The Lighthouses in the Outer Banks are beautiful and hold a large piece of the history of the barrier islands. The waters around the Outer Banks have taken down many a vessel over the years. Currently, there are around 5,000 known shipwrecks off the coast of the OBX. Something had to be done to safely guide the ships to shore.
So, lighthouses were built. The inhabitants of the Outer Banks built them from the ground and they guided ships to shore for many years. Of course, lack of light wasn’t the only thing that causes the tragic events around the islands. There are sand shoals off the coast that have taken down many ships. However, the Outer Banks lighthouses played an important role in decreasing these tragedies.
Today, although some of the lighthouses are still operational, they are mostly ornamental. You can find them dotting the coast from the northernmost part of the OBX in Corolla to the southernmost part in Ocracoke.
If you are planning a trip to the Outer Banks this year, you will want to be sure to pay a visit to the beautiful and historically significant lighthouses in the Outer Banks. Let’s get started!
How Many Lighthouses Are In The Outer Banks?
There are five lighthouses in the Outer Banks. Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, Ocracoke Island, Currituck, and Roanoke Marshes Lighthouses.
Can You Go In The Lighthouses In The Outer Banks?
Only the Currituck, Cape Hatteras, and Bodie Island Lighthouses can be climbed. Depending on the circumstances and the time of year you are visiting will determine if they are open for visitors to climb. You will want to be sure to check their websites online before you go.
Lighthouses In The Outer Banks To Visit This Year
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the prettiest lighthouses in the Outer Banks! It’s located on Hatteras Island in Buxton, North Carolina. This lighthouse sticks out and is quite familiar due to the spiraling black and white design.
The Cape Hatteras Light Station protects vessels from one of the most dangerous parts of the Atlantic Coast. The offshore area of Hatteras Island is where the Gulf Stream and the Virginia Drift collide. There are a large number of sand shoals off of the Outer Banks as well, giving it the name of The Graveyard of The Atlantic.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has a long history. Construction of a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras was authorized in 1794 when the residents and congress recognized just how dangerous the area was for ships. The lighthouse wasn’t constructed until 1799 and didn’t first light up until 1803. Unfortunately, it was not effective at warning ships.
To fix the situation, 60 feet of height was added to the lighthouse in 1854, making it 150 feet tall. It was also given a better lense that resulted in a stronger beam. Just over a decade, later the tower was needing repairs and it was decided that replacing the tower would be cheaper than repairing it.
So, in 1870 the Outer Banks was given a new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with the iconic black and white stripes that we have all come to know. Over time this tower was threatened by erosion. In 1893 it was between 1400-1500 feet from the shoreline, in 1945 it was 500-900 feet from the shoreline, and in 1980 it was just 50-75 feet from the shoreline. In 1999 it was moved to a new location further inland where it sits today.
Today, you can visit the lighthouse, walk the trails around on-site, and enjoy the views. A restoration process has been taking place and will continue to be in progress through 2022, prohibiting visitors from climbing to the top of the tower. However, in the past people were able to climb the steps to the top and enjoy the breathtaking view. In the future, this will be a reality for visitors once again.
Visiting the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks and is a must-add to anyone’s Outer Banks itinerary!
Bodie Island Lighthouse
The Bodie Island Lighthouse is famous for being one of the most stunning lighthouses on the east coast. The Bodie (pronounce “body”) Lighthouse was said to have gotten its name from all of the bodies that washed ashore from the wrecked vessels in the Graveyard of The Atlantic.
The lighthouse on Bodie Island is actually the third to stand on the island. It is 164 feet tall and was first lit in 1872. The lighthouse was electrified in 1932 and after a restoration process, it was relit in 2013. This is the year that the National Park Service opened it for visitors.
On the grounds, you will find a visitors center that is located in the old keeper’s quarters. The center has exhibits and a bookstore. You are more than welcome to take a self-guided tour of the grounds. There is a beautiful wooden boardwalk over the wetland that takes you up to an elevated observation deck where you will find truly photo-worthy views of the lighthouse and the coastal wetlands below.
The history of the Bodie Island Lighthouse is similar to that of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It lasted just twelve years due to a poor foundation and was rebuilt in 1859. At this point, it stood at 800 feet tall. It was eventually blown up by Confederate troops in 1861 to keep the Union troops from being able to use it for their advantage.
The current lighthouse is 156 feet tall and is adorned with classic black and white horizontal stripes. If you want to take a guided tower of the lighthouse you can purchase tickets on-site from the end of April through to Columbus day. The tours last for forty-five minutes and children must be at least 42 inches tall to be able to enter the lighthouse.
Bodie Island Lighthouse is one of the best things to do in Nags Head, North Carolina. Well, honestly, it’s one of the best things to do in the entire Tarheel State. The landscape and boardwalk around the lighthouse make the visit super rewarding to travelers.
