With their long history and unquestionable mystique, lighthouses have sometimes been called “America’s castles.”
According to the U.S. Lighthouse Society, about 1,500 lighthouses have been built in this country over the years. (Fun fact: Michigan is the state with the most.) Some are defunct, others still active. A few have been turned into B&Bs, museums, and many are open for public tours.
Want to check them out but don’t know where to start? We’ll shed some light with our list of eight great lighthouses to visit.
The Tallest: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Standing 193 feet above ground, this famous lighthouse in Bruxton, N.C. is the tallest in the U.S. It’s also very recognizable, thanks to its distinctive black-and-white banding. While Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is currently undergoing a restoration, neighboring Bodie Island Lighthouse is open to visitors—if you’re up to climbing its 200 stairs—April through Columbus Day.
The Oldest: Boston Light
Perched on Little Brewster Island, on the outer edge of Boston Harbor, this tower is actually notable for two big reasons. It dates back to back to 1716, when candles were used to create its light. And it’s also the last manned (or womanned) lighthouse in the country. The title of keeper is now held by Sally Snowman, who was appointed in 2003 as the first woman keeper in Boston Light’s history. While the lighthouse beacon is automated, Ms. Snowman maintains the beautiful Fresnel lens and conducts tours for visitors. Because of repairs, tourists aren’t allowed on the island right now, but you can get up close with a boat tour.
The Spookiest: Pensacola Lighthouse
There are many claims of haunted lighthouses—spirits heard or seen, and blamed on the tragic deaths of lightkeepers, their family members, or ship passengers. Pensacola Lighthouse, at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, may be at the top of the “most haunted” list. It’s claimed that several souls call it home; if you’d like to meet them, you can book a ghost hunt. But if you plan to visit during the pandemic, you’ll need a Department of Defense or Veterans ID card or an escort to get on base.
The Looker: Eldred Rock Lighthouse
Though it’s clearly subject to debate, our vote for the prettiest U.S. lighthouse goes to Eldred Rock in Haines, Alaska. Perhaps it’s the striking Alaska scenery that makes it so special, or maybe its unique octagonal shape. Either way, it’s tough to beat in the looks department. It was built in 1898 after the tragic loss of the ship Clara Nevada, which was traveling with 800 pounds of gold, a stock of illegal dynamite, and 100 passengers from Skagway to Seattle. Unfortunately, Eldred Rock is now awaiting restoration and not open to the public. Hopefully that will change in the future.
The Loner: Frying Pan Tower
By their nature, lighthouses are often in remote locations, built to provide a beacon of light and safety to mariners and other boaters in unlit areas. Even so, Frying Pan Tower lighthouse is an outlier; located 32 miles off the coast of North Carolina, it can only be reached by helicopter. You can stay there for the weekend for $1550 per person, or save some cash by volunteering to help with its restoration. You’ll be provided accommodation, food, and supplies and only be required to work four hours a day. You do have to pay for transportation – the $850 helicopter ride.
The Overnighter: Heceta Head Lighthouse
Have you ever dreamed about sleeping in a lighthouse? Whether you want to live vicariously through past keepers, enjoy the wind and waves, or just relax in a unique atmosphere, there are a number of lighthouses available for overnight stays. For charm and comfort, consider Heceta Head Lighthouse in Yachats, Oregon. You won’t actually be able to bed down in the tower itself, but the keeper’s house, perched on a hillside nearby, has been turned into a B&B.
The Twofer: Fairport Harbor
Serious about lighthouses? You can visit two in one town. Fairport Harbor, Ohio, about 20 miles east of Cleveland, is home to the original Fairport Harbor Lighthouse—now Fairport Harbor Marine Museum—and its successor, Fairport Harbor West. At the marine museum you can climb the tower and visit the exhibits from Memorial Day to mid-September. They have some great artifacts of Lake Erie history and the lighthouse’s original 3rd order Fresnel Lens. Fairport Harbor West is privately owned but offers tours by appointment.
The Oddball: Thomas Point Shoal
Lighthouses come in many shapes and sizes. One of the most unusually shaped is Thomas Point Shoal, off the coast of Maryland in the Chesapeake Bay. Dating to 1875 and known as a screw-pile design, Thomas Shoal consists of a hexagon-shaped Victorian style house. It’s long been a tourist attraction, and Jimmy Buffet even sang from atop Thomas Shoal in 2020. The lighthouse is available for summertime visits.