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”).
“The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” That’s what Southern seafarers used to call the North Carolina Outer Banks. Before the advent of electronic navigation, countless ships ran aground during furious storms, crashed into hidden shoals, or sank in the Gulf Stream’s fierce, turbulent current.
What’s More Dangerous than Shoals? Pirates.
However, unlike Diamond Shoals off the coast of Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Inlet’s dangers were above the water in the form of pirates. By the early 1700s, Ocracoke Inlet was a bounty for famous scallywags such as Calico Jack, Anne Bonney, and Mary Stede.
Maybe the most famous resident of the inlet was Edward Teach, better known as the pirate Blackbeard. He set up house on Ocracoke Island, then later across the water in Bath on Pimlico Sound. He was so bold that he lived ashore and looted and pillaged the waters from his infamous ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, almost as a normal day job. It took a few years, but the government finally put an end to the pirate’s tyranny — and to the pirate himself — at a place now named Teach’s Hole just on shore from the inlet.
The First Lighthouse
The waters of the inlet aren’t without natural dangers. Thanks to the often-violent storms, strong currents, and high swells, the bottom of the inlet frequently shifts. There are deadly shoals and ever-changing sands beneath the waves that have claimed their share of ships and sailors.
The first documented wreck in the inlet was in 1585, but it wasn’t until 1794 that the U.S. Lighthouse Service decided to build a lighthouse to help ships navigate through. The first lighthouse was constructed on Shell Castle Island between Ocracoke and Portsmouth Island. It was a somewhat basic structure with a small lightkeeper’s cottage nearby. However, if there’s one thing Outer Banks mariners know, it’s that the ocean moves things around. By 1818 the main channel had migrated more than a mile, making the lighthouse obsolete. Coincidentally, that same year the original tower and cottage were hit by lightning and destroyed.
The Modern Lighthouse: A Hurricane Haven
A new lighthouse, complete with a one-room lightkeeper’s cottage, was built at the south end of Ocracoke Island in 1823, where it still stands today. It is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the country. It’s only 75 feet tall, but with a base that measures 5 feet thick at the bottom, it’s sturdy. So sturdy in fact that locals use to move into the structure to ride out hurricanes high above the floodwaters.
You can’t climb the lighthouse today, but it is interesting to stand at the base and imagine what it would be like to endure howling winds and driving rain inside a small, dark pyramid so close to the raging ocean. What’s more, other villagers rode out storms in the one-room lightkeeper’s house. When you visit, try to decide where you’d rather be in a hurricane.
You may notice the Ocracoke Lighthouse is solid white instead of the barber pole striping seen on the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. The white color is easily seen from water during the day, which is a big help to mariners. Initially, mixing lime, salt, Spanish whiting, rice, glue, and boiling water made the white color. Burning oil against a backdrop of hand-cut prisms (until the tower was electrified in the early 1900s) created a bright light. The beam is visible up to 14 miles at sea.
Life as a Lightkeeper
The lightkeeper’s house is one of the best attractions for visitors. Lightkeepers lived simply in one room and lived lives of routine. In 1897 an assistant lightkeeper was hired and a second story added to the original cottage. The double quarters housed two lightkeepers and their families. During the day they spent time keeping the grounds and buildings in good repair, keeping the wicks trimmed on the lighthouse’s oil lamps, raising animals, and gardening.
Unlike other lightkeepers, who may be isolated on desolate, rocky coastlines miles from another person, Ocracoke lightkeepers were close enough to village life to be part of the community and send their children to school “in town.”
Visiting the Lighthouse
In these conditions, hundreds of ships have run aground — earning the area the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” To save mariners and their cargo, in 1794 Congress authorized construction of the lighthouse. At 210 feet high, it is the largest brick lighthouse in the country and the second largest in the world. Diamond Shoals runs 10 nautical miles to the sea, and the beam from the tower is visible for 18 miles, giving ship captains plenty of warning to steer clear of the shoals.
