The 10 Most Beautiful Lighthouses in the U.S.
Some are still in use while others are historic museums, but all are stunning to look at.
Most lighthouses in the U.S. are 100 or even 200 years old, built at a time when shipping was the primary mode of trade and navigation technology was nonexistent. Many of these beacons are still in use today, but most have been turned into historic museums for the public to explore. Whether or not you can go inside, there are countless lighthouses that are stunning to look at, photograph, or even host an event around. To narrow down the list of these structures that you simply must see, we spoke to travel experts to get their opinions. Keep reading to learn about the 10 most beautiful lighthouses in the U.S.
Portland Head Lighthouse, Maine
When it comes to lighthouses, Maine's Portland Head Lighthouse might be the most beloved (and most photographed). It's the state's oldest lighthouse and was built on Cape Elizabeth, a location that had been used as a lookout during the American Revolution, explains Ally Wardrop, owner and writer of Cafes and Getaways. "Then in 1791, the lighthouse was built to help ships come in and out of Portland harbor. The contract of construction for the keeper's quarters was signed by John Hancock himself," she adds. Moreover, the lighthouse was commissioned by none other than George Washington.
Portland Head Lighthouse is within the 90-acre Fort Williams Park, where visitors can "picnic, fly a kite, stroll paths, tour the arboretum, walk the cliffside loop, explore the rocky beach, and enjoy the playground," according to the lighthouse website. But of course, the main attraction is the Museum at Portland Head Light, which is within the former keeper's quarters. "[It] contains a number of lighthouse lenses and interpretative displays," the site notes. One day a year, the lighthouse tower opens to the public as part of Maine Open Lighthouse Day.
Marshall Point Lighthouse, Maine
Maine is nicknamed the "Lighthouse State" for good reason. According to the state, "Maine's rocky coastline is host to more than 60 lighthouses." Though Portland Head is the most famous, the Marshall Point Lighthouse about two hours north is stunning in its own right. "It's not the tallest lighthouse out there, but its black and white exterior has a striking presence against the rocky east-coast shore," says Carly Brown, founder of travel blog Seek Out Serenity. Its narrow wooden walkway is also a picturesque sight.
If this lighthouse looks familiar, it's likely from "its appearance in the movie Forrest Gump during the infamous running scene," notes Brown. If you visit today, you can't go inside the lighthouse, but you can stop by the museum, which is located in the keeper's house and summer kitchen.
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New London Ledge Lighthouse, Connecticut
For most people, the image they have in their minds of a lighthouse is a tall, narrow, conical structure—which is why Connecticut's square-shaped New London Ledge Lighthouse is that much more exquisite. According to the Ledge Light Foundation, the lighthouse was completed in 1909 to accommodate "the increased boat traffic to New London harbor." The three-story, 11-room brick and granite building was designed in the Second Empire style so that it would match the architecture of the homes of two local wealthy men.
The New London Maritime Society does host occasional public tours of the lighthouse, but you may want to keep in mind its haunted history. "According to local lore, the lighthouse is haunted by the ghost of a man named Ernie, an early keeper who perished while tending to the light," the travel experts at VacationRenter tell Best Life.
Montauk Point Lighthouse, New York
The tip of Long Island may be better known these days as a trendy summer destination for Manhattanites, but the area has a long maritime history still evident in its nautical landscape that includes the famous Montauk Point Lighthouse. Like Portland Head, it was commissioned by President Washington. It was completed in 1796, "making it the oldest lighthouse in New York State and the fourth-oldest in the country," according to Mia Certic, executive director of the Montauk Historical Society.
Thanks to the Historical Society, the lighthouse is open to the public in the summer. The group also hosts family-friendly events like lectures, concerts, and classes. If you climb the lighthouse's 127 steps, you'll get to enjoy amazing views. "It sits on a couple of hilly acres overlooking the waters of the Point, where the Block Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean," notes Certic.
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Cape Lookout Lighthouse, North Carolina
North Carolina's Cape Hatteras Lighthouse gets a lot of attention for being the country's tallest brick lighthouse at 198 feet. It's certainly beautiful, with its circulating black and white stripes, but another black and white lighthouse in the state is perhaps more eye-catching. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse in the Outer Banks is known as "Diamond Lady" for its unique pattern, a spokesperson North Carolina's Crystal Coast tells Best Life.
