The Carolinas’ coastline is well known for treacherous currents and navigational dangers that challenge even the most experienced mariners. In fact, North Carolina’s Outer Banks region has been famously dubbed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for the many ships and lives lost there through the years. Often, the only thing standing between these mariners and doom on the rocks was a brilliant light flashing from a lighthouse. Thanks to GPS and other modern navigational aids, lighthouses no longer play the same crucial role in shipping, and today many of these famous Carolinas lighthouses stand dark, serving only as iconic symbols of America’s past. With the travel season in full swing, here are 10 must-see lighthouses along the coast of the Carolinas.
10. Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
This 75-foot lighthouse is situated in the heart of Ocracoke Island, a 16-mile barrier island off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Built in 1823, it is the oldest operating light station in North Carolina and according to CarolinaLights.com is the second oldest in the country behind Boston Light. Automated in 1946, the National Park Service maintains the lighthouse and its grounds, which are open to visitors during the summer. Unfortunately, the outbuildings and tower itself are not open to the public, but getting there is half the fun since the seasonal ferry ride from the mainland takes between 40 minutes to approximately three hours, depending on your departure point.
9. Morris Island Light
This unusual and extremely exposed lighthouse, located off the coast of Charleston, is the third to occupy the site. The first two lights, built in 1767 and in the 1830s, withstood hurricanes and wars. The present lighthouse, which began operation in 1876, weathered several powerful hurricanes and even an earthquake, but it’s fighting a long-running battle against erosion. The lighthouse originally stood more than a half-mile inland, but a late 19th century project to build jetties at the entrance to Charleston’s harbor altered currents in the area, which eroded the land around the Morris Island Light. Today, the 161-tower stands on an island by itself, more than 1,000 feet offshore, and it leans slightly to the northeast due to nature’s constant bombardment, although recent preservation efforts led by SaveTheLight.org have helped stabilize the structure. The light itself was deactivated in 1962, replaced by the nearby Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse. You can check out the lighthouse from shore, or catch a cruise for a closer look, although the tower is closed. Or better yet, spend a weekend enjoying adjacent Folly Beach, a place the locals refer to as the “Edge of America.”
8. Georgetown Lighthouse
Located approximately 12 miles southeast of Georgetown, S.C., the history of this active lighthouse reads something like the Three Little Pigs fairy tale. In 1801, the original 72-foot tower was constructed of cypress wood but was destroyed by a storm just five years later. Replaced by a new brick tower, it was heavily damaged during the Civil War after the Union captured this prominent lookout station. After the war, the tower was rebuilt and heightened to its current 87-foot height, with 124 spiral stairs. The lighthouse was fully automated in 1986 and it is now part of the Tom Yawkey (yes, the longtime Boston Red Sox owner) Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve. Unfortunately the tower is closed to the public, but the grounds are open. The lighthouse is accessible only by boat and visitors can book ferry excursions in historic downtown Georgetown.
7. Hunting Island Lighthouse
This 132-foot lighthouse near Beaufort, S.C., served a vital role warning ships about the numerous offshore hazards that ranged from sandbars and wrecks to treacherous currents. The first lighthouse at this site was destroyed by the Confederacy during the Civil War. The current light, finished in 1875, was built with cast-iron plates that allowed it to be easily dismantled, which proved to be extremely useful a few years later when it was moved more than a mile inland due to beach erosion. The only lighthouse in the state of South Carolina that is open to the public, Hunting Island Lighthouse is open daily in season and visitors can climb the 175-step, spiral staircase for a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding marshes.
6. Currituck Beach Lighthouse
Located in the historic village of Corolla on the northern Outer Banks, this 162-foot lighthouse first lit the coast in December 1875. Known for its reddish color due to the more than 1 million bricks used in its construction, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse guided ships along a dangerous 40-mile stretch of coastline that had taken many ships and lives. The lighthouse was fully automated in 1939 and it still flashes at 20-second intervals (three seconds on and 17 seconds off) to warn ships approaching the chain of barrier islands. Today, it is open daily from around Easter through late November and visitors can climb the 214 steps to the top for an amazing view of Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. A word of warning: if you have a fear of heights, the see-through stairs may not be suitable for you.
