Imagine spending a vacation day, as a family, in a place that’s postcard-perfect where you can connect with nature. That’s just the beginning of everything that Cape Lookout National Seashore has to offer. It’s a bucket list destination that continually inspires authors, artists and filmmakers with its beauty.
If you’re ready to explore Cape Lookout National Seashore with kids – here’s your complete guide to visiting as a family. I’ve included things to do, what to bring for the day and must-know transportation details.
Our family loves visiting national parks and it doesn’t matter the ages of our kids – if we have the opportunity to visit one, we will! We were exploring North Carolina’s Crystal Coast With Kids, and visiting Cape Lookout was the attraction we couldn’t miss.
We spent the day exploring everything the national park has to offer, with our three young kids (ages 1, 5 and 8). Since it’s not your typical beach destination, and the park offers secluded beaches, it’s a bit of trek to get there. However, the pay off is worth it (even if you’re going with young kids) and I definitely recommend Cape Lookout National Seashore for families.
Tips For Visiting Cape Lookout National Seashore With Kids
The joy of visiting this national park’s beaches is the seclusion. You’ll find more up-close opportunities with nature – like the wild horses – and the serenity is unlike any other beach I’ve been to. With all of that comes planning though, especially if you’re bringing kids.
The seclusion and serenity means limited snack options & bathroom locations. It’s going to be you, your family, wild horses and the beach. If you plan appropriately, you’re going to have an amazing experience.
How To Get To Cape Lookout National Seashore
Unlike many national parks where you can drive, park the car, and you’re in the park, Cape Lookout takes some planning. The park is composed of two main island area to visit – Shackleford Banks and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on the sound-side beach.
To get to the island areas, you’ll need to take a passenger ferry or your own boat. There are several types of ferries. Large passenger ferries operate out of downtown historic Beaufort and Harkers Island. We parked at Harkers Island and took the ferry to Cape Lookout.
Passengers must reserve their spot on the ferry directly with providers. Strollers and pets are permitted on the ferries. I recommend keeping toddlers, or young kids, in the stroller, on the ferry. Park the stroller and enjoy the 25-minute ride over.
Ferries usually operate from April through November, but may choose to operate throughout the year. Passengers will chose their ferry depart time and pick-up time. For our September trip, the last ferry back to Harkers Island was at 4:30pm, but that varies depending on the time of the year and weather conditions.
Buying Your Ferry Tickets & Tips For Departing
Ferry tickets can be purchased online, ahead of your trip, or purchased directly at the Harkers Island visitors center. If you have a large party or want to depart at a specific time, I recommend purchasing your ferry tickets online before your visit.
Planning For Your Ferry Ride To Cape Lookout & Shackleford Banks:
- Expect long lines to purchase tickets if you don’t purchase ahead of time
- Large parties are encouraged to stick together and not split between separate ferries
- Use the bathroom at the visitors center prior to boarding your ferry – that’s the last chance before Cape Lookout
- Strollers and Beach Wagons are permitted on the ferry
- Ferries are open-air and run during the rain (so you can get wet)
- Ferry pick-up locations are NOT marked on Shackleford Banks, so use natural markers to find your way back after exploring
Harkers Island Visitors Center: Why Families Should Park Here For Ferry
Yes, you can depart to Cape Lookout National Seashore from Beaufort (which is convenient if you’re visiting the downtown historic area), but I highly recommend departing from Harkers Island if you have kids. There are several interesting things for kids at the Harkers Island visitors center.
They’ll love the hands-on educational area of the Harkers Island visitors center. The small museum area gives kids a little sneak peek of what they’ll see at the Cape. They can learn about the types of animals, the eco-systems and the history of the land.
It’s also a great place to wait for the ferry. Logistically, the museum area will keep the kids entertained and it’s inside near the bathrooms.
Plus, if your kids want to participate in the Junior Ranger program, they’ll need to pick up their book at the Harkers Island visitors center. After the Cape, upon returning from the ferry, the kids can turn in their completed Junior Ranger program.
Things For Kids To Do At Cape Lookout National Seashore
With only one bathroom location and limited food options (a small visitor center that offers light snacks and drinks), I can see why parents might be skeptical of taking kids to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, but I promise that there’s plenty for kids to love! I’d carve out a half day of exploring if you’ve got little kids and a full day if you want the full beach experience.
