COOPER DISCOVERER Sun, Sand and Surf - 3 Days on Cape Lookout National Seashore

Day 1

Our ferry ride aboard the Cape Lookout Ferry Service (CALO) vessel wasn't set to leave until noon and we had arrived in town the night before, so we spent the morning exploring Fort Macon State Park. In the planning stage for the trip this was just to be a filler to keep the kids entertained before the ferry ride over to Cape Lookout. Little did I know that this would be the kick start to one of the best vacations we've spent together as a family to date! Named the best State Park in NC for 2015, the Fort lived up to it's reputation for both mom dad and the kiddos. The majority of the fort is still open, including many rooms and tunnels that kids really enjoyed exploring. If you are in the area and enjoy US history, specifically the Civil War era, I would urge you to take a few hours and visit this Fort




After a cold drink and snack it was time to load and up and make the 30min drive from the Fort over to the docks in Davis, NC to meet our ride. For those that haven't been to this part of NC before there are two private ferry services to chose from, the Cape Lookout Ferry Service (CALO) and the Davis Island Ferry Service. Both are contracted with the NPS to carry vehicles and passengers across the sound to the western banks of what's known as Great Island, NC and or the South Core Banks. This is home to the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Locals call it "Davis Island". So whatever you call it, it's the last vehicle accessible barrier island on the Southern end of the NC barrier island chain known as the Outer Banks. This would be our destination on the sand for the next 3 days.


When deciding on a ferry service, we had no bias towards either, it was just a matter of scheduling. For our trip, the CALO service just fit our schedules better. I will say, that the ferry boat design between the two services is different. So, if you are pulling a trailer, the CALO service would be the better option. The Davis ferry service requires you to back off the boat at the dock on the island side; whereas, the CALO ferry is able to rotate 180* at the dock to allow the vehicles to pull straight off and on. Again, not a deal breaker but something to consider if you are pulling a trailer. The ferry operators ask that you arrive 30 mins prior to departure in order to check in and make any final preparations before departing the mainland. As directed, we were there with time to spare. Giving us time to have lunch on the tailgate of the truck and meet some of the other like minded folks, that decided it was a good idea to check off the grid for a few days and enjoy the sun and the sand.


After the rush of excitement at the fort and the anticipation of getting to the ferry on time it was nice to relax on the tailgate of the truck for the 35min ride across the sound to the western banks of the island. After crossing the sound the ferry drops you off at the Great Island Cabin Area. This is the staging area for the ferry as well as home to the NPS Ranger station and various weathered rental cabins owned by the NPS. This small village has fuel for a emergency use, running water, hot showers and a garbage dumping area. From reading other reviews on Expo we chose to bring our own drinking water from home and only use the water on the island for things like washing dishes and cleaning sandy feet. Since we were base camping we chose not to use the showers in the village and instead brought our own provisions for a shower. This turned out to be a good a decision as traveling up and down the island just to take a shower or grab water, for us, wouldn't prove very efficient. Sorry I don't have any good pics of the village area as it's not very scenic and by the time we got there it was close to 2pm so we didn't stick around. General layout of the village provided by the NPS.


With this being our first trip to the island and the afternoon slipping by we quickly dropped the air pressure in our BFGs, put the truck in 4hi, dropped the windows and hit beach to find a camp spot. As the village grew smaller in the rearview the beauty and solace of this place became very apparent. Yes, there were the occasional fishermen in their decked out American made pick-ups. Many with some crazy slid in camper set up and fishing rods pointing in all directions like antennas on a UFO; but, for the most part it was just us, the truck and the waves. Many times we were cruising along the hard packed sand a few feet from the breaking waves with not a sole in sight. From the south end cape to the northern tip of the island there's 25+ miles of pure unspoiled beach. I've been fortunate to travel many beaches up and down the east coast and I have to say this one ranks up at the top.



For this trip we chose to base camp, meaning we would not be moving the truck for a few days; so, site selection was very important. Factors to consider were wind speed, wind direction, bugs, tide level, beach width and of course level ground. If I've learned anything from spending time on the Outer Banks its that that wind never stops, its simply a matter of how strong and what direction it's coming from. Based on some great advise I received from fellow Expo members we decided to camp closer to the cape. The beach was much wider here so the tide changes would not be an issue. The dunes were taller here, which would block a portion of the never ending wind, but still let enough through to hopefully keep the bugs at bay. This would be our home for the next few days.


