Lighthouses of the Outer Banks

After living in NC all of my life, my first trip to the Outer Banks was with my family in 2011. We visited four different lighthouses, two which allow visitors to climb to the top. We also visited the Wright Brothers Memorial and took a ferry to Ocracoke Island.

The Outer Banks most remote island

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by RoBoNC on January 6, 2013

Although the Outer Banks is a collection of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, they are all connected by bridges along NC Highway 12. However, Ocracoke Island is the most remote populated island in the Outer Banks, because it is only accessible by ferry. At the southern end of Hatteras Island in the village of Hatteras, NC 12 ends at a ferry terminal. This is the only free ferry crossing to Ocracoke. We drove our vehicle on board the Thomas A Baum ferry for the forty minute ride to the island. We got out of our vehicle and walked around the ferry, enjoying the fresh cool air, feeding the seagulls, and enjoying the spectacular view of the Outer Banks.

After disembarking the ferry, we drove about twelve miles to Ocracoke Village on NC 12 which picks back up on the island. Although vehicles are used on the island, parking is very scarce. The easiest way to get around is either by foot, bicycle, or golf cart. There are many places in town that rent both. We drove into town looking for a rental place and we found one at the Silver Lake Motel. They had golf cart rentals by the hour and were equipped with seat belts so that our little ones could ride in safety.

We drove north on Silver Lake Drive which wraps around the southern portion of Silver Lake, an inland harbor on the island. We turned onto British Cemetery Road and as the name implies, there is a British cemetery at the end of the road. During World War II, the British Royal Navy sent the HMT Bedfordshire to the east coast of the US to assist the US Navy in anti-submarine patrols. On May 11, 1942, a German U-boat sunk the ship and all 37 men on board perished. Four bodies were recovered and were interred in a cemetery in Ocracoke Village. There are four granite crosses that originally marked the burial site of the four soldiers. However, in 1983, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission replaced them with regulation British grave markers. The four crosses are still on display at the cemetery, located just to the right of the burial site. The cemetery is leased to the British government and the Royal Navy flag is hoisted above it. As a sign of respect to the British government for their assistance during the war, regular maintenance is performed by the US Coast Guard and island residents. On May 11th of each year, there is a ceremony to honor the fallen soldiers.

We drove a little further north on Silver Lake until it runs into the National Park Service visitor center. There is a parking lot for vehicles if you decide to not rent a bicycle or golf cart. The visitor center has maps and local information as well as other information on the rest of the Outer Banks. To the left of the visitor’s center is a local historical museum, the Ocracoke Preservation Museum. At the rear of the parking lot is a wooden walkway that leads to the Fort Ocracoke Civil War Memorial. The Confederates built the fort at the beginning of the Civil War on Beacon Island, about two miles west of Ocracoke Village. After the Union victories on nearby Hatteras Island in August 1861, the Confederates partly destroyed and abandoned the fort. Union forces completed the destruction of the fort. Beacon Island was eventually consumed by waters of Ocracoke in the early 20th century and its remains were discovered in 1998.

Right next to the Civil War Memorial is the ferry office and docks for those wishing to continue on NC 12. Ferries link Ocracoke with Cedar Island and another set of ferries link Ocracoke with Swan Quarter located on the mainland. Unlike the ferry from Hatteras, these two are paid ferries and one way fares for a passenger car is $15.

Ocracoke’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism. There is a lot of shopping to be found on the island. There are many unique stores selling handcrafted items such as Island Artworks and Silver Lake Trading Co. For foodies, look all around and you can find something to fit your individual taste. Being at the Outer Banks, we had to have seafood. So right across the street from where we rented the golf cart is the Jolly Roger. It is an outdoor seating restaurant located directly next to Silver Lake. They serve great seafood and it is very popular among tourists and locals. Fishing charters dock around the restaurants where you may be treated to a fish cleaning. Then the discarded pieces are thrown into the lake which provides a great show as brown pelicans scramble to get every piece they can.

After we finished touring the Ocracoke Lighthouse (separate journal article), we headed back toward the ferry docks to catch our ride back to Hatteras. Ocracoke Island is a beautiful place to not only visit, but stay there as well. Our next trip back will definitely include a couple of nights on the island. In 2007, Ocracoke was voted America’s best beach and there is a reason why Ocracoke continues to be highly ranked.
Ocracoke Island beach

Outer Banks, North Carolina

Ocracoke Island's most famous landmark

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by RoBoNC on January 6, 2013

Ocracoke Island is home to the second oldest lighthouse in the US that is still in use. In 1823, the Ocracoke lighthouse was built after the original lighthouse, which was built in 1795, proved to not be able to withstand storms and eventually became obsolete. The Ocracoke lighthouse is a cone shaped building that stands 75 feet tall. At the base of the lighthouse, the diameter is 25 feet and narrows to 12 feet at its peak. It is a solid white brick building with an octagonal lantern at the top. The white exterior of the lighthouse is derived from a process of blending lime, salt, Spanish whiting, rice, glue, and boiling water. Then the mixture is applied to the lighthouse while still hot and the distinctive white color serves as an identifying mark to sailors.

