Lighthouses once served as important beacons, helping ships navigate hazardous coastlines and find safe passage into harbors. But with the advance of GPS and other modern technologies, many of these structures have been relegated to the role of helpful backups, and some have been retired. But functioning or not, scores of lighthouses have found new purpose attracting not weary mariners but throngs of camera-toting tourists.
“The inherent beauty of lighthouses, starkly etched against the sky, is undeniably a big part of what makes them so alluring,” says Eric Jay Dolin, author of Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse. “But America’s intrinsic fascination with lighthouses runs deeper than that. Over three centuries, these brilliant beacons have indelibly woven themselves into the American fabric, and it is this rich history more than anything else that draws us in.”
Many lighthouses in the United States actually take in short-term boarders, giving visitors a taste of lightkeeper life and allowing them to connect more deeply with local and maritime history. Some operate as bed-and-breakfasts, while others expect guests to pitch in by cleaning bathrooms or logging a few hours in a visitor center or gift shop.
The following architecturally appealing or historically interesting light stations welcome overnight guests and are all within an easy drive of major metropolitan areas. To find more pay-to-stay lighthouses, visit the United States Lighthouse Society website.
1. New Dungeness Lighthouse
Located in the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge on Washington’s northwest coast, the New Dungeness Lighthouse enjoys views of the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. It also sits in the middle of a migratory bird route from northern Canada to the southern United States, so in addition to whales off the Pacific coast, eagle-eyed visitors might glimpse both land and sea birds such as bald eagles and Pacific loons.
Built in 1857, the lighthouse has undergone serious modifications over the years; in 1927, the top was lowered 27 feet due to crumbling stonework in the tower. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, and soon after, it became one of the first lighthouses to accept volunteer lightkeepers. In fact, general manager Chad Kaiser notes that volunteers have staffed the site nearly every day for the past 23 years, helping to raise and lower the flag, give tours, and pick up trash.
The light station recommends volunteers stay for one week, which costs $420 per person. All proceeds go to the upkeep of the facility, which can run upwards of $150,000 a year. While every shift is currently spoken for until December 2020, there are often last-minute cancellations.
2. Little River Lighthouse
The easternmost island light station in the United States, Little River Lighthouse juts up from a rocky, 15-acre landmass covered in pine trees off the coast of Cutler. To reach the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters, visitors take a 12-minute boat ride from the mainland, then stroll along a half mile of wooden boardwalk. The site is only open to overnight guests during the summer and to day-trippers during a handful of scheduled open houses. All told, this remote location sees about 1,000 visitors annually, and lightkeeper Terry Rowden says some come from as far away as Russia and Brazil.
According to Rowden, visitors enjoy an abundance of natural splendor, including “beautiful sunrises; whale, seal, and dolphin sightings from the shore; bald eagles soaring overhead; and [sweeping] vistas.”
The first lighthouse on the spot was built in 1847, then torn down and rebuilt with a cast-iron framework less than 20 years later. The current Victorian-style, wooden keeper’s quarters were built in 1888. Little River fell into disrepair and was decommissioned in the 1970s, but its light was relit in 2001 after local volunteers completed a massive restoration.
Rates range from $150 to $225 per night for a spot in the keeper’s quarters. You’re not expected to work during your stay, but we’re sure the staff wouldn’t mind a helping hand.
3. Big Bay Point Lighthouse
Big Bay, Michigan
Big Bay Point Lighthouse serves double duty as a Coast Guard–active light station and a bed-and-breakfast. It’s perched on a 50-foot cliff overlooking Lake Superior, so guests are treated to spectacular views, says lightkeeper Nick Korstad.
“We’re in the middle stretch of the lake, so our waters are crystal clear and on a clear day, mimic the color of the Caribbean,” Korstad says. “There are no neighbors or homes within view of the property, allowing the guests to see the site as it was [when it was built] in 1896. As a bonus, the Northern Lights are quite common.”
This lighthouse is one of only a few remaining in which the tower is integrated into the keeper’s house. It’s also said to be haunted. The first lightkeeper, the red-headed William Prior, killed himself while despondent after the unexpected death of his son. Visitors have reported seeing a red-haired figure in mirrors and hearing doors slam in the middle of the night.
Guests aren’t required to help out around the facility; they can spend their time exploring the surrounding area, which is known for its waterfalls and abundant wildlife. The bed-and-breakfast offers massages in a screened hut yards away from the cliffside, integrating the sounds and smells of the lake and woods into the experience. And the community of Big Bay—population 200—is only 3.5 miles away; its Lumberjack Tavern was the scene of the 1952 crime that inspired the movie Anatomy of a Murder.
The three rooms in the lighthouse are each $160 per night, and the Skiff House, a small cottage on the grounds that includes a private bath and Jacuzzi, is $175 per night.
4. East Brother Light Station
Point Richmond, California
Just northeast of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the East Brother Light Station sits alone on an island in the San Francisco Bay and enjoys one of the most picturesque skylines in the United States. A 10-minute boat ride from Point San Pablo Harbor in Richmond (about a half-hour drive from San Francisco), it’s an easy weekend escape for Bay Area locals.
The lighthouse was built in 1873, and its beacon was automated in 1969. At that time, the federal government wanted to tear down the surrounding facility, keeping only the light, but a local nonprofit took over the Victorian-style station and transformed it into an inn.
Rooms are available Thursday through Sunday night and start at $315 per night, including champagne and hors d’oeuvres upon arrival, a multi-course dinner with wine, and a full gourmet breakfast the next morning. One thing to note: Water is in short supply, so showers are only available for guests staying more than one night.
5. Salmon River Lighthouse and Marina
Port Ontario, New York
The Salmon River Lighthouse stands beside Lake Ontario. Visitors can climb the 181-year-old lighthouse’s spiral staircase to the beacon and take in 360-degree views of the harbor and surrounding area.
Once known as the Selkirk Lighthouse, it was officially retired in 1858 and so was allowed to retain its birdcage-style lantern. Co-owner Abe Ellis says only a handful of these rare lanterns remain in service today. The lighthouse was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and reactivated as a working lighthouse in 1989. Free open houses are held on the third Sunday of every month from April to November.
Purchased and completely refurbished in 2014, the two-story, three-bedroom lighthouse is especially popular with fishermen angling to catch a brown trout or Chinook salmon. Rates start at $225 per night in the early season (April through Memorial Day) and $375 per night in the prime tourism season (June through mid-November).