There is something majestic about North Carolina’s lighthouses that adorn its famous barrier islands. Now classic icons of the Outer Banks, the lighthouses have a storied past. These lighthouses have stood tall under the high of the sun and the faint twinkle of the milky way, through deadly storms and even fighting through the dangers of the coast’s eroding coastline, to keep unsuspecting maritime travelers safe from the hidden dangers of the shoals. This guide introduces you to all of the infamous Outer Banks lighthouses and how to hit them all on one epic North Carolina Coastal Road Trip.
About North Carolina’s Outer Banks Lighthouses
The Outer Banks lighthouses have played a vital role in the maritime history of the United States. These lighthouses were built to guide ships safely through the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean, which are filled with shoals, sandbars, and dangerous currents.
The Outer Banks lighthouses were strategically located to serve as navigational aids for ships traveling along the coast. They were equipped with powerful lights that could be seen from miles away, and their distinctive patterns and light cadences helped sailors identify their location.
In addition, the lighthouses were often the first sign of land for sailors arriving from long voyages, and their beacons provided a sense of comfort and security to those navigating the waters in the dark of night.
Today, the Outer Banks lighthouses serve as historic landmarks and tourist attractions, reminding visitors of the important role they played in the past and the continued importance of maritime safety.
North Carolina’s Outer Banks Lighthouses
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and stands at 198 feet tall. It is located on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and has been helping guide ships safely through the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for over 150 years. This lighthouse was famously moved over 2,900 feet inland in 1999 to protect it from erosion caused by the changing shoreline which left it dangerously close to the water’s edge.
While it will likely be closed for climbing throughout the 2023 season due to renovations, the grounds offer plenty of room to take in this grand lighthouse from different vantage points. You can also see the original location and take in the views of Cape Hatteras lighthouse from the beach as well!
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is not the only attraction in Cape Hatteras – for more great adventures check out all of these great things to do in Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks!
Bodie Island Lighthouse
Bodie Island Lighthouse is on the Roanoke Sound side of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Built in 1872, it stands 156 feet tall and has distinctive black and white spiral stripes that are easily recognizable and have helped sailors navigate the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean for over 100 years.
The current lighthouse replaced the original lighthouse in this area which unfortunately had to be abandoned due to design flaws. Today you can climb to the top for a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding area (open seasonally), walk the surrounding boardwalk trail, and keep an eye out for deer grazing in the large grassy fields. In a remote and peaceful tract of land, Bodie Island lighthouse stands guard over the area of the coast where it is possible that more ships were lost than in any other location along the Outer Banks.
Graveyard Of The Atlantic
The Graveyard of the Atlantic is a stretch of ocean off the coast of North Carolina that has earned a reputation as one of the most treacherous and dangerous areas for maritime navigation in the world. The name was coined due to the large number of shipwrecks that have occurred in the area throughout history, with estimates ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 vessels lost over the centuries.
The treacherous waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic are caused by a combination of factors, including the convergence of warm and cold ocean currents, the presence of shifting sandbars and underwater shoals, and the frequent occurrence of strong storms and hurricanes. Despite improvements in navigation technology and safety protocols, the Graveyard of the Atlantic remains a challenging and hazardous area for sailors and has claimed many lives over the years.
Today, the area is closely monitored by the US Coast Guard and other maritime organizations, and efforts are ongoing to promote safety and awareness among mariners who navigate these dangerous waters.
Ocracoke Lighthouse is located on Ocracoke Island and is the second oldest lighthouse still in operation in the United States. It stands at just 75 feet tall and is the smallest lighthouse in the Outer Banks. The lighthouse has a distinctive white tower and has been guiding ships safely through the waters of the Ocracoke Inlet and Pamlico Sound since 1823.
Ocracoke Island has much more to offer than just a historic lighthouse and makes for a perfect day trip or remote vacation. Read more about this charming island paradise in our guide to the best things to do on Ocracoke Island!
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
Currituck Beach Lighthouse is located in Corolla, North Carolina, and is one of the few lighthouses in the area that is not painted with black and white stripes. Instead, it is unpainted brick with a 20-second flash cycle that can be seen 18 nautical miles out to sea. The lighthouse stands 162 feet tall and has been guiding ships since 1875, the last brick Outer Banks lighthouse to be erected.
Today, you can climb to the top of the lighthouse ($12) for a stunning view of the Currituck Sound and the surrounding area. Just be aware – the outdoor viewing deck can close in high winds!
