Dotted across the United States are a wide assortment of lighthouses, each with their own distinctive beauty and charm.
No matter where you travel in the US, be it through the country’s coastal regions or along the shores of the Great Lakes, you’ll encounter stunning lighthouses which have captured the imagination of sailors and landlubbers alike for generations. From the rugged coasts of Maine, to the sun-drenched shores of Florida, to the remote wilderness of Alaska, America’s lighthouses shine a light on a rich maritime history, the artistic and architectural inspiration behind them, and some of the most breath-taking natural scenery the nation has to offer.
Each of the lighthouses listed below were selected based on a specific criteria, but primarily for the beauty of the structures themselves, including their architecture (taking into account features such as winding staircases, crenellated tops and multi-prismed light). But also considered were their natural surroundings, so often set against spectacular, rugged cliffs and ocean waves. Furthermore, all are open to the public for self-guided or guided tours. Geographically, an effort was made to include lighthouses from all corners of the country, ordering them from Maine in the northeast, south along the coast, west to the Pacific, north to Alaska, and then to the interior of the country around the Great Lakes. More than anything, it serves to invite you, the reader, to imagine how you might embark on an adventure to visit these remarkable beacons of light for yourself.
Portland Head Lighthouse, Maine
One of the oldest and most recognised lighthouses in America, Portland Head Lighthouse was commissioned by the nation’s first President, George Washington, and its beauty is said to have inspired the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. First lit in 1791, the lighthouse’s white clapboard tower stands 80 feet tall, some 101 feet above sea level. The former Keeper’s Quarters have been converted into a museum open all-year-round and the tower itself can be climbed once a year on Maine Open Lighthouse Day. Surrounding it is a 90-acre park open for hiking and picnics.
Nauset Lighthouse, Massachusetts
Such is the exquisiteness of the Nauset Lighthouse that it has become nothing less than the iconic symbol of Cape Cod. The subject of Edward Hopper’s famous painting The Lighthouse at Two Lights, Massachusetts residents can even get the red and white tower on their license plates. But many more recognize it as the famous lighthouse that shows up on potato chip and popcorn bags. Over the years, the cast iron, brick-lined tower and its companion oil house have been moved due to erosion threatening to cause it to fall off the cliff’s edge at Nauset Beach. The lighthouse is open to visitors year-round for free tours.
Stonington Harbor Lighthouse, Connecticut
A New England gem, the Stonington Harbor Lighthouse was built in 1823 and then rebuilt in 1840. It stands out among its peers thanks to its fanciful stonework, with ornamental cornices around the tower and weighty granite lintels above its doorways. Sitting atop a rocky bluff, the lighthouse overlooks a picturesque harbor and houses the country’s first ever lighthouse museum, which is open to visitors together with the rest of the tower. It’s 29 circular steps and a short ladder climb to the top of the tower, from which you’re rewarded with views of three separate states. The lighthouse and its vicinity are also popular for picnicking, dinner dances, concerts and holiday celebrations.
Rose Island Lighthouse, Rhode Island
Dating back to 1870, the Rose Island Lighthouse takes its rightful place among the most beautiful in the country thanks to both its picturesque setting and unique architecture. Built on Rose Island in the Narragansett Bay, the lighthouse sports a red brick exterior and white trim in a classic, New England-style that’s both charming and elegant in equal measure. Adding to the visual spectacle is the octagonal tower that rises from the center of the keeper’s house. Visitors can tour the lighthouse, which is run off solar-powered electricity and a rainwater collection system, with many also taking time to explore the nearby gardens, beaches, hiking trails and naval ruins.
Montauk Point Lighthouse, New York
Perched on the easternmost point of Long Island, New York, Montauk Point Lighthouse is notable for both its historic architecture and the natural beauty of its surroundings. Built in 1796 and standing 110 feet tall, the brick and stone structure evokes wonder and awe in all who behold it, with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding coastline adding to the experience. Tourists can climb the 137 steps to the top of the lighthouse and take in the majestic views, as well as visit two museums – one that celebrates the tower’s place in the region’s maritime history and a second that honors the first peoples who lived here before European settlers arrived.
