Cape Lookout Lighthouse and the Ponies of Shackleford Banks

In the past year, we tried to travel to Shackleford Island on two occasions. But since it's accessible only by boat, conditions have to be right. And in the past, the imminent threat of rain canceled our plans. With only a 30% chance on this day, we took a risk and traveled Downeast.

To my knowledge, one can catch a ferry to Shackleford and nearby Cape Lookout from Beaufort, NC, and Harkers Island. We tried Beaufort first. The operator I checked with had two options: a trip to Shackleford, where we would have been dropped off and picked up when we wanted, or a trip to Cape Lookout Lighthouse. I wanted both.

Since reservations were required for the Lookout trip, we headed to Harkers Island, to the Local Yokel ferry service. Funny name, good service. While they also offered a trip to Cape Lookout, they travel on the sound side of Shackleford Banks. When I told them I wanted to see the horses, they said no problem.

Cape Lookout National Seashore and Shackleford Banks form a check-mark at the bottom of the string of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. After paying the $15 per person (read the rest of this post before you dismiss that as being too costly for such an outing), we climbed aboard the ferry and began our journey across the Core Sound.

And what a journey it was. We flew across the sapphire water, skirting shoals that gave this area the nickname, Graveyard of the Atlantic. True to the ferry operator's word, we saw some of the Shackleford ponies on the way to our destination. We'll get to those in a minute.


According to Lighthouses of the Carolinas, the present Cape Lookout Lighthouse was built in 1859, and the original keepers had to lug heavy containers of oil 163 feet up to keep the light burning.
Today, a 1st-order Fresnel lens guide mariners around the shoals, and the lighthouse keepers have been replaced by volunteers who donate their time greeting guests and manning the Visitors Center. We met two such volunteers, Mack and Alice, from Salem, Virginia, and spent a fair amount of time chatting with them about the lighthouse and the volunteers' role at Cape Lookout. I applaud them, and the rest of the park's volunteers for braving the elements to keep this treasured landmark running.

Mack and Alice at Cape Lookout's Visitors Center
We spent a couple hours exploring the area around the lighthouse, the sea-oat and flower covered dunes, and the Lighthouse Keeper's House:

Copyright K Buffaloe

Copyright K Buffaloe
Copyright K Buffaloe

The ferry arrived on time, and we began the journey back to Harkers Island. As with the trip over, we saw a few of the magnificent Shackleford Island horses, whose origin on the island is unknown, grazing in the marsh. And this time, the dear fellow from Local Yokel (who, btw, is anything but) positioned the ferry to enhance the view:

Copyright K Buffaloe

What a sight. What a birthday.

For more information on Cape Lookout Lighthouse, go to

For more info on Shackleford Banks, go to

Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved. Do not use or distribute text or images without written permission.


Julie said...

Yay! Kimberlee, I'm so happy you got to go! And your pictures are so awesome and beautiful that now I really do blush at how bad mine are...ha! ha! You're right about Local Yokel. Really good folks and great service.

Yep. That heaven on earth is the hand of God. Perfection is not random:)

This is what I harp about when I rail against development and regulation of the fishing industry. It's a way of life, a heritage. Good people and beautiful landscape. I wish I could afford to move back home.

I'm going soon, though. Yes! I'm so glad you had a chance to go. Thanks for sharing your lovely trip. Happy Birthday!!

Kimberli said...

Thanks, Julie. It was quite a day, and I'm grateful for the opportunity we had. I hope y'all make it out there soon! Are you planning to kayak to the banks?

Have fun!

PS The secret of our photos is in the cropping!

Shannon McNear said...

Gorgeous, GORGEOUS pix! I can so see why you picked this as a b'day outing. Did you ever read Misty of Chincoteague? I always wanted to go there, and never have, even when we lived in Virginia. (Something I regret!!)

Kimberli said...

Thanks, Shannon. It was far more scenic than I'd imagined--and I have a great imagination!

I've not read that book. Is this someplace we need to put on our list? We hope a Valley of Virginia trip is in our near future.

NCmountainwoman said...

Gorgeous photographs. We're headed down there in mid-October. I can hardly wait.

Kimberli said...

October should be a wonderful time of year down there. I keep an eye on your blog for photos!

Kelvin Taylor said...

What a wonderful way to spend your birthday or anyday exploring another treasure of scenic North Carolina. The report and photos gave me a real sense of not only what you saw, but how you experienced it on a personal level.
Well done.

Kimberli said...

Thank you, Kelvin. It was a rare treat and I'm grateful for the experience.

I'm also looking forward to returning, not only to see the horses again, but to explore the old settlement and the cemetary on Shackleford Island.

Lew said...

Beautiful photos and great info about Cape Lookout and the ponies! Chincoteague Island is a Virginia island near the Maryland border. The barrier island that runs along the VA/MD coast is Assateague Island National Park and Seashore. Each year the Assategue ponies are rounded up and swim across to Chincoteague for auction. For more info see

PS: Your link to NPS has an error: "For" after the "htm".

Kimberli said...

Thank you, Lew! And thank you for the info on Chincoteague. We spotted it on the map on the way to Williamsburg last week, and it's now on the short list of places to visit. Thanks also for providing a link to the pony swim (very interesting!), and for the heads up on my broken link. I fixed it.