By the time we had chosen "the spot" and set up camp the afternoon had drifted into evening and my lovely wife began preparing our first night's meal. Dinner this evening would consist of pork tenderloins with sautéed peppers and onions over a bed of rice...yum! In an effort to keep the bacteria at bay my wife chose to pre-cook our dinner meats the week before leaving so it was just matter of pulling the meat out of the ARB fridge and sautéing the veggies and boiling some rice. I should stop here to mention that to this point we had no issues with bugs; however, once the sun dropped lower in the sky, the wind calmed and the aroma of meat and veggies simmering in the skillet was in the air...the bugs came out by the droves! Fortunately I had brought an ARB Mozzie Net with us to fit to the awning so we quickly attached it and finished dinner inside the protection of the mesh walls. We still aren't certain what exactly set the bugs off but for a few minutes I thought they would carry my kids off! Interestingly enough after the sun set the bugs went to bed as well and we had no further issues with them rest of the evening. By this time, our bellies were full and the kids were exhausted from a full day so, it was off to bed for them...with mom and dad not far behind. This pic pretty much sums up the rest of day one.

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Day 2 - Mother's Day

Day 2 really began in the wee hours of the morning around 2 AM. I awoke to what sounded like the tent trying to destroy itself as the wind was whipping any unsecured piece of material around like a loose sail against the side of the tent by the increasing wind gusts. As I mentioned earlier if there's one constant in the Outer Banks, its the wind! I should have known better; but, as the sunset, the previous evening, the winds had calmed so I took it as a sign to leave all the windows and rain fly up on the tent for better air flow and the ambiance of snoozing to the waves crashing on the beach. After fumbling around in the dark for the flashlight, I made my way outside and climbed all over the truck like a spider monkey battening down the hatches on the tent to stop the flapping. By this point I was convinced the kids would be up when I climbed back in the tent and we would be in for a long night; however, to my surprise they were both still knocked out cold. The wind continued to batter us all night, but with all the flaps down she held strong and we finally went back to sleep.

As a point of reference for anyone traveling with kids and considering an RTT our current tent set up is a Tepui Gran Sabana. My kids are ages 3 and 5. While there is ample room in the annex for 1 or 2 kids Fir sleeping, we actually all 4 sleep up top. The open sleeping area of this model is roughly 6x8. By design I think Tepui intends for owners to sleep lengthwise in the 8' span; however, as the tallest member of my family at 6' we all four sleep comfortably in the shorter 6' span. I am a side sleeper so the width isn't an issue but if need be I can stretch out if slightly angled.


After passing the Outer Banks wind gust initiation test on the first night, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise and a calm cool breeze to start Day 2. This day happened to be Mother's Day as well and since my wife was gracious enough to go camping on her day the least we could do was prepare her a breakfast fit for the occasion. The kids and I prepared chocolate chip pancakes with fresh strawberries and kiwi with a side of sausage and an over easy egg...her favorite. A fresh cup of Pike Place brewed from the AeroPress completed the Mother's Day breakfast. While we all feasted like we hadn't eaten in weeks I think the kids enjoyed the sweet sugary meal the best.


In the real world I work in the securities investment industry for a large brokerage house so every millisecond of my day is accounted for and deviating from a schedule tends to lead to mass chaos. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my work, but when it's time for vacation the lack of a schedule is at the top of poritorities. Personally this is one of the most appealing attributes of an overland style vacation. Fortunately, this would become one of those days when time had no bearing and the only important items were jumping the next wave and building the tallest sand castle.


The day culminated into another fantastic dinner consisting of chicken fajitas with black beans, Mexican rice and fresh guacamole for dipping. Once again our bellies were full and our bodies were slowing down from a full day of play on the beach. Before closing out the evening gazing at the intense stars in the unpolluted sky, we put together a makeshift shower in the annex room with the Coleman Solar Shower in an effort to de-sand the kids a bit. To keep us warm and set the mood the Campfire in a Can did the trick. As the sun set over the dunes, it marked the close of another perfect day.

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Day 3

Despite the wind keeping us on lockdown in the tent the previous night, I was determined to sleep with the windows open and allow the sound of the waves crashing on the beach serve us a dose of Melatonin for the evening. Mother Nature graced our persistence with what may be one of the best nights of sleep I've ever had in a tent. By nature I tend to stay up too late as it's hard to shut my brain off in the evening and get a proper nights rest. This night, however, we were all actually in bed by 9:30 and out cold a few minutes later. Already tired from an anxious night before combined with the consistent sound of the waves made for a great night's rest.

