15 Enlightening National Park Lighthouses, from Maine to California
Through the darkest of nights and most forceful of storms, lighthouses have served as guiding harbingers of safety for mariners since the completion of Pharos of Alexandria in 280 B.C. Though the first-known lighthouse – one of the Seven Wonders of the World – was later destroyed by an earthquake, its creation set in motion a maritime tradition that spread throughout the world.
These 15 national parks are home to some of the most iconic lighthouses – including our oldest! – in the country. Enlighten yourself with the backstories of these historic structures and be moved to seek them out in person during your next national park vacation.
Acadia National Park
On the southwestern-most tip of Mount Desert Island, Bass Harbor Head Light stands guard over the granite bedrock. Built in 1858 and currently home to the commander of the local U.S. Coast Guard unit, the light marks the entrance of Blue Hill Bay. Tours of the lighthouse are not available, as it serves as a private residence, but the exterior can be enjoyed via some short trails on either side of house.
Alcatraz Island Light was the first lighthouse to be built on the West Coast. The tower was constructed in 1852 as part of the island’s fortifications and received its Fresnel lens in 1854. An earthquake in 1906 damaged the original tower but a reinforced design was later constructed of concrete. Standing at 84 feet tall, this structure is all that remains of the lighthouse keeper’s station after the 1970 fire that broke out during the Indians of All Tribes Occupation.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Although construction on Wisconsin’s original Raspberry Island Lighthouse was completed in 1862, the demands of the round-the-clock job soon clarified a need for the expansion of the keepers’ station in its first few decades of existence. By 1906, the lighthouse was remodeled and expanded to accommodate additional staff and their families. The structure, which has changed little since its renovation early in the 20th century, can be visited during the summer when boat services make a stop at Raspberry Island. Here, visitors can enjoy ranger-led tours of the historic tower.
Biscayne National Park
Unquestionably striking, yet functionally ineffective, Biscayne’s 65-foot-tall Boca Chita Lighthouse is known as the iconic visual of this Floridian national park. Millionaire Mark Honeywell ordered the lighthouse built in the 1930s when he owned Boca Chita Key, though the structure was never intended to guide nearby ships to safety. The ornamental lighthouse is open to visitors when staff are on the island and provides breathtaking vistas of nearby islands and Miami’s skyline from its observation deck.
Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
Seizing the title as the nation’s oldest lighthouse site in continued use, Boston Light proudly sits on the two-acre island known as Little Brewster. The original 1716 construction was destroyed at the end of the Revolutionary War as British forces fled from Boston but was renovated by 1783. Today, the automated lighthouse remains under the care of Coast Guard staff but can be toured by visitors from Spring to Fall.
Cabrillo National Monument
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, not to be confused with the new one located 100 yards south of the original, came into service on November 15, 1855, welcoming travelers to San Diego’s harbor. On clear nights, the light of the five-foot-tall Fresnel lens could be seen as far as 25 miles out, but the true challenge arose when inclement weather set in. Due to its elevation at 422 feet above sea level – a consideration which had originally been thought of as favorable for the lighthouse – and the location’s propensity for low clouds and fog, the lighthouse only remained in service for 36 years. Normally closed to the public, visitors have three opportunities to visit the lighthouse’s tower each year: March 22 (the anniversary of the light’s retirement), August 25 (the anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service), and November 15 (the anniversary of the tower’s first lighting).
Cape Cod National Seashore
The earliest tower at Highland Light Station was established in 1797 when a 45-foot-tall wooden structure and keeper’s housing was constructed. Thirty-four years later, a brick structure replaced the original tower, but it wasn’t until 1857 that today’s 66-foot-tall tower, accompanying house, and generator shed were built. The once keeper’s house is now home to exhibits and a gift shop. Visitors to the light station have the opportunity to tour the tower through the Truro Historical Society.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
One of three iconic and distinct towers within the park, the 12-story-tall Cape Hatteras Lighthouse offers some of the best views of this part of the eastern shore. Committed visitors who wish to enjoy that view will need to ascend 257 steps to reach the balcony – with no air conditioning, mind you. Timed-entry tickets are available onsite from 9 a.m. to 4:25 p.m. daily. Those looking for a unique experience at this lighthouse should consider the full moon climbs that are available from Spring through the Fall. Tickets for these special climbs go on sale three days prior to the full moons and can be purchased here.
