Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, also known as America’s Lighthouse, is the tallest brick beacon in the country standing 208 feet. The familiar black and white spiral-striped landmark serves as a warning to mariners of submerged and shifting sandbars which extend almost twenty miles off Cape Hatteras into the Atlantic Ocean. They are known as the Diamond Shoals.

The present lighthouse, officially completed and lit in December 1870, is the second built of three that have been constructed in Buxton. The first Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was built in 1803. It was a sandstone structure 90 feet tall that projected an insufficient light beam using a collection of Argand lamps and reflectors. Sitars to a new height of 150 feet in 1854, and a first order Fresnel lens was installed, the most powerful of its day. The lamp was also fueled by whale oil, as was the previous light. During the Civil War in 1861, retreating Confederate soldiers took the Fresnel lamp from the lighthouse, to keep it out of Union hands. North Carolina’s Outer Banks and the inlets that allowed passage between them were considered of utmost strategic importance by Union forces to keep supplies from reaching the interior of the Confederate aligned southern state by sea. Shell damage during the war and structural deterioration prompted the construction of a replacement lighthouse in 1870, the one we enjoy today. The original lighthouse was then demolished in 1871. The ruins of which could be seen until a powerful storm in 1980 washed away the visible traces.

Whale oil was replaced by kerosene by the 1880’s, and by 1934, the beam was electrified. However, beach erosion threatened the base of the lighthouse by 1935, prompting the construction of a third lighthouse some distance away in the Buxton Woods. It was a steel skeleton tower that utilized an airport beacon. Fifteen years later, the 1870 lighthouse was again put back in operation, as erosion patterns changed. However, the Fresnel lens was vandalized in the 1940’s when the older lighthouse stood empty during those years. Now it uses two active 1000-watt lamps, visible for more than 20 miles. In 1999 the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved a half mile inland, to save it from the encroaching Atlantic. The Lighthouse was cut from its original base, hydraulically lifted onto steel beams and traveled along railroad tracks to its present position over the course of 23 days. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is now as far from the ocean as when originally constructed in 1870.

Opening for Climbing
Mid-April through Columbus Day
Visitor's Center museum and grounds open year-round.

Lighthouse Climbing Fees
$7.00 Adults
$3.50 Children under 12 (must be at least 42" tall); seniors 62 and older; disabled
$3.50 with a National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Senior or Access Pass

Contact Information
(252) 995-4474
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Dr. Beach says Cape Hatteras is No. 4 for 2010

The beach at Cape Hatteras has moved up a notch on Dr. Beach’s Top Ten list of America’s best beaches for 2010.

This year the lifeguarded beach near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse ranks No. 4 on the list – up from No. 7 last year and No. 8 in 2007.

Coastal expert Dr. Stephen Leatherman, director of the Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research, has chosen America’s Top 10 beaches since 1991.  His rankings are based on 50 criteria, including water and sand quality, as well as facilities and environmental management. More than 650 beaches in the country are included in his judging.

This is what he said about Cape Hatteras:

“Bulging far offshore of the mainland coast as a barrier island, Cape Hatteras was the first National Seashore.  Providing some of the best board surfing along the East Coast, as well as the most famous lighthouse in the United States, Cape Hatteras attracts beachgoers to its historic fishing villages.  Nature lovers adore the excellent beachcombing and superb fishing.”

The specific Cape Hatteras beach he has named has been the Park Service’s Buxton lifeguarded beach.

In 2007, the No. 1 beach was the Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach. 

Leatherman said when he visited Ocracoke that one of his criteria is visitor safety, and the Buxton Beach, like the beach he chose on Ocracoke, has National Park Service lifeguards for most of the summer.

The Buxton Beach is located in the shadow of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the largely undeveloped Cape Hatteras National Seashore.  Being undeveloped and natural is another thing that Leatherman likes.

Being named to Dr. Beach’s list is always a cause for celebration for the beaches he chooses, since a lot of publicity comes with the announcement of his new list. 

This year’s No. 1 beach is Coopers Beach on the east end of Long Island, New York.

Here is why Leatherman said Coopers Beach received the honor:

“It is the main beach in the tony Village of Southampton. The Hamptons are world famous; this is one of America’s Gold Coasts along with Palm Beach and Malibu where the rich and famous reside and frequent during the season. Southampton is also steeped in history; it was the first English settlement, dating back to 1640. Historic mansions grace the beautiful, grass-covered sand dunes; the turrets of Calvin Klein’s mansion are among the views visible from Coopers Beach.
Coopers Beach is officially only 500 feet long, but this stretch of sandy shore extends for seven miles for the delight of beachcombers and strollers. A mile or so trek to the east is the one-of-a-kind St. Andrews Dune Church with its interesting architecture and tiffany windows; the original wooden frame was once a U.S. Lifesaving Station. While the U.S. Northeast coast was pummeled by storms this past winter, Coopers Beach stood up well with no damage. A wide beach awaits your visit.”

