The light at the top is automated and is visible every 7.5 seconds. In good visibility conditions, the beacon can often be seen for 20 miles (32 km) out at sea, although its official range is 24 miles (39 km) under optimal conditions. Over 1 million bricks were used in the construction of the structure, which was built between 1868 to 1870 at a cost (then) of $167,500.
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is still considered an operational aid to navigation maintained by the United States Coast Guard and the National Park Service. However, the need for the lighthouse has been reduced by modern day GPS and other electronic navigational devices.The National Park Service permits climbing to the top of the lighthouse. For a number of years, this was not possible due to repairs to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open for tours from the third Friday in April to Columbus Day. The climb is considered strenuous because it is equivalent to 12 stories. There is a handrail on only one side of the stairs, and there is two-way traffic on the stairs.