Once you've stuffed every pocket you have with seashells, it's time to explore the human presence on Cape Lookout. Waddle up on the boardwalk to the lighthouse, still flashing a warning to oceangoing ships about the dangerous Cape Lookout shoals to the southeast. A white brick, two-story house (once the assistant keeper's duplex) contains a small museum on the first floor; exhibits and photographs show the distinctive diamond-patterned lighthouse looking as lonely in 1893 as it does now.
If you've been to other lighthouses on the Outer Banks, such as the famous Cape Hatteras tower, you'll be impressed with how solitary the Cape Lookout Lighthouse appears. Perhaps it's because the island is so flat: There are no sand dunes here. If you didn't know any better, you'd think this was the southern edge of the civilized world.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse, one of six operational lighthouses in North Carolina, has two airport beacons rotating once every 30 seconds. You can't go up in the tower, but hiking to its base can give you an up close impression of its command over the potentially dangerous shoals offshore. The Coast Guard maintains the fully automated light; it is the only major lighthouse operating during the day as well as at night.
Volunteers with the National Park Service, which oversees Cape Lookout, live in the duplex during warmer months. They can show you around, point out a shady spot for picnicking under the pine trees, and share stories of drama and despair. (Get them to tell you about the Crissie Wright, a three-masted schooner that wrecked here in a January 1886 storm.)
You've already got the best guide, however. A marine biologist who's made thousands of trips to the islands over the past 24 years, Ron maintains a contagious enthusiasm for Cape Lookout. "There are 56 miles of coastline with unspoiled beaches and no development, and that's just counting one side," he says. "You can only get here by boat or ferry, so there aren't the crowds you get at other beaches."
Ever changing and constantly split and rejoined by storms and seas, Cape Lookout National Seashore retains more primal beauty and remoteness than its older, tamer sibling, Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Because no bridges connect Cape Lookout to the mainland, the human element remains minimal and somewhat ghostlike.