Absecon Lighthouse, New Jersey
During the 19th century, Dr. Jonathan Pitney, sometimes called the Father of Atlantic City, was determined to erect a lighthouse on Absecon Island, even after the government rejected the application. It would eventually be built in 1857, after 64 ships sunk near the island in the intervening years. The tower is 171 feet, the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey and the third tallest masonry lighthouse anywhere in the US. The red and white striped tower pairs with the keeper’s house and other historic buildings to create a picturesque scene replete with eye-catching charm. Visitors are invited to climb the 228 steps to the top of the lighthouse to take in the views of the Atlantic City skyline and nearby coastline.
Drum Point Lighthouse, Maryland
The dedication and passion of the Calvert County Historical Society saved the Drum Point Lighthouse in Maryland from destruction and transformed it into a popular tourist destination. Having moved from its original location, it now sits on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, where its striking red and white exterior ensures it stands out against the blue ocean waters. The lighthouse design also features a hexagonal tower that rises from the center of a two-story keeper’s house. Inside, a museum hosts daily tours and showcases Chesapeake Bay’s long history as well as the area’s maritime culture and ecology.
Assateague Lighthouse, Virginia
With its tall red and white tower, the Assateague Lighthouse sits on an island belonging to both the states of Virginia and Maryland. Built on the Virginia side within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, it is still operational and open for public tours. A popular tourist destination, thousands travel here every year to take in this Civil-War era lighthouse and explore the refuge, a popular site for birdwatching and outdoor activities. For a unique viewing point, visitors can embark on boat or kayak excursions that let them marvel at the 142-foot tower from as far as 19 miles out at sea.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina
Overlooking one of the most hazardous sections of the Atlantic Coast, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has a storied history which includes overcoming Confederate raids and hurricanes, not to mention faulty lights and understaffing. Constructed in 1870, replacing an 1803 structure that was too short to aid mariners, the 198-foot structure is the tallest brick lighthouse in the country. The black and white spiral-striped tower is built on an octagon-shaped brick and granite base and topped with an iron and glass lantern. Visitors can climb the 269 steps to the lens room of the lighthouse.
Tybee Island Lighthouse, Georgia
When construction on the Tybee Island Lighthouse fell behind schedule in 1736, General James Oglethorpe threatened to hang the head carpenter, who swiftly began working faster. It would thereafter get rebuilt several times, suffering damage from war, hurricanes and a cholera infection that killed workers. Today it stands 145 feet tall and features a distinctive black and white striped exterior. Visitors can climb the 178 steps to the top of the lighthouse or explore the museum that offers insight into the area’s long history and the key role the lighthouse played in maritime navigation. A small 1812 Summer Kitchen displays archaeological finds, while other exhibits offer fascinating details about the Euchee tribe, Fort Screven and Tybee’s Golden Era.
St. Augustine Lighthouse, Florida
Exuding character and charm, the St. Augustine Lighthouse draws large numbers of visitors to Anastasia Island in the nation’s oldest port. Those who make the trip can climb 219 steps to the top or visit the museum where they’ll learn that the lighthouse’s origins stretch back to a 1589 watchtower built by the Spanish. The current lighthouse was rebuilt with brick in 1874. While you have to be at least 44 inches in height to climb the lighthouse, kids who don’t quite make the cut are consoled with a children’s play area and puppet theatre at ground level. There are also daily sailing, navigation, and underwater archaeology demonstrations.
Puerto San Juan Light, Puerto Rico
Also known as Castillo San Felipe del Morro Lighthouse, or Faro de Morro Port San Juan Light, this famous lighthouse is perched atop the walls of Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, and is the first ever lighthouse to have been built in Puerto Rico. A beloved landmark and major tourist attraction, the three-story structure has a Spanish-influenced brick design, and the top includes a crenellated parapet accented by ornamental guardhouses at each corner. The light itself has eight flash panels and is installed in a helical bar lantern room.
