Combining history and mystery, lighthouses offer excellent excuses for detours, especially along the California coast. Despite advances in technology, many are still in use. In fact, several lighthouses across the United States have been transformed into museums and hostels. Here are ten eye-catching lighthouses in and around the San Francisco Bay Area that are particularly worth a visit.
1. Point Bonita Lighthouse
To help ships navigate the San Francisco Bay during the Gold Rush Era, the Point Bonita Lighthouse was built in 1855 to mark the north entrance of the Golden Gate. The structure was originally built on a 300-foot ridge above the ocean. In 1877, the lighthouse was moved from that site to a new location at a lower elevation near the tip of Point Bonita. Today, this lighthouse is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard and is open to the public Saturday through Monday afternoons. It’s reachable via a scenic half-mile trail in the Marin Headlands that culminates in a swaying bridge high above the waves.
2. Alcatraz Island Lighthouse
The active lighthouse on Alcatraz Island continues to flash its light while the former prison gets all the attention. Located at the southern end of Alcatraz Island near the entrance to the old penitentiary, the navigational tower became the first lighthouse built on the U.S. West Coast in 1854. In 1909, the original 50-foot tall lighthouse was demolished (due to damage from the 1906 earthquake), and a taller concrete tower—approximately 84 feet tall—was built near its original site. The lighthouse is still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and functions as a museum on Alcatraz Island, which welcomes over 1.5 million visitors a year.
3. Fort Point Lighthouse
The small light tower atop Fort Point is located just below the south end of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Constructed in the mid-1850s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the fort’s lighthouse was active from 1864 until 1934. It was built to protect the San Francisco Bay from naval attacks during the height of the Gold Rush, but ultimately, the fort never saw battle. Today, the National Historic Site remains open to the public on a seasonal basis.
4. Point Reyes Lighthouse
This lighthouse sits on the tip of Point Reyes headlands, about an hour north of San Francisco. The historic light station was built in 1870 to help ships avoid a finger of land that sticks out 10 miles into the ocean. Although it hasn’t been in active service since 1975, the Point Reyes Lighthouse is now a popular attraction for visitors to the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County. As with many lighthouses, it’s in a remote spot. Once you arrive at the parking lot, it’s about a half-mile walk to the visitor center. Then there are more than 300 steps to walk down to reach the lighthouse itself. Expect wind.
5. Point Montara Lighthouse
The Point Montara Lighthouse was established in 1875 near Montara State Beach (located just north of Half Moon Bay, approximately 25 miles south of San Francisco). While the seaside lighthouse is no longer active, it does host a hostel on its grounds. The Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel offers basic bargain rooms—but the coastal setting and surrounding views are first-class.
6. Walton Lighthouse
If the Walton Lighthouse looks fresher than other 19th-century light stations, that’s because it is. This more than 40-foot tall structure in the coastal city of Santa Cruz was built in 2002. Situated about an hour south of San Francisco near Santa Cruz’s Seabright State Beach, the Walton Lighthouse itself is not open to the public, but if you look north across the water, in the distance, you’ll spot a red lighthouse that is.
7. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum Lighthouse
This redbrick lighthouse overlooking the Monterey Bay has been the home of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum for the past 30 years. It’s an apt role for the building, as the waters right outside it attract plenty of surfers to Santa Cruz. The museum is tiny but loaded with surf memorabilia, including several heavy old wooden boards. Plus, it’s free to explore.
8. Pigeon Point Lighthouse
About 50 miles south of San Francisco, the 115-foot tall Pigeon Point Light Station is among the tallest lighthouses on the West Coast. In 1853, a clipper ship named Carrier Pigeon ran aground on its maiden voyage at this location near Pescadero. After three other shipwrecks occurred near the same site, the lighthouse was built in 1872 and named in honor of the ship. Although the still-active lighthouse isn’t open to the public, Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park does offer accommodations for budget travelers at its Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel. (The cliffside area was formerly called Whale Point for the gray whales that migrate past it, so keep your eyes out for marine life-spottings or spoutings while you’re on this part of the coast.)
9. Point Arena Lighthouse
The Point Arena Lighthouse matches Pigeon Point’s for height and has the added plus that visitors can climb to the top to enjoy terrific views for a small fee (but not currently, due to coronavirus precautions). Although the landmark is around 130 miles north of San Francisco, it’s close enough that the 1906 earthquake that rocked the city also destroyed the original Mendocino County lighthouse, constructed in 1870. The rebuilt tower started up in 1908.
10. Point Pinos Lighthouse
Point Pinos Lighthouse has been used to guide ships along the Pacific coast since it was first lit in 1855. The central California landmark, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the U.S. West Coast. Located in Pacific Grove (near Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea), the Point Pinos Lighthouse features an informative museum as well as a narrow spiral staircase that lets you wind your way up to the top of the more than 40-foot tower.
This article originally appeared online in January 2017; it was updated on June 29, 2020, to include current information.
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