Visiting the Outer Banks Lighthouses was my favorite part of our trip to the North Carolina coast this past summer. Even though I’m a North Carolina native, I’ve spent very little time in the Outer Banks and I had never actually set foot inside a lighthouse before this trip. I found the five Outer Banks Lighthouses so delightful that I’ve caught lighthouse fever – I’ve set a goal to see 90% of the lighthouses on the eastern coast of the United States. I might not meet that goal but I will certainly have fun trying.
In this post I will introduce to you each of the Outer Banks Lighthouses by sharing some of their pertinent history plus our personal experience visiting each lighthouse. I’ll also include need to know information for planning your own trip to the Outer Banks Lighthouses.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its black and white stripes swirling upwards from the bright red base, is easily the most iconic of the Outer Banks Lighthouses.
The lighthouse you see above is actually the second one tasked with protecting ships from the surrounding sea, which is so dangerous that it’s called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. The first lighthouse was built in 1803 and lasted nearly seven decades before being replaced in 1870. It’s replacement operated until 1935, when the threat of beach erosion became too great and the beacon had to be moved inland to a skeletal steel tower. It took 15 years before the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse could safely resume operations, but shoreline erosion remained a constant threat – with the lighthouse coming within 120 feet of the ocean at times. After decades of attempts to stabilize the coast and protect the lighthouse, authorities finally concluded that the only real way to protect it was to relocate it.
It took 23 days to move the 4,830 ton structure at a cost of $11.8 million dollars. The entire light station, including the keepers’ homes, oil house, cisterns, and sidewalks, was carefully moved 2,900 feet to a safer location. The move was highly publicized; people from all over the world watched closely and celebrated when everything finally reached its destination intact. While the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was already well-known for its striking pattern and record as the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, its famous (and heavily disputed) move made it a household name.
We visited the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on a Saturday morning in July. I was pretty worried about the crowds, but my husband pointed out that Saturday was check in / check out day for most tourists in the Outer Banks and that visits to the lighthouse were actually highest on weekdays (at least, that is what he read online). I needn’t have worried, though, as we only had to wait ten minutes to climb the lighthouse (The reviews state that the wait can be as high as three hours on busy days, and you can’t book ahead of time).
Before our climb we were briefed by a worker on all the need to know rules and precautions. The woman who spoke to us was very serious about the various rules such as no chewing gum while climbing and no carrying children during the climb. She emphasized that the climb was strenuous, as there are 269 steps, and that there’s no air conditioning so things can get heated inside. There’s also a ranger stationed halfway up the lighthouse to keep an eye on things. I was a bit intimidated by the nearly 200 foot tall lighthouse but I was determined to make the climb nonetheless.
I had to rest a few times but I did make it to the top without too much trouble. Even though we had to wait to climb until our assigned time slot, there was no limit on how long we could stay once we were inside. Unfortunately, we were only able to spend perhaps 30 seconds taking in the views at the top before the attendant told us they had to close the balcony due to high winds. Apparently these high winds are quite common at Cape Hatteras; we’d been warned about them several times and were even told that they can blow items right out of your hands if you aren’t careful.
We descended slowly because the staircase is narrow and the next tour group was ascending – unaware that the top had just closed. We left shortly after we exited the lighthouse as we weren’t particularly interested in seeing the two keepers’ quarters buildings or the lighthouse museum on the grounds. I would have liked to walk over to the beach and see the lighthouse from that perspective, but we were on a schedule (and quite excited) to see more of the Outer Banks Lighthouses!
Need to know for visiting the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse:
– Address: 46379 Lighthouse Rd, Buxton, NC 27920. You can find a map with the location of each lighthouse at the end of this post.
– It’s open from the third Friday in April to Columbus Day in October.
– Climbing hours are 9 am to 4:30 pm daily.
– Tickets are required to climb; they are $8 for adults and $4 for children. They can only be purchased in-person at the site the day of the climb.
– You can find more information here.
After visiting the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse we decided to keep traveling south to the Ocracoke Lighthouse. The only way to do this is to take the ferry from Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke Island. The Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry is operated by the NC DOT, is free to use, and is available regularly throughout the day. You can find the ferry route times posted online here. (I’ve marked the ferry port locations on the map at the end of this post).
I had read that waiting for the ferry can take up to an hour or two, depending on the line, but we only had to wait about 20 minutes each way. Mr. Meena and I had never driven onto a ferry before, and – as always – we were pretty excited about trying something new.
The ferry ride from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island used to take about 45 minutes but now it takes about an hour because sand has accumulated between the islands, forcing the operators to take a more roundabout route. It’s a fairly pleasant ride, although you may want to bring a book to read. There are bathrooms and a small lounge area available on the boats.
