Off the coast of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia lie a string a barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Locals affectionately and collectively call it the OBX, a catchy acronym you’ll see plastered not just there, but up and down the eastern seaboard – a testament to the many seasonal visitors and wannabe locals who get back to visit as often as they can.
The Outer Banks are natural and rustic, a touch more New England than southern, with a constant wind that blows across the narrow spit of land, a constant reminder from Mother Nature of the might she wields over the ever-shifting sandbar. And of course, there’s the intriguing history of the Outer Banks – pirate history – of shipwrecks and salvage, rum and ruin, lighthouses and life saving stations.
And you can feel it… all around you. There are plenty of places to satisfy your lust for nautical lore – from local museums, annual events, and even rum distilleries that celebrate this part of OBX history. But some of the most fun you can have is visiting the string of Outer Banks lighthouses where this maritime history is on full display, from Currituck Beach down to Ocracoke Island.
Outer Banks Lighthouses
How Many OBX Lighthouses Are There?
4 historic lighthouses line the Outer Banks: Currituck Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and all the way down at the southernmost point of the OBX lies the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse.
One relatively new lighthouse, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, is sometimes included in the total of 5 OBX lighthouses. It was dedicated in 2004 and was designed with local maritime architecture in mind to recreate an original that once stood in the Manteo area.
Which Outer Bank Lighthouses Can You Climb?
Of the 4 historic lighthouses, only three allow you to make the (fairly easy) climb to the tippy top for the best view of all: Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
How Many Steps? 220
The northernmost lighthouse of the Outer Banks is Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1875), located in the heart of Corolla. At 162′ feet tall, the lighthouse‘s First Order Fresnel lens (the largest size available for American lighthouses), can be seen for 18 nautical miles.
Early engineers intentionally left the natural red brick unpainted to be more visible to passing ships, and today its distinctive exterior sets it apart from others on the OBX, giving you an appreciation for the incredible number of bricks used in its construction. The structure is also the only original lighthouse structure in its original location, though it has been completely restored.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse grounds are open for exploration all year long though visitors can only climb the lighthouse during summer months. The original Keeper’s Quarters have been transformed into a small museum which has artifacts, photos, and other memorabilia from the lighthouse’s nearly 150 years of service. Plus, there’s other interesting exhibits at the base of the lighthouse and at the first two landings.
1101 Corolla Village Road, Corolla, NC – Open from Easter through Thanksgiving. Fee to climb.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
How Many Steps? 214
After the U.S. government commissioned a location search in 1837, a site was found to build a lighthouse near Bodie Island (pronounced “body”) in Nags Head. The first 54′ tall structure was built and then abandoned after the unsupported brick structure began to lean. In 1858, a second 80′ structure was built but destroyed just 2 short years later by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War to prevent Union troops from using it as a lookout.
Finally, a third lighthouse was completed in 1872, a structure that was 156′ tall and included a First Order Fresnel Lens and lighthouse keepers’ duplex. In 1932, the lighthouse became automated, and by 1953 was transferred into the care of the National Park Service. Today it still shines a beam 19 miles offshore. There’s a visitors center and museum at the lighthouse, and a walkway out to the marsh behind the lighthouse that makes a great photo op.
8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head, NC – Open during summer months. Fee to climb.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
How Many Steps? 257
With its distinctive black and white candy cane stripes, the Grandaddy of them all is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the world’s tallest brick lighthouse. At a towering 208 feet tall, it’s one of Hatteras Island’s biggest attractions, and the lighthouse that protects one of the most treacherous stretches along the Outer Banks.
The current lighthouse is actually the 2nd lighthouse to service Hatteras Island. The first one at 90′ was completed in 1803, but the sandstone structure proved ineffective in protecting passing ships from the deadly Diamond Shoals off the coast, so another 60′ was added to its height 50 years later, along with a bright coat of red paint to its facade.
This may have been more effective for passing ships to spot, but by 1868, plans were underway to build a brand new lighthouse which was finally completed and lit by the end of 1870. The light beacon stretches 20 miles out into the Atlantic.
For over a hundred years, the new lighthouse served Cape Hatteras well until the late 1990s when beach erosion finally threatened the structure to a critical point. Thanks to a stunning engineering marvel, the lighthouse was moved in 1999 along with its surrounding outbuildings – 2,900 feet inland to a safer location.
It’s quite an achievement, and one that’s appreciated even more from the view at the top. With your first glimpse, it’s easy to see why so many ships ran aground along these shores, and incredible to imagine the souls that both perished with their ships into the Graveyard of the Atlantic, and those who miraculously survived.
46368 Lighthouse Road, Buxton, NC – Open Easter through Columbus Day. Fee to climb.
What to Expect When Climbing the OBX Lighthouses
- Are You Fit? There is no elevator or air conditioning in the lighthouses, so it may be noisy, humid and somewhat claustrophobic. If you have heart, respiratory, or other medical conditions that make climbing difficult you should use your own discretion and/or ask your physician if it’s safe to climb.
- What Should We Bring? Bring water in a plastic bottle and keep hydrated.
- What Footwear Should We Wear? Wear comfortable and sturdy shoes, no heels or platform shoes.
- Follow Park Rules Further rules may apply depending on the location. Read the rules before you climb at each location.
- Always call ahead to make sure the lighthouse is open, and not closed for maintenance, staff shortage, or inclement weather.
And Don’t Forget to Visit….
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in downtown Manteo is a composite of the original lighthouse from 1877 that stood at the southern entrance of the Croatan Sound in Wanchese, along with architectural details from other structures around the Outer Banks. Open from spring through early fall, the interior of the lighthouse is home to local Manteo exhibits focusing on Roanoke Island’s long and stormy maritime history. It’s a beautiful addition to the town and a lovely walk on the pier, so don’t miss it when you’re in Manteo!
300 Queen Elizabeth Ave, Manteo, NC
Disclosure Note: Many thanks to The Outer Banks who hosted our recent climb to the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. All opinions, as always, are our own.