Lighthouses and Other Lifts

Surf fishing in the shadow of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, circa 1956.

Lots of people think of a great escape to the waves and sand when summer rolls around. There are plenty of diversions at the shore! Many are attracted to the Outer Banks and the lighthouse guardians of North Carolina’s coast, and other cultural gems nearby.

Visitors will discover three North Carolina Maritime Museums, three coastal state historic sites and three state aquariums that provide great entertainment on a day trip to the coast or as part of a longer getaway. 

The Curritcuk Beach Light, circa 1979.

Starting in the Northeast

Starting in the northeast corner of the state, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse is a round, red brick tower that was built in 1875 and restored in 2000. Head south and near Manteo you will find the Bodie Island Lighthouse, constructed in 1872 and now being restored. The round brick tower painted with black and white bands makes a distinctive impression.  The Currituck Lighthouse is open Easter through Thanksgiving weekend. The Bodie Island Lighthouse is closed for restoration.

When you head back to the mainland for some seafood or taffy, be sure to explore Roanoke Island Festival Park for a trip to the 1500s. The attraction includes the white-sailed vessel Elizabeth II, sailors in blouson shirts or men in tights and hats with feathers. See a 16th century style American Indian village, the Adventure Museum – where you can try clothes or tools from the period – and so much more. It’s well worth the price of admission.

Visit Roanoke Island Festival Park Today

Hatteras and Ocracoke

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, constructed in 1870, was restored and moved one-half mile inland to save it from the advancing Atlantic Ocean in 2000. The round brick tower replaced a brick octagonal tower and re-opened after renovations in 2003. It is the country’s tallest lighthouse at 208 feet. It is one of the most famous lighthouses, with bricks painted in a striking black and white spiral pattern and may be the best known building in North Carolina.

The Ocracoke Lighthouse, a little south, is a round cement veneer tower painted white.  Constructed in 1823, it is the state’s oldest lighthouse in continuous service.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is open Easter through Columbus Day; the Ocracoke Lighthouse is open during the summer but closed for climbing.

Lighthouses served a vital purpose in the 1800s – they helped mariners navigate North Carolina’s treacherous coastline, serving as a beacon and warning of dangerous shoals. The area became known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic as testament to the many shipwrecks in those waters. While visiting the Hatteras or Ocracoke lighthouses, head over to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras.

There you will see tales of the lost Shipwreck of Diamond Shoals, learn of storms at sea, piracy and other potentially deadly encounters for mariners. The oldest and most recently recovered shipwreck in the state, from the mid 1600s, is also on display at the free museum.

Plan Your Trip to the Graveyard of Atlantic Museum    

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse, circa 1900.

Cape Lookout

Unique in the U.S. is the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, painted with a black and white diamond pattern. The brick structure, constructed in 1859, has been renovated and is located on an uninhabited barrier island. Across the sound in Beaufort is the N.C. Maritime Museum, which tells the story of the state’s maritime history, culture and environment. It also is home to the exhibit, Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge 1718, with artifacts from the wreck of the flagship of the world’s most notorious pirates. 

The museum is free, and nearby shops sell delicious fudge and ice cream. Cape Lookout Lighthouse is open mid March through early November. 

See All That the Maritime Museum in Beuafort Has to Offer

Ending in the Southeast

At the southern Outer Banks are the Oak Island Lighthouse and Old Baldy (Bald Head Island Lighthouse).

The Oak Island Lighthouse, constructed in 1958, is black in the upper third, white in the center third, and gray at the bottom third. The color is not painted, but in the concrete. Old Baldy is a round, brick tower with mottled stucco veneer, constructed in 1817. It is the nation’s oldest brick lighthouse and the last built in the early federal octagonal style. Old Baldy is open daily; the Oak Island Lighthouse has a ladder, not stairs. It is open Wednesdays and Saturdays, Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Many other cultural attractions pepper the area. The N.C. Maritime Museum at Southport is dedicated to the maritime history of the region, and sits at the merging of the mighty Cape Fear River and the powerful Atlantic Ocean. Sea pilots, pirates and merchant mariners all are represented here. At Wilmington, the Battleship North Carolina tells the tales of World War II sailors and their lives at sea. Nearby Fort Fisher, at Kure Beach, is a Civil War vintage earthworks fort where America’s largest land and naval assault up until World War I took place.

The Battleship North Carolina is fee-based; the other two venues are free.

Find Summer Fun Along North Carolina's Coast

Mapping North Carolina's Lighthouses

Learn More About Tar Heel Lighthouses on NCpedia

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