Once we arrived on Ocracoke Island we took Highway 12 down the length of the island until we reached Ocracoke Village. I was excited to see the Village after reading about it online but unfortunately it really didn’t turn out to be all that great. We had trouble navigating as there were pedestrians walking all over, vacationers driving their golf carts around a bit madly, and cars unloading from the ferry port at the south end. We also had a difficult time finding a place to eat lunch as we didn’t have cell phone service on the island and the places we had saved in advance weren’t open. We did eventually find a smoothie place to soothe our hunger. Throughout this process we kept catching glances of the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse and we were more than ready to see the lighthouse up-close.
It was much smaller than I realized; it’s the smallest of the Outer Banks lighthouses at only 75 feet tall. Its design is refreshingly simple – a solid white exterior with an octagonal lantern at the top.
While it may not be the most magnificent lighthouse, it is said to be the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina and the second oldest operating lighthouse in the USA. It has been protecting the area since 1823 with its beacon that shines 14 miles out into the sea. Plus, it’s rumored that Ocracoke Island was Blackbeard’s favorite anchorage and that he even had a house on the island!
Unfortunately, the Ocracoke Lighthouse is not open to climb and doesn’t have a museum or visitors center – just a few informational signs. Furthermore, there are only a couple of parking spaces available at the lighthouse, with 15 minute limits, and you cannot visit the Keepers’ house next door. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when I realized this. I’m glad that I was able to see all of the Outer Banks Lighthouses, including Ocracoke, but it was a very long trip to see a small lighthouse (it took a little over three hours round trip). I don’t recommend heading to this island or lighthouse just for fun. One way to turn it into a more worthwhile trip would be to continue heading south and see the Cape Lookout Lighthouse as part of your tour of the Outer Banks Lighthouses. Fair warning, though, it’s a long journey since Cape Lookout is about 60 miles further south and requires the use of two more ferries (the Ocracoke / Cedar Island ferry and Harkers Island-Cape Lookout Ferry).
Need to know for visiting the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse:
Bodie Island Lighthouse.
The third time truly was a charm for the Bodie Island Lighthouse, as the first lighthouse had a faulty foundation and the second was blown up during the Civil War. The current lighthouse, built in 1871, is much taller than its predecessors at 170 feet – they were 54 and 80 feet tall, respectively. It also boasts a First Order Fresnel Lens, which is capable of producing a beam of light extending 19 miles into the distance. The Bodie Island Lighthouse is bordered by marshland, creating a uniquely picturesque aesthetic out of all the Outer Banks Lighthouses.
We arrived at the Bodie Island Lighthouse grounds as visiting hours were nearly over due to our excursion to the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse. We didn’t mind since we weren’t exactly keen to pay $20 to climb it, especially after paying $16 to climb Cape Hatteras that morning. It wouldn’t have been possible, anyway, as we found that the lighthouse was closed due to high winds.
The Keepers’ Quarters, which now serve as the visitor center, looked pristine thanks to a recent renovation. The scene felt almost too perfect, with its clean lines, white picket fence, and immaculate lawn. Tourists were lining up to capture the landscape with a selfie (or four).
Then, I noticed a boardwalk leading away from the lighthouse towards the marsh. Mr. Meena and I walked off along the boardwalk into what quickly became my favorite view from our tour of the Outer Banks Lighthouses.
The walkway ended in an elevated platform with benches. It was deserted and absolutely lovely – I felt like it was beckoning us to linger and watch the sunset. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay that long as we were due to meet family at our rental in Nags Head.
Even though we didn’t climb the 214 steps to the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse, it was my favorite lighthouse and the one I am most likely to return to on subsequent trips. I would love to look out over the Roanoke Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, and the sprawling marshland from the top of the tower.
Need to know for visiting the Bodie Island Lighthouse:
– Address: 8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Road, Nags Head, North Carolina 27959.
– It’s open from the third Friday in April to Columbus Day in October.
– Climbing hours are 9:00 am to 4:30 pm daily.
– Tickets are required to climb; they are $10 for adults and $4 for children. They can only be purchased in-person at the site the day of the climb.
– You can find more information here.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
This lighthouse stands out as a unique gem among the Outer Banks Lighthouses thanks to its striking red-brick exterior. The exposed bricks give the 162 foot tall lighthouse a formidable appearance.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse doesn’t have a rocky history like many of the other Outer Banks Lighthouses; it was completed in 1875 and has only needed a few renovations over time. It was built as a way to bridge the 40 mile section of dark coastline between the Cape Henry Light in Virginia Beach and the Bodie Island Lighthouse further south.
