9 Incredible U.S. Lighthouses to Visit

A lighthouse standing on a cloudy day

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Lighthouses hold a special place in American lore. Before the jet age, these coastal beacons were the most important landmarks for anyone who traveled by ship, such as the Pigeon Point Light Station. 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 light keepers — the air traffic controllers of their day — are no longer needed.

Lighthouses fascinate because of the historic (and sometimes fictional) stories that surround them and their gorgeous yet lonely settings. Here’s our short list of the standouts.

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Portland Head Light, Maine

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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. Though the structure has been altered over the years, much of the original lighthouse remains. During the Civil War, the light was raised 20 feet, and parts of the exterior were repaired after storm damage in the 1970s.

The original light-keeper'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 on this list. 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.

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Pigeon Point Light Station, California

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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.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, the structure of the building itself is unsafe, so visitors aren't allowed to climb inside. However, one of the old light-keeper residences has been turned into an inn, so you can actually stay near the lighthouse and experience both the sunrise and sunset over the Pacific.

Docent-led tours around the grounds of Pigeon Poiont 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.

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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina

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This North Carolina lighthouse overlooks one of maritime history's most ominous places. Over the past five centuries, more than 2,000 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 on land that was bought from a local family for $50. The current lighthouse, constructed in 1870, is more than 200 feet tall, and the beacon can be seen nearly 20 miles out to sea (the deadly Diamond Shoals sit 12 to 14 miles from the shore).

Visitors can appreciate this tower from the outside before climbing the 268 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.

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Cana Island Lighthouse, Wisconsin

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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 salt water. 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 Lighthouse. This well-preserved 89-foot tower sits on a nine acre island that has a well-preserved 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 deck that offers a bird’s eye view of the surrounding Great Lake's scenery.

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Cape Henry Lighthouses, Virginia

Photo: Photographer's Mate 1st Class Ken Riley/U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

The Old Cape Henry Lighthouse (the tower on the right), 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 today. It is operated by the Coast Guard and is one of the few U.S. beacons that still have staff members living onsite. The grounds surrounding these lighthouses offer great views of Chesapeake Bay and visitors can walk through the nearby dune-lands to reach the lighthouses themselves.

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Saugerties Lighthouse, New York

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The Saugerties Lighthouse on the Hudson River provides one of the most unique visitor experiences of any light in the country. When it comes to height and size, this landmark is certainly not at the top of the list. However, this lighthouse 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 gets flooded at high tide.

Even if you do not stay at the Saugerties Lighthouse, it is possible to take tours of it each Sunday. Visitors can wander up to the lighthouse and enjoy the views of the Hudson with the Catskill Mountains in the background.

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Heceta Head Lighthouse, Oregon

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Some lighthouses are attractive because of their sheer remoteness. That is the case for the Heceta Head Lighthouse in coastal Oregon. This lighthouse sits on a cliff 1,000 feet above sea level. Though visitors cannot currently enter the lighthouse itself, they can explore the grounds, appreciate the amazing views from the Head and hike along the 7-plus miles of trails that cross the area.

The assistant light keeper'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 sea birds are a common site along the cliffs.

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Split Rock Lighthouse, Minnesota

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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 so-called North Shore, which spans from northern Minnesota up to western Ontario.

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Boston Light, Massachusetts

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The Boston Light, which sits on a small island in the outer section of the famous Boston Harbor, 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 every day, rather than the upkeep of the beacon). Little Brewster Island, where the Boston Light is located, can be visited as part of a harbor cruise.