As the sun arose on what was to be our last day on the sand we struggled to get out of bed as we were just enjoying the time hanging out with the kids in the tent. I'm all for kids sleeping in their own beds and giving mom and dad privacy but there's something special about watching your little one's open their eyes in the morning after a peaceful night's rest. These are the times that make the entire trip worthwhile. Yes the beach was beautiful, the off-roading and exploring was great, and even the food was delicious; but, those special moments with the family are what it's all about. This is why we do escape the noise of the world, if only for a few days and focus on what's truly important, life's little moments.

Breakfast this morning consisted of sausage, scrambled eggs, Mexican cheese blend and fresh slices of avocado all covered in a healthy dose of Cholula, wrapped in the remaining tortilla shells from the previous night’s meal. Once we were fueled up for the morning, the not so fun part of camping began, the tear down. Breaking camp in the blistering sun and blowing sand made for a less than enjoyable experience; however, I realize its a necessary evil to this activity. Once the teardown was complete we were covered in sweat and of course sand; so, a quick shower with the Coleman Solar Shower was in order before loading to explore the rest of the island.


We were packed up and rolling out by mid morning and we didn't have a ferry to catch until early afternoon so the rest of our time on the island was all about making fresh tracks in the sand, exploring the Cape and the western side of the island. If I have to pick a favorite part of this island it has to be the Cape. Venturing out to the very tip of the cape by 4x4 is allowed and makes for a surreal experience. The Cape is raw and rugged. At the same time the beauty of the clear water shallow pools and sand bars are very enticing. Standing at the tip of the Cape and watching the waves crashing from all directions and constantly shifting the sand you instantly understand why this place is the home to so many ship wrecks and maritime disasters. As you look east you are reminded that you are on a tiny sliver of land at the end of a continent and the next piece of dry ground doesn't arise out of the ocean again until you reach the African coastline. If you want to escape the real world this is the place to do it...


For the history buffs out there the island has more to offer than just beautiful beaches. Whether you are into maritime history or not you can't help but marvel at the old buildings and structures left in place by the NPS. These structures represent a time when the island was more than just a vacation destination. Dating back to the late 1800s the island served as a home to the Cape Lookout Life-Saving Station which later transitioned into the US Coast Guard in the early 20th century. The island still boasts an active historic lighthouse that in the summer months can be further explored. While the current lighthouse isn't the original the island has maintained an active lighthouse since 1812.




All of this history is accessible by what locals call the "back road" on the island. The back road runs the full length of the island and is a sandy two track that provides access to the sound, lighthouse and the historic village. The road is not to be taken lightly as it is a rutted two track of ups and downs and deep sandy sections, that begs to be traveled at speed, gives even the best suspension system a workout. From the historic village at the south end of the island we opted to take the back road all the way back to the ferry staging area in order to get the full experience of what the island had to offer. I have to admit it was a lot of fun blasting up the sand road like a Baja driver pushing the truck's suspension to the limits. The added weight of the RTT, awnings and a bed full of camping gear and supplies wasn't the ideal set up for this type of driving but the stock TRD leafs paired with Bilstein 5100 shocks and SumoSprings did a surprisingly good job handling the spirited driving.


Our return ride to reality aboard the CALO Ferry Service was set for 1pm so our adventure exploring the backside of the island had to come to an end. We arrived at the ferry staging area about a half hour before departure which allowed some time to chat with the NPS Ranger on duty and enjoy one more meal on the island. We boarded the ferry as the only passengers on a what was otherwise a quiet ride that allowed a time of reflection on such a great vacation. Once on the mainland we aired up the BFGs, topped off the fuel tank and headed west for the 6hr ride back home.

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Were heading down to the Outerbanks on Sunday but are staying further North. Youre trip sounds awesome so far! It's getting me excited! We thought about making the trip South but right now Ocracoke is as far south as planned. Keep the trip updates coming!
Were heading down to the Outerbanks on Sunday but are staying further North. Youre trip sounds awesome so far! It's getting me excited! We thought about making the trip South but right now Ocracoke is as far south as planned. Keep the trip updates coming!
Thanks for the kind words. As an NC native I don't think you can go wrong with any section of the Outer Banks. It's a beautiful part of the country that we tend to take for granted living so close. There are a few great local joints in the town of Ocracoke close to the ferry drop off for good eats if you are in the area. If you make it up to Hatteras and the beach is still open for driving this time of year make it a point to venture out to the cape. It's well worth the trip!
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Thanks for the great write up, I'm hoping to go on the same adventure later this year. What kind of rack are you running for the tent? Looks like TracRac? I've got a set of bed bars mounted for my tent but with the tent being lower makes it more difficult to use the annex and awnings. Fitting in the garage is a concern, do you have height dimensions once loaded?