A Lighthouse Tour of the Outer Banks of North Carolina
If you want to combine a seaside vacation with a unique experience in coastal history, why not plan a lighthouse tour of North Carolina’s lighthouses of the Outer Banks? You will have the opportunity to visit lighthouse keeper’s quarters and small museums, walk the pretty lighthouse grounds and, in some cases, climb to the top of the lighthouses to get fantastic views of the Outer Banks islands.
These beautiful old lighthouses were built to warn mariners of treacherous or shallow waters and guide them to safety. Originally manned by a lighthouse keeper who lived in adjoining quarters with his family, maintaining the lamps and keeping them lit was an important and consuming full-time job.
Early NC Lighthouses From the 1800's
Funded by acts of Congress, the earliest lighthouses in North Carolina were built in the early 1800’s. Fierce storms, lack of funding and even war damage caused many of the lighthouses to fall into disrepair. Some were rebuilt several times, others moved to better locations, still others disappeared altogether. Today the remaining lighthouses are preserved as historic monuments scattered for 200 miles on the barrier islands of the Outer Banks from Corolla to Ocracoke. Although the lighthouses no longer require a lighthouse keeper to manually light the lamps, the beacons still shine out to sea as a friendly light to seagoing vessels.
National Lighthouse Day
On August 7th, 1789, Congress commissioned the first federal lighthouse and designated August 7th as National Lighthouse Day.
Itinerary for a Lighthouse Tour of the Outer Banks
If you are vacationing in the Outer Banks, you can choose to stay in one of the many vacation rental houses, in a campground or in a hotel. By staying between Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, you will be able to take day trips to see 5 of the most interesting and beautiful of the North Carolina Lighthouses.Combine your lighthouse visits with shopping in quaint villages, picnics on the beach or swimming in the ocean and you will have the perfect coastal vacation.
First Stop: Currituck Beach Lighthouse
Start at North Carolina’s northern most lighthouse, Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla, NC. This lighthouse is a beautifully preserved red brick tower standing 158 feet tall. Built in 1875, this lighthouse boasts a Fresnel lens that is visible for 18 miles. Walk around the pretty grounds while you are here and be sure to walk the wooden walkway through the marsh to get a view of Currituck Sound. While you are sure to want several photographs of the lighthouse, you may also want to snap a few pictures of the beautiful resident roosters and chickens that wander freely wander the grounds and check visitors for handouts.
Visitors who wish to climb to the top of the lighthouse may do so for a $8 admission fee. Children under 7 are admitted free. Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult; ages 13-18 may climb alone with a signed parental waiver. Contact phone number: (252) 453-4939
As you drive back to your hotel, you may want to stop in Duck for lunch and some shopping at Scarborough Lane Shoppes, a unique collection of shops and restaurants. You can even stop to watch wind surfers on the Currituck Sound. Or you may prefer to take a picnic lunch and your bathing suit and walk out onto the free beach access near the lighthouse. While there are no changing rooms or restrooms at the beach, there are public restrooms near the lighthouse parking area.
Second Stop: Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is easily accessible along the Manteo waterfront facing the Pamlico Sound and is surrounded by a pleasant park with wooden walkways. Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is modeled after an 1877 screwpile lighthouse that once guided mariners through the narrow channel between Pamlico Sound and Croatan Sound. This lighthouse contains exhibits of Roanoke Island’s maritime history. Admission is free. Hours vary seasonally, but the lighthouse is usually closed on Sunday and Monday. Contact Information: (252) 475-1750
During your visit to Manteo, you may want to explore some of the quaint shops along the waterfront. Or, you may want to visit Roanoke Island Festival Park, an interactive park featuring the Elizabeth II, a replica of the sailing vessels that brought the first settlers to Roanoke Island in 1585.
Third Stop: Bodie Island Lighthouse
The original Bodie (pronounced “Body”) Island Lighthouse was built in 1847 on Pea Island. Due to poor construction, it was abandoned 12 years later. The ill-fated lighthouse was blown up by Confederate troops in 1861 just a few years after the second lighthouse was completed. Today, the 3rd Bodie Island Lighthouse stands 150 feet tall just south of Nags Head, NC within the boundaries of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It has a first-order Fresnel lens that can be seen 19 miles out to sea.
