9 Incredible U.S. Lighthouses to Visit

Heceta Head Lighthouse on the edge of a green cliff overlooking the bright blue Pacific Ocean with a light blue sky in the distance
The viewpoint from Heceta Head Lighthouse is a great place to spot migrating whales in winter and spring.

Wildnerdpix / Getty Images

Lighthouses hold a special place in American history. Before the jet age, these coastal beacons were the most important landmarks for anyone who traveled by ship. Sailing is no longer a necessity for international travel, but lighthouses still have a role to play in modern times. Today's lighthouses are automated, so lightkeepers—the air traffic controllers of their day—are no longer needed. Lighthouses fascinate because of the unique stories that surround them and their beautiful yet isolated settings. 

Here are nine incredible lighthouses in the U.S. to visit.

of 9

Portland Head Light (Maine)

Portland Head Light with blue sky and blue ocean in the spring with flower in the foreground and a red-roofed building adjacent to the lighthouse in the background

Peter Unger / Getty Images

The Portland Head Light is one of the oldest landmarks of its kind in the U.S. Originally constructed more than 200 years ago, the lighthouse's first beacon was created by a lamp that burned whale oil. The oldest lighthouse in Maine, the structure has been altered over the years, but much of the original lighthouse remains. During the Civil War, the light was raised several feet, and parts of the exterior were repaired after storm damage in the 1970s.

The original lightkeeper's residence at Portland Head is now a maritime museum. For people seeking a true sense of history, this lighthouse is one of the best options. The other reason to visit the Portland Head Light: It sits on a stretch of rugged Maine coastline and a climb to the top of the tower will put you in front of one of the most beautiful seashore panoramas in northern New England.

of 9

Pigeon Point Light Station (California)

Pigeon Point Light Station with clear blue sky and a few pink clouds in the distance and a. small white building adjacent to the lighthouse on a large rock on the ocean

Frank Schulenburg / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

A point near California's beautiful Half Moon Bay, about 50 miles from San Francisco, is home to one of the West Coast's most well-known beacons, the Pigeon Point Light Station. First built in 1872, this lighthouse originally used an oil lamp with five separate wicks.

Due to damage to the structure, the lighthouse has been closed to visitors since 2001. Restoration of the lighthouse and surrounding buildings is planned and ongoing. However, vacation homes are available to rent at the foot of the lighthouse where you can experience the sunrise and sunset over the Pacific.

Docent-led tours around the grounds of Pigeon Point are offered on weekends. The lighthouse is certainly the main attraction here but not the only sight to see. Whales, seals, and other marine creatures can be seen from the lighthouse's grounds.

of 9

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (North Carolina)

Black and white diagonally striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with a small red building adjacent agains a green field and blue, cloud-filled sky

Stephen B. Goodwin / Shutterstock

This North Carolina lighthouse overlooks one of maritime history's most ominous places. Over the past five centuries, thousands of ships have been wrecked on offshore sandbars called the Diamond Shoals, earning this area the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The original lighthouse on Cape Hatteras was built in the late 1700s. The current lighthouse, constructed in 1870, is more than 200 feet tall, and the beacon can be seen nearly 20 nautical miles out to sea (the deadly Diamond Shoals sit 14 to 20 miles from the shore).

Visitors can appreciate this tower from the outside before climbing the 257 stairs to stand next to the beacon. The Atlantic seashore that you can view from the lighthouse's summit is protected as part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The beautiful panoramic views will make the strenuous stair climb seem worthwhile.

of 9

Cana Island Light Station (Wisconsin)

Cana Island Lighthouse with a red-roofed building adjacent and a large green tree against a vivid blue sky

Aeypix / Shutterstock

Some of the most impressive lighthouses are not located near the ocean. In fact, people who drive along the shores of the Great Lakes will come across a number of scenic lighthouses, well over 1,000 miles from the nearest saltwater.

Wisconsin's Door Peninsula, which juts out into Lake Michigan, is home to some very interesting beacons. One of the region's lakeshore headliners is the Cana Island Light Station. This well-preserved 89-foot tower sits on a nine-acre island that has the original keeper's residence and great views of the surrounding lake.