5. Oak Island Lighthouse
One of the newest lighthouses in the country, this 148-foot tower is also the second-largest concrete light tower in the U.S. Constructed in 1958 at a cost of $110,000, it is commonly recorded on nautical charts as 169 feet in height due to its placement on a slight rise. Its unique tri-colored appearance is due to the mixture of Portland cement, which includes natural gray, white, and gray with black coloring, respectively. Its original lighting apparatus was adapted from World War II aircraft spotlights, which made it one of the brightest in the world. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the light itself, while the town of Caswell Beach, N.C., is responsible for the overall maintenance of the tower and the adjacent grounds. Free tours to the second level of the tower (not the observation balcony at the top) are offered on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer. For those willing to make the additional steep climb to the top, tours can be arranged year-round in advance by appointment only, conditional upon each visitor signing a waiver.
4. Bald Head Island (Old Baldy) Lighthouse
Built in 1817, this 110-foot lighthouse is the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina. Known as “Old Baldy,” it served as an important marker for mariners entering the Cape Fear River, and after being deactivated in 1935, it found use as a radio beacon in World War II. During its years of neglect, the tower (originally constructed of bricks and covered with bright-white stucco) began to crumble and as the stucco fell off the structure, it was simply “patched up” with whatever materials were available. The tower eventually evolved into its multi-colored appearance that visitors see today. The lighthouse has fortunately been preserved due to the efforts of the Old Baldy Foundation and the tower (with its unique off-center lantern room) and the adjacent Smith Island Museum are open March through October for tours, which include the 108-step climb to the top. The tower is accessible by ferry from Southport, N.C.
3. Cape Lookout Lighthouse
The history of this lighthouse dates to 1812, when a lighthouse was built to warn ships about the dangers of Lookout Shoals off North Carolina’s southern Outer Banks. When mariners complained of its insufficient size and weak light, the current 163-foot lighthouse began operation in 1859. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse bears two traits that make it unique; it’s the only lighthouse in the country painted in a black-and-white checkerboard pattern and it is also one of the few lighthouses that operate during the day. Accessible only by ferry, the lighthouse is open to the public between May and September, and it includes a strenuous 207-step climb, which is equivalent to a 12-story building.
2. Charleston/Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse
This 140-foot lighthouse, also known as “Charleston Light,” looks more like an airport control tower than a functional beacon for the sea. First activated in 1962, it featured an incredible 28 million candlepower light that was actually the second brightest in the Western Hemisphere when it began operation. In fact, the carbon arc lamps were so powerful that the keepers were required to don asbestos welding suits to even enter the lantern room. Naturally, this “second Sun” was bothersome to neighbors and a few years later the light was downgraded to a more manageable 1 million candlepower, which is still visible from 26 miles away. In addition, the tower was originally painted white and red-orange, but the color scheme was so unpopular that it was soon changed to its current black-and-white appearance. The National Park Service owns the lighthouse and visitors can explore the grounds but not the tower itself.
1. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Located on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, this 200-foot lighthouse represents everything that a lighthouse should be: tall (the tallest lighthouse in the United States); recognizable (with its famous black-and-white striped pattern); and effective (protecting one of the most dangerous sections of the Atlantic Coast). The first lighthouse at the site, built in 1803, actually proved to be the complete opposite of the current lighthouse in all aspects: it was too short, the unpainted sandstone actually blended in with the landscape, and the light was too weak. After frequent complaints, Congress appropriated funds for a new tower and it was completed in 1870. In 1999, after years of debate, the entire light station was moved approximately a half-mile inland in order to avoid the encroaching Atlantic Ocean. Now part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the tower is open to the public from Easter through mid-October and visitors can climb the 248-step, cast-iron spiral staircase to the top. For a truly unique experience, scheduled night-climbing tours are also available.