There are 7 lighthouses along the North Carolina coast, 5 of which are located on the barrier islands, an area known as the Outer Banks.
Our mission was to see all 5 Outer Banks lighthouses.
When We Went
October 2015. The weather is mild this time of year. If you’re like me and get cold easily, a pair of jeans and a hoodie will do just fine.
You can drive up and view any of the lighthouses at any time of year of course, but if you’ve got your heart set on climbing to the top you should check beforehand and see what each allows. Most of the lighthouses that are open for climbing do so from mid-April through mid-October (ish).
Another general rule of thumb for any beach town on your route is that many areas/activities will be shut down during the off season (with the peak season being Memorial Day through Labor Day), so look up this information before you go.
Length of time
It took us four days to complete the tour. Take it slow, enjoy the ride.
Here’s the route we took to see all five lighthouses (as well as a few other activities):
We brought our black lab, Bocephus (Bo), on this trip. Many places we went were dog friendly, but he had to stay in the car for a few things. (Don’t worry, it was not hot outside and he loves car rides.)
It was a mini road trip of the North Carolina coast, with the majority of the route being on Highway 12, and the Outer Banks Scenic Byway.
Every resident of the Outer Banks has “OBX” as the first three characters on their license plate, so despite being North Carolina residents ourselves, I’m sure we still stood out like a couple of shoobies (ie someone who wears their shoes on the beach, a tourist).
In order to see all five Outer Banks lighthouses, you will be required to catch a couple of ferries. You will not be able see the Ocracoke or Cape Lookout lighthouses without taking a ferry.
Normally the ferry system operates several times a day pretty much year round, but individual routes can vary due to weather and other factors. If this sort of transportation is new to you, it would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with these routes and times beforehand. Check out the North Carolina Ferry Schedule here.
Camping In The OBX
We camped at various locations along our self-guided tour. (If you’re not into the whole camping thing you could just as easily rent out a beach house.)
We found our camping spots on the fly, the day of. I was literally calling places as we drove… Keep in mind some campsites may have limited availability or only be open seasonally.
I love this style of trip, making a quick, easy to set up camp and moving to a new spot each day. Just keep it simple and it works fine. Seriously. Only bring the essentials. A couple of mornings we made a quick bite of bacon and eggs on a campfire burner before we packed up.
Here’s a little bit more about some of the spots we stayed:
Sailboat In Little Washington
We spent our first night on a sailboat in little Washington, a quiet, low-key sailing community in Beaufort County, North Carolina.
The waves rocked us to sleep and put us in the perfect frame of mind to begin our lighthouse scavenger hunt the next morning.
Joe and Kay’s Campground
Our second night we stayed at Joe and Kay’s Campground, located in Kill Devil Hills. It was just your basic campground. Nothing special. Adequately priced. Quiet. There were several RVs on site, but we were one of the only tent campers we saw.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore Campground
On our third and final night, we camped on Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
There are multiple camping locations along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and our spot in Ocracoke was amazing, one of my favorites (ever). (Find more info on the campground here.)
We were pitched right on the other side of the dunes, we could hear the waves crashing as we fell asleep. The sea breeze was chilly that night, it was the coldest night of the trip, we were huddled under the blankets we brought with us. I remember waking up the next morning and it was just a short walk to the water’s edge. We went shelling before setting out.
- A hoodie or light jacket for night time
- A pair of comfy sneakers
- Flip flops for the beach (no swimsuit this trip, the water is too cold for swimming in October)
- A reusable water bottle, you can easily refill it at gas stations along the drive
- A cooler, stock it with sandwiches, snacks, and breakfast items
- Your normal camping gear, for me this includes:
- A tent
- Air mattress and bedding
- Extra blankets
- A campfire burner for cooking
Pack A Cooler
We brought a cooler full of sammies and snacks with us for the drive.
In Little Washington, we stopped in the Coffee Caboose, a former railroad building that has since been converted into an adorable coffee shop. A must-stop if you need a little pick-me-up (or even if you don’t, just go check it out).
Update: I recently found out that the Coffee Caboose has since closed down *sad face*.