The Fresnel lens in the lighthouse was installed in 1854, but was dismantled by Confederate troops during the Civil War. Union forces reinstalled the lens in 1864. The lighthouse was fully automated in 1955. The light can be seen from 14 miles away in all directions. Because the lighthouse is fully automated, it eliminated the need for a lighthouse keeper. It is now overseen by the United States Coast Guard.

Since the lighthouse keeper position had been abolished, the quarters that housed them still remains on the property. The original house was a one-story building built at the same time as the lighthouse. Over the years as the duties of the lighthouse keeper increased, a second one was added. So in 1897, a second story was built onto the house. Tours are not offered of the house because it is now a private residence.

The lighthouse can be visited daily. However, it is not open for tours. I have been told that whenever there is a park ranger on duty near the lighthouse, visitors may be allowed to go inside and look up, but there is no climbing.
Ocracoke Lighthouse
Ocracoke Island
Outer Banks, North Carolina

One of three lighthouses within Cape Hatteras National Seashore

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The Outer Banks is a collection of barriers islands and at one time Bodie Island was one of those islands. However, the inlet that separated it from the Currituck Banks closed up making it a continuous peninsula. Although it is not a true island anymore, it still retains its name. How it came to be called Bodie Island is still open to debate. The name has been attributed to the Body family that settled the area. Although, folklore would have it that the name Bodie Island came from number of dead bodies that washed ashore from sunken ships as the Outer Banks has been nicknamed "Graveyard of the Atlantic."

Bodie Island is famous for the Bodie Island Lighthouse which was built there in 1872. The lighthouse is one of three, along with Hatteras and Ocracoke lighthouses, that are located within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The lighthouse is located just six miles south of the National Seashore entrance, where US 64 intersects with NC 12. There is a short service road off of NC 12 that leads visitors to the Bodie Island Visitor Center.

The Visitor Center is housed in the original two story lighthouse keeper’s quarters which was built at the same time as the lighthouse. There is a gift shop inside along with information on the entire National Seashore. There are three visitor centers with the other two being at the Hatteras Lighthouse and on Ocracoke Island. Bodie Island will be the nearest visitor center if heading south on NC 12 from the seashore entrance.

When the lighthouse was built in 1872, it was the third lighthouse built on the property. The current lighthouse stands 165 feet tall with distinctive white and black alternating bands. The lighthouse was manned until 1940 when it became fully automated. The current light gives off a range of 18 miles.

The Bodie Island lighthouse is currently undergoing a massive restoration. The lighthouse had become deteriorated from the harsh elements and the NPS had been given funds to correct structural and safety problems. By the time we arrived at the lighthouse in May of 2011, the exterior restoration had already been completed. The NPS received additional funding in 2012 to restore the interior. The restoration process is expected to last a year. After the restoration is fully completed, the NPS expects that the lighthouse will be open to visitors for climbing. As of right now, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the only one available for climbing.

Bodie Island & Lighthouse
On the soundside of Highway 12
Outer Banks, North Carolina

Historic Lighthouse in Corolla

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After we left the Bodie Island Lighthouse, we drove about thirty-five miles north toward the Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla, NC. The town of Corolla is the last town on NC 12 heading north. The lighthouse is located in the historic Corolla Village. The red brick lighthouse towers 162 feet above the town and offers panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, Currituck Sound, and the surrounding Outer Banks. Unlike most of the other lighthouses which are operated by the National Park Service, the Currituck Lighthouse is privately operated by the nonprofit Outer Bank Conservationists. The lighthouse needed major repair and this nonprofit group stepped in and has spent the last thirty years restoring and up keeping it. It was opened up to the public in 1991.

Since the lighthouse has been opened to the public, visitors have been able to climb to the top and enjoy breathtaking views. The lighthouse is available for climbing daily from 9am to 5pm. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day the lighthouse will remain open until 8pm on Wednesday and Thursday. All visitors must sign a waiver before climbing to the top since the lighthouse was built before modern building codes and safety regulations. The entrance fee is $7 a person and children 12 and under must be accompanied by a parent. Children ages 7 and younger are free.

Getting to the top of the lighthouse requires climbing a 214 step spiraling staircase. There are historical exhibits about the lighthouse located at the base and the first two landings. At the top of the lighthouse, visitors may walk on the outdoor gallery. The lens room is closed to the public because it is still active. After the lighthouse was automated in 1939, the light shines over a distance of eighteen miles continuing to guide mariners as they approach the coast.