We arrived at the lighthouse grounds right before they opened at 9am. Once we were let in by an employee, we walked the circular path in front of the lighthouse, enjoying the view before we climbed the 220 steps to the top.
The lighthouse was undergoing construction during our visit and, even though we were allowed to climb it, we had to sign waivers acknowledging the potential danger. The lighthouse was easy to ascend and had lots of fans circulating air inside so it stayed cool (visiting in the morning helped with this too).
When we finally stepped out onto the windy platform at the top we were rewarded with views of Currituck Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and the Currituck Outer Banks.
We couldn’t look closely at the first order Fresnel lens, which can be seen for 18 nautical miles, due to the construction, but we did have a great view of the Keepers’ House.
We could even see the Corolla wild horse reserve in the distance – and I learned that people do spot horses from the lighthouse sometimes. In fact, before the horse population began to dwindle, sometimes the lighthouse keepers would find Corolla wild horses on site.
Our visit didn’t take very long, although we did stop and admire the exhibits on the landings and base. There is also a Museum Shop, formerly the small Keeper’s House, on the grounds. Afterwards we drove through the historic Corolla Village; you could certainly make a day out of visiting the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and Corolla, but our visit only lasted about an hour. Driving up to the northern part of the Outer Banks to see this lighthouse was absolutely worth it. In fact, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse nearly beat Bodie Island Lighthouse as my favorite Outer Banks Lighthouse.
Need to know for visiting the Currituck Beach Lighthouse:
– Address: 1101 Corolla Village Rd, Corolla, NC 27927.
-This year the lighthouse is open from March 20th – Dec 1st from 9am-5pm daily – but you’ll want to check out the specifics here when planning your visit.
– Admission to grounds and parking are free. It costs $10 per person to climb the lighthouse and only cash and checks are accepted. Children 7 & under climb free with an adult.
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.
Including the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse as one of the Outer Banks Lighthouses may be a bit of a stretch, but if you’re in the area you might as well check it out. While I enjoyed walking around Manteo and the waterfront area, I was a bit disappointed that this lighthouse wasn’t at all like the others.
The last lighthouse I have to share from our Outer Banks trip is quite literally a light house. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was a nice, quiet end to a great trip. 🏠 . . . . #obx #outerbanks #outerbanksnc #visitouterbanks #OBXstuff #manteo #manteonc #lighthouse #lighthouse_captures #ig_lighthouse #lighthouse_lovers #lighthousepics #imagesofnc #visitnc #northcarolina #ig_nc #ignc #visitnorthcarolina #naturenc #nc #easternnorthcarolina #ncadventures #explorecarolina #welovenc #ncoutdoors #adventurenc #travelgram #travel_captures #instatravel
Not only is the lighthouse more of a house than a tower, but it’s also a replica. The original Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse was an offshore screw-pile lighthouse (meaning it stood on piles that were screwed into the sea bottom). It was one of twelve that helped people navigate the waters between the Outer Banks and North Carolina mainland. There were three Roanoke Marshes Lighthouses in operation throughout the 1800s, and the replica is based on the third one that was completed in 1877 and operated for over 60 years.
Unfortunately, most of the screw-pile lighthouses were destroyed or lost over time. There were a variety of reasons for their demise, ranging from sinking marshes, erosion, shipworms, and ships that accidently hit and damaged their bases. The replica lighthouse, which was dedicated in 2004, pays homage to those lost lighthouses with interior exhibits about Roanoke Island’s maritime history, lighthouses, and keepers.
You’ll find the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse at the end of the pier on the Manteo Waterfront, sitting 40 yards out into the Roanoke Sound. It’s an idyllic site with its white walls and red shingled roof, with the small 2′ ft., 4″ in. tall lens perched on top.
The interior of the lighthouse was open yet unattended when we visited, but we couldn’t climb the stairs to look more closely at the light. We enjoyed a walk along the Manteo waterfront after stopping for an excellent coffee from the Island Perk Coffee Shop. I definitely recommend stopping to see the lighthouse and the town of Manteo if you have the time, especially if you are taking Route 64 – the road most people take into the Outer Banks – since you’ll be driving right past it.
Need to know information for visiting the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse:
– Address: Queen Elizabeth Street, Manteo, NC 27954. (End of the pier on the Manteo Waterfront.)
– Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9-5 from spring through fall (I couldn’t find anything more specific, unfortunately). But you can look at it and walk around the exterior anytime.
Outer Banks Lighthouses Map:
Thanks for reading my guide to the Outer Banks Lighthouses!
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