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 of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Nothing but warm water, sky, and sand in this corner of North Carolina.
Cape Lookout National Seashore (CALO) is the largest uninterrupted and pristine barrier island chain in the southeast at 56 miles long. With the open water, variety of wildlife (from birds, sea turtles, and 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 miss seeing during the day paddle is the Milky Way, bright and luminous overhead, twinkling above your beach campsite.
The Main Paddle Trail
~4.7 miles one way | 2.5-3 hours one way
Who Should Paddle This Trail
This trail is for you if you:
- want a bit of adventure mixed with maritime history
- love to paddle a good distance in quickly changing conditions
- want a chance to see wild ponies, the Atlantic ocean, and a lighthouse in one trip
- have intermediate level paddle skills or higher (unless conditions are absolutely perfect).
This paddle requires following the tide, otherwise you’ll could face up to 3.4 mph of current for much of the paddle, and even more once you reach the lighthouse at Barden Inlet. If you leave with the tide 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 tides times 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 (free) with the National Park Service. The float plan requests the basics: who, what (types/colors/models of your kayak), where, when and contact information.
Downloaded the float plan and email it to CALO_Information@nps.gov, fax (252-728-2160), or print and drop it off upon arrival. Make sure you check back in upon your return; they will call to check on you if you don’t.
Parking for the launch point is across from the visitor’s center main parking lot. NPS provides a small but adequate protected harbor to launch kayaks, and the bank easily fits about 18 kayaks across the gently sloping sandy, semi-muddy bank.
Looking south from the Harkers Island, you’ll see Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the distance. To the right of Cape Lookout is the famous Shackleford Banks, home to wild ponies. Use the lighthouse as your homing beacon since this is your destination.
Once you leave the kayak harbor, head south (right) for about .62 miles, aiming for the first and only unnamed island you see close by. Pass the island on either side, heading next for Morgan Island, the next island of sand south/south east of the first unnamed island and visually inline with the lighthouse.
Once you reach Morgan Island, paddle past with it on your right side, until you reach the southern tip. Once 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 where you should cross. If you are going during the height of summer, keep an eye out on boat traffic. Don’t wait to cross the boat channel at the lighthouse; the inlet is very narrow near the lighthouse, pushing all traffic together. The tidal current at the light is strong and fast at maximum tidal flow (rage tide).
Once on the other side of the boat channel (east side), pick your comfort level for distance from South Core Banks island. The water next to land at low tide ranges from 2 feet to 5 feet deep. You have about 2 miles left to paddle once you cross 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 with easy access to restrooms and water. Landing earlier makes for a short 2 minute walk to the lighthouse.
To get back, reverse your path. Go with the tide and enjoy the ride.
What You’ll See
I love this paddle for the vast open 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 and separate from modern life.
The large black diamonds of the lighthouse point north/south as an aid to mariners.
Bird lovers enjoy looking for ibis, egrets, terns, black skimmers, herons, and piping plovers during the summer months and other migratory shorebirds during travel season.
At low tide, keep an eye out for stingrays swimming silently below you. They tend to hunt near sandbars.
If you are 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 are 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 here can change quickly, most notably the winds. 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 (at one time, Shackleford Banks and Core Banks were connected until a hurricane opened a channel in 1933.)
The lighthouse visitor center and museum are only open from April to November. Both are free and worth your time; you’ll see photos of the before the inlet arrived in the mid 1900s.
Leave time to walk over to the Atlantic ocean, a 10 minute walk from the lighthouse. The beach is undeveloped and fairly pristine, except the locations where SUVs can legally drive on the beach.
In 2014, the NPS started offering limited moonlight lighthouse tours; worth the cost and time.
Use NOAA Chart #11545 or 11545_BookletChart (Title: Beaufort Inlet and Part of Core Sound;Lookout Bight) as a paper navigational aid. The booklet chart allows you to print the map or sections of the map on 8.5”x11” paper.
NPS Office: 252-728-2250
Harkers Island NPS Visitor Center
- GPS: 34.685683, -76.526389
Driving directions – use this 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.
Where to Stay
Good tent camping on mainland is far away or private. US Forest Service’s Oyster Point Campground is nice and close to other paddle trails. It takes about 45 to 65 minutes 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 & BB’s are found near Beaufort, a 30-40 minute drive away.