Paddling the Sounds
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.
If you are launching from Shell Point or leaving your car at the Harkers Island Visitor Center, we ask that you leave a float plan with park staff. You can do this in person at the Harkers Island Visitor Center, by fax at 252-728-2160 with attn: Interpretation Division, or by sending an e-mail (e-mail us).
Remember to check in when you return: you can come into the Visitor Center, call (252-723-2250), or e-mail us. If you do not check in, we will call your emergency contact to verify your return.
You can bring your own float plan, download our float plan (pdf, 69 Kb), or fill one out when you arrive.
If you are launching from another location, we recommend you leave a float plan with someone local (a ferry operator if you are leaving your car with one of the ferry services, a friend who will see you when you return, etc.).
The Visitor Center parking lot is locked from 5:00 PM to 9:00 AM, even when there is a car in the lot. You can park in the picnic area parking lot across the street (Shell Point) if you will be returning after 5:00 PM.
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 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 (pdf, 7.2 MB) 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: March 17, 2018