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
On one of the most remote portions of North Carolina, you will find the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse. For hundreds of years, this island dominated the shipping game in coastal NC because of its port. Due to the dangerous waters off of the coast of the Outer Banks, a lighthouse in the area was necessary.
At first, a lighthouse was built on Shell Island, a sand bar near Ocracoke. The lighthouse was effective but the channel changed over time and the traffic in the waters changed with the changing channel. Because of this, a new lighthouse was built in a better location. This time, on Ocracoke Island.
The new lighthouse was constructed in 1823 and it is still standing in the same location on the island. The light in the lighthouse has been replaced and it became automated in the early 1900s. However, the fact that the tower is original is incredible.
Keep in mind that you cannot reach the island by road. The Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island ferry is the best way to reach the island. Plus, it’s free!
When you start looking for lighthouses in the Outer Banks, you are probably expecting the typical black and white stripes and tall structure that we have all grown used to from lighthouses on the east coast. This lighthouse is a bit shorter than the other OBX lighthouses. It is all white brick and stands at around 75 feet tall.
It is normal for travelers on an OBX road trip to start at the top of the Outer Banks and work their way down to Ocracoke Island. If this is you, the last lighthouse you will see on your road trip will be the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse. Other than the lighthouse, there’s natural beauty and other fun things to do on Ocracoke Island. The island also has some of the most mouthwatering restaurants in the Outer Banks!
Keep in mind that there is limited visitor parking for the lighthouse. (just a few spots) If you are getting around the island on a bike, that is no problem at all as there’s a lot of bike parking at the lighthouse.
This red-brick lighthouse sits in the northern part of the Outer Banks. The Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla was built in 1875 and has been flashing every twenty seconds ever since. This was the last major brick lighthouse that was constructed in the OBX. Since the Currituck Lighthouse was left unpainted, you are able to see each brick that was used in construction.
It stands 162 feet tall and more than one million bricks were used in the construction of the lighthouse. An interesting fact about this Outer Banks Lighthouse is that it is known as a first order lighthouse. This is a group of lighthouses that use the largest of the seven sizes of Fresnal lenses. The lighthouse is next to Historic Corolla Park which is one of the best things to do in Corolla, NC.
The park is home to the Whalehead Club, walking paths, paddle boats, a beautiful wooden bridge, green space, the Currituck Maritime Museum, as well as views of Whale Head Bay. In the park, you are free to go crabbing. This is amazing because you don’t need a license and you can take home a whopping 50 crabs per person. (Of course, you will want to check with the NC Division of Marine Fisheries website for details before you go crabbing.)
After visiting the park, walk next door to the Currituck Lighthouse.
There are 220 steps to the top of this historic lighthouse that you can climb up. You will fall in love with the view from the top as you can see Whale Head Bay, Currituck Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean from the top.
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
In the inward most island of the barrier islands, you will find the smallest of most non-traditional of the lighthouses in the Outer Banks, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. In Shallowbag Bay, a wooden boardwalk leads out over the water for forty yards. At the end of the boardwalk is the lighthouse. This little light was built to help guide ships through the marshlands in the beautiful Roanoke Sound.
In the 1800s two lighthouses were built and both named Roanoke Marshes Light. They both were lost or neglected beyond repair. The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse that stands on Roanoke Island in the town of Manteo today is a replica of the third lighthouse with the same name that was built in 1877. The lighthouse standing today was completed in 2004.
At the bottom of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, you will find a small free museum. The museum shows a history of the sound, the Outer Banks, and the lighthouses that came before. If you have been looking for free things to do in the Outer Banks, a visit to this lighthouse and museum should be at the top of your list!
This lighthouse has not been included on many lists of lighthouses in North Carolina and in the OBX because of its small size and because it doesn’t look the same look as most typical lighthouses. However, it is definitely worthy of being added to your OBX bucket list. It is usually open Tuesday through Saturday from nine in the morning until five in the evening.
There are loads of cool things to do in Manteo where the lighthouse is located. Visiting this little 37-foot lighthouse is a great way to stick to your travel budget when traveling in Manteo.
You can find cute shops, top-notch restaurants, this amazing little sweet shop called The Laughing Lollipop, and more, making Manteo one of the best towns in the Outer Banks! Manteo is also the home to the mysterious Lost Colony where English settlers suddenly and confusingly disappeared without a trace. You can rest assured that you will have a lot of activities and sites to see around the lighthouse.
You can find the original Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse near the town of Wanchese at the south entrance of the Croatan Sound. There are also other river lighthouses in the area other than Roanoke light. There’s an original lighthouse in the Inner Banks in Edenton. You will find it along the downtown waterfront. It was moved there in 2012 and it’s become a very popular attraction in coastal North Carolina.
The lighthouses in the Outer Banks have played a role in shaping the barrier islands into what they are today. Being able to experience them for yourself is a super cool experience and one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks! Which of them will you visit first?
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