You can’t miss it. It’s that visible.
If you’re driving along NC Highway 12 between Nags Head and Cape Hatteras, you’re sure to spot the Bodie Island Lighthouse (pronounced “body,” with a short “o”).
Planning for your vacation sets the stage for getting the most out of your vacation, even if your plan is to be as lazy as you can be.
When my family vacations we tend to plan in two stages. The first stage is all about thinking ahead to: what will we need for the trip and what will we need when we get there. The second stage is all about what are we going to do when we get there (activities).
They also tell a remarkable story, a recounting of early attempts by the United States to support its maritime industry.
Almost from the founding of the United States, seafaring activity along the new country’s coastline was a concern of the government. In 1789 the ninth act of Congress and, what was the first public works act, placed all lighthouses under the Treasury Department and committed the government to building new lighthouses.
Initially almost all of the lighthouses were located in the Northeast where most of the population lived. However, the maritime industry had different needs. Taking advantage of the Labrador Current until it reached the Gulf Stream ship captains would hug the coast before turning east for Europe. There was also a robust trade within the Americas, and captains felt sailing closer to shore was safer and faster.
By the beginning of the 19th Century, it was obvious that the waters of the Outer Banks were some of the most treacherous in the world, and something had to be done.
The first lighthouse the government built on the Outer Banks was as at Ocracoke. Now a sleepy fishing and tourist village, the location may seem odd by modern standards, but, the town, and Ocracoke Inlet, was an important entry point for the ports of the Inner Banks.
The first attempt, built in 1798 was on Shell Castle Island, a small artificial island due north of Portsmouth Island and west of Ocracoke. A wooden structure, by the time it burned to the ground in 1818 the shoaling of the channel the light was marking was so severe that it no longer marked a safe passage.
Recognizing that a lighthouse was needed at Ocracoke Inlet, in 1822 Congress allocated $20,000 for the project and contracted with Noah Porter of Massachusetts to build the lighthouse and keeper’s cottage. Porter spent $8500 less than budgeted and he must have done something right because the lighthouse is still standing.
Completed in 1823 and originally coated with lime, salt, ground rice, whiting, and clear glue boiled and applied hot, the 75’ tower has always been a stark white. The lighthouse is still in use, flashing an automated beacon, making it the second oldest lighthouse in the country in continuous use. The oldest is the Boston Light which celebrated its 300th birthday last year.
The Ocracoke Lighthouse is the only Outer Banks lighthouse that cannot be climbed, although the grounds are open.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The early history of the Hatteras Lighthouse was troubled.
Diamond Shoals had long been known as one of the most dangerous stretches of coastline along the East Coast and Congress recognizing that, appropriated $44,000 in 1797 to build a lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. It was not an easy build. Construction delays and engineering complications slowed the project and it wasn’t until 1802 that the first Hatteras Lighthouse was completed.
Standing 112’ above the sand, the new lighthouse had to wait another year before a lighthouse keeper would agree to move to Hatteras.
As a warning beacon to sailors the light was a miserable failure. Diamond Shoals extend 26 miles to the east of Cape Hatteras and the beacon from the Hatteras Lighthouse fell well short of that, something that was noted in an 1851 inspection.
“Hatteras Light, the most important on our coast is, without doubt, the worst light in the world,” Navy Lt. David Porter wrote. Adding that he had made numerous trips past the breakers of Diamond Shoals, that when he finally did see the light, “…I could not tell it from a steamer’s light, excepting that the steamer’s lights are much brighter.”
Porter’s report sparked action and the tower was raised to 150’ and a first order Fresnel lens was mounted in the tower.
First introduced in France in 1821, the Fresnel light used rotating prisms around a single light source to produce a more powerful and technically advanced light than anything else available in the 19th century.
The additional height and power of the lens was effective, but it was a short-lived triumph.
In 1861, concerned that Union troops would land on the Outer Banks, the Confederate army removed the Fresnel lamp. Their fears were well-founded. Northern forces seized Hatteras Inlet in August of 1861 and marched north.
