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”).
This impressive historic structure towers high over maritime woodlands, marshlands, and saltwater ponds in the NC Outer Banks. It looks exactly the way you picture the legendary light stations of yesteryear – white brick with bold black stripes, topped by an iconic lantern room. And it’s one of just a handful of US lighthouses that still operate today, flashing its navigational beam once every 27.5 seconds.
For several decades, this famous lighthouse was closed for extensive repairs, but by 2013 these renovations were complete. Now you can climb its 214 winding iron stairs up to the observation deck, where thrilling views and exhilarating ocean breezes await you.
Part of North Carolina’s Turbulent Seafaring History
Throughout the 19th century, countless vessels wrecked in the turbulent waters off of the Outer Banks coastline. The danger was especially severe right around Pea Island. So, in 1847, construction began at that site on a 54-foot light station. Unfortunately the brick foundation was weak, and the tower soon started to lean. In 1859 it was torn down and replaced nearby with a sturdier 80-foot structure.
However, tensions were growing between the northern and southern states during this time. Just a few years later, in 1861, the Civil War broke out. Confederate forces blew up this newer lighthouse to keep it from falling into Union hands.
But mariners still faced the very real threat of shipwreck. So, after the war, the lighthouse was rebuilt for the third time. It was relocated a little farther north and built taller than its two predecessors – a full 156 feet above sea level.
Construction began in 1871, and by 1872 the Bodie Island Lighthouse was open for business, beaming its bright, rotating light 19 miles across the water. Around the same time, a spacious duplex home was built for the light keepers’ families.
Initially the First Order Fresnel Lens – the largest kind available – was lit with lard oil and rotated by hand (a backbreaking effort). But in 1932 it was fully automated and powered with electricity. In 1953 the lighthouse itself came under the control of the US National Park Service.
This 1872 light station is the same one still standing today. So, when you mount to its summit, you are treading in the footsteps of generations of Outer Banks light keepers. Talk about the mystique of the past!
What to Expect When You Visit the Bodie Island Lighthouse
Ready to climb to the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse? Visit anytime during the warmer months, between the third Friday in April and Columbus Day in October. Climbing tours (limited to parties of eight) start every 20 minutes, beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at 4:30 p.m. Tickets are available onsite at the restored light keepers’ home, which now houses the visitors’ center. The fee is modest – just $10 for adults, $5 for seniors (age 62 and older), and $5 for children 11 and younger (who must be accompanied by an adult).
To climb, you must be at least 42 inches tall and weigh less than 260 lbs. Be sure to wear sturdy, comfortable shoes. (Heels higher than 1.5 inches are prohibited.) Arrive at the lighthouse base at least five minutes before the time printed on your ticket. Feel free to bring along drinking water in a sealed, non-glass container, but leave other foods and beverages behind.
The climb is strenuous, but you can go at your own pace and pause to rest and catch your breath on any of nine landings. At the top, you’ll enjoy 360-degree views of Bodie Island, Pamlico Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean. (Be sure to have your camera on hand to capture the breathtaking vistas.)
Plus, you’ll get to gaze upward at the restored First Order Fresnel Lens, the very same light that guided sailors to safety almost 150 years ago. How amazing to think that it still serves as a guiding beacon today!
The Lighthouse Is Just the Beginning
Before or after your climb, you’ll want to explore the beautiful unspoiled grounds surrounding the Bodie Island Lighthouse. Part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, this undeveloped coastal area includes grassy freshwater marshes, lush pine and cedar forests, and pristine ocean shoreline. Stroll along the well-maintained wooden walkway to glimpse all kinds of shorebirds and waterfowl. Plus, visit the nearby Pea Island Wildlife Refuge for an even more intimate look at colorful Outer Banks wildlife.
How to Get to the Bodie Island Lighthouse
Located at 8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Road, just south of Nags Head and Whalebone Junction, this popular Outer Banks attraction is easily accessible. If you’re traveling from north or west, take US 64 to the NC 12 intersection, then head south for about seven miles. Bring the family… and have a blast!