Travel the major freeways of NC this summer and you’ll likely spy a billboard or three showing the iconic OBX lighthouses. While most people visit the lighthouse grounds, few people experience the lighthouses as sailors do. Lighthouses are meant to be seen be seen from the water and these three lighthouses provide the best paddle and viewing experience from inside your kayak.
Currituck Beach – Corolla, NC
1.4 miles one-way
Currituck is only lighthouse in NC to look this way. Each NC lighthouse has a distinct paint pattern, allowing sailors to know which lighthouse it is, and thus know where they are. Some lights have painted bands, swirls, solids or diamonds. The Currituck lighthouse is the only one naked, unpainted I should say, showing its late red 1870’s brick beauty.
This is the easiest lighthouse to view from the water. The lighthouse property has a public boat ramp for small craft and paddlers. The ramp, with dedicated parking for paddlers, is next to the Whalehead Club, a former private hunting club mansion built in art nouveau style in the early 1920s, and now a public attraction.
The grounds of the Whalehead Club and lighthouse form the public Currituck Heritage Park, and are well worth exploring after or before your paddle. Next door to the park is the Outerbanks Wildlife Education Center – also worth a visit.
How to see the light from the water
From the ramp, head out and to your right, following the shoreline, heading towards the only pier. You’ll see Currituck lighthouse over your right shoulder fairly quickly. Paddle under the pier and keep taking right turns when you can and you’ll end up in a small lagoon with a stunning view of the lighthouse. To get back, reverse your course.
If you have more time, the open water paddle to Monkey Island is a must. In the summer, the island is home to over 1000 nesting shorebirds, from egrets, herons, and ibis to osprey.
Bodie Island – Whalebone, NC
4.9 miles round trip
Bodie (pronounced Body) is 2nd most challenging lighthouse to see via kayak – you’ll need to make sure the wind is just right as anything over 12mph makes for a rather challenging paddle. But, with fair winds you’ll find the shallow water empty except from other kayakers and small fishing boats.
Finally finished in 1872, Bodie is painted with distinct black and white horizontal stripes. Unlike Currituck lighthouse, which you can paddle close too, you’ll only get to see this lighthouse from a distance because of the marshland.
How to see the Bodie from the water
From the Oregon Inlet Public boat ramp, paddle out of the harbor and head to your right, following the shoreline north. As you pass the Coast Guard station on your right you’ll see the lighthouse in the distance. Paddle in either the more open channel or weave through the marsh. You can make a loop (as seen in the map) or head back the way you came.
Cape Lookout – Cape Lookout National Seashore, NC
4.5 miles one way
For experienced paddlers, this is the lighthouse to visit. Besides being the most challenging (due to the open water and distance) it is the most dramatic. From your launch point at the National Park Service’s access point on Harkers Island, the lighthouse is tiny on the horizon, like a small needle on end. Once you arrive at the beach, you’ll get out of your kayak almost at the foot of the light, standing 163 feet above you.
While there is a fair amount of open water, you’ll follow a small chain of islands to the lighthouse, allowing for break/regroup points and chances to see wildlife (from various birds to stingrays and dolphins).
How to see Cape Lookout from the water
Paddling to the lighthouse requires perfect wind (less than 15mph) and going with the tide since the tide in Barden Inlet (the inlet in front of the lighthouse) can move along at 5+ mph at ‘rage’ tide. From the NPS launch, point your boat towards the lighthouse and island hop until you reach the beach. See the map and guide to paddling Cape Lookout Lighthouse for details.
If you don’t climb any other lighthouse, you must climb this one. With a dramatic position on a cape that faces north in one direction and west in the other, Cape Lookout has a very distinct view over land and ocean. The unique perspective also allows you to appreciate how fragile the land is – the inlet the lighthouse now marks formed after a hurricane opened it in 1933. Today the Army Corps of Engineers works to keep the inlet from closing.