The Currituck Lighthouse’s exterior was intentionally left unpainted to distinguish it from the other lighthouses in the region. The one million unpainted bricks that were used to build the lighthouse give it its distinctive red color. It was the last major brick lighthouse built in the Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks Conservationists are currently in the process of restoring the light keeper’s house that was built in 1876 and once housed both families that were in charge of its upkeep. The exterior has been finished, but the interior is still being restored. On the north side of the complex is a smaller dwelling that was moved onto the grounds in 1920. It housed a third light keeper and his family and today it is now a museum shop open from Easter through Thanksgiving. There are also other historical structures on the grounds such as an outhouse, storage building, and two cisterns flanking the lighthouse keeper’s house which were used to collect rain water.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse (Historic Corolla)
Outer Banks, North Carolina, 27927
(252) 453-8152

The tallest lighthouse in the United States

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The most famous lighthouse in North Carolina is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse located near Buxton. The lighthouse sits in the heart of the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." In this area, the warm Gulf Stream current collides with colder currents from Canada, which creates ideal conditions for powerful ocean swells and storm surges. There were many ships that ran aground or sunk off the coast that it eventually acquired its nickname. Because of the number of shipwrecks, Congress authorized the construction of a lighthouse.
The construction of the lighthouse began in 1799 and it was first lit in 1803. It was originally built to only a height of 90 feet, but it was ineffective to warn ships because it was too short. Therefore in 1853, an additional 60 feet was added to the lighthouse bringing it to 150 feet tall. In the 1860’s, the lighthouse was in need of major repairs and in 1868 the building of a new lighthouse began.

The current Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was first lit on December 1, 1870. Shortly after completion of the lighthouse, the original 1803 lighthouse was demolished. The current lighthouse stands 210 feet tall and is the tallest lighthouse in the United States. The lighthouse has a red brick octagonal base and in 1873, the lighthouse was given its distinctive black and white spiral pattern. In 1934, the lighthouse was automated and the light has a range of 28 miles.

Although the lighthouse is still an active one, the National Park Service allows visitors to climb to the top. The lighthouse is open for climbing from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day. Tours run every 10 minutes with a limit of thirty visitors at a time. There is a fee of $7 for adults and $3.50 for senior citizens and children ages 11 and under, however they must be at least 42 inches tall.

The climb is very strenuous and it is recommended that tennis shoes be worn. Inside the lighthouse, there is a spiral staircase consisting of 248 steps which is the equivalent of a twelve story building. There is a handrail on only one side and a landing every 31 steps. There is no air conditioning inside the lighthouse. Visitors must also contend with two way traffic up and down the narrow staircase. The climb to the top of the tower was well worth it. Besides being able to say that I climbed to the top of the tallest lighthouse in the US, the climb also treated me to some of the most spectacular views of the Outer Banks. The Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding towns give visitors an idea of just how beautiful the Outer Banks really are. Back down on the ground, the principal keeper quarters and the double keepers quarters are the original buildings. The double keeper’s quarters are now a lighthouse museum, visitor center, and gift shop.

In 1999, because of erosion, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was in danger of falling into the ocean. Therefore, the lighthouse and the other six historical structures had to be moved. Many people doubted that the lighthouse would survive the move. However, after 23 days, the lighthouse and the other structures were moved successfully a distance of 2900 feet from its original location. The lighthouse is now 1500 feet away from the seashore. The new lighthouse was rededicated in 2000 and because of the risky move the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse will be around for a long time to be enjoyed by many more people.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Off Rte. 12
Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
(252) 995-4474

The Graveyard of the Atlantic

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by RoBoNC on January 6, 2013

North Carolina will always have a special place in my heart. I was born and raised there for 28 years until I made the move to relocate to the Midwest. While most of my family still lives there, I make frequent yearly trips back to visit. As hard as it is to believe in my 28 years of living there, I only made it to the Outer Banks one time. That was with a school trip to Kitty Hawk to the Wright Brothers National Historic Site. It wasn’t even as if I lived in the mountain region of North Carolina. I lived about two hours away from the Outer Banks, but my parents were never beach people. The times that I did go to the beach, while in high school and college, were usually confined to places such as Wilmington and Atlantic Beach. So with a family of my own, we decided to take everyone to the Outer Banks to experience one of the greatest regions in not only North Carolina, but the entire nation as well.

We started off toward the Outer Banks on US Highway 64. That highway intersects NC Highway 12, which is the only highway in the Outer Banks. NC 12 stretches 148 miles and is mostly a two lane road with three segments of the highway connected by ferries. As we entered the Outer Banks, we proceeded south on NC 12. At the intersection of NC 12 and US 64 is the northern entrance to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, operated and maintained by the National Park Service. The national seashore protects a vast portion of the Outer Banks from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island, stretching over 70 miles. This area of the Outer Banks was nicknamed the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" due to the large number of ships that sunk or washed ashore while sailing in this region.

