by Olivia Abel
It’s no wonder so many people love visiting lighthouses. These beautiful, one-of-a-kind structures transport us back to a bygone era when life was simpler and shipping was the center of both commerce and passenger travel. The fact that these beacons are often situated in spectacular natural settings doesn’t hurt either, while stories of lonely lighthouse keepers battling the elements only adds to the intrigue. Of the more than 750 now automated lighthouses in the U.S.—many preserved by dedicated volunteer groups and open to visitors—about 75 percent still serve as navigational devices. These are some of our favorites from across the country.
This cozy little structure, made of brick and granite, routinely shows up on lists of the country’s most haunted lighthouses. First lit in 1856, it helped boats carrying lumber navigate the craggy coast near this busy shipping hub north of San Francisco. It’s now a museum, but heads up—you can only visit during low tide.
Constructed in 1858, this 150-foot tall tower stands on one of the seven remote islands in the Dry Tortugas National Park, almost 70 miles west of Key West. (This uninhabited tropical island is also known as the home of breeding Loggerhead turtles.) One of only two Gulf of Mexico lighthouses that stayed in full operation during the Civil War, you must now make special arrangements in advance to visit.
This historic 1906 octagonal building, situated on a small uninhabited island in the Lynn Canal, is the oldest (and only wooden) remaining lighthouse in Alaska. It was constructed after a ship carting 800 pounds of gold on its way from Skagway to Seattle ran aground, killing everyone on board. Due to disrepair, the lighthouse is not currently open to visitors, but many boat tours and ferries get close enough to provide a good look.
This Italianate, red-brick building, first lit in 1869, was one of 14 lighthouses on the Hudson River in the mid-1800s shipping heyday. It fell into disrepair in the 1950s, but has since been transformed into a cozy two-bedroom B&B and museum. The lighthouse is only accessible by boat or by a half-mile trail through a beautiful nature preserve, but beware as high tide puts the trail underwater twice a day.
Built in 1848, this structure was one of the first cast-iron lighthouses in the South. Known for having several female lighthouse keepers, including one who tended the light for 53 years, this beacon on the Mississippi Sound has endured many serious storms, including Hurricane Katrina. That specific storm surge enveloped more than a third of the 64-foot lighthouse. Daily guided tours are available.
Nestled among pine trees in Ludington State Park, this 1867 tower kept this treacherous—in 1855 twelve ships wrecked in that area— but important shipping lane on Lake Michigan safe for generations of sailors. In 1949 it became the final Great Lakes lighthouse to be electrified. Today, visitors can take a 1.5-mile walk to tour the 112-foot lighthouse; some volunteers are even allowed to temporarily live and work there.
Since 1871, this iconic striped lighthouse, the tallest brick one in the U.S., has towered over the treacherous waters off Cape Hatteras, aptly nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” In 1999, in an amazing feat of engineering, the lighthouse was moved a half mile inland to save it from beach erosion common on the Outer Banks. Visitors today can climb 257 steps to the top of the 208-foot structure.
Considered one of the most architecturally sophisticated 19th century U.S. lighthouses, this gothic brick building sits atop a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Originally lit in 1875, the light was changed from a fixed white to a flashing green light to distinguish it from Montauk Point. The light was deactivated in 1990 and moved back from the edge of the cliff three years later. The lighthouse museum is open on weekends.
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