Few things are more iconic than North Carolina’s lighthouses that dot the Outer Banks. Once upon a time, these islands sticking out from the coast needed to warn sailors that land was near. Built in the 1800’s, the current versions have been updated, moved, and sometimes re-built.
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Over the years, I’ve thought time again about visiting North Carolina’s lighthouses but even after living in North Carolina for over 15 years, I had never been. So impulsively, I decided there was no time like the present to go and experience North Carolina’s lighthouses. But looking at information from various sites, I couldn’t find one comprehensive post, so this itinerary will help answer all your questions. You’ll learn how to get to each one, how many steps you’ll have to climb, the cost to visit, and other interesting details like their paint and light patterns. But I won’t give it all away so that you can still enjoy some new facts while visiting the Outer Banks lighthouses.
The Drive Between North Carolina Lighthouses
The trip from the northernmost point at Currituck Beach to the southernmost point at Bald Head Island is 365 miles. Of those miles, you’ll be driving 322 miles and 43 miles will be over water. You’ll take ferries, where you can enjoy someone else doing the “driving” for a while! White Google estimates the trip would take just over 14 hours, that time estimate does not take into account climbing or enjoying the lighthouses and the waiting times for each ferry.
Some of the islands are more populated while others are pretty desolate. To avoid higher gas prices, and more importantly to avoid getting stranded, fill your gas tank before you go. Click on this link for a Google Map of the itinerary. Gas on some of the more difficult to reach islands was as high as an additional 30 cents per gallon during my recent trip. Fill your tank in Corolla or once you are back on land between Cape Lookout and your trip to Oak Island and Bald Head Island.
Time for Your Visit of North Carolina Lighthouses
This road can be driven North to South (as I did) or South to North. Also, while
I spread this trip over four days, it can easily be condensed into a day or two if you’re not interested in making stops along the way. If you’re planning on taking any tours, it would be difficult to see and climb all the lighthouses in less than three days. Most ferries require that you be in line approximately 30 minutes before the scheduled time. Keep in mind that there may be additional traffic, construction, ferry delays, and even weather events that interfere with even the best-laid plans.
If you have more than three days, consider adding additional sightseeing stops along the way. But that is a different post for another day.
General Information for your North Carolina Lighthouses Visit:
Unless a fee is listed in this post, parking is free, as is admission to the grounds, and NC ferries are free. Unless you’re participating in a special tour, tickets to climb the lighthouse must be purchased the day of your visit and cannot be purchased or reserved online in advance. All information is accurate as of July 2019.
In order for sailors to be able to distinguish each lighthouse from the next, each lighthouse has a unique pattern and a unique flash pattern to its light.
Top 7 North Carolina Lighthouses:
Currituck Beach Lighthouse:
1101 Corolla Village Road, Corolla, NC Website
This unpainted brick lighthouse stands out against the other NC lighthouses you’ll visit later which are all painted. One notable feature is the metal corkscrew stairwell. After climbing the 220 steps to the top, step out onto the observation platform to enjoy a beautiful view. The light has a 20-second flash cycle featuring 3 seconds on, 17 seconds off.
Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm (until 8 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays during the summer). The fee to climb is $10 (70% of which is deductible as a charitable contribution) and is paid as you enter. While you’re welcome to take photos, drones are prohibited.
Because of its location in town, eateries and snacks are easily available nearby. You’ll drive to Bodie Island next.
If you’re taking a break in the Outer Banks, consider adding a tour to one of your days from these options:
Bodie Island Lighthouse.
8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Road, Nags Head, NC Website
Bodie Island Lighthouse stands in stark contrast to the marsh areas surrounding it with its white and black horizontal stripes of equal width. Bodie will be the first of three Outer Banks lighthouses managed by the U.S. National Parks Service.
Open daily from 9 am to 4:30 pm during the summer, climb the 214 steps to the top. The fee to climb is $10. Tickets must be purchased the day of admission (not in advance). Climbs start every 20 minutes, and there is a limit of 8 climbers at a time.
The lighthouse features white and black stripes of equal width. The light pattern is 2.5 seconds on, 2.5 seconds off, 2.5 seconds on, 22.5 seconds off.
Out of all the Outer Banks lighthouses on your itinerary, this is the one most likely to sell out of tickets early in the day, so make sure you plan appropriately. Other than a vending machine, food and drink are not available here. This is the only lighthouse that I was unable to climb due to lightning nearby. Sometimes, you can’t predict the weather you’ll encounter. Next, you’ll drive from Bodie to Cape Hatteras.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
46379 Lighthouse Road, Buxton, NC, Website
As the tallest lighthouse in the Americas, Cape Hatteras features 257 steps. The view from the observation deck is magnificent though! Cape Hatteras displays a twisting candy cane black and white pattern that slims at it nears the top. The light flashes once every 7.5 seconds.
Open daily from 9 am to 4:30 pm during the summer. The fee to climb is $8. Climbs start every 10 minutes, and there is a limit of 30 climbers at a time. Because of its height, the observation deck may be closed if the wind at the top becomes excessive.
To get from Hatteras to Ocracoke, board a free NC ferry. Schedules can be found here.
