Lighthouses are special. Since forever they have served as beacons in the night, helping captains navigate the seas and steer clear of danger. They symbolize security, safety, especially in the midst of a storm when those shimmers on the sea means everything will be alright because there is light to lead the way.
You earn the privilege of enjoying them to the fullest by climbing the many stairs. It’s worth it though. The views are always astounding, with glistening waters as far as the eye can see. For a moment all is right in the world. How could it not be?
Lighthouses can be found around the globe, but you don’t have to go beyond the East Coast to find some of the best. Here are a few of the most beloved beacons.
Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, Cape Canaveral, Florida
The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is the only lighthouse owned and operated by the U.S. Space Force. The lighthouse and the keeper’s cottage museum sit near where the space program began. The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was built more than 150 years ago, before the port, before the missiles and the rocket launches. There have only been nine principal keepers, with Mills Olcott Burnham and his descendants keeping the light burning for a total of 80 years. Several launch pads are within a mile or two of the lighthouse.
Bass River Light, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Spencer Stone is the fourth generation lightkeeper/hotelier at the Lighthouse Inn that is centered around the historic Bass River Light. His great-grandfather, Everett Stone bought the property in 1938 with the intention to subdivide and develop the property but passed papers too late in the year and took in overnight guests to help pay the mortgage, says Stone. Those guests remarked what a great inn the property would make, and the Lighthouse Inn was born. The lighthouse at the heart of the property dates back to 1854, one of the last non-autonomous lighthouses with keeper’s quarters attached before federal funds dried up due to the Civil War. Over the years, there have been additions to the original building, including four guestrooms and a 220-seat waterfront restaurant. Elsewhere on the 9 acres, there are cottages and lodge-style buildings. A fun fact––James Garfield’s cousin petitioned the newly elected president to keep the light funded in 1881. Stone recounts other history, “My grandmother shared stories of watching planes drop dummy bombs for target practice on the breakwater in front of the Inn during WWII. We recovered one of the dummy bombs from the seafloor and included it in our little museum just underneath the light. Also during WWII, guests checking in would deposit their ration books and my grandfather would procure meats and dairy with the deposited stamps from all the guests. We still have a few ration stamp books in our archives. The lighthouse is especially important to my family since my grandfather met my grandmother working here, my father met my mother working here, and I met my girlfriend working here years ago.”
Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse, Hilton Head, South Carolina
The Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse underwent a significant renovation that was unveiled last spring. It was built between 1879 and 1880 as part of a larger system of navigation lights guiding ships into Port Royal Sound. A cast-iron skeleton tower built about a mile inland on six concrete piers, the lighthouse stands 94 feet tall and was activated in 1881. Light from the structure was visible from 15 miles away. Featured on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Inventory of Historic Light Stations, the lighthouse is one of only a handful of surviving lighthouses in South Carolina. The original lighthouse complex included a keeper’s house and a shorter forward beacon that was mounted on a second keeper’s house near the beach. By positioning their ships so that the two beacons were vertically aligned, sailors entering Port Royal Sound would know that their vessels were in the proper channel. Today, only the rear lighthouse survives, along with a vintage brick oil house and a water cistern located on site alongside the oldest living oak tree on Hilton Head Island.
There are juicy stories about this historic lighthouse. In 1898, a major hurricane hit the South Carolina coast. Determined to keep the light burning, lighthouse keeper Adam Fripp died of a heart attack during the storm. At Fripp’s urging, his 21-year-old daughter, Caroline, kept the navigational light burning. But she passed away just three weeks later from exhaustion and the loss of her father, inspiring haunted sightings of a female ghost in a long blue dress on rainy nights. The lighthouse, which originally included a wooden exterior, was deactivated in 1932. During World War II, however, the structure served as a lookout tower for enemy ships and anchored Camp McDougal, a network of U.S. Marine temporary barracks and ammunition sheds. Gun emplacements and searchlights were established on the nearby beach. Marines were taught to use naval guns, called “Big Betsy,” as well as .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, and practiced firing these weapons into the Atlantic.
Cape Neddick Nubble Lighthouse, York, Maine
The Cape Neddick Nubble Lighthouse in York, Maine is that iconic lighthouse you envision when you think lighthouses. It’s atop a hill on a tiny island just offshore, connected to a two-story farm-style home with a red roof where the keeper used to live. Constructed in 1879, the lighthouse is one of the last eight lighthouses to still use a Fresnel lens, a special type of lens developed in the 1800s to concentrate light into a relatively narrow beam so it could reach ships further out at sea. In 1977, an image of the lighthouse was selected as one out of only 115 images and sounds to be stored on the “Golden Record” inside the Voyager Spacecraft. The purpose of the Golden Record is to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth in the hopes that intelligent extraterrestrial life may come across the space vessel. The image is titled as “Seashore” by Dick Smith. You’ll also love York, Maine. The seaside town is home to Long Sands Beach and challenge yourself with a hike to the top of Mount Agamenticus for a 360-degree very memorable view.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras, North Carolina
Cape Hatteras lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in North Carolina and the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, measuring 198 feet from the bottom of the foundation to the top of the pinnacle of the tower. Take the 257 steps to the top. There’s also a museum and visitor’s center. This is one of the most popular lighthouses on the East Coast. It doesn’t hurt that there are great beaches and restaurants on the Outer Banks too.
Absecon Lighthouse, Atlantic City, New Jersey
At 171 feet tall, Absecon is the state’s tallest lighthouse. It dates back to 1857 and is one of the nation’s oldest lighthouses. Climb 228 steps and be rewarded with views of the Atlantic City skyline and up top, there’s the original first-order Fresnel Lens. The lighthouse’s recent restoration includes a replica of the lightkeeper’s dwelling, a museum, gift shop, Fresnel Lens exhibit in the original Oil House and expansive grounds. While in AC, enjoy the beach, the casinos and within a mile of the lighthouse you’ll find the Civil Rights Garden and the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey. R.C. Stabb, author of “100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die,” also recommends checking out the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation which hosts jazz concerts.
Old Point Comfort Lighthouse, Hampton, Virginia
Built in 1802, this lighthouse is the oldest structure on Old Point Comfort and the second oldest lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay. It was captured by the British and used as an observation tower during the War of 1812. Today, it is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard as an active aid to navigation.
A big plus is its location––on Fort Monroe National Monument, the largest stone fort ever built in America. Fort Monroe, the “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake,” has a diverse history that includes the 1619 landing of the first enslaved Africans in English North America and serving as a safe haven for freedom seekers during the American Civil War. Along with the beaches, boating, fishing, and biking, put on your to-do list, “The 400 Years Forward: African American Heritage Tour.”
Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse, Niagara County, New York
The setting is stunning. The Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse is located on the shore of Lake Ontario and in Golden Hill State Park, about 20 minutes outside of Olcott. The lighthouse, completed in 1876, was originally the family quarter for the keepers. Take in the historic structures, original observation tower, educational displays and gift shop. The second floor of the lighthouse is a full-service, 3-bedroom suite that can be rented for week-long stays in the summer or shorter visits during the rest of the year. You’ll get a peek into what life was like for a keeper along this stretch of Lake Ontario. While in the area, don’t miss the Niagara Wine Trail which features 22 wineries, breweries and cideries, the Olcott Beach Carousel Park, or the Lakeview Village Shoppes on the boardwalk.