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10 Legendary Lighthouses to Visit


By Janelle Smith, Recreation.gov

Yaquina Head Lighthouse (Molly Holmberg, Share the Experience)
Yaquina Head Lighthouse (Molly Holmberg, Share the Experience)

Lighthouse lore is woven with common threads of maritime history. In the early to mid-1800s, where shipping routes proved to be hazardous, lighthouses were built to guide mariners through treacherous passages. Lighthouse keepers often worked in isolation and around the clock. They kept the light shining throughout the night and then attended to cleaning and maintenance during the day. The Fresnel lens revolutionized lighthouses and provided a brighter beam with less care. By the early to mid-20th century, lighthouse keeping duties were phased out as automated technology emerged. Today many of these towers still stand and continue to provide navigational aid to mariners.

These stalwart beacons offer fascinating tales of shipping tragedies, architectural accomplishments and personal journeys. Below are 10 lighthouses managed and cared for by federal agencies on the West and East Coasts and also in Michigan. Most of them offer tours to the public. Discover their unique stories!

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California

Point Reyes Lighthouse, Point Reyes National Seashore

National Park Service

Point Reyes Lighthouse (Julie McNickle, Share the Experience)
Point Reyes Lighthouse (Julie McNickle, Share the Experience)

Standing in the windiest place on the Pacific Coast, as well as the second foggiest in North America, the Point Reyes Lighthouse warned mariners of the rocky dangers of the Point Reyes Headlands for nearly 100 years. Built in 1870, and retired from service in 1975, this lighthouse, and those who served as its keeper, endured hurricane force winds, isolation and around-the-clock duties. A lighthouse restoration project begins in August 2018. Check the park's lighthouse blog to find out about the status of the project, operating hours and closures before you visit. Five reservable campgrounds are available within Point Reyes National Seashore; four are hike-in/bike-in sites and one is a boat-in option.

Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area

Bureau of Land Management

Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area (Carole Adams, Share the Experience)
Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area (Carole Adams, Share the Experience)

The Piedras Blancas Light Station was first illuminated in 1875 and continues to cast its light to aid navigation along the rocky California coast. An earthquake in 1948 caused damage to the upper part of the lighthouse reducing its height from 100 to 70 feet (30-21 m) and today it is managed as a historic park and wildlife sanctuary. Two-hour guided tours are offered year-round on select days and times. The light station is located six miles (9.6 km) north of Hearst Castle near San Simeon.

Florida

Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area

Bureau of Land Management

Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area (BLM)
Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area (BLM)

The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, built in 1860, is part of a designated Outstanding Natural Area within Florida’s urbanized Treasure Coast in northern Palm Beach County. The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and the surrounding archeological site are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and the surrounding archeological site are on the National Register of Historic Places. Through the years the site has served as one of the first U.S. Weather Bureau and Signal Stations, a U.S. Navy Wireless Station, Radio Compass Station and a successful German U-boat tracking station during WWII. The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation. Access to the lighthouse is by guided tour operated by the Loxahatchee River Historical Society in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management.

Michigan

South Manitou Island Lighthouse, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

National Park Service

South Manitou Island Lighthouse (Gregg Larson, Share the Experience)
South Manitou Island Lighthouse (Gregg Larson, Share the Experience)

The South Manitou Island Lighthouse was built in 1871 and served sailors along the Manitou Passage, the most important route for schooners and steamers traveling the 300-mile (483 km) length of Lake Michigan. The lighthouse is open for tours where visitors can climb 117 steps on a circular staircase 104 feet (32 m) above the ground. Visit the lighthouse and then stay awhile in the South Manitou Group Campground, a tent-only backcountry experience accessed only by ferry or boat.

Old Presque Isle Lighthouse, Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Old Presque Isle Lighthouse (NOAA)
Old Presque Isle Lighthouse (NOAA)

There are six lighthouses located within or near the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, five of which still serve as navigational aids to commercial and recreational vessels. The Old Presque Isle Lighthouse, built in 1840, is no longer in operation and is open tours where you can climb a hand-chiseled stone staircase to the top of the 40-foot (12 m) tower.

New Jersey

Sandy Hook Lighthouse, Gateway National Recreation Area

National Park Service

Sandy Hook Lighthouse (Natallia Krauchanka, Share the Experience)
Sandy Hook Lighthouse (Natallia Krauchanka, Share the Experience)

The Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest working lighthouse in the U.S. It was built in 1764 and occupied by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964, its 200th anniversary. Visitors can tour the lighthouse and visit the lighthouse keepers’ quarters and visitor center year-round. Sandy Cams allow visitors to virtually enjoy the views from the lighthouse without climbing the stairs.

New York

Fire Island Lighthouse, Fire Island National Seashore

National Park Service

Fire Island Lighthouse (Christine DiPeitro-Foley, Share the Experience)
Fire Island Lighthouse (Christine DiPeitro-Foley, Share the Experience)

The Fire Island Lighthouse in New York was completed in 1858, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and reinstated as an official navigational aid in 1986. Enjoy a 20-mile (32 km) view from this 168-foot (51 m) tower and imagine this first sight for many European immigrants as they arrived in America. The Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society provides public tours and offers special events throughout the year. For another unique experience on Fire Island, try wilderness camping within the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness, the only designated wilderness area in New York.

North Carolina

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras National Seashore

National Park Service

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (Carole Meeter, Share the Experience)
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (Carole Meeter, Share the Experience)

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in North America and sheds light on an area deemed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The current lighthouse tower was built in 1868, which replaced the old tower built in 1803 and then modified in 1853. From the ground to the balcony level there are 257 steps, the equivalent of a 12-story building. Purchase tickets for the first-come, first-served self-guided climb at the park or reserve a ticket for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Full Moon Tour. Both tours offer a strenuous, yet rewarding climb for those who venture to the top.

Bodie Island Light Station, completed in 1872, is also located within Cape Hatteras National Seashore and offers first-come, first-served, self-guided climbs up just over 200 steps. If your visit to Cape Hatteras National Seashore includes an overnight stay, consider camping at Ocracoke Island, Frisco Campground, Cape Point or Oregon Inlet.

Oregon

Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area

Bureau of Land Management

Yaquina Head Lighthouse (Donna Lawson, Share the Experience)
Yaquina Head Lighthouse (Donna Lawson, Share the Experience)

The Yaquina Head Lighthouse is an active lighthouse that has been lit continuously since 1873. At 93 feet (28 m), it is the tallest lighthouse in Oregon and is a feature of the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area where wildlife is abundant. The offshore islands are a year-round refuge for harbor seals and a spring-summer home for thousands of nesting seabirds. Gray whales can be spotted during their annual migrations to Mexico (late fall-early winter) and Alaska (late winter-early spring). Tours are available for up to 16 people per tour.

Virginia

Assateague Lighthouse, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Assateague Lighthouse (Darren Barnes, Share the Experience)
Assateague Lighthouse (Darren Barnes, Share the Experience)

Built in 1867, the Assateague Lighthouse continues to flash its beacon for maritime traffic between Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay. Located within Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, this historical structure is just one attraction among the abundant wildlife of the area. More than 320 species of birds have been recorded on this barrier reef island, which has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and a National Audubon Society Top Ten birding hotspot. The refuge is also home to the famous wild Chincoteague ponies, descended from horses presumed to have swum ashore from Spanish galleons that foundered off the coast in the 15th and 16th centuries. Lighthouse and wildlife tours are conducted by the Chincoteague Natural History Association.

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