Travel: Six Must-Visit Lighthouses
Pigeon Point Lighthouse—Pescadero, California
On June 6, 1853, the Carrier Pigeon, a 175-foot-long clipper ship, hit heavy fog and ran aground 500 feet off the central California coast. In that same area nearly 20 years later, on the night of November 15, 1872, the 8-foot-tall oil lamp in Pigeon Point Lighthouse was lit for the first time. It guided mariners safely for years to come.
At 115 feet tall, Pigeon Point Lighthouse, now a part of Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park, is one of the tallest lighthouses in the United States. Although the tower has been closed since 2001, its 2,000-pound Fresnel lens is still on display on-site at the fog signal building, and visitors can take guided history tours around the lighthouse grounds from Thursday through Monday.
But for the ultimate Pigeon Point experience, stay at the HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel, which spans four houses adjacent to the lighthouse. Lounge in the hot tub overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and explore the nearby tidepools and cove beaches.
Heceta Head Lighthouse—Florence, Oregon
Restoration of the Heceta Head Lighthouse in Florence, Oregon, was completed in 2013. The two-year project brought the landmark lighthouse back to the way it looked when the light at the top of the 56-foot-tower was first lit in 1894. And it remains just as impressive at its perch 205 feet above the ocean.
Although the head lightkeeper’s house was demolished in 1940, the assistant lightkeeper’s house (built in 1893) still stands and has served as the popular Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast since 1995. Stay the night, and maximize your time spent hiking around the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint area.
Sand Hills Light—Ahmeek, Michigan
For the ultimate lighthouse tour, head to Michigan: The Great Lakes State has more lighthouses than any other state. Be sure to visit Sand Hills Light, which overlooks Lake Superior on the Keweenaw Peninsula of the Upper Peninsula. Completed in 1919, the lighthouse was automated in 1939, converted into a Coast Guard training facility in 1942, decommissioned in 1954, and later sold at auction.
In 1961, Bill and Mary Frabotta purchased the station and used it as their summer cottage for the next three decades. In 1992, they renovated the property and, three years later, opened it up as Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn, an eight-room, Victorian-style bed and breakfast. Today, guests can stay at the lighthouse and watch the sunrise from the top of the tower.
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Rose Island Lighthouse—Newport, Rhode Island
On an 18.5-acre island off the coast of Rhode Island, a mile into Narragansett Bay, there sits the Rose Island Lighthouse. The wood-framed structure was built in 1869 and for a hundred years, its keepers battled extreme weather and isolated island conditions.
The lighthouse was deactivated in 1971. After it sat abandoned for years, the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation formed in 1984, and over the course of many years, the group raised money to fully restore the property. It was re-lit and opened to the public in 1993.
Today, the lighthouse is reachable only by boat. And yes, you can stay there—but don’t expect a hotel-like experience. You have two options: Stay overnight in the first-floor museum, or stay for one night or one week as a lighthouse keeper on the second floor. The latter option comes with a list of responsibilities, like raising and lowering the flag, recording and managing the rainwater gathering system, and greeting and assisting guests.
If you’re looking for a less rugged experience, take the Jamestown Newport Ferry out to Rose Island for the day to tour the lighthouse and museum.
Bodie Island Light Station—Nags Head, North Carolina
Visitors to Bodie Island Light Station in Nags Head, North Carolina, can now climb all 214 spiraling steps to the top of the 156-foot-tall lighthouse. The reward is stunning views of Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.
The lighthouse began operating in 1872 with a first-order Fresnel Lens guiding the passing ships. It became fully automated in 1932. The lighthouse sat dark beginning in 2009, as it underwent a nearly four-year restoration. But today, at the northern end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, its light continues to shine 19 miles offshore in 27.5-second rotations. Don’t miss the original lightkeeper’s home, which is now a ranger station and visitor center.
Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station—Ponce Inlet, Florida
At 175 feet tall, Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station is Florida’s tallest lighthouse. It was completed in 1887, and when the kerosene lamp in the first-order fixed Fresnel lens was lit, it could be seen nearly 20 miles offshore. A series of keepers and their families lived there throughout the years, but during World War II, it was turned into barracks for the Coast Guard. The lighthouse was automated in 1953, and in 1970, the Coast Guard left the station, leaving it vulnerable to vandalism.
In 1972, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association was established, dedicated to restoring the property and operating it as a museum. The nonprofit group fully restored the lighthouse and turned three keepers’ dwellings into exhibition space.
Open seven days a week, visitors can take an hour-long tour of the lighthouse and museum. Once a month, during the full moon, the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse Preservation Association hosts special evening tours of the site.