Fort Pulaski National Monument
Cockspur Island Lighthouse has a history of taking some abuse by man and mother nature. Located just east of the port, demarcating the Savannah River’s South Channel, the structures inhabiting Cockspur Island have been destroyed by hurricanes, rebuilt, and then stood in the line of fire during the bombardment of Fort Pulaski. In 1909, the lighthouse was retired, as freighters were more easily accommodated through the river’s North Channel. It now serves as a daymark and can be enjoyed from the ¾-mile Lighthouse Overlook Trail.
Gateway National Recreation Area
Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest surviving lighthouse in the United States, not to be confused with Boston Light. The former boasts being the oldest continuously-used lighthouse, whereas Boston Light (which was built first) was destroyed during the Revolutionary War. The keepers’ quarters and barn can be explored seven days a week, and lighthouse tours are first-come, first-served.
Isle Royale National Park
Comprised of stone and brick and standing at 50-feet tall, Rock Harbor Lighthouse is positioned at the southeast tip of Isle Royale. The advent of cooper mining in the area, as well as the growing fishing industry led to the building of the lighthouse in 1856, making it the oldest lighthouse on Lake Superior. Ranger-led boat tours to Edisen Fishery and the lighthouse are available on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from early June to early September.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
After the treacherous shores and unforgiving darkness between the lights on Grand Island and Whitefish Point claimed dozens of ships on the lake, Congress appropriated funds to build a new tower 12 miles west of Grand Maraise. Construction on the 87-foot-tall Au Sable Light Station, located on Lake Superior’s south shore, was completed in 1874. The tower’s beacon can be seen 18 miles out on the lake and continues to be maintained by the Coast Guard today. Visitors can tour the light station by walking 1.5-miles (one-way) east – you’ll be able to spot exposed shipwrecks along the way – on the hiking trail at the picnic area near the Hurricane River mouth.
Point Reyes National Seashore
When you’re known for being one of the windiest and foggiest locations on the west coast, there is no need to justify the dire need for a lighthouse. But it wasn’t until 1870 that construction on the Point Reyes Lighthouse, located on the western end of the Point Reyes Headlands, was completed – nearly 16 years after California’s first light on Alcatraz Island was list. Today visitors can tour the lens room and join in evening lighting programs at this historic location – be sure to stop in at the visitor center for times, as it changes seasonally.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
From its first lighting in 1871 to the Coast Guard’s last service of the tower in 1958, South Manitou Island Lighthouse has stood marking the only safe harbor between the island and Chicago. The increased volume of commercial navigation following the completion of the Erie Canal necessitated the construction of the 100-foot-tall tower to illuminate safe passage for ships. To experience the view from the observation deck, visitors must be willing to climb the 117 steps that circle up the tower; island vistas and spectacular sights of the Manitou Passage await.
These lighthouses have stood as visible assurances of safety to weary travelers for decades. Though many are no longer in service, they continue to preserve our stories – stories of a new and expanding nation. They stand as tangible reminders for us, interpreting a history filled with tragedy and triumph, enlightening all who visit them.
Photo credits: Bass Harbor Lighthouse at Acadia National Park by Benjamin DeHaven; Alcatraz Island Lighthouse by Gema Hernandez; Raspberry Island Lighthouse at Apostle Islands by Daniel Seurer; Boston Light at Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area by Maury Eldridge; Boca Chita Key Lighthouse at Biscayne National Park by Eric Magayne; Point Loma Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument by Scott Murphy; Highland Light Station at Cape Cod National Seashore by Jatin Thakkar; Cape Hatteras Lighthouse by Frederick Carlson; Cockspur Island Light at Fort Pulaski National Monument by Beth Willis; Sandy Hook Lighthouse at Gateway National Recreation Area by Natallia Krauchanka; Au Sable Light Station at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore by Justin Miller; Point Reyes Lighthouse by Angie Marcelynas – all images above from Share the Experience Photo Contest. Rock Harbor Lighthouse at Isle Royale National Park by Ray Dumas via Wiki Commons; South Manitou Island Lighthouse at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore by National Park Service.