Explore five of the best lighthouses of the Outer Banks

by Sep 29, 2022North Carolina

Bodie Island Lighthouse With Clouds And Stars At Night

The Outer Banks barrier islands off the mainland of North Carolina remain a dangerous sliver of land for seafarers. These five historic lighthouses have guided ships safely for 150-200 years. Get inspired with these gorgeous photos for your own lighthouse tour.

Lighthouses dot the curvaceous slip of land called the Outer Banks, a baffling and yet fascinating set of narrow barrier islands that skirts the coast of North Carolina’s mainland for 175 miles. With the area’s underwater dangers, it is no wonder it’s called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” with an estimated 3,000 shipwrecks holding their secrets far under the sea. And no wonder our forefathers realized that lighthouses were the only way to ensure most ships could navigate successfully without joining their brethren buried at sea.

The lighthouses of the Outer Banks of North Carolina are all distinct in their height and appearance, and all except one of the five I visited still function today as guiding lights. After 150-200 years, they remain at work to assist ships through and around the danger still presented by these barrier islands and the shallow sounds. They also offer reassuring guidance around the so-called Diamond Shoals, a rather infamous cluster of shallow underwater sandbars near Cape Hatteras that are always shifting. Yes, literally shifting sands to trick sailors and perhaps send them to an underwater death.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Under Blue Sky

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved inland 2,900 feet to avoid toppling into the ocean from beach erosion. This photo was taken from the beach, close to where it used to be.

Outer Banks lighthouses mesmerize at night

I have fallen in love with lighthouses, with their mystery, beauty and intrigue, a beacon standing tall, day and night. But it is after dark that the lighthouses set about their real work, with their lanterns flicking on to help even modern ships sail safely around obstacles and better navigate to a destination. Such an ancient technology – shining a light from a tall structure – that still functions today. Beautifully low-tech in a high-tech world.

The Outer Banks lighthouses are spectacular during the day, but any lighthouse at night is particularly mesmerizing once the lights flick on to do their job. The lights or lanterns all have a different “signature,” or timing and pattern when the light is on or off, making photographing them extra tricky. Some  revolve, while some flash, and others are steady, adding to the photography fun. The reason they all light differently? So ships know precisely where they are based on the pattern.

Get ready to explore the five lighthouses of the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the photos below.

Bodie Island Lighthouse, Nags Head

In October 2022, Bodie Island Lighthouse celebrated its 150th birthday, having been completed in 1872. All the Outer Banks lighthouses in North Carolina are distinctive with Bodie showing off broad black-and-white horizontal stripes. It is located off the main road near Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, but don’t miss the unmarked turn.

Bright Bodie Lighthouse Reflections

Part of the National Park Service since 2000, the former lightkeeper’s house at Bodie now houses a small museum and a park service office for information and education. You can also climb the tower with reservations – which go quickly.

Milky Way Over Bodie Lightouse

Bodie (take note: pronounced “body”) offers a beautifully dark setting for milky way and star photographs – or just enjoying the view. Be sure to go out the boardwalk to the left through the marsh to the high platform for superior views every which way.

Twilight At Bodie Island Lighthouse

Bodie lighthouse dominates an open grass area at 165 feet from the ground to the lantern top. The flashing light can be seen 19 nautical miles away.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Manteo

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is a replica of the lighthouse that originally opened in 1877 and sat out in the Croatan Sound – far from its current location. It was shut down in 1955, eventually sold, but lost to the water when a move was attempted.

Roanoke Marshes Lights Up Manteo

The town of Manteo in North Carolina thought a replica would be a nice addition to its visit-worthy waterfront where the detailed replica was subsequently installed in 2004.

Manteo's Roanoake Lighthouse

As a replica, it doesn’t really guide ships down the sound, but the light is still turned on at night for a great view. For all I know, ships still use it for navigation.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse At Sunset

Wandering the wharves and the boardwalk near the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is worth the time when you visit the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Cape Hatteras, Buxton

Visiting the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is probably one of the top to-dos on the list of every visitor, in part because of its historical significance as the tallest brick lighthouse in the world. It was opened in 1870 and is open for climbs (although it was undergoing renovation in 2022 and closed).