Once a beach is named No. 1, as Ocracoke was, it is “retired” from competition. 

There’s still hope for the Cape Hatteras beach at Buxton Beach to get to the No. 1 spot.  Ocracoke was on the Top Ten list for several years before it was crowned the best beach in America.

For more information, go to

Dr. Beach’s 2010 Best Beaches in America for 2010

1.    Coopers Beach in Southampton, New York (NATIONAL WINNER)
2.    Siesta Beach in Sarasota, Florida
3.    Coronado Beach in San Diego, California
4.    Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks of North Carolina
5.    Main Beach in East Hampton, New York
6.    Kahanamoku Beach in Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii
7.    Coast Guard Beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts
8.    Beachwalker Park in Kiawah Island, South Carolina
9.    Hamoa Beach in Maui, Hawaii
10.    Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne, Florida

The first Cape Hatteras lighthouse was built in 1803. The reason for the lighthouse being built was the offshore currents flow in opposite directions, which produce conditions that can cause fog and dangerous storms. This can also produce rough currents. These rough currents can cause shallow water where the sailors still think they are in deep water and that can cause the ship to wreck.

Plans to build a lighthouse on Cape Hatteras started as early as 1792. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the first lighthouse to be used as a warning light for sailors. The original design stood 90 feet tall and used whale oil lamps to light the tower. This system did not work because the lamps did not produce enough light and many ships almost ran ground because there was not enough light to discern water from land.

The lighthouse increased in height from 90 feet to 150 feet in 1854. A Fresnel lens was installed to make the light more intense. Rooms were added for the keepers of the lighthouse to stay in.

One big problem the lighthouse faced was the constant erosion of sand around the base of the lighthouse. The lighthouse was built on a sand dune that kept shrinking. The Light-House Board recommended that a new lighthouse be built following inspection of the structure after the Civil War.

In 1870, a new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was constructed. The lighthouse was over 200 feet tall. It still stands as the world's tallest brick lighthouse.

Erosion still continued to be a problem around the base of the lighthouse. Salt water being pushed to the base instead of fresh water threatened to corrode the foundation of the lighthouse. From 1936 to 1950, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was not in use due to the problems with erosion. In 1989, the National Acadamy of Sciences recommended that the lighthouse be moved away from the ocean. In 1999, the lighthouse was moved 2900 feet southwest, which put the lighthouse 1600 feet away from the edge of the ocean. The lighthouse is now a National Historic Landmark.

To this day, the Cape Hatteras Light Station is still in use. It draws sightseers from all around the world. The lighthouse now has a steel-enforced brick foundation. The lens from the lighthouse built in 1854 can be found at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum located at the tip of Hattaras Island.

Directions to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse:

From Kitty Hawk, take NC 158 to NC 12 South to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore entrance. After you pass Bodie Island Lighthouse, which is about 10 miles south of the park entrance on NC 12, travel another 45 miles to the town of Buxton. Make a left into the entrance of the light station.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Facts:

  • There are various numbers assigned to the height of this lighthouse depending on the distance between the two points measured. The National Park Service reports the height as 210 feet to the top of the lightning rod.
  • Cape Hatteras lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the world.
  • The lighthouse was completed in 1870.
  • In 1870, with 24 panels in its 1st order Fresnel lens, the light turned at 1/4 RPM. Today, its modern aerobeacon emits the same flash characteristic with on3 2.5 second white flash every 7.5 seconds for for eight flashes per minute.
  • The flash reaches 19 nautical miles (one nautical mile equals 1.15 statue miles).
  • The last keeper was Unaka Jennette who closed the lighthouse due to erosion in 1936. The light was housed in a skeletal tower in Buxton Woods until the striped tower was relit in 1950.
  • There are 268 cast-iron steps that lead to the latern room.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Route 1, Box 675
Manteo, NC 27954

Phone: 252-473-2111

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Cape Hatteras National Seashore The Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina.
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Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Climbing the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse!

Climbing the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a unique experience! The lighthouse is open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day.

For the 2010 season, the Lighthouse will open on Friday, April 16. Climbing hours will be 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. daily in the spring and fall, and 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. May 28, 2010 through Labor Day, Monday, September 6. The lighthouse will remain open through Columbus Day, Monday, October 11. Tickets are required.

