Cape Hatteras Lighthouse - History & Facts About the Tallest Lighthouse in North America

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse ~ America's Lighthouse

The stunning Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, enjoys the distinction of being the tallest lighthouse in the country, and one of the most recognized lighthouses in the world thanks to its pattern of black and white candy cane stripes. Often referred to as America's Lighthouse, the fully-functioning Cape Hatteras lighthouse still flashes a nightly beacon that rotates every 7 seconds and can be seen up to 20 miles out to sea. Chances are, if you are staying in the Avon or Buxton area and you look closely from the deck of your vacation rental home, you might be able to catch the rotation of the beam of light as it circles Hatteras Island. Find it online at

Quick Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Facts

  • The Cape Hatteras lighthouse in North Carolina is the tallest in America, at 210 ft. tall
  • It was designed to assist sailors navigating the treacherous Diamond Shoals
  • There are 269 steps to climb
  • The lighthouse was moved in 1999 to avoid erosion

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse North CarolinaBecause of the treacherous Diamond Shoals, the intersecting and ever-changing currents off of Buxton’s Cape Point, a lighthouse was imperative for ships passing this stretch of the Outer Banks. Hundreds and possibly thousands of shipwrecks in this area have given it the nickname of “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. In 1797, Congress responded and authorized the building of a lighthouse. This first lighthouse was completed in 1803, and was considered poorly constructed from its first day of service. At only 90 feet, the beacon’s reach and visibility were simply inadequate.

In 1854, the original lighthouse was renovated to stand 150 feet tall, and a Fresnel lens, one of the best at the time, was installed. This did little good, as the lighthouse, (constructed out of sandstone), continued to get cracks, and an entirely new lighthouse was recommended. 

Legend has it that during the design process of the new lighthouse, an engineer in charge of the lighthouse’s design had originally intended to give it a black diamond print, as an indication of the dangerous Diamond Shoals it bordered. Instead, the engineer accidentally mixed up the plans, and Cape Lookout’s lighthouse now sports the black diamond design. Hatteras Island’s lighthouse received the black and white candy cane stripes instead.

The new Cape Hatteras lighthouse, the one that stands today, was activated in December 1870. Towering at 210 ft and located 1,500 ft from the water’s edge, it served as an imperative navigational aid for ships for decades. Comprised of 1,250,000 bricks with an iron infrastructure, the lighthouse has withstood generations of hurricanes with minimal damage.

Erosion, however, was one weather phenomenon that even the lighthouse could not withstand. In the summer of 1999, the Cape Hatteras Light was moved from its original location 2900 ft. back into Buxton woods to its present location. The move took a total of 23 days (including 2 days when there was no forward progress) reaching its new home on July 9th. Despite both local and visitor concerns, the move resulted in no significant damage to the well-loved national landmark.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Map

Today, visitors are welcome to make the long 269 step climb (the equivalent of a 12 story building) to the very top of the lighthouse, where they are greeted with phenomenal bird’s eye views of Hatteras Island and the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse is open for climbing daily from April through October, 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. Tickets are available at the lighthouse ticket booth and can be purchased on the day of your climb. An adjacent visitor’s center, museum and gift shop allows visitors to learn more about both the lighthouse and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the park also has nearby picnic areas and self-guided walking trails through Buxton’s maritime forest. Visit the National Park Service official Cape Hatteras Lighthouse website for information about climbing the lighthouse (and to see why so many choose this historic site when looking for Cape Hatteras things to do)

As one of the 4 remarkable lighthouses that dot the landscape of the Outer Banks, the Cape Hatteras Light house in North Carolina simply stands out for its size, its notoriety, and its amazing views that can be explored and enjoyed by all Hatteras Island visitors. Contact us here to learn more about this amazing site, and to find more Outer Banks NC Things to do!