Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Wright Memorial Travel Guide

If you live in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, or if you’re visiting for any length of time, you know that there’s plenty to see and do here, of both a historically-fun and a fun-fun nature, (and I will enumerate each and every one of these in future articles, never fear). But for now, I’d like to discuss things to see and do on a day trip to the Outer Banks.

The Outer Banks are a series of long and narrow islands lying off the east coast of North Carolina. There’s a wealth of maritime history there, as well as lots and lots of beach area for swimming, sail boarding or kite boarding.

For this day trip, we’re going to go to the Wright Memorial Park and then on to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which those of us who feel up to the challenge are going to climb.

From your location in Hampton Roads, use one of the internet’s driving directions sites to find out how to get yourself onto Highway 168 heading south. You’ll most likely head to Norfolk to do so. You can start out very early in the morning to avoid going-to-work traffic, or wait until about 9 am to do so. Don’t leave later than 9 am if you want to be able to get to the Outer Banks with enough leisure time to do stuff before it’s time to head back home.

Time and timing is important on a single day trip. The Wright Memorial closes promptly at 5 pm. While you can walk around the Cape Hatteras lighthouse at any time, there are set times that you can climb it, and ticket sales end at 4.30 (with the deadline of those already in the lighthouse to have finished their climb by 5 pm). So it’s best to visit the Wright Memorial first, and then go to Cape Hatteras, rather than the other way around.

It’s hard to tell you how long it will take you to get from Virginia down across the border into North Carolina – so much depends on the traffic which is not much in winter, not too bad in spring, a little congested usually in summer, and not too bad again in fall….like most “summer fun” places. But if you’ve got good traffic, you’ll get to the North Carolina border in about an hour.

Keep on keeping on Highway 168 through Currituck, Sligo, etc. and soon the highway will change its name to 158. Again its impossible to give you an exact time of how long it will take, but with good traffic, it’ll take you a little more than an hour or so to get to Kitty Hawk…and there you’ll stop.

But only briefly.

Kitty Hawk is a name associated with the Wright brothers…indeed the Wright Flyer is now named the Kitty Hawk. I suppose that sounds a bit better than calling it the Kill Devil Hills Flyer…but it was in fact at Kill Devil Hills rather than Kitty Hawk where the Wright brothers were the first to make a powered flight, in 1903.

As you’re driving south through Kitty Hawk, keep your eyes peeled on the right hand side of the road for signs to the Outer Banks Visitor Center. You’ll want to stop there for a few minutes. There’s always at least two people there who can answer any questions you have – ask them about the meaning of the dozens of gaily decorated, life-size horse statues that you’ll find scattered throughout the Outer Banks. You’ll also find hundreds of brochures for things to see and do on the Outer Banks – restaurants, sports, hotels and motels and historical locations. Save these brochures for a later one-day trip.

As you turn into the Visitor Center’s parking lot, you’ll see a couple of granite blocks poking up from behind a dune. Make sure you go up to take a look – it’s the Icarus Memorial, with a dozen obelisks arranged in a circle around the ‘earth,’ with flight milestones from around the world etched into them.

Then, get back on Highway 158 and head towards Kill Devil Hills. Once in Kill Devil Hills, keep your eyes peeled on your right to see signs for the Wright Memorial Park. (While you’re doing that, you will also see that practically every house is built on stilts…as a precaution against the relentless Atlantic Ocean. No need to stop and take photos…once you get to Buxton and Cape Hatteras you’ll some really spectacularly designed houses.)

According to the Wright Memorial website, “a 60-foot granite monument (dedicated in 1932) is perched atop 90-foot tall Kill Devil Hill commemorating the achievement of these two visionaries from Dayton, Ohio. A visit should include touring the museum exhibits, participating in a ranger conducted program, touring the reconstructed camp buildings and first flight trail area, and a climb up Kill Devil Hill to view the memorial pylon.”

(The reason why I have to tell you what’s there from the website is because when I made my journey to the Outer Banks last week, my intention was only to go see the Hatteras lighthouse, and I hadn’t researched anything else.. As we drove through Kill Devil Hills we saw the sign for the Wright Brothers monument, asssumed it’d be open til all hours, and decided to visit it on the way back. We got to it at 4.55 pm precisely, and weren’t allowed in!)

Once you’ve gone through the Wright Memorial, get back on Highway 158 heading south again towards Cape Hatteras.