Play On The Beach: Everything that kids love to do at the beach, you can do at Cape Lookout! After you’ve departed from the ferry, you can explore or set up a day camp on the beach. Remember that it’s a national park, and you’ll want to leave no trace – so I recommend bringing a way to dispose of anything you use on the islands. Planning a picnic lunch is a great way to spend the day on the beach and enjoy the views.
Learn About The Lighthouse History: Kids can learn all about lighthouses and how they function to serve sailors. Additionally, they can learn about the light keeper’s role and what it’s like living in the light keeper’s inn. The Cape Lookout lighthouse is usually open to climb, but is currently closed for refurbishment. The National Park Service hopes the lighthouse will be open for climbing in 2025.
Explore Shackleford Banks: My kids love to explore the natural untouched areas of Shackleford Banks. The calm waters make the beach areas easy to explore. If you decide to go more inland on the island, you could experience more muddy terrain, and get a better view of the horses.
Bring the dog: If you want to bring your family’s dog, dogs are allowed on the islands, as long as they’re on a leash.
Look For The Shackleford Banks Wild Horses: Surprisingly, the wild horses of Shackleford Banks are easier to find that you think, which is great for kids of all ages. Our family spent the day on the beach shores, but the wild horses came close enough for us to see them. Visitors must stay 50 feet away from the horses at all times. Depending on the tide, they’ll come closer to the shore when the tide is out.
Junior Ranger Program at Cape Lookout
If you’re not familiar with the National Park Service Junior Ranger program, you’re missing out! My kids absolutely love this FREE program (geared to kids ages 8 and older) and it motivates us to travel more. Every national park has a junior ranger program. Pick up your child’s Junior Ranger activity book at Harkers Island.
As they explore Cape Lookout National Seashore, they can complete the Junior Ranger activity book. This will help them learn about the park, the animals that call the park home and it’s history. We complete our Junior Ranger activity books as a family.
Turn in the completed activity book at Harkers Island to any Park Ranger on duty. The kids will complete their Junior Ranger ceremony and receive a badge specific to the park and a Junior Ranger hat! It’s so much fun and I love that it’s tailored to kids.
What To Pack For A Day At Cape Lookout National Seashore
Now that you’re all set for a day of family fun at the Cape, you’ve got to come prepared! Planning your day prior to visiting, and bringing everything that you need, will help your visit go smoothly. Plus, you can avoid over-paying for any necessities at the visitors center.
What To Bring To Shackleford Banks & Cape Lookout:
- Small Trash Bag/Grocery Bag (Way to dispose of any trash)
- Smartphone For Camera
- Snacks or Picnic Foods
- Diapers and Baby Wipes For Kids
- Change of Clothes (Change at Harkers Island)
- Fishing Gear
- Stroller or Beach Wagon
- Eco-Friendly Beach Toys
- Insect Repellant
- Comfortable Shoes That Are Good For Beach/Exploring
- Cooler For Drinks
- Backpack Filled With Essentials (Toiletry Items, Meds, Hand Sanitizer)
Where To Stay Near Cape Lookout National Seashore
There are several lodging options near the national park where families can stay. Decide on whether you want to plan your vacation solely around Cape Lookout National Seashore, or you’d like to explore other parts of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast.
Cabins At Long Point and Great Island
Enjoy the pristine undeveloped barrier islands of Cape Lookout when you stay directly at the national park. The Cape Lookout wooden cabins can only be reached by boat. The cabins are open for reservations during the spring, summer and early fall months only and they start taking reservations for the cabins in early January for the upcoming season.
Crystal Coast Vacation Rentals
Nearby cities of Beaufort, Pine Knoll Shores, Morehead City and Atlantic Beach all offer numerous vacation home rentals. I love vacation homes for all the amenities that you need with kids. Check out the Flip Flop Lifestyle vacation home (as seen on HGTV), where we stayed. It’s a 45-minute drive from Cape Lookout National Seashore, but you also have great access to the North Carolina Aquarium and Fort Macon State Park.
Hotels Near Cape Lookout National Seashore
There are several family-friendly hotel options that you can find nearby, on The Crystal Coast. The Beaufort area is going to be your closest option. If you aren’t interested in the Harkers Island visitors center, you can take the ferry directly from Beaufort. Check out these hotel options:
- Beaufort Hotel NC: This property has beautiful coastal views, family-friendly room options and easy access to the Beaufort downtown area.
- Inlet Inn NC: This budget-friendly option has great access to the shopping and dining in Beaufort.
- Double Tree by Hilton Atlantic Beach: A little further of a drive, in the Atlantic Beach area, the Double Tree offers everything you love about the Hilton brand (and you can use Hilton points).