Port Isabel Lighthouse, Texas
Boasting a distinctly pale-coloured façade, the Port Isabel Lighthouse dominates the southern tip of the Texas Gulf Coast. Having served as both an aid to seafarers and a military lookout station during several armed conflicts, it has been rebuilt and restored several times, and is today a modern steel structure that stands 72 feet tall with a 75-foot spiral staircase. It is the only Texas lighthouse open to the public, in part because the adjacent town purchased it to help promote the area. The square block surrounding the lighthouse has the distinction of being Texas’ smallest state park.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, California
Situated on 270 acres of coastal bluffs in Mendocino County, California, the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse sits as testament to the beauty and history of the area. Built in 1909, it is set amid picturesque cliffs and rolling hills, offering magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean. Visitors can explore the lighthouse, three restored keeper’s houses and other historic buildings spread across the grounds, including a restored blacksmith and carpentry shop in which there is a 240-gallon saltwater aquarium. They can also climb the tower and see the lens first-hand. For those who want to extend their visit, overnight stays at any of several of the historic Keeper houses and surrounding cottages are available.
Heceta Head Lighthouse, Oregon
Located on an awe-inspiring 1,000-foot high bluff on the Oregon coast, Heceta Head Lighthouse is one of the nation’s most-visited lighthouses, offering a mix of history, an aura of romance and a spectacular setting. The 56-foot tall masonry tower houses one of the most powerful lights on the Oregon coast projected through a lens arranged in eight bulls-eye panels. The former assistant lighthouse keeper dwellings were converted into a bed and breakfast complete with seven-course gourmet breakfast. The lighthouse viewpoint invites visitors to spot migrating whales, sea lions and birds, while a special trail meanders for seven miles replete with ocean views and wildlife.
Five Finger Lighthouse, Alaska
It takes determination and time to visit the remote Five Finger Lighthouse, Alaska’s first lighthouse, in the Frederick Sound of southeast Alaska – but once you get there you won’t be let down. Visitors can tour the lighthouse or even stay overnight. Set on a collection of rocky islets, the closest community is nearly 40 miles away. With all the rocky, natural navigational hazards, it was quickly identified as a place where a lighthouse was needed. Those who stay on the three-acre island can take in the rugged beauty of the surrounding snow-capped mountains, witness humpback whales (the waters are their summer feeding ground) and take photos.
Two Harbors Lighthouse, Minnesota
A highly distinctive octagonal structure, the Two Harbors Lighthouse was built on a rocky promontory separating two bays on Lake Superior, where it guided iron ore shippers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A charming two-story redbrick, gabled dwelling is attached to the 48-foot tall tower. In danger of being demolished after it was decommissioned in 1969, the Lake County Historical Society intervened and it now hosts tours and rents rooms out as a bed and breakfast. During summer months, visitors can climb the 40 steps to the lantern room and tour the other two historical structures on the site.
Cana Island Lighthouse, Wisconsin
For more than 150 years, the Cana Island Lighthouse has stood guard on the shore of Lake Michigan. Standing 89 feet tall, the cream city brick sentinel is built on an island in Door County peninsula. Now under the management of Door County Maritime Museum, the area’s most iconic lighthouse has 102 steps in its spiral staircase leading up to a gallery deck. Visitors ride a haywagon over a causeway to the island and on ascending to the top are rewarded with vistas of Lake Michigan, the rocky shoreline and tall evergreen trees.
Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, Michigan
In the treacherous straits of Mackinac, many ships sank to their doom before the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse was built in 1892. The magnificent, castle-like lighthouse remained in service until the building of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957. The tower was built from red bricks and stands 50 feet tall with a distinctive conical shape. Today it serves as a museum that welcomes tourists to the far northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, with those who climb to the top greeted by unparalleled views of Lake Huron and the straits. The lighthouse is one of nearly 120 lighthouses in Michigan – making it the most lighthouse-heavy of all US states.
Marblehead Lighthouse, Ohio
Drawing large numbers of visitors from far and wide, the Marblehead Lighthouse on the Sandusky Bay is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes. Built from local limestone and covered in stucco, the tower with its multiple windows lays claim to having been featured on a U.S. postage stamp and on Ohio license plates. It was built in 1821 and is now part of the Ohio State Parks system where it welcomes eager travellers who come to climb the spiral staircase looking out over Lake Erie.