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Cape Lookout Lighthouse

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Quick Facts

  • Present tower at Cape Lookout was built in 1859
  • It cost $45,000 to complete
  • Height: 163 feet
  • Today’s rotating 1,000-watt beacon flashes every 15 seconds 24 hours a day
  • The towers double walls are 9 feet thick at the base and less that 2 feet thick at the top
  • There are a total of 216 steps to the lantern room
  • Coast Survey Chart: 34 37’22” N latitude, 76 31’28” W longitude
  • Light is still operational day and night and visible for 19 mile.
  • Cape Lookout was the first tall lighthouse built on the Outer Banks of North Carolina
  • The lighthouse played an important role in the Civil War
  • It became fully automated in 1950
  • Cape Lookout is the only major lighthouse that operates during the day
  • Cape Lookout can only be reached by boat.

The History of Cape Lookout

There has always been a need for a lighthouse in this area of the Outer Banks was necessary due to many ships wrecks off the coast of North Carolina. The surrounding area is referred to as Lookout Shoals and is known for its shifting sands, making the shoreline unpredictable to mariners.

The original Cape Lookout Lighthouse was built in 1812 at a cost of $21,000. It was constructed of two towers ( one was constructed inside the other ). The inner tower was constructed of brick. The outer tower was made of boarded and shingled wood, painted with red and white horizontal stripes. This tower stood 96 feet tall ( 104 feet above sea level ). This lighthouse had numerous problems. Its light was not bright enough for sea captains to see and the tower had several cracks. Though attempts were made to renovate the tower, in 1875 Congress approved the construction of a new lighthouse. The old light stood alongside the present day Cape Lookout for several years until it was destroyed well after the Civil War.

Powered By SmugWPThe present Cape Lookout lighthouse was completed in 1859 at a cost of $45,000. The lighthouse stands 163 feet above sea level and was equipped with a 1st-order Fresnel lens. The powerful beacon could be seen from at least 19 miles away. After its construction, Cape Lookout became a model for all tower lighthouses constructed on the Eastern U.S. coast from that point on. When the remaining four North Carolina lighthouses were finished (Cape Lookout, Cape Hatteras, Bodie, and Currituck), the Lighthouse Board painted each different designs to easily distinguish one from another. Cape Lookout was painted in a black and white diamond pattern. Three full white diamonds facing east and west. The north and south-facing sides have two full black diamonds and have a half of black diamond at the top and bottom of the tower.

During the Civil War, the lighthouse became very important. The area surrounding the new Cape Lookout Lighthouse served as a military stronghold. When the Confederates were forced to retreat in 1861, they attempted to blow up both beacons so they would be inoperable for arriving Union soldiers. The original Cape Lookout was almost completely destroyed and the blast severely damaged the new lens. The following year, the Lighthouse Board re-lit the lighthouse with a 3rd order Fresnel lens. Currently, the Coast Guard owns and operates the lighthouse, and the National Park Service owns the surrounding area. The tower is only open to the public during their open house events which happen several times a year.  They also have a visitor center and small museum.

Visitor Information:

Hours and Climbing Information

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The Cape Lookout Lighthouse will be open for climbing for its regular season, mid-May through mid-September each year. For the 2011 season they are open from May 26, 2011 until September 24, 2011. Tickets are required.

Lighthouse Climbing Hours: The lighthouse will be open for climbing on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.  Climbs will begin every 15 minutes from 10:00 AM until 3:30 PM.The lighthouse may close at any time if conditions (i.e.: temperature/humidity, lightning, or high winds) are determined to be unsafe.

Tickets for climbs may be purchased from 9:30 AM to 3:00 PM, Thursday through Saturday, at the Light Station Visitor Center. Each ticket is good only for the date and time stamped on the ticket. Ticket holders should arrive at the lighthouse 5 minutes before their scheduled climb.
Ticket Pricing:

  • $8.00 for Adults.
  • $4.00 for children (12 years of age and younger and at least 44 inches tall), senior citizens (62 years and older), those holding a National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Access Pass.

*** Lighthouse climb ticket prices do not include the cost of ferry transportation.  For more information on ferry services please contact the ferry companies directly.

