The Charm of Southern Lights
The lighthouses of the South offer magnificent views, unparalleled beauty and a step back in time.
Lighthouses guide ships to safe harbor, warn vessels of impending doom and assist sailors in unknown waters. The rich history of lighthouses is lost on some, but the beauty, strength and mystery of these illuminated towers ignites the interest of all who look upon them. For centuries, they have inspired paintings, poems, songs, books and films. The beacons of light reassure mariners at sea and fascinate spectators on land. The South boasts dozens of alluring lighthouses, so satisfy your curiosity and check off a box on your 2015 bucket list by visiting a few of these Southern guideposts.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
Since 1803, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has warned ships of the dangers off the coast of the Outer Banks. Also known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” thousands of ships have sunk in these treacherous waters. The famous black-and-white stripe daymark of this lighthouse allows mariners to distinguish it from all others during the day. The 257-step, self-guided climb to the top of the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. rewards visitors with breath-taking scenery of Cape Hatteras. Special night and full moon tours give climbers a first-hand look at the lighthouse in action.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Cape Lookout, North Carolina
South of Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout Lighthouse, with a black-and-white diamond daymark, towers 12 stories over North Carolina’s barrier islands. No bridge connects the islands to the mainland, but a ferry ride allows lighthouse lovers to visit this cape’s most recognizable landmark. Originally built in 1812, the light still services the waters around Cape Lookout by warning vessels about the deadly Lookout Shoals. Take a self-guided tour up the 207 steps of the light station, then visit the Keeper’s Quarters. Afterward, picnic on the beach in the shade of the tower. The nearby Portsmouth Village Historic District and Cape Lookout Village Historic District offer a glimpse into the past lives and tradition of the people of the barrier islands.
Hunting Island Lighthouse
Hunting Island, South Carolina
Hunting Island Lighthouse, constructed in 1859, warned ships of sandbars, treacherous currents and other hazards. Confederates destroyed the original lighthouse during the Civil War, but it was rebuilt in 1875. Due to erosion of the beach, the lighthouse needed to be moved further inland to its current location; luckily, innovative construction consisted of cast iron plates designed to be dismantled. Hunting Island Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in South Carolina open to the public. Self-guided tours take climbers 167 steps up the spiral staircase to get the best view. Visitors can also explore nature trails and the marsh boardwalk in Hunting Island State Park.
Tybee Island Light Station and Museum
Tybee Island, Georgia
For more than 270 years, the Tybee Island Light Station has safely guided mariners into the entrance of the Savannah River. The light station exists as one of North America’s most beautifully renovated and historically intact light stations with all of the support buildings still on site. The Tybee Island Light Station invites guests to take a self-guided or after-hour tour of the lighthouse. In addition to the 178-step journey to the top of the tower, visitors can also explore the Keeper’s Cottage. Visit the Tybee Island Museum across the street from the light station to dive deeper into the rich maritime history of the island.
Alligator Reef Lighthouse
Alligator Reef, Florida
Unlike other lighthouses on the list, the sandy beaches lie far from Alligator Reef Lighthouse. Barely visible by land, this unique lighthouse is best seen by boat and plane. The lighthouse is run by the Coast Guard and is not open to the public, but it serves its purpose to warn ships of the barrier reefs surrounding the beacon. Despite the danger to vessels, the clear water and shallow reefs attract scuba divers, snorkelers, fishers and treasure hunters. The Annual Swim for Alligator Light in September is a great way to view this lighthouse, but if you prefer not to get wet, see it from Highway 1 between Mile Markers 77 and 80.
Pensacola Lighthouse And Museum
Built in 1859, the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum now sits on an active military base, Naval Air Station Pensacola. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this lighthouse offers climbing tours — 177 steps to the top — to witness gorgeous views of the Gulf. Watch the Blue Angels practice from the lighthouse, hunt for ghosts after the sun goes down and check out the restored 1869 keeper’s quarters that showcase local history exhibits and serves as a museum.
Biloxi’s signature landmark has guided ships through the Mississippi Sound since 1848. Recognized as one of the Gulf Coast’s oldest lighthouses, this historic 64-foot structure is also one of the first cast iron lighthouses in the South. The Biloxi Lighthouse also has the unique distinction of being the only lighthouse in the United States to stand in the middle of a four-lane highway and has become a symbol for the Gulf Coast’s perseverance. Guided tours are given daily at 9, 9:15 and 9:30 a.m.
Morris Island Lighthouse
Folly Beach, South Carolina
Despite their charm, these majestic lighthouses represent a dying breed. Southern lighthouses have survived war, destructive storms, erosion and budget cuts, but many others have not been so lucky. Morris Island has housed a navigational light since the 1670s. The island once housed a full light station, complete with a three-story dwelling for the lightkeepers, but rapid erosion began after the construction of manmade jetties in Charleston’s harbor. Now only the lighthouse remains, surrounded by the ocean. Save the Light Organization saved the historic tower from demolition and restored, protected and transferred ownership of Morris Island Lighthouse to the state of South Carolina. Though this tower is closed to the public, visitors can view it from Folly Beach or take a tour by sea with local charter companies.
Dozens of Southern lights are open for tours, but many others are closed due to lack of funding. Support these lifesaving lanterns with your visits and donations.
Photo credits, from top: Cape Hatteras from the National Park Service, Cape Lookout from the National Park Service, Hunting Island and Tybee Island by Deep South, Alligator Reef by Sean Nash from Flickr Creative Commons, Pensacola Lighthouse and featured photo by www.duncanmccall.com, Biloxi Lighthouse from Biloxi Visitor Center Facebook page, and Morris Light Station from Save the Light.
William Hosey / April 16, 2015
Very well written and researched article.