As you go through Kill Devil Hills, and indeed in all the towns along the way, you’ll see those houses-on-stilts, some with decks on their roofs, lots of restaurants with a nautical theme, and miniature golf parks. We passed by one called Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf. No, we didn’t stop for a quick round, but it sure did look fun, with a couple of waterfalls and even a tram. (The one I really wanted to stop at was on Hatteras Island itself, a dinosaur-themed one called Jurassic Putt. In a future article I will putt my way around the Outer Banks and give a detailed report).

As you drive south towards Cape Hatteras, you’ll pass on your right signs for the bridge to go to Roanoke Island (which is adjacent to Bodie Island where you are now). Keep note of it for future use, as you’ll want to go to the Aquarium on that island, and visit the Lost Colony Theatre and the Elizabeth Gardens. But, not today. (You’ll also see a tall lighthouse in the distance as you drive – it’s not the Hatteras Lighthouse but rather the Bodie Lighthouse – if you want to visit it as well, and why should you not, stop and see it on the way back from Hatteras.)

You’ll cross a bridge over the Oregon Inlet, and then you’ll be on Hatteras Island. If you’re held up by traffic, just enjoy the sights of the ships at sea, and the seabirds skimming the waves.

Again, with good traffic, it’s about another hour to get down to the other end of Hatteras Island, the town of Buxton, and the Cape Hatteras lighthouse that you’ll find there. Lots of scenery – once you’re off the bridge you’ll pass through the Pea Island National Wetland Reserve. Once past that, you’ll see signs for lots of other places of historic or recreational interest – kite boarding lessons and the like, but ignore them all today. Our goal is Cape Hatteras lighthouse!

You’ll find cars parked on the road shoulders, as people climb over the dunes to go surfing in the Atlantic Ocean, so drive carefully, please.

Once you enter the town of Buxton…drive even slower. Here you’ll find several examples of “History on a stick” (the North Carolina Highway Marker program) grouped close together. In fact, depending on the time, when you see one of the black and silver markers along the side of the road, why not park at a convenient legal parking spot, and then go back and look at it. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse was erected to warn against the Diamond Shoals…and it’s not for nothing that the whole coast is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic. You’ll see a sign for the U.S.S. Monitor, for the Diamond Shoals, and for the Cape Hatteras lighthouse itself.

This time, as you drive, keep your eyes peeled to the left, and soon you’ll see the brown sign announcing Cape Hatteras State Park. Turn left and follow the road. The lighthouse has been in its present location for 6 years, once you’ve climbed it…make sure you go to its old location to see where the Atlantic Ocean is now. You’ll also see a circle of granite blocks, from where the lighthouse used to be. Etched in these blocks are the names of all the lighthouse keepers from the Hatteras Light.

Climbing Cape Hatteras is a popular tourist activity. Only a certain amount of people are let up at a time…usually on the half hour. It cost $6.00 for adults, with a discount for seniors. Kids are $3.00 (And prices may change so check their website – see Resources).

It is also somewhat strenuous to climb the lighthouse – the tallest brick structure in the United States. Children less than four feet tall are not allowed to climb, nor can you care anyone including babes-in-arms. If you have trouble managing steps or have a heart condition, you don’t want to give it a try. The way up is the way down, so you’ll be climbing spiral steps against the tide. There are landings upon which you can rest, however. Once you get to the top you can go outside…but beware of the wind and hold tight to your hats! The view is absolutely spectacular…on a clear day you can see the Diamond Shoals – so take binoculars!

To take a memorable photo from the top of the lighthouse, plan in advance. Have your spouse stand below the lighthouse in a pre-arranged spot, so that when you’re at the top you can look over the rail and take a photo of him or her from way far away. Makes for a pretty cool photograph.

After you’ve gazed your fill, there’s a museum inside what was once the lighthouse keeper’s residence. And there’s a fully stocked gift shop – lots of pirate stuff, World War II stuff, and lighthouse stuff.

Now you have to make a decision. If you’ve only got time for a day trip, it’s time to head back home. Again, with good traffic and no stops, you should be back in about four hours. If you can stay longer, then it’s time to head down to Ocracoke Island…if you really want to get immersed in pirates! (And…if you by pass the Wright Memorial and the Hatteras Lighthouse, you *can* do Ocracoke in a day trip…but that’s the subject for another article.)

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