The 163-foot-tall lighthouse was built in the late 1850s. "The lighthouse now serves as a popular attraction within the Cape Lookout National Seashore, where visitors can make the trek up the 207 steps to the top and be rewarded with incredible views that encompass the mainland, open ocean waters, and everything in between," the organization says. The "56-mile strand of silken beaches [is] one of the few remaining natural barrier island chains in the world, accessible only by boat," the spokesperson explains.
Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse, Florida
The Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is a bit of "an under-the-radar gem," notes Ivonne MacMillan, senior manager of marketing and communications for Broward County. But its unique design and striking location definitely make it worthy of this list. According to the Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society, the structure was erected in 1907 as an octagonal, pyramidal cast iron skeleton tower that would help boats navigate around the difficult Hillsboro Point.
Today, the lighthouse and its museum are operated by volunteers at the Preservation Society. They offer tours where visitors can climb the 175 steps to the top, but the lighthouse "is only reachable via water shuttle/boat; no private boats can dock there," explains MacMillan. "The tour boat leaves from Sands Harbor Marina in Pompano Beach. Enjoy a sightseeing tour of the Intracoastal Waterway for about two miles before reaching the lighthouse."
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Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, Michigan
Maine might be the "Lighthouse State," but Michigan has the most lighthouses of any U.S. state. Of these 120-plus lighthouses, the Holland Harbor Lighthouse, also known as "Big Red," is the most photographed. But another red lighthouse is just as photogenic. Marquette Harbor Lighthouse was built in 1853 and had several subsequent additions. "From its signature bright red color to its fascinating history and stunning Lake Superior views, there's no question it allures anyone stopping in Marquette," says Susan Estler, director of Travel Marquette.
The Marquette Maritime Museum offers daily tours of the lighthouse, some of which are in the evening and others of which have themes like "Paranormal Lighthouse Tour."
Point Sur Lighthouse, California
In Monterey County, California, there's an alluring structure that may look more like a medieval fortress than a lighthouse. The imposing stone Point Sur Lighthouse was built in 1898 "on a volcanic rock 361 feet above the Pacific Ocean," says Lauren Becker, an account director at Fahlgren Mortine, which represents the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
It's been in continuous operation since and is open a few days a week for guided tours. "Moonlight tours are also offered on select days throughout the year," Becker adds. Do note that it's a steep climb to reach the lighthouse, but en route, your tour guide will share stories about past families who lived in the light station and talk about shipwrecks that have occurred in the area, according to a blog post on the Visitors Bureau. And, of course, you'll get to take in the amazing views of the jagged coastline and may even spot a few sea lions.
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Heceta Head Lighthouse, Oregon
There's something about Oregon's Heceta Head Lighthouse that's reminiscent of a coastal Mediterranean setting. Located within a state park along Highway 101, it was built in 1893 and is set on a 1,000-foot-high cliff, "beaming over the jagged shoreline," say Nina and Garrett Ragusa, founders of travel blog Oregon is for Adventure. "There are numerous pull-off spots along the highway to get your shot from afar. There's a trail leading up to the base of the lighthouse, although you can't get to the top of the lighthouse itself." They suggest following the trail to reach Hobbit Beach behind the cliffs, where there are normally very few people.
A very fun aspect of this lighthouse is that you can spend the night in the old keeper's cottage, which is now the Heceta Lighthouse B&B. "A handcrafted wooden staircase leads to our [six] well-appointed rooms," the B&B notes on its website. They also host weddings.
And for more to do during your visit, "in Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint you can also enjoy the hiking trails, and beach, observe wildlife, go fishing, and picnic," notes Ugur Yurt, head of organic growth at travel marketplace Wingie.
Eldred Rock Lighthouse, Alaska
Though the Eldred Rock Lighthouse isn't open to the public (it's also not very accessible, for that matter), if you're lucky enough to pass by it on a cruise ship, the view of the structure with the snowcapped mountains in the background is one-of-a-kind. "Nested on an island adjacent to the Lynn Canal, this octagonal lighthouse is considered the oldest lighthouse in the state of Alaska," says Sharon Sanders, co-founder of Philadelphia Weekly.
The Eldred Rock Lighthouse was built in 1905, but no one has resided in it since 1973 when the light was automated, according to the Eldred Rock Lighthouse Preservation Association. In 2019, the group received a grant as one of the state's Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties. After completing a five-year historic survey, they will determine plans for rehabilitation work and possible public access.