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Cape Lookout Beach Adventures In Your UTV Rental from Island Ferry Express Service


Many thanks to Crystal Coast Tourism and MMGY NJF Public Relations firm for sponsoring this trip to Cape Lookout and including the UTV rental. All thoughts are my own. 

Just south of the Crystal Coast mainland, there lies a small, little barrier island known as Cape Lookout. Made up of three islands, Cape Lookout is the southernmost tip of the Southern Outer Banks. The entire island is about 56 miles, but the South Core Banks is about 21 miles long that is accessible only by ferry. 

Those wishing to do rough, outback style camping may want to consider vehicle ferry service from Davis, but those day trippers looking to experience the pristine beach, the sun, and shelling should utilize a passenger ferry service. 

The Island Express Ferry Service will meet your passenger needs as your family embarks on a day trip across the Core Sound. Be sure to pack everything you might need: sunscreen, picnic lunch, water, and bags for shelling. While a small store does exist at the dock, there is no food access on the island unless you bring it in. 

Departing from Harkers Island, the passenger ferry first travels to Shackleford banks, then over to South Core Banks, the middle island of Cape Lookout. 

First, a bit about Harkers Island. I didn't get to venture around the community, but I was told its history, like most of the coastal communities on the Crystal Coast, dates back to the European exploration in the 1600s. 

In 1730, a man named Ebenezer Harker was granted the land for personal use and created a plantation. Over the years, the community bears a unique history that is definitely worth exploring. 

As far as the ferry service, it's located at the tip of Harkers Island. A visitor's center is located there, as well as the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum. Both are definitely worth visiting. I recommend that you purchase your tickets online for ease, especially during high season and beautiful warm sunny fall days, as the ferry might fill up quickly.

For a random Thursday in early November, our ferry service was entirely full as it headed to Shackleford Banks and then Cape Lookout! 

The Harkers Island Dock area also boosts several picnic tables, and I'm told a food truck exists during high season as well. There is plenty of parking, so no need to worry about that!

After boarding the 10:00 AM ferry, we traveled first to Shackleford Banks. I didn't stop here, but this is an island worth noting. When I first mentioned to my mom I was visited Cape Lookout, she exclaimed, "the ponies are on Shackleford Banks!" In no way had I mentioned the small little island at all, but she associated Cape Lookout with the Shackleford Banks horses, as many people do. 

The island doesn't have a dock, but lets folks out as close to the banks as possible, so that they can go explore, see the horses, and shell to their hearts content. No public areas exist on this wild island-no restrooms, facilities, etc. Just you and nature, so again, pack it in and pack it out. 

Shackleford Banks originally connected to the Core Banks, but as with many formations, hurricanes and storms caused shifting of sand and inlet waters to submerge parts of the island. Once inhabitant by a settlement, it's now a unique and exciting way to see feral horses, sea creatures, and perhaps even a turtle or too! 

Shackleford Banks horses are known as Banker horses, most likely descendants from Spanish mustangs that survived a shipwreck. Named after the plantation that once existed and was owned by John Shackleford, this island is accessible by ferry from Beaufort, and Harkers Island. 

Now, we travel on to Cape Lookout. Her lighthouse stands as a point of reference the entire way, leading us safely to the docks. The lighthouse, known as Our Diamond Lady, to those of the coast, is currently closed to climbing and probably will be for a couple of years as much-needed restoration is underway. 

As we arrive at the dock, we are given instructions regarding our stay on the island. Campers have their gear and are going to find their sites. Beachgoers and Shell Seekers look for the Beach Shuttle service. Reserve in advance during high season, and I still recommend it for off season. The times are always subject to change for everything, so be sure to call and confirm.

Also, I recommend checking and confirming ferry times as well. My reservations were reserved in advance, and while the outgoing ferry time was correct, the returning ferry time was not, as they had shifted to winter hours. Storms, weather patterns, and seasonal patterns may all change ferry service times at any notice, so always confirm!

The Island Express company also provides a unique way of traveling the island for those looking to explore more areas than just the beach and lighthouse boardwalk. 