To prevent their enemy from using the height of the tower as an observation post, the Confederates tried to destroy it. They were unsuccessful their destruction, but did considerable damage.
After the war, the Lighthouse Board inspected the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and decided it would be cheaper to build a new one.
In 1868 Congress appropriated $80,000 for a new light but cost overruns drove the new price tag to $167,000—about $2.7 million in 2017.
In retrospect, it was a bargain. Chief Engineer for the project Dexter Stetson seemed to have a clear understanding of what was required to build in an environment as harsh as the Outer Banks.
Rather than rely on the sandy soil of Hatteras to anchor his tower, Stetson created a lattice work of logs to bear the weight the structure. When completed in 1870, at 207’ the new structure was, and still is, the tallest all brick building in the United States.
The new light performed to expectations, warning ships far at sea of the danger of Diamond Shoals. In a tribute to the genius of Stetson, when the light was moved 1600’ back from the sea 1999, the log lattice base was still intact and the structure made the journey with no damage.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
Standing 165’ above the horizon just north of Oregon Inlet, Bodie Island Lighthouse looks a lot like Cape Hatteras. Which stands to reason since after completing Hatteras, Dexter Stetson took on the task of building the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
Stetson had leftover brick and he had trained workers from the Hatteras project, and by 1872 a new light north of Hatteras was illuminating the night sky.
The Bodie Island Light that is now a part of the Outer Banks was the third attempt at building a lighthouse at that general location.
It had been recognized for some time that a warning beacon was needed north of Cape Hatteras; the light would have two purposes—warn of Wimble Shoals at Rodanthe and the approach of Diamond Shoals.
In 1847, a year after Oregon Inlet opened, the first lighthouse was completed. South of the Inlet, the structure, suffering from shoddy construction—the contractor did not follow the engineer’s recommendations, and it began to lean almost immediately. Attempts to right the tower failed, and it was destroyed in 1859 as another lighthouse was being completed.
The new lighthouse, adjacent to the old one, would have survived if Southern forces hadn’t blown it up in 1861. It’s doubtful, however, if it would have survived Oregon Inlet which has been migrating steadily southward since it opened. The location of both of the original lighthouses south of Oregon Inlet are now under water.
Of all the Outer Banks lighthouses, the grounds and marsh surrounding Bodie Island is the most interesting and is worth a trip just to explore the environment.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
The lighthouses of the East Coast served multiple purposes. Certainly they warned mariners of dangerous waters, but almost as importantly they were—and still are—navigational aids. With the advent of the Fresnel lens, the timing of the beacon could be regulated, so the Cape Hatteras Light might flash every 20 seconds, and another lighthouse might flash every 15 second. That would be a visual cue to a ship’s captain giving their location. Similarly, each lighthouse was painted in a distinctive manner to aid in daytime navigation.
That works well as long as the lighthouses are regularly placed along the coast.
Which brings us to Currituck Beach Lighthouse.
By the mid 1870s about every 35 to 40 miles there was a lighthouse from Maine to Florida…except for a stretch between Cape Henry in Virginia and Bodie Island. The Lighthouse Board noted that in an 1872 report, point out specifically that ships sailing north, in order to avoid the Gulf Stream sailed dangerously close to the Currituck Banks shoreline.
In 1873 construction on a new lighthouse was begun. Utilizing techniques that had proven successful at Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse would be an all brick structure.
When the wick on the first order Fresnel lens was lit on December 1, 1875, the last dark area of the East Coast was illuminated.
To distinguish the Currituck Beach Lighthouse from the other lighthouses, it was decided to leave the exterior unpainted. It has remained unpainted and the exposed red brick is a amazing example of brick construction.
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse was one of the last brick lighthouses built.
The grounds and keepers’ cottages have been restored by the Outer Banks Conservation Society.
When you think of vacationing in the Outer Banks the first thing that comes to mind is probably beach related activities. What you may not realize is the Outer Banks is consistently ranked one of the best family destinations and offers some super-cool kid activities not found elsewhere.
