Outer Banks Lighthouse Guide
For centuries the shoals and waters along North Carolina’s coastline proved treacherous to sailors and pirates alike.
By the 19th century, lighthouses were placed in strategic spots, and continue today to inspire their visitors. Most require a short 90-minute visit or less and are scattered along with the barrier islands – making them easy to incorporate into any vacation along the Outer Banks.
Driving north past Duck and into Corolla you arrive at the Currituck Beach Light Station. Opened in 1875 it’s red brick exterior differs from the black and white patterned and whitewashed facilities to the south. Approximately one million bricks were used in building the still working lighthouse. From Easter to Thanksgiving you can climb its 214 steps, walk around its grounds, and peer in the Keeper’s home. Maintained by the Outer Banks Conservationists a fee of $6.00 per person is required.
Heading south on Highway 12 through Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, and just past the entrance to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore – comes Bodie Island. Pronounced “body” the name, according to long-held rumors, came from either a large number of unfortunate drowning victims washed up on shore or the supposed original owners of the land – you decide.
The structure you now see is the classic case of “third time a charm”. The first, built on a shaky unsupported brick foundation in 1847, once competed with the leaning tower of Pisa for most vertically challenged building. Abandoned within less than 15 years of its completion, the second lighthouse’s upright time was even less.
Two years to be exact. Confederate troops, fearful of its potential usefulness to oncoming Union naval ships during the Civil War, blew it up in 1861.
Thus the shoreline remained dark until the present lighthouse was completed in 1872. Now at 156 high, the light from its black and white horizontal striped structure can be seen for 19 miles. The stairs are closed to the public, but where formerly the lighthouse keeper’s family lived is now a visitor’s center and ranger’s station run by the National Park Service. When done seeing the lighthouse, several nature trails provide excellent viewings of coastal marshland birds – like herons and Glossy ibis.
From here until Ocracoke you are in the protected Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Take time to explore quiet inlets, private sand dunes, and perhaps spy the wild horses still roaming the islands.
The Diamond Shoals are anything but precious as shallow and underwater sandbars, between the towns of Hatteras and Ocracoke, are ever moving. Combined with the convergence of the warm Gulf Stream and the Arctic cold Labrador Current the region has a foreboding nickname –“Graveyard of the Atlantic”.
Since the 16th century over 1000 ships and crews have been lost to her waters. Several of the wrecks are still visible including the boiler and smokestack from the mid-19th-century steamship the Oriental. Others provide scuba diving enthusiasts with some of the best wreck diving in the world.
Due to the area’s killer reputation the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, in Buxton, was first given a green light by Congress in 1797. The standing structure, now seen, was completed in 1870 and is the tallest, and most recognizable with tourists displaying a spiral black and white exterior. Many remember her arduous 2900’ trek in 1999 from the erosion of the sea to the safer ground inland. Now from Good Friday to Columbus Day, you can climb her 257 stairs, for a small fee, and marvel at the light, which can be seen for 20 miles. Other activities include surf fishing, sailing, or beachcombing for relics from the sea.
To reach the fourth, and oldest lighthouse on the Outer Banks, a 40-minute ocean voyage is required on the free ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands.
Once home and haven for the pirate Blackboard, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound the village of Ocracoke is accessible only by water or air. Until recently, it possessed its own unique English dialect.
For 184 years, the whitewashed lighthouse has sent out her 14-mile beacon and remains among the five oldest active facilities in service. Sandy Hook, NJ takes top honors starting back in the Colonial period.
Here an easy walk from the town’s shopping area will bring you to the complex. Stair climbing is not allowed but the view from the base is still inspiring. Bring your camera or paints.
Surviving sea, wind, shifting sand and the onslaught of tourists – the lighthouses of the Outer Banks stand ready, any season, to welcome you.
- Currituck is the only lighthouse not under the protection of the National Park Service. For more information: www.currituckbeachlight.com
- For Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, and Ocracoke see www.nps.gov
- For North Carolina Ferry information see: www.ncdot.org/transit/ferry/routes
- For regional tourist information see: www.outerbanks.org