The climb is strenuous! The 248 iron spiral stairs to the top equal climbing a 12 story building. The stairs have a handrail only on one side and a landing every 31 steps. There is no air conditioning. It may be noisy, humid, hot and dim inside the lighthouse and there is two-way traffic on the narrow stairs.

Visitors with heart, respiratory or other medical conditions, or who have trouble climbing stairs, should use their own discretion as to whether to climb the tower.

Climbing tour tickets are $7 for adults and $3.50 for senior citizens (62 or older), children (12 and under, and at least 42" tall), and those holding a National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Access Pass. Tickets are available on a first come/first served basis and can only be purchased in-person at the site the day of the climb. There are no advance ticket sales.

Ticket sales begin at 8:15 a.m. Climbing tours will begin at 9 a.m. and will run every 10 minutes with a limit of 30 visitors per tour. Ticket sales close at 4:30 p.m. in the spring and fall, and 5:30 p.m. June 8, 2008 through Labor Day. Ticket holders should arrive at the lighthouse gate five minutes prior to their ticketed tour time.

The lighthouse may close at any time if weather conditions are unsafe.

The following safety rules apply:

  • Children must be at least 42” tall and capable of climbing all steps on their own.
  • Children under 12 must be escorted by an adult.
  • No person may be lifted or carried.
  • Running, jumping, or stomping on stairs and landings is prohibited.
  • Do not eat, drink, smoke or chew tobacco.
  • No pets, other than service animals.
  • Do not arrive in heels over 1 ½ inches high or in bare feet.
  • Leave umbrellas in your car.
  • Backpacks, tripods, coolers, beach bags, surfboards, fishing poles, etc. also need to be left in your car.
  • Throwing of objects, including frisbees, boomerangs, etc, off the lighthouse is unsafe and may get you in big trouble!

Climbing tours may be booked in advance for some school groups

Various tern species resting along beach wetlands

Did You Know?
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a Globally Important Bird Area, is a critical natural landform along the Atlantic Flyway - serving as a major resting and feeding grounds for migratory birds.

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Last Updated: March 01, 2010 at 12:54 EST

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Cape Hatteras National Seashore Bodie Island Lighthouse--one of three lighthouses at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
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Off-Road Vehicle Information Update

Vehicles are permitted on ocean beaches 6 am - 10 pm, 5/1 - 09/15. A Night Driving Permit is required from 10 pm - 6 am, 9/16 - 11/15.

On these narrow barrier islands, things never stay the same.

A haven for recreation and reflection, the islands of Cape Hatteras National Seashore are constantly changing by tide, storm, current, and wind. The plants, wildlife and people who live here adapt continually. You see it in the daily lives and hear it in the telling of their stories. And there are many story places – sandy beaches, salt marshes, maritime woods – come explore them all!


Restoring the Bodie Island Lighthouse

The Bodie Island Lighthouse is currently in the midst of an 18-month restoration project. The visitor center, bookstore and marsh boardwalk are open during the restoration.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore lies on a thin ribbon of sand called the Outer Banks.

"A Ribbon of Sand"

The narrow barrier islands of Cape Hatteras National Seashore are in a constant state of change. Tides, waves and currents provide daily, sometimes subtle changes, while storms can provoke more sudden changes to the islands.

A Home

Life abounds on the seashore! From the sea turtles nesting on sandy beaches to the deer seeking shelter in the maritime woods, the seashore provides a home and habitat for creatures large and small, on land and in the water - a rich variety of plant and animal life.

Recreation and Reflection

The seashore provides a place for active recreation or for quiet reflection. There are many recreational opportunities at the national seashore. Visit a lighthouse, look for shells, go fishing, or just sit back and enjoy the peace and beauty that can be experienced at the seashore.

Write to

Cape Hatteras National Seashore
1401 National Park Drive
Manteo, North Carolina 27954


Visitor Information
(252) 473-2111


(252) 473-2595


Wind is an everyday occurrence on the Outer Banks and can range from gentle southwest breezes to strong northeast storm winds. Local weather changes rapidly and can be very unpredictable. Summer days are usually warm and humid and are often broken by fast-moving but severe thunderstorms. Winter temperatures are usually cool, though the wind can make them bitterly cold. Spring and Fall days can vary a great deal between these two extremes. Mosquitoes can be a significant problem throughout the warm-weather months. Clothing should be seasonal, but have extra gear available for wind and rain.
Various tern species resting along beach wetlands  

Did You Know?
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a Globally Important Bird Area, is a critical natural landform along the Atlantic Flyway - serving as a major resting and feeding grounds for migratory birds.

Last Updated: May 18, 2010 at 15:12 EST