There’s something about a historic lighthouse that can transport you back in time in an instant. Two different kinds of historic lighthouses occur throughout the barrier islands, and maritime aficionados will enjoy visiting both of them.
The Outer Banks has three tall or “coastal” lighthouses that were built to warn passing ships about dangerous offshore shoals: Bodie Island lighthouse (built in 1872), Cape Hatteras lighthouse (built in 1869), and Currituck Beach lighthouse (built in 1875).
The two “harbor lights” lighthouses were built to help ships pass through to safe anchorage: Bald Head Island lighthouse, or “Old Baldy,” was built in 1797 and Ocracoke lighthouse was built in 1823. As you tour these lighthouses and take in the unique and rugged geography around them, you’ll get a real appreciation for why lighthouses are such a beloved part of North Carolina’s history.
Kayaking is a truly special way to experience the Outer Banks. Miles and miles of calm waters and pristine beaches invite you to explore. Guided kayak tours are available throughout the islands, and tour exertion levels can scale up or down to fit almost anyone’s ability. Before you begin your kayak tour, an experienced guide will show you how to safely and easily navigate your kayak, and will give you an overview of what you can expect to see.
Popular kayak tours include gliding past downtown Manteo and Ocracoke Village, birding and nature tours through quiet canals, taking in spectacular sunsets, and dolphin spotting. Kayak tour companies are spread throughout the Outer Banks, and the largest is Kitty Hawk Kites. Kitty Hawk Kites has a variety of popular tours, so it’s a good idea to call in advance to reserve your spot for their nature, sunset, or overnight pack trips.
One of the biggest draws to the Outer Banks is offshore fishing for large fish such as tuna, swordfish, and mahi-mahi. Charters accommodate groups of up to six people, so splitting expenses with two other couples or another family is a nice way to make this a cost-effective activity. Your charter captain will take you out to the Gulf Stream at dawn, an exhilarating experience in itself, and set you up with everything you need to land a good fish story — and a delicious dinner. Bring plenty of food, drinks, sunscreen, and motion sickness remedies. White, long-sleeved shirts, polarized sunglasses, and sun hats are also a good idea.
Standup paddleboarding is a relaxing way to experience the Outer Banks from the water. Paddleboarding is easy to learn and can be adapted for almost any fitness level. As one of the largest watersports outfitters, Kitty Hawk Kites rents paddleboards, provides lessons, and offers paddleboard tours of Kitty Hawk, Duck, and Manteo. You’ll receive about 15 minutes of simple instruction heading out behind your tour guide through the peaceful Sound waters. Paddleboarders frequently have close-up dolphin encounters, so just relax, paddle slowly, and enjoy the views.
Speaking of dolphins, Outer Banks dolphins have a reputation for being just as excited to see people as people are to see them. A daytime or sunset dolphin cruise is the best way to spot friendly Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins as well as seabirds, turtles, and other wildlife. Paradise Dolphin Cruises is a popular dolphin-spotting choice for Outer Banks visitors. Their large catamarans are comfortable, shaded, and handicapped accessible, and their captains have a solid reputation for finding as many dolphins as you care to see.
With the top down, the sun on your face and the wind in your hair — is there a better way to experience Nature’s beauty than from a classic safari Jeep? Jeep tours in the Outer Banks allow you to cover plenty of ground while keeping you connected with the sights and sounds of these special surroundings. Corolla Jeep Adventures offer several ways to experience the Outer Banks from a safari Jeep. You can even reserve a Jeep for a 25-mile off-road self-guided tour where you’ll see wild horses, historic villages, lighthouses, and much more.
Touring the Outer Banks by land or sea is the perfect way to get to know North Carolina’s barrier islands. Whether you take a leisurely self-guided tour or follow an experienced guide along local roads, trails, or canals, a tour of the Outer Banks will be an enriching experience you’ll never forget.