Stars Circle Above Cape Hatteras Lightkeepers House

On the Cape Hatteras grounds, also part of the National Park Service, the former lightkeepers’ houses are also historically significant and worth a look. One houses a museum. Wandering the grounds at night under this giant of a lighthouse for night photography is awe-inspiring, even when you turn your back to it to see stars over the houses.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Milky Way

But who can’t keep their eyes off the lighthouse itself with its unique black-and-white candy cane stripes. The light can also be seen 19 nautical miles away.

Cape Hatteras Revolving Light Beams

The light at Cape Hatteras revolves, making for radiating light beams if you catch the light just right with your camera and a few other tricks. This lighthouse is 198 feet from the ground to the top of the lantern.

Lightkeepers House Cape Hatteras

What you will learn on site is that the lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet inland in 1999 since the beach’s erosion was threatening its destruction. The move took 23 days, and its former site is marked so you can gape at the idea of moving this gigantic structure.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Corolla

At the northern end of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse stands apart from the others since it was built of red bricks and left unpainted. The lighthouse and buildings were restored in 1980.

Currituck Lighthouse Outer Banks

Quite accessible in Corolla off the main road, this lighthouse that opened in 1875 is easy to get to and popular with families.

Currituck Lighthouse Stairs

You can also climb to the top of the Currituck lighthouse tower, spiraling up most its 165 feet from the ground to its tippy-top.

Fresnel Lens At Currituck Lighthouse

At the top, you get a close-up view of the Fresnel lens – and can see some of the 19 nautical miles out over the sound where the light can be seen.

Star Circles At Currituck Lighthouse

The grounds at Currituck Beach Lighthouse in the Outer Banks of North Carolina are not open at night, but you can get some nice views from neighboring Corolla Park.

Ocracoke Island Lighthouse, Ocracoke

Not to miss when touring North Carolina’s Outer Banks is at least a day trip to Ocracoke Island and its lighthouse. To get there, you take the ferry from Hatteras – try to schedule your ferry return after dark when the ocean and lights are particularly mysterious.

Ocracoke Lighthouse During The Day

The Ocracoke Lighthouse is a cute littl’ thing at just 65 feet from ground to top – pretty short in relationship to other Outer Banks lighthouses! But its light can still be seen 14 nautical miles away. It is however perhaps the most historically significant in the Outer Banks since it is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in North Carolina, opening in 1823.

Spiraing Stairs At Ocracoke Lighthouse

Climbing the tower is not allowed but you can peek inside at the stairs winding their way up to the top.

Ocracoke Lighthouse At Sunset

The historic lightkeepers house was to be renovated and lifted I was told when I visited in 2022 (the entire island has flooded in hurricanes). At this time, the grounds are closed as is the yard between the boardwalk and the structure. Without much room except on the boardwalk, photographers line up to take their turns as the sun sets.

Ocracoke Lighthouse Starburst

The lighthouse sits in a tidy neighborhood, walkable from the small town on the opposite side of the water called Silver Lake, and its stark white stucco exterior gleams in the sunshine.

There are in fact two other lighthouses beside the five I visited and photographed in the Outer Banks barrier islands of North Carolina. But you can’t get to one – the now inactive Diamond Shoals Light 13 miles off Cape Hatteras in the ocean – and one is much farther down the coast — Cape Lookout near Shackleford Banks at the southern end of the Outer Banks.

But that just leaves more to visit, climb, marvel at, and photograph, right?


You might also be interested in reading:

Don't Let The Sun Set On You!

Enjoy premium stories, photographs and become part of a fun travel community by joining our Subscriber Club. It's FREE! By subscribing to our regular HI Travel Tales Subscriber Club newsletter you'll also be invited to get access to select e-books and recipes plus special discount offers - no spam, ever, promise.


As an affiliate for Get Your Guide, Amazon.com, iVisa, Global Rescue, Think Tank, 5.11, Kuhl, Adorama, and others, we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you should you choose to purchase through the links in our posts. It is essential to mention that we only endorse products we believe in and personally use. Your support for HI Travel Tales through these purchases allows us to maintain a sustainable platform for creating valuable and relevant content for you. 


Are you protected IF a travel emergency happens?

Global Rescue Travel Insurance Rescue Banner