By Rachael Graf, Community Engagement Coordinator, Outer Banks Forever
Since last October, Outer Banks Forever, the official nonprofit partner of the three Outer Banks national parks, has been working with the National Park Service and the local community to create a new experience at Cape Hatteras National Seashore: the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Pathway.
Each year, millions of people visit the Seashore, and many make a point of visiting the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Considered one of the most iconic lighthouses in the country, the lighthouse site in Buxton, North Carolina, is beloved for its beautiful beach and is a top surfing destination on the East Coast.
When families, local children, and surfers come to visit the lighthouse, they often take in the sights, sounds, and stories on foot or by bicycle. Currently, the only way to do this is to travel alongside vehicular traffic on Lighthouse Road.
“Safer ways for people to explore our Outer Banks national parks are one of the most requested enhancements we hear about, so we are excited to help make this first pathway a reality,” said Jessica Barnes, director of Outer Banks Forever. “This project, once completed, will strengthen connections to our public lands, make it safer to explore this important historical and cultural area, and honor the history of our community.”
Running parallel along Lighthouse Road off NC Highway 12 and leading to the grounds of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the Old Lighthouse Beach Access, the new 1.25-mile-long pathway will offer park visitors a safer way to access the beach, the current lighthouse site, and points in between.
“I’m truly excited for the new pathway in Buxton,” said Kim Mosher, Hatteras Island resident and artist. “It will bring safety for everyone enjoying our park. I believe it will educate the public on bringing awareness to the beautiful nature that surrounds us, too!”
The new Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Pathway will enhance the experience for everyone who visits this iconic area, beginning with improvements to the entrance that includes new signage and trailhead information.
Traveling alongside Lighthouse Road safely separated from traffic, park visitors will have a chance to experience and learn about the ecology and wildlife that is unique to the Outer Banks.
As the ocean comes into view, there will be an opportunity to stop at a new educational plaza at Old Lighthouse Beach where park visitors will have a chance to rest and learn about the history of surfing and water sports that made Hatteras Island a premier water sports destination on the East Coast.
Continuing to the lighthouse, travelers will move alongside the path the lighthouse itself took on its historic 2,900-foot journey to safety back in 1999, with opportunities to stop along the route to learn why moving the lighthouse was necessary and, more importantly, how such an incredible feat of engineering succeeded. Additionally, pathway users will also get to have a fun interactive experience related to the lighthouse move.
In January of this year, Outer Banks Forever attended a walk-through of the pathway site with their colleagues from the Seashore and a representative of the National Park Service’s Denver Service Center and reviewed the technical drawings for the pathway, which were 65% complete. Following the initial walk-through, Outer Banks Forever and the Seashore worked together with the Denver Service Center on final adjustments to the pathway’s design.
The following month, the Seashore hosted a public comment period for the proposed pathway and its environmental assessment, the report that looks at how constructing the path will affect the natural environment around it. In May, the National Park Service fully approved the project’s environmental assessment.
“Thanks to support from our park partner, Outer Banks Forever, visitors to Cape Hatteras National Seashore will one day be able to walk, bike, run, and travel on a paved pathway to popular areas like the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and nearby beaches,” said David Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina.
In July, the Seashore posted the construction contract for the pathway for bidding, and the bidding period ended Aug. 21. On Sept. 22, a $3.2 million contract was awarded to Terra Site Constructors LLC of Front Royal, Virginia, per a Seashore news release. Thanks to the National Park Service, funding from the Federal Highway Administration, and generous Outer Banks Forever sponsors and donors who contributed a total of $360,000, the new pathway has been fully funded.
“We are grateful for our lead sponsors — Cape Hatteras Electrical Cooperative, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau and REAL Watersports — along with Carolina Brewery, Vacasa, and many other organizations, businesses, individuals, and families in the Outer Banks community and beyond who helped make this project possible,” said Barnes.
Currently, staff at the Seashore are working on the new educational signs that will be installed along the pathway. Construction of the pathway is anticipated to begin in the coming months, and it is expected to be open for public use by summer 2024.
“We appreciate the opportunity to partner with the Seashore to provide safer visitor access to the historic Cape Hatteras Light Station and Old Lighthouse Beach,” said Barnes. “And we are so thankful for all of the generous support we received for this project and our mission to protect and enhance our Outer Banks national parks, now and forever.”