Advance Reservations:

  • Tickets may be reserved for climbing from 9:30 AM and 3:00 PM, Tuesday through Friday by calling (252) 728-0708. Reservations can be made for dates within the same week of visit only and must be made at least one day in advance. Reservations are highly recommended.
  • Only 4 groups of 10 people may enter the lighthouse per hour. In order to accommodate a diversity of groups, only 5 tickets may be purchased or reserved per person.
  • Reserved tickets must be picked up and purchased from the Light Station Visitor Center, near the tower, at least 30 minutes before time of the climb. Failure to do so will result in the reservation being forfeited and the tickets being released for sale to “standby” visitors.
  • Tickets will not be refunded for late arriving guests. Please make sure to allow enough lead time before your climb for the boat or ferry trip to the island.

Safety Guidelines:

  • Children must be at least 44 inches tall to climb the lighthouse due to the often strong winds at the top that can knock children off their feet.- Climbers under 16 years old must be accompanied by an adult.- To keep hands free for handrails, no person may be lifted or carried and food, drinks, and bulky personal items (e.g. backpacks, tripods) should be left outside the lighthouse.- Shoes are required; heels should be less than 1½ inches. Flip-flops are not recommended.


  • The climb to the top is strenuous. It may be hot, humid, noisy and dim inside the lighthouse. Climbing the 207 steps to the gallery is roughly equal to climbing a 12-story building. The stairs are narrow and groups going up will share the stairs with groups returning to the bottom.
  • Visitors with heart, respiratory, or other medical conditions — or those who have trouble climbing stairs — should probably not attempt the climb. Visitors who do not wish to climb can view the four outside “View from the Top” exhibits located near the lighthouse Keepers’ Quarters, the panorama located in the Keepers’ Quarters Museum, and the online panoramas on this website.


Handicapped Access

The Cape Lookout Visitors Center on the mainland in Harker’s Island is fully accessible.

There are boardwalks along the lighthouse grounds that are also accessible.



Take Hwy 70 East past Beaufort, NC to Harkers Island Rd ( SR 1332 ) and turn right. Be sure to watch the highway signs closely. Hwy 70 takes a right turn several miles east of Beaufort. Then watch for signs for ferry services once you get onto Harkers Island.

The lighthouse can only be accessed by boat, but there are many ferry services available from nearby Harkers Island. A list of ferry services can be found by calling the National Parks Service at (252) 728-2250. Call ahead for trip costs.

A list of all the local ferry services can be found at http://www.nps.gov/calo/planyourvisit/ferry.htm

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We suggest the “Local Yokel” in Harkers Island. He charges $10 per adult and $6 per child.  On our way back, the Local Yokel took us by Shackleford Banks to see the wild horses. I was able to snap some great photos.  More information on the wild horses of Shackleford Island, can be found at  http://www.shacklefordhorses.org/.

Once you arrive on the island, you will see the visitor center and gift shop. In the same area, there are restrooms and a covered seating area.  The island is trash free, so you will not find any trash cans, so be prepared to take your trash back with you.  I would suggest bringing water, snacks, bug repellent and sunscreen.  There is a picnic area near the lighthouse if you want to pack a lunch.  There is a nice boardwalk that takes you to the lighthouse and across the island to the beach.  The keeper’s house is open for viewing, which also acts as a museum.  Powered By SmugWP

The Harkers Island visitor’s center had a lot of information about Cape Lookout as well and the lighthouse can be seen on a clear day from their building. They are open daily from 9am to 5pm year round.

The following link allows you to create a custom driving route to the Local Yokel who can take you to Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Driving directions to Cape Lookout Lighthouse


Map of Cape Lookout Lighthouse

Lighthouse Resources and Points of Interest

Friends of Cape Lookout National Seashore Post Office Box 1313, Morehead City, North Carolina 28557

National Park Service 131 Charles St. Harkers Island, NC 28531 Ph (252) 728-2250 Fax (252) 728-2160 CALO_Information@nps.gov

Carteret County Chamber of Commerce 801 Arendell St. Morehead City, NC 28557 (800) 622-6278 info@nccoastchamber.com

Crystal Coast Visitors Center 3409 Arendell Street P.O. Box 1406 Morehead City, NC 28557 1-800-SUNNY-NC vacation@sunnync.com