360 Lighthouse Road, Ocracoke, NC, Website
The Ocracoke Lighthouse is not open for climbing, though the base may be open during special occasions. Simply painted white, it stands in contrast with the surrounding landscape.
To get from Ocracoke to Cape Lookout, you’ll board the ferry from Ocracoke to Cedar Island. This is one ticket that you should reserve and purchase in advance.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Cape Lookout Road, Harkers Island, NC, Website
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse can only be accessed by a ferry that is operated under a contract with the National Park Service. The current ferry provider (Island Express Ferry) charges $23 for a round-trip ticket. For an additional $5, add a stop at Shackleford Banks where you may spot some wild horses (don’t approach them though!). These two islands make for a great beach outing too. The company even offers sunset cruises. Reserve and purchase your ferry tickets in advance and you’ll need to exchange your receipt for a ticket at least 15 minutes in advance of your scheduled ferry time.
Climb 207 steps to the observation deck and enjoy a wonderful view. Featuring a black and white diamond pattern, it is hard to miss this lighthouse. The light flashes every 15 seconds.
This lighthouse has limited climbing hours. During the summer, climbs are every 10 minutes from 10 am to 4 pm (last tickets sold at 3:50 pm). Tickets to climb are $8. Thankfully there was a food truck during my visit so I was able to grab a delicious late lunch.
This was the hottest climb of my trip – with the temperatures inside Cape Lookout hitting 93 degrees with high humidity. Visitors were repeatedly warned to reconsider their climb due to the heat. We left all backpacks and drinks at the bottom of the lighthouse, so be prepared for the long, hot, climb
Once you return from the ferry that took you to the islands, you’ll continue the NC Lighthouse tour by driving to Oak Island. This is the longest drive of the trip since you’re moving from the north to the south of the North Carolina coast. You can take a more leisurely drive through the Crystal Coast or a shorter drive through inland areas.
Oak Island Lighthouse
300a Caswell Beach Road, Oak Island, NC, website
The Oak Island Lighthouse is the only lighthouse where tours are manned solely by volunteers. Because of this, requests to climb the lighthouse need to be emailed two to four weeks in advance. The good news is that you can plan ahead of time and fit the rest of the trip around your climb up the 131 steps. Unlike all the other NC lighthouses, Oak Island does not have a spiral staircase, instead featuring metal ship ladders. The good news is that the ship ladders reduce the number of steps you’ll have to take. The bad news is that the ship ladders are steeper and require visitors to have their hands free and wear rubber-soled, closed-toe shoes.
The lighthouse is distinguishable with a light gray solid bottom and black solid top. The flash pattern is four one-second flashes every 10 seconds. There is no fee to climb the lighthouse but donations are greatly appreciated.
Both Oak Island and Old Baldy take you to a popular area on the southern coast of North Carolina. If you’ve got some time, take a look at what to do in nearby Carolina Beach. You can access it by driving or taking a ferry to nearby Fort Fisher. Any fans of craft beer should consider spending a weekend in Wilmington.
Bald Head Island Lighthouse
101 Lighthouse Wynd, Bald Head Island, NC, website
Known as “Old Baldy,” North Carolina’s oldest lighthouse is a short 5-minute walk from the ferry. The stucco used on the outside creates a camouflage pattern depending on how and when it was mixed, leading to a unique look. You’ll climb 108 steps to get to the top but there is no observation deck. Instead, you’ll climb through a small entry where you can look out through the glass.
The Bald Head Island ferry costs $22 for a round-trip ticket. Parking at the ferry depot is $10 per day during the summer season and $8 during the off-season. Climb on your own ($8/adults, $5/kids) or take a 2-hour guided tour ($30).
Total Cost of Visiting North Carolina Lighthouses
Because everyone’s gas mileage is different (and gas prices differ), the cost of gas was not included in this calculation. Costs of accommodations and meals were also not included since you’ll want to find something within your budget.
Cost of Ferries:
- Ocracoke to Cedar Island $15 (reserve online in advance!)
- Cape Lookout $23
- Bald Head Island $22
- Parking at Bald Head Island $10
Cost of Tickets:
- Currituck $10
- Bodie $10
- Cape Hatteras $8
- Cape Lookout $8
- Oak Island $20 (donation)
- Bald Head Island $30 (I paid for the 2-hour tour but you could climb for $8)
My personal budget included a hotel in Nags Head the night before I began my drive, a hotel in Buxton next to Cape Hatteras, and two nights with wonderful friends in Oak Island.
4 Things to Know Before You Visit North Carolina Lighthouses
- There are no elevators in any of North Carolina’s lighthouses. Climb only if you are fit enough.
- There is no air conditioning in any of the lighthouses. Keep the time of day and weather in mind when planning your visit.
- This is not a great activity for those scared of heights or those who are not fans of ferries.
- Wear closed-toe, rubber-soled shoes when possible.
If you’re considering visiting the Outer Bank Lighthouses, including all of North Carolina lighthouses, I hope that this itinerary and the information will help you out. Let me know if you come across additional tips!
Annick, The Common Traveler