If Towers Could Talk
The original was replaced in 1871 with a new tower and a light that was designed for higher visibility at sea. If the tower could talk, it would have plenty of stories to tell. In 1879, it was struck by lightning, and the masonry had to be repaired with metal rods. From 1942 to 1945 the lighthouse was used as a lookout for German U-boats (submarines). In 1999, erosion threatened the tower, and the structure was moved 2,900 feet inland. The current lighthouse survived the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane, and hurricanes of Category 3 or more, including Hazel, Connie, Ione, Helene, Donna, Diana, Emily, Fran, and Floyd.
Climbing the Lighthouse
It’s easy to see why Outer Banks locals and visitors have such affection for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It has not only stood as a sentinel over the sea but over history as well. Today you can climb the lighthouse on your visit and enjoy the incredible views from the top. The climb is strenuous, so be prepared for a workout.
The lighthouse opens to the public the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $4 for senior citizens, children, and the disabled. Climbs run every 10 minutes with a limit of 30 people per climb.
There are 257 steps, the equivalent of walking up the stairs of a 12-story building. It can be hot and humid, so it may not be the right activity for those with some medical conditions.
If you plan to climb, there are a few rules:
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.
This is a fun activity for all ages. When I was a young child we would go crabbing in the sound all the time. There are a few things you will need for this activity. First you will need a bucket, a net, some raw chicken, and some string (strong enough to hold the chicken.) Once you have this you will want to cut the chicken into chunks and tie the string around it. After that you are ready to go. Once you get to the sound dump your chicken into the water while holding onto the string. Soon enough you will have a crab gran onto the chicken. Scoop the crab out of the water with the net and place it in the bucket with water. Once you have had all the fun you can handle you can release the crabs you have caught. You are able to keep them as long as they meet requirements. I would check with a local bait and tackle shop to see what the requirements are as they may change.
Visit a Lighthouse
Making a trip to the lighthouse can be both fun and educational. There are three different lighthouses to choose from here in the Outer banks. First you have the Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla, then you have Bodie Island located in South Nags Head, and last you have Cape Hatteras which is located in Buxton. The kids will enjoy climbing to the top and seeing the view.
Visit the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
This would be a fun rain day activity. Many places you visit will have an aquarium close by but the kids always seem to enjoy going. At the aquarium kids will be able to see alligators, otters, and the largest collection of sharks in the state. They will love the touching tank full of stingrays and the hand on sea turtle rescue exhibit. If you go when it is not raining make sure to check out the nature trail and the sound side pier.
The Island Farm in Manteo
After visiting the Aquarium make sure to stop by The Island Farm for a fun and educational experience for the whole family. Here you will be able to experience island life as it was more than 150 years ago. Children will get the chance to dress up, play with toys and games from the 19th century, and play and feed the farm animals. Be sure to check their event page online before going. They offer special programs such as ox-drawn wagons rides and wash day on the farm only certain days of the week.
Visit Jockey’s Ridge
What could be more fun than climbing a large sand dune?! Nothing! That is why visiting Jockey’s Ridge is on our list! Kids will love running up the large sand dunes and then rolling down. Be careful though! In the summer the sand can get hot.
Visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial
A Girl Time Escape to the Outer Banks
Whether it’s you and your daughters, multiple generations, or multiple families sharing a vacation property for the week, the Outer Banks is the perfect spot for the girls to relax and create memories together. Here are a few ideas to help you plan your special “girls-only” time.=&0=&=&1=&
First Time in the Outer Banks? Here Are the Top 10 Things You Must Do
If you are planning your first trip to the Outer Banks, you undoubtedly plan to spend some time on the beach soaking up the sun and enjoying the waves. But the Outer Banks has many other attractions and points of interest you will not want to miss, including fascinating historical sites, diverse wildlife, and delicious local cuisine. As you plan your trip, be sure to make room on your itinerary for these top 10 most popular attractions that hard-core OBXers recommend.=&0=&=&1=&
Must-Do Activities The Outer Banks Is Famous For
An Outer Banks vacation offers plenty of opportunities to take it easy as you explore the beach and settle into your relaxing rental home. As you soak in the gorgeous ocean vistas, you will also want to take advantage of the many activities the Outer Banks is famous for so you can create new memories with your family. Whether you crave historical exploration, a day of shopping, or some challenging outdoor adventures, the Outer Banks has something for everyone.=&0=&=&1=&