On the Outer Banks, it's easy to throw in a little education in with a vacation filled with fun, adventures, and new explorations.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its black and white candy-cane stripes, is one of the most famous and recognizable lighthouses in the world. Protecting one of the most treacherous stretches of the Outer Banks, with a beam of light that spans 20 miles into the ocean, the lighthouse is also the world's tallest brick lighthouse at a staggering 208' ft. tall.
Considered one of Hatteras Island's biggest attractions, over 175,000 visitors come to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse every year to climb the 257 steps to the top. But don't let those large numbers of tourists scare you - Hatteras Island, and subsequently the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, is known for being unpopulated and uncrowded, even in the height of summer, making it a very attractive destination for Outer Banks vacationers.
History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The current Cape Hatteras lighthouse is actually the 2nd lighthouse to service Hatteras Island and the ships travelling offshore. The first 90' ft. lighthouse was authorized in 1794 and completed construction by 1803, but it was soon apparent that this first sandstone lighthouse was ineffective in protecting passing ships from the deadly Diamond Shoals.
After decades of complaints, the US Government added 60' feet to the height of the lighthouse, making it 150' ft. tall, and painted the bottom half bright red to make it stand out during the day. The "new" lighthouse was finished by 1853, but just a couple years later after a number of rough storms, it was in need of extensive repairs. Deciding to start from scratch, construction on the current lighthouse began in 1868, and the present-day Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was first lit on December 1, 1870.
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse protected the waters off of Hatteras Island for over a hundred years, but by the early 1990s, the towering structure was faced with a new problem: beach erosion.
Decades of storms, hurricanes and Nor'easters had all but eliminated the beach in front of the lighthouse, and the structure was in real danger of toppling into the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1999, after years of careful planning, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the surrounding outbuildings, including the principal keepers' quarters and double keepers' quarters, was moved 2,900 ft. inland to a safer location. The actual move itself took just 23 days, with lots of planning, set-up, and maintenance before and after the operation. In the end, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse ended up being the tallest brick structure in history to ever be moved.
Today the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and outbuildings are all open to visitors, and remain safe behind a barrier of sand dunes and maritime forest in the heart of Buxton.
What to know before you visit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The lighthouse is open for climbers seasonally, generally from Easter to Thanksgiving, from 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day, and 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. in the spring and fall. Ticket sales start at 8:15 a.m., and climbers are led in groups by a National Park Service tour guide up and down the ancient steps. Tickets are inexpensive for adults, and even less for children under 11 and senior citizens over 65.
The reward for making the long hike up the lighthouse is a panoramic view that spans the majority of Hatteras Island, from Avon to Hatteras Village. Special full moon evening tours are available once a month and tickets can be reserved in advance. Be sure and reserve your full moon tickets early, as these popular climbs tend to fill up fast.
The lighthouse is also available for weddings and special events. A Special Use Permit is required for weddings by the National Park Service in advance, but at a small cost (around $50), the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is an attractive backdrop for Hatteras Island destination wedding couples.
The grounds around the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, including the two keepers' quarters buildings, are home to a lighthouse museum and gift shop filled with books, toys, and lighthouse souvenirs. There is also a shaded picnic area nearby, a .75 mile nature trail, and the beach ramp access to Cape Point.