With so many beautiful lighthouses in North Carolina, you could easily make a vacation out of “lighthouse hopping,” but you’ll find plenty of other things to do during your explorations, like spending time on the beach, enjoy all sorts of activities on the water, wildlife viewing and much more.
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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Buxton
Many of North Carolina’s lighthouses are in the Outer Banks, the narrow strip of land that separates Pamlico Sound from the open waters of the Atlantic, including the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, known for being the tallest brick lighthouse in the entire country, and, at 210 feet tall, it’s among the world’s tallest too. Roughly 1.25 million bricks were used to build this huge structure that lights up every seven seconds, overlooking one of the most ominous places in maritime history, the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Over the past 500 years, more than 2,000 ships have been wrecked on sandbars in the area known as the Diamond Shoals. The original lighthouse was built in the late 1700s on land that was purchased for $50. Today’s lighthouse, constructed in 1870, has a beacon that can be seen for nearly 20 miles out to sea. Visitors can learn more about its history as well as the history of the area at the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum of the Sea, and climb nearly 300 steps to the top of the lighthouse.
Bodie Island Light Station, Nags Head
The Bodie Island Light Station, unique for its black and white daymark, towers 165 feet above Bodie Island in the Outer Banks near Nags Head. Erected in 1847, the lighthouse was destroyed and rebuilt in 1859 and 1872 due to conflicts during the Civil War. After a more recent, major renovation, visitors can now take the spiral staircase to the top. After making the climb, you can enjoy the many other attracts in the area, including a visit to Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates very spot of the brothers’ first successful motorized flight. Jockey’s Ridge, the tallest sand dune on the East Coast, offers all sorts of activities like kite flying, hang gliding and sunset gazing, while the Atlantic provides the opportunity for all types of water sports.
Cape Lookout, Harkers Island
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse, built in 1859, is 163-feet- tall, and is similar in construction to the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It’s distinguished by its diamond-patterned daymark, and that its light flashes day and night to guide ships as far as 19 miles away. No bridges lead to any of the three barrier islands that make up Cape Lookout National Seashore, so you will have to take either a private boat or a public ferry, but getting there is part of the adventure. If you take the ferry, it stops at Shackleford Banks first, where wild ponies roam the shore. For many years the lighthouse was closed to the public, but today, visitors can climb the 207 steps that lead to the top, from about mid-May to mid-September each year. As it is a tough climb, if you’re not up to the task you can view the four outside “View from the Top“ exhibits located near the lighthouse Keepers’ Quarters. Afterwards, you can enjoy birding, fishing, beachcombing and multiple other outdoor activities.
Old Baldy Lighthouse, Bald Head Island
Bald Head Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from Southport, is home to Old Baldy, the oldest standing lighthouse in the state. It led sailors to the Cape Fear River entrance for nearly 200 years, and while the light inside it still works, Old Baldy no longer operates as a navigational beacon. Visitors can explore the Old Baldy Museum, which includes the keeper’s cottage, an oil house, and the lighthouse, as well as climb the 108 steps that lead to the top. With the island home to 14 miles of uncrowded, pristine stretches of sand, it’s also the perfect place to forget about your worries, enjoy lounging in the sun or taking part in all sorts of outdoor adventures and recreational activities like golfing on a seaside course, paddling hidden creeks in a kayak or surfing, paddle boarding or sailing in the surrounding waters.
Oak Island Lighthouse, Oak Island
Lit for the first time in 1958, the Oak Island Lighthouse is one of the country’s newest lighthouses. It bears a black, white, and grey daymark, and its light can be seen from over 16 nautical miles. If you’re up to the task, you can climb the nearly vertical 131 steps to the top, but you’ll have to make reservations well in advance – at least four weeks if you plan to go in the summer, and two weeks between September and May. Tours to the second level are available during the summer months, Wednesdays and Saturdays only, and do not require reservations.
The island boasts 10 miles of uncrowded beaches, and lots of family-friendly attractions too. You can witness baby sea turtles emerge from a nest and crawl into the sea, learn to surf, watch for dolphins, kayak, golf and more.
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse, Ocracoke Island
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse sits on the outermost island of the Outer Banks and is one of the state’s oldest lighthouses, and the second oldest still-operating lighthouse in the country. Here since 1823, the light may only be 65 feet tall, but its beam is visible from up to 14 miles away. Unlike many of the other lighthouses in the area, this one isn’t open to the public to climb, and there is no visitor center, museum, gift shop or the like, but you can capture a postcard-perfect picture of the lighthouse and the seashore that surrounds it from many vantage points throughout the village of Ocracoke, and pick up lighthouse memorabilia at many of the town’s shops. The island also hosts over 250 historic structures, most using materials from scuttled ships, along with beautiful beaches, wild ponies and a wealth of restaurants serving up fresh seafood.
Roanoke River Lighthouse
The Roanoke River Lighthouse in historic Plymouth is a collection of light stations that tower over the Roanoke River. The main lighthouse is a replica of the structure that stood on the banks of the river for over a century, while the Maritime Museum offers the chance to learn about the lives of fishermen, merchants, soldiers, and farmers who lived here in the mid-19th-century. It also hosts an aquarium, a detailed boat building exhibit, and an extensive collection of original photographs. To get a better view or take a photo of the light stations and the museum, walk along the nearby Rail Switch Nature Trail where you’ll discover a number of other museums and historic sites.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Corolla Village
Currituck Beach Lighthouse sits stop the cliffs in Corolla Village, known as a vacation paradise, bordering the Atlantic and the Currituck Sound, providing access to both the waves and the more tranquil sound waters that are ideal for paddling. The redbrick lighthouse has guided vessels in the area for nearly 150 years now, and its high-powered light can be seen from nearly 20 nautical miles away. Visitors can climb the 220 steps to the top to take in the panoramic vista from the top of the Atlantic and the village below. While you’re here, you can enjoy the main attraction: the gorgeous, wide expanses of soft sands, with plenty of space to throw down a blanket, as well as offering the chance to take part in a wealth of activities like fishing and beachcombing. This area is also home to Wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs who were stranded on the Outer Banks centuries ago, and are still enjoying the laid-back beach lifestyle today.
Price Creek Lighthouse, Southport
Located near Southport, this lighthouse may not seen like much – it’s actually decaying and has been inactive since the Civil War. But it has an ethereal, somewhat haunting beauty, along with a waterfront location that can make for some very cool pictures. The light in the lighthouse was destroyed by Confederate forces who wanted Union troops to become disoriented in battle, and it’s easy to imagine the ghostly figures of those who were once here. While only the shell of the lighthouse remains, you can go inside and walk up the old stairs. You’ll find lots to do in Southport too, including touring the local history with a visit to the Fort Johnston Museum and Visitors Center, and the Old Brunswick County Jail, fascinating jail-turned-museum that operated for 70 years after it was first built in 1904. Other activities include kayaking the Blackwater Cypress Swamp or Cape Fear River, and watching for wildlife, including a wide range of birds, amphibians, and even the occasional alligator.