Six miles south of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore entrance is the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It is currently undergoing a massive restoration project and hopefully will be open to the public for climbing. As of right now visitors may look at it and walk the grounds. We crossed over the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge and entered the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. It is known as a birder’s paradise for the variety of birds that live there. Although the refuge is within the National Seashore, it is not part of it and it is operated and maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

From the Bodie Island Lighthouse we drove about another twenty miles south to the town of Rodanthe. The town is the easternmost point of North Carolina and is situated where the Outer Banks bend. The towns of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo are nestled together and it is pretty hard to know when you have left one and entered the other. There are no hotels here other than a few bed and breakfasts. There are, however, many beach houses for rent. We rented a four bedroom house that was only about five hundred feet from the beach and the price was very reasonable. But perhaps the most famous beach house is the Serendipity located in Rodanthe. In 2008, the movie Nights in Rodanthe was released starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane that was based on the book by Nicholas Sparks. The movie was entirely filmed in the Outer Banks and the Serendipity was the house that was featured in the movie. Since the exposure the movie created, the house is usually booked way in advance.

Because the towns of Rodanthe, Salvo, and Waves are mostly seasonal towns, major grocery stores require a drive to either Nags Head in the north or about seventeen miles south toward Avon or a little further to the town of Buxton. Buxton is perhaps one of the biggest tourist destinations on the Outer Banks. The famous Cape Hatteras lighthouse is located here and it is the tallest lighthouse in the United States. Visitors are able to climb to the top and enjoy some of the most breathtaking views of the Outer Banks.

NC 12 dead ends at the North Carolina Ferry docks in the town of Hatteras, about ten miles further south of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The road continues on Ocracoke Island which is about a forty minute ferry ride. This ferry route is free. Ocracoke Island is the most remote island in the Outer Banks because it is only accessible by ferry. On the island is the village of Ocracoke that is home to the Ocracoke Lighthouse. NC 12 ends again on the other side of the island. There are two ferry routes both of which cost $15 a vehicle one-way. One route takes vehicles to Swan Quarter located on the mainland and the other route proceeds onward toward Cedar Island, where NC 12 picks back up. Ten miles south of Cedar Island is the small town of Sea Level. The southern portion of NC 12 officially ends in the town of Sea Level when it intersects US Highway 70.

NC 12 extends almost sixty miles from where it intersects US 64 to the Ocracoke Ferry. The road extends for about thirty-five miles north toward the town of Corolla. Although this area is not part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, there is just as much to see. A visit to Roanoke Island is a great way to begin a tour of the northern Outer Banks. Roanoke Island lies between the mainland and the Outer Banks surrounded by the Albemarle, Roanoke, and Crotan sounds. The town of Manteo lies in the northern part of the island. It is also the home to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. This site preserves the location of Roanoke Colony, the first English settlement in North America in 1587. At some point, the colony was abandoned with no survivors found and has since become known as the "Lost Colony." There is an outdoor play entitled The Lost Colony, which tells the story of the missing colony. It is the longest running symphonic outdoor drama that first began in 1937. I have never seen it because we are usually there before it premiers around Memorial Day. I have heard that it is a must-see and it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in this area.

We headed back up north towards Nags Head. Because the day was so beautiful and a nice breeze, we stopped off at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. The state park is famous for being the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern United States. The sand dunes have migrated over time because of the wind and it has since claimed a miniature golf course and hotel that is buried underneath. Jockey’s Ridge State Park is the most visited state park and is a favorite among adults and children alike. It is open year round and has free admission. The park is popular among hang gliders and is excellent for kite flying which we found was a great time to bond as a family while having fun.

North Carolina’s motto found on their license plate is "First in Flight." A few miles north of Nags Head is Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first successful flight in 1903 which paved the way for air travel. The Wright Brothers National Memorial commemorates their accomplishment. Inside the visitor center is a full scale model of the 1902 and 1903 flyer. Located on the grounds is a 60 foot granite monument on top of a 90 foot hill which the Wright Brothers began their test flights. The flight line is also clearly marked to show how far their aircraft actually went.

Thirty miles north of Kill Devil Hills is Corolla, the last town along NC 12. Corolla is home to the Currituck Lighthouse which is located in Corolla Village. Corolla has perhaps the biggest tourist draw among four wheel drive enthusiasts. NC 12’s paved portion of the road ends just a little north of town. However, those with four wheel drive vehicles may drive onto the beach and continue on toward Virginia. Corolla is also home to over 100 feral horses located on a 12,000 acre horse sanctuary. Tours are offered to see these wild horses grazing along the beach. Those who decide to drive the sandy beach will see them also without the need for a tour guide.
Outer Banks
Outer Banks, North Carolina

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