Newly renovated, the lighthouse is now open for climbing. There is an $8 charge. The restored lighthouse keepers quarters houses a museum and a gift shop. There is also a nature walk through the surrounding marsh. The visitor center and lighthouse grounds are open year-round. Contact information (252) 441-5711
There are no stores or restaurants near the Bodie Island Lighthouse, so be sure to bring your own drinks and picnic supplies. For those who love to swim in the ocean, Coquina Beach is directly across from the lighthouse road. This is a free beach with a large parking lot, restrooms, and bathhouses as well as outdoor showers and a wooden walkway out to the beach.
Fourth Stop: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
If you are staying in Nags Head, you will want to allow a full day for your trip to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Allow time to view the fishing boats at the Oregon Inlet Marina and spend an hour at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Depending on the time of year, you may see flocks of snow geese or migrating tundra swans. In the summer, there will be many coastal birds living in the marshes of Pea Island. Because of erosion of the dunes, the road on the south side of Oregon Inlet is sometimes overwashed by the high tide or partially blocked by blowing sand, though it is seldom completely closed. If there is an access problem, you will see signs before you cross the Bonner bridge.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton, NC is probably one of the most well-known of the Outer Banks lighthouses. It is also known as America’s Lighthouse, and America watched the spectacular project on television when it was moved a half-mile inland in 1999 to protect it from beach erosion that was undermining its foundations. It is the tallest brick lighthouse in the country and stands 208 feet tall. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has served the important purpose of warning mariners away from the 20 miles of treacherous and shifting sandbars known as Diamond Shoals and still stands today casting its 1000 watt light more than 20 miles into the ocean.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is open for climbing from mid-April through October. Fees are $4 for adults and $4 for children under 12 (children must be at least 42” tall to climb the tower) with special rates for holders of the America the Beautiful Senior or Access pass. There is also a visitor center and gift shop. The National Park Service also provides free educational programs at the lighthouse. Contact Information: (252) 995-4474
While visiting the lighthouse, take a walk to the original site of the lighthouse. This is a great place to watch windsurfers, too.
There are some picnic areas near the lighthouse and a beach access point not too far away for those who wish to swim. Four-wheel drive vehicles can also access the popular Diamond Shoals fishing area from here, but check with rangers at the lighthouse first as the area is sometimes closed to protect nesting birds or turtles. Starting in February 2012, the National Park Service requires that anyone driving on the beach purchase either a $50 seven day pass or an annual pass for $120. Check the Park Service website for up-to-date information on beach driving.
If you wish to dine out, Buxton has several restaurants, a small grocery store, and a few gift shops.Drive just a few miles south of Buxton, and you will come to the village of Hatteras at the tip of Hatteras Island. There you will find the Ferry terminal with service to Ocracoke Island.
Last Stop: Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
Plan to spend a day if you travel from Nags Head to Ocracoke Island to visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse. The island is only accessible by the free ferry which leaves from Hatteras, and in the summer there may be long waiting lines. Get to the ferry terminal early to avoid long waits.
To get more information about the NC ferry system, and view the ferry schedule, click here: Ferry Schedule.
The Ocracoke Lighthouse, built in 1822, is North Carolina’s oldest operating lighthouse. It was first built in 1798 as a wooden structure to mark the channel at Ocracoke Inlet, but when the inlet shifted, the original lighthouse was useless. Finally in 1822 Congress authorized funding for the present lighthouse tower. Although only 75 feet tall, it shines 14 miles out to sea. One of the most picturesque lighthouses, the white tower is framed by green lawns and a white picket fence. It is not open for climbing.
Ocracoke Island is accessible by a free ferry which leaves from the ferry terminal at Hatteras. The lighthouse is located in the village of Ocracoke. Contact Information: (888) 493-3826
While you are on Ocracoke Island, you will want to walk around the village and visit some of the shops featuring local arts and crafts. Most of the island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and there are many access points for 4 wheel drive vehicles to enter the beaches. There is also a National Park Campground on Ocracoke and other lodging at hotels and guest houses if you wish to stay overnight.
Lighthouses, Museums, History and the Seashore
Taking a tour of the five lighthouses on the Outer Banks will still leave you plenty of time to enjoy the beach, museums, shopping and some great seafood restaurants. You'll find lots to do on the Outer Banks, but be sure to leave time to just relax on the beach, play in the surf and watch the dolphins play.
Lighthouses on the Outer Banks
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Stephanie Henkel