Paddling the Sounds

Kayaks parked on the sand.

NPS Photo/Claire Irish


With 112 miles of uninhabited shoreline, ranging from docile sound to pounding surf, Cape Lookout National Seashore has become one of the premier paddling destinations on the Mid-Atlantic coast. Nowhere else on the southeast coast will you encounter an uninterrupted barrier island chain in such pristine condition or of such magnitude.

The islands of the seashore lie between two and three miles from the mainland. At this distance even novice paddlers can cross the open waters of Core Sound and Back Sound under good conditions. While everyone can enjoy exploring the marshes and shallow waters of the sounds, the more ambitious kayaker can continue out the inlets into the surf.

In recent years, kayak fishing has become a popular activity in the shallow waters of the seashore. With the ability to reach beyond casting range, into the marshes inaccessible by powerboats, the kayak has become a powerful tool in the angler's bag of tricks.


Planning Your Paddle

A little planning can go a long way towards making your trip safe and enjoyable. In addition to bringing the right equipment, it is also a good idea to pay attention to the tides and weather.


  1. Proper consideration of tides at the seashore will make or break a trip. Learning how to read and use a tide chart can make the difference between paddling with or against a 3 knot current. The best bet for most people is to leave the mainland at high tide, so you are going out with the tide, and to return as the low tide rises.

    Most paddlers will want to avoid the rage tide, the time when the current flows the hardest, as ½ of the total water volume passes through inlets during the third and fourth hours of tide flow. During this time, flatwater will turn to whitecap waves and intermediate terrain can become expert.

    Pick-up a tide chart from local marine stores, or view tide predications from NOAA, just remember the tides shown for Cape Lookout indicate levels on the oceanside and those shown for the Cape Lookout Bight indicate levels in the "hook" of the cape, not the lighthouse area (sound side) or on Harkers Island.


  1. Weather moves quickly and often unexpectedly on the coast. Kayakers should monitor weather reports and carry a marine radio.

    Check the latest local weather reports including boating conditions and wind advisories.

Safety Tips

  1. Wear a PFD (life-jacket). There are two kinds of kayakers: those who have flipped and those who will!
  2. Kayak with a group or guide. There is safety in numbers and experience.
  3. Be familiar with rescue techniques and equipment such as paddle floats, bilge pumps, tow lines, rescue stirrups, etc.
  4. Carry a spare paddle.
  5. Carry a flashlight or headlamp and keep it accessible from the cockpit. You may need to signal powerboats to alert them of your presence.
  6. Carry extra food and water: you can always take home excess.
  7. Leave a float plan with a family member, friend or neighbor.
Kayaks parked on the sand.

NPS Photo/Ehren Gross

Float Plans

When venturing out on the water it is always a good idea to leave a float plan with a family member, close friend or trusted neighbor. The float plan should include such things as Departure and Retun dates and times, the trip route you intend to follow, the type (canoe, kayak, etc.) of boat, along with its brand, color and length of each boat that is being used in your excursion, and vehicle information such as license plate number, model and color as well as where you parked while you are out paddling.

Trail Maps and Routes

Two trail maps have been created by the Crystal Coast Canoe & Kayak Club. One map includes Harkers Island, Shackleford Banks, and the Lighthouse and Cape Lookout point areas of South Core Banks. The other map covers North Core Banks and most of South Core Banks. These maps are now out of print, but a limited number are available at the Harkers Island Visitor Center. Both maps are available for viewing at the Harkers Island Visitor Center.

The Outer Banks Scenic Byway has created a Down East Paddle Trail Map which includes trails to Cape Lookout National Seashore.

It is also a good idea to get nautical charts for your trip; these can be obtained at local retailers. The nautical charts that pertain to this area are 11544 (ocean side), 11545, and 11550. You can also view the nautical charts online through the NOAA website.


Looking to extend your paddle or your visit? Information on camping in the park can be found on the Beach Camping page.

Last updated: October 20, 2023

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131 Charles St
Harkers Island, NC 28531


252 728-2250

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