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is a historic lighthouse located in Manteo, North Carolina. While different than the other lighthouses on this list, the only “in-shore” lighthouse in this area is a great destination to add to any Outer Banks lighthouse road trip. It was originally built in 1886 to guide ships through the Roanoke Sound’s treacherous waters, located between Roanoke Island and the mainland. The lighthouse was unique in that it was a screw-pile lighthouse, meaning it was built on top of a series of iron pilings that were screwed into the muddy bottom of the sound.
In 1955, the lighthouse was decommissioned and replaced with an automated buoy. However, in the 2000s, a group of dedicated volunteers worked to restore the lighthouse and reopen it as a museum. Today, visitors can tour the lighthouse and learn about its history and the important role it played in guiding ships through the Roanoke Sound.
The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is a beloved landmark in the Outer Banks. It is a great place to learn about maritime heritage while walking around the lighthouse and surrounding boardwalk areas that hold it above the sound’s waters.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Cape Lookout Lighthouse is located on the southernmost point of the Outer Banks on the Cape Lookout National Seashore and stands at 163 feet tall. Its black and white diamond daymark pattern makes it easily recognizable from a distance. The lighthouse has been guiding ships through the dangerous waters of the Atlantic since 1859 and is known for its stunning views of the surrounding area. Visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse for a breathtaking panoramic view of the coast.
Outer Banks Lighthouses Map
Example NC Outer Banks Lighthouses Road Trip Itinerary
- During your stay on the Crystal Coast or in the Croatan National Forest, take the Island Express ferry from Harker’s Island to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse
- Head up to the Outer Banks and stay at Oregon Inlet Campground, only a few minutes from Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Head down to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on an early morning before hopping on the free ferry with your vehicle to Ocracoke Island. You will find Ocracoke Lighthouse in the village. If you have time, you could also do some camping at Ocracoke Campground (the ferry is free, even for RVs!)
- Spend an afternoon strolling the charming streets of Manteo or grabbing a bite to eat while enjoying the site of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. This could be a great addition after a morning spent at the Wright Brothers National Memorial
- Take a day trip to Currituck Beach Lighthouse and cap it off with a tour to see the wild horses in Corolla
Fulfilling Travel Tips
Not only are lighthouses beautiful structures that create awe-inspiring focal points along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, but they are also great opportunities to learn about this area’s unique history and gain a deeper appreciation for the delicate nature of our relationship with the waters off our coasts. Much like other coastal areas in the world, the areas among barrier islands can be unpredictable, dangerous, and unforgiving. Giant beacons of light and hope, the Outer Banks lighthouses have become icons and a haunting reminder of the respect maritime travel demands.
A road trip to North Carolina’s lighthouses among the Outer Banks is a great opportunity to marvel at their engineering and design, better appreciate the demands of lighthouse keepers of the past, and connect with the beautiful protected areas that surround the light stations. Both the Cape Lookout National Seashore and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore provide ample opportunity for reflection, quiet moments, and immersion in nature. Don’t forget to step away from the crowds, put the camera away, and soak it all in!
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO THE OUTER BANKS
We loved staying on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore during our visit to the northern section of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in the Croatan National Forest during our stay on the Crystal Coast. By staying in NPS or National Forest campgrounds you can get a more remote and peaceful feel to your stays and be immersed in nature, often at a cheaper price than other campground options. What you lack in hook-ups or amenities you make up for in privacy, beach access, nature, and simplicity!
National Park Service Campgrounds on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore
National Forest Campgrounds on the Crystal Coast & (southern section of the Outer Banks)
NPS Cabins on the Cape Lookout National Seashore
Primitive Camping is also allowed on Shackleford Banks and along the Cape Lookout National Seashore beaches.
North Carolina’s Outer Banks is full of great campsites, ranging from RV resorts to no-frills National Forest or National Park service campgrounds. If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks, campgrounds, and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.
RV Rentals: If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through RV Share. We used this service when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!
Other Outer Banks Accommodations:
If you are looking for other accommodations, you can find plenty of great stays not far from the pristine beaches in this area. Booking.com is a great resource that allows you to compare prices easily and lock in the best rates for stays ranging from hotels to private rentals! Some spectacular coastal areas to consider for your stay include:
Northern Section of the Outer Banks
- Ocracoke Island, NC (requires ferry (free) from Cape Hatteras)
- Kitty Hawk, NC (where the Wright Brothers National Memorial is located)
- Corolla, NC (where the wild horses are located)
- Nags Head, NC (just north of Cape Hatteras National Seashore)
- Manteo, NC (off the beach, charming downtown)
- Rodanthe, NC
- Avon, NC
- Frisco, NC
- Hatteras, NC
Southern Section of the Outer Banks & Crystal Coast