There is, perhaps, no more treacherous stretch of shoreline than the coast of the Outer Banks. Flanked by shifting shoals that extend as far as 14 miles off shore, the Atlantic Ocean along the northeastern North Carolina coast has rightfully been termed the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
There is no record of when the first European ship sank in these waters, but the most likely candidate would have been a Spanish galleon in the mid 1500s.
Although the dangers of the Outer Banks coast were well-known, the area was–and still is–the equivalent of a seagoing highway. In the days of sail power, prevailing winds allowed ships heading south to take advantage of winds and currents to speed their journey. Heading north, the land mass provided captains with sure visual references.
The Congress of the newly formed United State was fully aware of the importance of the coast and its dangers and one of their first acts was to fund lighthouses. Although early efforts were rife with incompetence and graft, by1875 when the last stretch of darkened shoreline was illuminated at Corolla, they finally got it right.
There are four lighthouses along the Outer Banks and three of them, Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras, can be climbed. All of them still function as lighthouses, including the Ocracoke Lighthouse that was completed in 1823, and is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the United States.
There is no longer a need for lighthouse keepers, who climbed the stairs ever two hours to ensure the lights were operating properly and fuel was feeding the wicks. Now, everything is automated and the Coast Guard, the direct descendent of the Life Saving Service who originally manned the lights, is responsible for the lights–but not the structures. Those are maintained by the National Park Service or private entities.
Although lighthouses are thought of as beacons in the dark, during the daytime their distinctive appearance serves the same function as the unique flashing pattern of their nighttime lights.
The beautiful red brick of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse is as sure a sign of the northern Outer Banks as its nighttime 20-second flash cycle–on for 3 seconds, off for 17 seconds. The same is true for the Bodie Island Light with its white and black horizontal lines, the twisting, barbershop stripes of Cape Hatteras or the brilliant whitewash white of the Ocracoke Light.
All of the lighthouses, with the exception of Ocracoke, can be climbed. Anyone in reasonable physical condition should have no problem with the climb, but be aware that it is strenuous and there is no air conditioning so it can become hot and stuffy while climbing the spiral staircases.
However, the breathtaking views from the top are worth the effort so bring your camera. Please note there is a fee for climbing, and during the winter the lighthouses are closed.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is maintained by the Outer Banks Conservationists–a nonprofit group that works to restore historic Outer Banks buildings. The fee for climbing the Currituck Beach Lighthouse is $8.00. Bodie Island Light and Cape Hatteras are operated by the National Park Service.
The Bodie Island Light offers guided tours only. Tickets for both lighthouses are $8 for adults and $4 for senior citizens (62 or older), children 11 years of age and under and the disabled. Children must be at least 42” in height. The tours are 45 minutes in length and are limited to 22 participants. Half the tickets each day are sold onsite, but it may be a good idea to call ahead.
Tickets for Cape Hatteras are available on a first come, first served basis and can only be purchased in-person. Ticket sales begin at 8:15 a.m. and climbs begin at 9:00 a.m., running every 10 minutes with a limit of 30 visitors per climb. Ticket sales close at 4:30 p.m. in the spring and fall, and 5:30 p.m. the Friday of Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Ticket holders should arrive at the base of the lighthouse five minutes prior to their ticketed time. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/caha.