We sampled as much fresh, local seafood as we could along the way.
The Kill Devil Grill
Creatively named after its location in Kill Devil Hills (one of several charming little beach towns we passed along the way), we stopped here to eat solely because of its catchy name. Although it may look like just your standard diner from the outside, don’t be fooled, they happen to serve the best, melt-in-your-mouth crab cakes. THE BEST.
I’ve seriously never had a better one since and often dream about them. They use all meat and no filler, which makes them quite pricey, but so delicious and so worth it. (Check out their website here.)
- Digger’s Dungeon
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse
- Wrights Brothers National Monument
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park
- Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Outer Banks Seafood Festival
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Ocracoke Lighthouse
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse
A Lighthouse Scavenger Hunt
Ahhhhh… that whimsical place along the Atlantic coast, the Outer Banks.
One of my favorite areas to visit in North Carolina, I find myself going back again and again.
The long narrow road that connects the series of barrier islands. The sea oats waving in the salty breeze. And of course the lighthouses dotting their way across the shoreline.
Originally, these lighthouses served as the guiding beacons of light for sailors braving this treacherous stretch of ocean, infamously known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The shallow water and constantly shifting sand of the shoals made this area perilous for many.
Each lighthouse is accompanied by its own unique story of how and why it occupies its current location, a tale to boot.
Visiting them all was like a scavenger hunt. We found ourselves eagerly driving from one to the next, anticipating the next “prize.” We’d always know when we were getting close to the next one because we would start seeing lighthouses everywhere…decorating everything from mailboxes to business signs and everything in between.
Bo started off the trip breaking the rules. (He’s a wild man.)
If you don’t mind going a bit out of the lighthouse route (but not too far), you can see the monster truck, Grave Digger. (Take a look at his website here.) His home, appropriately named “Digger’s Dungeon”, is located off the Caratoke Highway in Poplar Branch. Alex was a die-hard fan when he was a kid, so we had to make a pit stop. There are several ginormous retired monster trucks you can climb in, on, and around, as well as a shop full of souvenirs.
There were also some goats next door to Digger’s Dungeon (not sure why) that we had to say hello to, of course.
Time to get back on track.
Next stop: Currituck.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
The first and northernmost lighthouse of the trip, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, said to be comprised of one million bricks. It was tucked away in a well-vegetated area, but we could see the iconic red tower standing tall over the trees. (Check out the website here.)
We eagerly climbed out of the car and walked Bo around the grounds. We purchased a couple of passes at the station to climb it (it wasn’t too expensive, under $10 a piece, and goes to maintaining the tower). This is the only lighthouse we ended up being able to climb to the top of on our tour. (Bo had to stay in the car for the climb.) Outlined by a black rod-iron spiral staircase, there are over 200 stairs to the top (try not to get dizzy). It let out to a circular platform, giving you a nice vantage point of the town and sound below.
One down, four to go.
Wright Brothers National Monument
A bit further down the road from Currituck and we were at the Wright Brothers Memorial, a commemoration to the historic flight. Yet another one of North Carolina’s claims to fames. (Check out the monument’s website here.)
It’s not a particularly striking visually at first glance, it’s more so one of those places you have to really take in and think about what occurred there to really appreciate how monumental and influential of an accomplishment it was in it’s time.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
A giant system of sand dunes covering a whopping 426 acres, this park has the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern United States. (Check out the park website here.) Treading on sand dunes is usually a big no-no when you visit the beach as they play a vital role in coastal ecosystems, but it’s okay to tromp around and explore the dunes at Jockey’s Ridge, so we shuffled around for a while. It’s a dog-friendly park so Bo got to get out and stretch his legs, too.
Kitty Hawk Kites
Right down the road from Jockey’s Ridge is Kitty Hawk Kites, your typical tourist shop, this one’s famous for its bright yellow exterior and colorful kites that can be seen blowing in the wind outside.
You can get your beach rentals as well as any trinket or nautical t-shirt your heart desires. Like this super rad one Alex picked up:
Bodie Island Lighthouse
A short 10 miles down Highway 12 and we arrived at the Bodie Island lighthouse. (That’s another nice thing about the outer banks, so many activities so close together.)