Fun Family Beach Activities In The Outer Banks
For some, an ideal day on the beach means spreading out a towel, popping on some headphones, and soaking up some sun. But for others (especially those with children or large groups), a day at the beach should involve plenty of activities, games, and water sports. Whether you plan to spend a day or two of your Outer Banks beach vacation splashing in the surf with the kids, or you are on the lookout for some serious wave surfing, the beaches of the Outer Banks offer plenty of activities to keep everyone busy.=&0=&=&1=&
|Lighthouse photo bomb!|
Originally built in 1872 Bodie Island light stands some 170 feet tall and has one of the remarkable Fresnel Lenses in place which is an engineering marvel and something definitely worth seeing.Thanks Bill, you make us hunger for warmer weather when we can go to Nags Head and climb the lighthouse! Only a few weeks away.All the best from the beach!By Tim Cafferty, President, Outer Banks Blue Realty Services
|That’s Our Kind of View!|
|Doing it like the original settlers!|
We have found one of our guests’ favorite vacation memories however is eating! Restaurants abound on the OBX, and what family vacation on the Outer Banks is complete without some tasty donuts from “Duck Donuts!”
|Sorry….there is only enough for the two of us!|
Finally, of course, most people come to the Outer Banks, and Corolla to enjoy the water. These kids are enjoying a nice dip in the best swimming pool there is – the Atlantic Ocean!
Thanks Teresa for sharing your photo memories. We look forward to serving you and your family again soon at Outer Banks Blue!All the best from the beach!By Tim Cafferty, President, Outer Banks Blue Realty Services
|Bodie Island Lighthouse|
Planning a Self-Guided Coastal Lighthouse Tour on the Outer Banks
Way back in colonial days, lighthouses were built to warn sailors of dangerous coastlines – whether it be rocky shores that would tear the hulls of ships or dangerous shoals (like those in the Outer Banks) that caused ships to run aground or wreck. Despite the use of global positioning systems (GPSs), many of these structures stand proud today and still give exceptional service to boat captains who appreciate their steady beams.Looking for things to do on the Outer Banks? With a wealth of history and beauty, touring these iconic symbols makes for an awesome day trip for you and/or your family. Depending on how much time you have and what your starting location is, you can plan the stops in logical sequence.
|Currituck Beach Lighthouse|
As the lighthouse positioned furthest north (in Corolla), this would be a good starting point if you want to make your way straight down the coast. Constructed from approximately one million bricks (that remain unpainted to distinguish this lighthouse), the Currituck Beach Light Station was originally built to warn mariners away from the sound. This coastal lighthouse has a beam that projects for approximately 18 nautical miles. With walls that are between three feet to five and a half feet thick, this landmark was built (like most lighthouses) to save lives. According to the Currituck Beach Light Station website, “As it had reported in previous years, the U.S. Light-House Board in 1872 stated that ships, cargoes, and lives continued to be lost along the 40 miles of dark coastline that lay beyond the reaches of existing lighthouses. Southbound ships sailing closer to shore to avoid the Gulf Stream were especially in danger. In response, construction began on the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in 1873 with completion two years later.”As you climb the 220 stairs, there are educational signposts that offer interesting facts about the property. There are also exhibits and a museum on site where you can buy books, souvenirs, clothing and more.
Traveling from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse along NC-12 South to US-158 East (for about 43 miles) will take you to another historic landmark with a rather rocky past.Funds for the original Bodie Island Lighthouse were appropriated in 1847, but complications with buying the land needed for the project caused construction delays until 1847. However, problems with an incompetent project overseer (Thomas Blount) resulted in a lighthouse that – after two years – began to lean. After numerous attempts at costly repairs with no success, the structure was abandoned in 1859.A second lighthouse was built in that same year. It, unfortunately, met its end when Confederate soldiers (fearing the 80-foot-tall beacon would be used by the Union) destroyed it in 1861. Perhaps the old saying, “The third time’s the charm,” is true, because a final structure, on a 15-acre site, was completed in 1872 and that lighthouse is the one that still stands today. The National Park Service reports, “The building now serves as a ranger office and visitor center for Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The most recent restoration of the lighthouse itself was completed in 2013. Still a functioning navigational aid, the tower is open for public tours.”
|Cape Hatteras Lighthouse|