Reserve and rent a UTV, or a Utility Task Vehicle, and drive around the historic district, on the beach, and searching for wildlife. I was given the chance to drive and explore on one of these UTV's for a couple of hours, and it was a blast! 

After I got used to driving it (I've never driven a golf cart, let alone an ATV vehicle), I was on my way through the sand and sun to find out about the unique history of the island. I hear "historic village" and must travel onwards to visit. 

Boasting a life-saving station, the former coast guard station, fishing cottages, and the remains of a WWII defense complex, the historic village is only mildly accessible as parts of it are not open to the public. 

Utilizing a ramp access point, I then my way along the beach to explore the seaside. Various types of campers, fishers, and people camping and biking were amid my view as I zipped along, giving the UTV gas to get through the rough sand. 

Some parts were easier to traverse than other parts, especially heading over the ramps to or from the access road. 

Note, there are places the UTV can't go, and you will be fined, so be sure to watch out for signs before embarking down a road! Also, no dune traveling is allowed, unless it's a ramp access point. 

There were plenty of places to pull over and take a break, looking at the provided map to see what I was missing and where the heck I needed to go. There are two restrooms on the island. One is further down near the historic district, accessible to most campers, and the other is at the docking station/ gift shop area. 

A boardwalk for nature walks surrounding the lighthouse exists. While it is closed to climbing, be sure to check out the plaques that discuss history and the wild/sealife surrounding it. A separate beach just for foot passengers does exist, as UTV's and other vehicles are not allowed on it. 

The UTV from the Island Express Service is called a 4WD Kubota Side-by-Side. It hosts 4 passengers with a cargo rack in the back for your coolers and bags. The rental fee is for the entire vehicle and not per person, so that's a plus too! 

While I only had mine for a couple of hours due to the ferry schedule and itinerary, rentals are actually in 4 or 8 hr increments. 

Persons must be 25+ with a valid driver's license to rent and everyone participating must sign a waiver in advance, otherwise the reservation might be lost. 

While I was incredibly nervous in the beginning, and kind of felt weird about driving on the shoreline in a vehicle, this was an incredible experience that I would highly recommend to anyone. I would definitely spend the money to do this again! 

I also struck up a conversation with someone on the ferry on the way to the island, and she said that it is a lot more fun than just shelling, because your family is able to explore more areas on the island that might not be as accessible if walking.  

I did drive all the way out to the points that we were allowed to go on the beach to view the water and fishers The UTV only goes about 12 miles an hour, so you really aren't going that fast, but it can feel like it at times. 

At times, pressing down on the gas pedal is needed to get through those dense sand dunes and turning corners coming off the ramp felt kind of weird because I'm not used to driving in sand. 

As always, book your rental in advance. As the person told me on the ferry, they didn't reserve because they didn't think it would be that busy, and alas, the ferry was full! The last thing you would want is to expect to rent a UTV and not be able to get one because they are all out for the day! 

Visiting the various barrier islands of the Crystal Coast is a definite must and next time, I would LOVE to take my family with me to explore. 

I can imagine the fun that my niece and nephew would have on a UTV as we looked for shells, explored the life-saving and original coast guard areas, and learned about the lighthouse!

Even on the semi-cloudy day that I visited, the weather was warm, the wind was nice, and the fun was abundant (even solo!).

 Honestly, it's not often I get to be solo on a practically deserted beach and island, and it was so nice!

I could have taken the later ferry back (I took at 1:30 PM, while the last one was 3:30 PM), but I also had other things I wanted to fit in and explore. I could have easily spent the entire day on the island! 

If you are looking for the perfect way to end your Crystal Coast vacation, I would definitely recommend taking the ferry to Cape Lookout and hopping aboard a 4- passenger UTV for the day (or half day). 

Your family will love it, and you will be happy to make them happy! This happened to be my last full day on the Crystal Coast, and it was such a perfect way to end the day. 

Want to visit Cape Lookout?

Book a passenger ferry ticket with Island Express Ferry Service. 

The Island Express Ferry Service from Harkers Island is located at 1800 Island Road. 

Reserve your UTV in advance through Island Express Ferry Service. 

Follow Island Express Ferry Service on Facebook 

This will be the quickest way to find information regarding running services during these cooler months and even during storm season! 

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