North Carolina’s coast is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic where an estimated 2,000 ships have been lost. There are two prevailing currents (one flowing from the arctic and the gulf stream flowing north) that cause considerable movement of sand all along the coast and outer banks of North Carolina which represent a significant shipping hazard. Over time, seven lighthouses were placed strategically along the coast to help mariners with day and night-time navigation. Each lighthouse has distinctive identifying features such as shape and/or color to aid during day-light navigation and distinctive light flashing patterns for nighttime navigation.
Let’s take a look at the lighthouses moving from north to south along North Carolina’s outer banks.
The Currituck Lighthouse opened in 1875 and is the “newest” of North Carolina’s lighthouses on the outer banks. It stands at 158′ and its beacon light flashes a three-second light every 20 seconds. The lighthouse was never painted and is instead noted by its distinctive red brick exterior. It took an estimated 1 million bricks to construct. The base is 5’8″ thick and tapers to a thickness of 3′ at the top.
One famous Currituck Lighthouse Keeper was Captain W.J. Tate. Orville and Wilbur Wright, when working through plans that would eventually result in the world’s first powered flight a few miles down the road at Kitty Hawk, sent a letter to the lighthouse inquiring about weather patterns in the area. Captain Tate responded and invited the brothers down to stay. He also helped the Wright Brothers build their first glider.
Stepping inside the lighthouse, you are greeted by a spiral staircase with 220 steps and several landing areas with windows along the climb.
The breezy view from the top of the lighthouse is well worth the 158′ climb.
The photo below is of the Keepers’ House. The Victorian structure is a duplex that housed several lighthouse keepers and their families. Looking at little closer at the front, you can see the two separate entrances to the home.
Another home on the site is known as the Little Keepers House (below). It served as an additional dwelling for keepers of the lighthouse. Today, it serves as a museum and gift shop.
Connect a trip to this lighthouse with a visit to see the Corolla Wild Horses.
The next two lighthouses (Bodie and Cape Hatteras) are worth grouping together in one excursion because you will have to drive past Bodie Lighthouse on the way to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
Flashes two 2.5 second lights every 30 seconds.
Between the Bodie lighthouse and Cape Hateras, you may want to stop at the historic landmark call the Oregon Inlet Life Saving Station. Take advantage of the public and enjoy what will be a very private stroll through white sand dunes to the seashore.
Flashes a one-second light every 7.5 seconds.
Getting to next lighthouse (Ocracoke) will present you with a decision. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is on an island that will require a one-hour ferry ride (each way) from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island. One reason to take the ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke now is that you have already come so far south on the outer banks. If not now, when? One reason to wait is if you are planning to see all seven of the lighthouses which will take several trips. If this is the case, I’d suggest wrapping Ocracoke and Cape Lookout into a future trip.
I plan to visit these two lighthouses as part of a visit to Historic New Bern, NC in the spring of 2022. For now, I will use stock photos and give a brief breakdown on these two lighthouses.
This lighthouse remains on my “to-see” list. Ocracoke Light was built 1823 on Ocracoke. It stands at 75′ with thick 25′ base that narrows to 12′ at the top. Its shines a fixed, white light that reaches 14 miles into the Pamlico Sound and Atlantic Ocean. Ocracoke is smallest and second oldest of the North Carolina lighthouses. Currently, you are not able to climb its stairs to the top. When visiting the island, there is apparently a nice village to shop and grab a bite to eat. Bikes are readily available transportation and the entire island is easily covered on bike. There are also wild horses on Ocracoke Island to add another point of interest during your visit.
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse was activated in 1859 and stands at 163′ on the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina. It flashes a one-second light every 15 seconds. The tower is typically open to climb. Cape Lookout (like Ocracoke) will require a ferry trip from the North Carolina mainland.
When planning a trip to visit the next and final two lighthouses (Old Baldy and Oak Island) on the North Carolina coast, you may want to see them in one or two excursions while vacationing in the area. Great locations for base camp might be a bed and breakfast in Historic Wilmington, Southport, one of the several beaches in the area such as Wrightsville Beach or Carolina Beach, or a secluded getaway vacation on Bald Head Island (where no automobiles are allowed).
Old Baldy Lighthouse
If you are staying on the mainland, you’ll reach Old Baldy by taking an enjoyable 30-minute ferry ride from Southport to Bald Head island. This will be your view (image below) upon arrival with Old Baldy in the background. Plan on renting a golf cart or bike to get around on the island because there are no cars allowed.
As I understand it, there was a lighthouse in this area in the late 1700s. That building was torn down in the early 1800s due to erosion and hurricane damage. Bricks from that building were used (along with newer pressings) to complete Old Baldy in 1817. The bricks were covered with stucco to protect them from the weather. Old Baldy remained in service until 1935 when it was decommissioned and no longer emits its guiding light.
Coming in at a little over 200 years of age, this lighthouse is oldest lighthouse still standing in North Carolina. It stands at 110′ which is about half the height of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Even though it is relatively short (compared to Hatteras), it is still quite a climb on wooden stairs with modest ventilation.
The top of the lighthouse is closed in, but the view is still fantastic and worth the climb.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take my own advice and visit Oak Island on my last trip to Wilmington. I have more time planned in the Wilmington, and it will be on the itinerary.
Coming in at 153′, the Oak Island Lighthouse went into operation in 1958 and is the baby of the North Carolina lighthouses. It replaced the skeleton lighthouse that had replaced Old Baldy. Unlike the other lighthouses which were built of brick, this lighthouse is made of concrete. Its beacon light flashes four 1-second lights every 10 seconds with a range of 20 miles. You can climb this lighthouse which has an open balcony, but you are encourage to book this online at least two weeks in advance.
A Brief History on the Evolution of Lighthouses
Over the centuries, even millenniums, dating back to 700 BCE, lighthouses have had a coastal presence. The earliest forms were hilltop bonfires and evolved to include coal and oil as the primary fuel source. Reflective metals and eventually mirrors were used to help direct the light source outward to the sea. Early structures were as simple as large wooden poles or structures with a pulley system for raising the light source. These would eventually become more permanent stone structures with enclosed tops to protect the light source from the elements.
Maritime trade was essential to the Greeks and Romans, and they paid great attention to lighting the coasts for mariners. After the decline of Greek and Roman influence, Europeans continued to build and maintain lighthouses all around coastal Europe which, by 1100 CE, was well lit for mariners.
One of the worlds most famous lighthouses was the Lighthouse of Alexandria (officially named the Pharoh) was built in Alexandria Egypt around 300 BCE by the Greeks. At the time, Alexandria was a Greek city founded by Alexander the Great during the height of Greek military power and influence around the Mediterranean Sea. The ornamental tower rose 450 feet and would stand for over 1,500 years. It finally collapsed in the 1300s during an earthquake. The Lighthouse of Alexandra is considered one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.