Visitors can scale the 97 steps to reach the light, which was once powered by oil drawn from an onsite storage container. One of the best features of the top of the lighthouse tower is an outdoor watch deck that offers a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding scenery.

of 9

Cape Henry Lighthouses (Virginia)

two lighthouses at Cape Henry in a field of small green plants the taller one with vertical black and white stripes, and the smaller, original lighthouse made of brick

Roc8jas / Getty Images

The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, completed in 1792, was the first lighthouse ever established by the U.S. government. Actually, the lighthouse was supposed to be constructed 20 years earlier, but the Revolutionary War broke out while the foundation was still being laid. The original lighthouse is no longer in use, but it is still standing, a relic of the early days of American history.

A more modern lighthouse, aptly named the New Cape Henry Lighthouse, is used as a navigation aid and is operated by the Coast Guard. Both lighthouses are surrounded by the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story military base and identification is required for entry. Preservation Virginia owns the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse and offers tours year-round. The grounds surrounding these lighthouses offer great views of Chesapeake Bay.

of 9

Saugerties Lighthouse (New York)

Saugerties Lighthouse on the west bank of the Hudson River on a clear, sunny afternoon with a blue sky and small, wispy white clouds

Moelyn Photos / Getty Images

The Saugerties Lighthouse on the Hudson River provides one of the most unique visitor experiences of any lighthouse in the country. When it comes to height and size, this landmark is certainly not at the top of the list. However, it has an inn that offers overnight accommodations. There is only one way to reach this unusual hotel: Guests have to walk a half-mile-long trail that becomes flooded at high tide.

Even if you do not stay at the Saugerties Lighthouse, tours are offered on Sundays in the summer. Visitors can wander up to the lighthouse and enjoy the views of the Hudson with the Catskill Mountains in the background.

of 9

Heceta Head Lighthouse (Oregon)

View from above of Haceta Head Lighthouse and several small adjacent buildings set on a lush green hill along the Pacific Ocean

Francesco Vaninetti Photo / Getty Images

Some lighthouses are attractive because of their sheer remoteness. That is the case for the Heceta Head Lighthouse in coastal Oregon. The lighthouse sits on a cliff 1,000 feet above sea level and is open to visitors year-round, weather permitting. In addition to the lighthouse itself, the grounds and seven miles of trails that cross the area offer amazing views. 

The assistant lightkeeper's house has been converted into a bed-and-breakfast-style inn, so it is possible to stay and actually see the light's (now-automated) beam shining out at nighttime. This lighthouse is also a worthwhile stop for nature-lovers: Sea lions and whales are visible from the high vantage point, and nesting seabirds are a common sight along the cliffs.

of 9

Split Rock Lighthouse (Minnesota)

Split Rock Lighthouse on the top of a rock along the north shore of Lake Superior in fall with a lush forest of golden trees

Dan Thornberg / EyeEm / Getty Images

Situated on a cliff overlooking Lake Superior, the Split Rock Lighthouse is one of the westernmost of the Great Lakes' beacons. A relatively young lighthouse, Split Rock celebrated its centennial in 2010. The real reason to visit this landmark is the rugged scenery that characterizes this remote part of the Lake Superior shoreline. Visitors can enjoy a stunning panorama from the top of the lighthouse.

Onsite exhibits tell the story of the lake's violent weather and the shipwrecks that led to the lighthouse being built. People who find themselves entranced by the rocky beauty of the coastline here can travel along the North Shore, which spans from northern Minnesota up to western Ontario.

of 9

Boston Light (Massachusetts)

Boston Light, a white lighthouse on a rocky island that juts out into the blue Atlantic Ocean

Wbritten / Getty Images

The Boston Light sits on Little Brewster Island, a small island in the outer section of the famous Boston Harbor. It became the first operational lighthouse in America when it was first illuminated in 1716. The current tower dates back to 1783.

While all lighthouses in the U.S. are now fully automated, the Boston Light still has a civilian keeper (whose duties mainly revolve around the tours that come to the island, rather than the upkeep of the beacon). Little Brewster Island can be visited as part of a Boston Harbor cruise.