Cape Lookout photo courtesy of Cape Lookout National Seashore

The Lighthouses of North Carolina

One of the pleasures of exploring the coastline is to visit, and perhaps even climb, the lighthouses dotting the water's edge. Originally used to warn sailors, today they are luring tourists who find their destinctive designs and spectacular views irresistible. Enjoy the seven along the coast and one more lighthouse along the Roanoke River.

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The Bodie Island Lighthouse

The newest to open, The Bodie Island Lighthouse (pronounced "body") was built in 1872 and day-marked with broad black and white bands. Before being deemed ready for visitors, it underwent a major overhaul from the marble and slate on the bottom floor to the metal features around the gallery and lantern decks. The Fresnel lens's 344 glass prisms were removed for cleaning and the optical panels from its 12-foot framework polished.

The climb is challenging but rewards those who persevere with panorama of the ocean and the sound that few people have ever seen.

The first-order Fresnel was the largest of these revolutionary 19th-century lenses, which use a complex system of hand-cut prisms to cast light 20 miles out to sea. Only about 15 U.S. lighthouses -- including Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla -- are equipped with first-order Fresnels. Others, such as the storied lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, are prized by maritime museums.

The Bodie Island Lighthouse is also one of only a dozen surviving "tall brick tower type" lighthouses in the United States. (Three more in North Carolina -- Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the nation's tallest -- also fall into the category, which specifies a minimum height of 150 feet.

The restoration of the Bodie Island Lighthouse adds another chapter to a dramatic history. Shoddy construction set the original 1847 lighthouse canting to the east. The tower was replaced in 1859, just in time for the Civil War. Confederate troops, retreating from the war's first amphibious operation, blew up the lighthouse so that the victorious Union forces couldn't use it.

After the war, a new lighthouse was constructed on a 15-acre tract between tall pines and freshwater marsh. Less than three weeks after its opening on Oct. 1, 1872, a flock of geese crashed into the lantern and damaged the lens. The lighthouse's lot improved under the management of the National Park Service, which eventually turned the keepers' cottage into a visitor center and gave people a glimpse inside the tower.

Until recently, public access to the gallery has been limited to one weekend in 1988 during the U.S. Lighthouse Service's bicentennial. Before climbers could be permitted to spiral their way to the top on a regular basis, restoration was needed. Work began in 2010 but was halted when crews found structural deficiencies that weren't covered by the budget. Funds became available the next fiscal year, and the project was finally completed.

Roanoke River Lighthouse

In Edenton, the Roanoke River Lighthouse also has a rich history. Originally located across the Albemarle Sound at the mouth of the Roanoke River near Plymouth, it was one of 15 screw-pile lighthouses in North Carolina. Decommissioned in 1941, the lighthouse was eventually brought to Edenton and used as a private residence.

The Edenton Historical Commission acquired the lighthouse in 2007. Restored, refurbished and relocated to Edenton Bay, the lighthouse again sits atop pilings over the water.

Other North Carolina Lighthouses Open for Visits and Climbing

Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Corolla 162 feet high, 214 steps. First lit in 1875.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Buxton 207 feet high, 248 steps. First lit in 1870.

Ocracoke Island Lighthouse, Ocracoke About 75 feet high.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse, near Beaufort 169 feet high. 207 steps. First lit 1859.

Oak Island Lighthouse, Oak Island 153 feet high, 131 steps (on ships ladders). First lit in 1958.

Bald Head Island Lighthouse (Old Baldy), Bald Head Island 100 feet high, 108 steps. First lit in 1817; deactivated in 1930.

Unless otherwise indicated, find more information on these lighthouses at Cape Hatteras National Park Find more about North Carolina lighthouses at

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Cape Lookout photo courtesy of Cape Lookout National Seashore

Updated: November 27, 2016

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