want adventure mixed with maritime history;
love to paddle a good distance in quickly changing conditions;
want to see wild ponies, the Atlantic ocean, and a lighthouse in one trip; and
you have intermediate-level paddle skills (or conditions are absolutely perfect).

The Trail Details

Getting Ready

This paddle requires following the tide, otherwise you could face up to 3-4 mph of current for much of the paddle, more upon reaching the lighthouse at Barden Inlet. If you leave when the tide is going from high to low, you’ll have an easy paddle to the lighthouse. My favorite tide website is Salt Water Tides; use “Cape Lookout Bight” for tide times near the lighthouse, and “Shell Point – Harkers Island” for those at the NPS visitor station.  

Before you off-load your kayak (canoes aren’t recommend for this paddle), you need to file a float plan (doing so is free) with the National Park Service. The float plan requests the basics: who, what (kayak type, color and model), where and when, and your contact information. You can fill out the form online to email (, fax it (to 252-728-2160), or print and drop it off upon arrival. Make sure you check back in when you return; they will call to check on you if you don’t.

Parking for the launch point is across from the visitor center’s main parking lot. NPS provides a small but adequate, protected harbor to launch kayaks. The gently sloping, sandy, semi-muddy bank easily accommodates about 18 kayaks.

How to Get There

A pufferfish, washed onto the beach.

A pufferfish, washed onto the beach.

Looking south from the Harkers Island, you’ll see Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the distance. To the right of Cape Lookout are the famous Shackleford Banks, home to wild ponies. Use the lighthouse as your homing beacon since it’s your destination.

Once you leave the kayak harbor, head south (right) for about 1100 yards, a little over half a mile, aiming for the only unnamed island in the vicinity. Pass this little island on either side, heading next for Morgan Island, the next island of sand, located south-southeast of the unnamed island. It visually aligns with the lighthouse.

Once you reach Morgan Island, keep it on your right side until you reach its southern tip. At the southern edge of the island, cross the boat channel using buoy markers RN24 (Red color #24) and G 21 FI G 4s (Green color, #21, Flashing Green at night every 4 seconds) to guide your crossing. If going at the height of summer, keep an eye out for boat traffic. Don’t wait to cross the boat channel at the lighthouse; the inlet there is very narrow, and pushes all traffic together. Most critically, the tidal current at the lighthouse is so strong and fast at maximum flow, it’s called “rage tide.”

Once you reach the east side of the boat channel, pick your comfort level for distance from South Core Banks island. The water next to land at low tide ranges from 2 to 5 feet deep. About 2 miles of paddling remains once you’ve crossed the boat channel.

If you follow the map provided, you’ll land with a dramatic view of the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters, but you can also land earlier, near the ferry dock, where there’s easy access to restrooms and water and just a two-minute walk to the lighthouse.

To get back, reverse your path. Go with the tide and enjoy the ride.

What You’ll See

In the middle of Back Bay, a pod of dolphins hunted food near our kayaks.

In the middle of Back Bay, a pod of dolphins hunted food near our kayaks.

I love this paddle for the vast expanses of water and sky. It’s one of the few paddles in North Carolina with a large, open-water crossing and islands for rest if needed. Cape Lookout is North Carolina’s most stunning—and difficult to reach—lighthouse. It stands alone, apart from modern life.

The large black diamonds of the lighthouse point north/south to mariners.

Bird lovers will enjoy looking for ibis, egrets, terns, black skimmers, herons and piping plovers during the summer months and other migratory shore birds during travel season.

At low tide, keep an eye out for stingrays swimming silently below you. They tend to hunt near sandbars.

If you’re going during summer, expect to see crowds near the lighthouse. At low tide, the large beach in front of the lighthouse is a popular hangout for boaters.

If you’re very lucky, you’ll get to watch a pod of dolphins while they play and feed in Back Bay.      

The Local Knowledge To Make it Great

The weather and winds here can change quickly. If the winds are predicted to get above 18 mph, select a more sheltered paddle.

Since you’re doing this as a day paddle, you don’t need to bring more than 2-3 liters of water. Just remember to fill up at the island’s visitor center before you paddle back to your car.

Once you arrive at Cape Lookout lighthouse, take time to check out the NPS museum. The maritime and geographic history are fascinating: Shackleford Banks and Core Banks were connected until a hurricane opened a channel in 1933.

The lighthouse visitor center and museum are only open April to November. Both are free and worth your time; you’ll see photos from before the inlet formed in the mid-1900s.

Leave time to take the ten-minute walk over to the Atlantic ocean. The beach is undeveloped and fairly pristine, except where SUVs can legally drive.

In 2014, the NPS started offering limited moonlight lighthouse tours; worth the cost ($23/person) and time (2.5 hours). The last ones of this year’s season are October 23 and 24.


Use NOAA Chart #11545 or 11545_BookletChart (Beaufort Inlet and Part of Core Sound; Lookout Bight) as a navigational aid. The booklet chart allows you to print the map or sections of the map on standard paper. Plastic sheet protectors with an adhesive seal will keep your printouts dry.

Park Info

NPS Office: (252) 728-2250   

Harkers Island NPS Visitor Center

GPS: 34.685683, -76.526389

Driving Directions address: 1800 Island Rd., Harkers Island, NC 28531.


Free to visit, kayak, and see the museum.

The lighthouse has a per-person fee to climb. Regular admission is $8; children, adults and visitors with permanent disabilities pay $4.

Where to Stay

Good tent camping on the mainland is far away or private. US Forest Service’s Oyster Point Campground is well-maintained and close to other paddle trails. It takes about 45 to 65 minutes by car to reach Harkers Island from Oyster Point.

For hotels on Harkers Island, you have a good, if limited, choice of Harkers Island Fishing Center & Hotel, which rates well on Trip Advisor. More hotels and B&Bs are found in and around Beaufort, a 30-40 minute drive away.

Detailed Google Map

Here’s the exact route to paddle, with points of interest, concessions and other optional paddles.

Brad Beggs runs, the website for finding the best paddle trails in eastern North Carolina’s waters.

One Response

  1. Louis Peaden says:

    A really good trip description. Also an OK place to camp out if you don’t have super high tides. We had to move the campsite twice once during a very high tide. I would love to do this trip again.

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