“Body” or “Boh-dee”?
How did you just read that? Did you say “Body” or “boh-dee”? “Body” is what the locals will correct you to.
This is Alex’s favorite lighthouse (yes, you have to pick a favorite by the end of the tour) with its famous black and white horizontal stripes. Set in a field full of sea oats with a long wooden boardwalk surrounding it, it has an almost mystical quality to it. (Take a look at their website here.)
It’s simply impossible to hold back a grin as you walk up to admire it.
A Bit Deflated
We were on our way to our campsite later that evening when *pop* a flat tire. Looking back, we think this probably happened when we drove off the paved road to get this glamorous shot of the bug in front of Bodie…Oops!
Thankfully, a cop stopped to help us get back on the road quickly. Alex told me after the fact how he was embarrassed about the flat tire because we had just started dating. The friendly cop had just smiled and assured him it was no big deal. (It wasn’t a big deal.)
Three to go.
Outer Banks Seafood Festival
We happened to stumble upon the Outer Banks Seafood Festival while on
our lighthouse tour (our timing couldn’t have been more perfect). We obviously had to stop. I love festivals, and in the South there seems to be a festival for just about everything. After a bit of persuading, they let us bring Bo in through the main gate. We grabbed a plate of seafood to sample and began browsing the tents.
Apparently, the security is stricter once you get inside the festival and no dogs are supposed to be allowed in…they caught poor Bo red-pawed and (politely) asked us to leave.
That’s alright, we needed to hit the road anyhow. (Check out the festival website here.)
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
We continued our drive down Highway 12 until we reached my favorite lighthouse, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its bold black and white spiral stripes and contrasting red and gold base. (You can visit the website here.)
At 193 feet (198 if you include the lightning rod at the top), it’s the tallest in America, and yes, you can climb it. We wanted to, but it was too windy that day so they were not allowing people to go up (yes, it’s just that tall).
It’s just as impressive looking from the beach:
Two to go.
Next stop: Ocracoke.
Ferry to Ocracoke Island
You cannot drive to Ocracoke Island, it is only accessible via boat (or plane). There is a free, almost continuously running ferry that will take you from Hatteras to Ocracoke on a relaxed 40 minute ride. A short 25 minute drive south from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and we were at the ferry terminal.
Once on Ocracoke, we drove around and explored the island a bit (it doesn’t take too long to see most of it, the entire island is only 16 miles long.)
The Ocracoke Lighthouse was at the edge of town in an unexpected location. We drove through an old neighborhood and pulled up to what appeared to be someone’s house. Unsure about walking around the property, we proceeded to meander around to the backyard — making sure we were respectful of the residents. A white picket fence and wooden boardwalk lead you to the base where you can view it up close, but cannot climb.
Shorter and fatter than the rest of the pack, it’s all-white exterior is perhaps the most unimpressive of the bunch. (Check out the website here.)
Blackbeard’s Safe Haven
Not to be underestimated, the area was once a safe haven for the infamous pirate, Blackbeard.
Four down. One to go and the scavenger hunt would be complete.
Final Destination: Cape Lookout.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is the trickiest of the group to get to. The Island of Cape Lookout is completely undeveloped, and much like Ocracoke is only accessible by boat. (You can visit their website for more info here.)
First, we needed to catch the Cedar Island-bound ferry, a leisurely two and a half hour ride from Ocracoke.
Once on Cedar Island, we needed to catch yet another private ferry in order to get on Cape Lookout Island. The only problem was we didn’t have enough time to catch the ferry, the next one wouldn’t be leaving until the following day. We had to finish the tour, we couldn’t go home with our tails between our legs, only having visited four out of the five Outer Banks lighthouses. We decided to ask around. Finally, we settled on driving to the edge of Harkers Island to view the black and white diamond-patterned tower from just across the water.
We have since vowed to go back and spend an entire weekend on Cape Lookout, maybe then we’ll get the chance to climb to the top of the tower and catch a glimpse of the wild horses that live on the island.
We had successfully completed our mission of seeing all five North Carolina Outer Banks lighthouses.
The tour was complete.