Few things are so symbolic as the lighthouse. Perched high above rocky shores, they area as demonstrative of human ingenuity as they are an inseparable feature of the terrain they signal, and a hallmark of time and place gone by. Their heyday has mostly come and gone, but fortunately for us, these maritime fortresses have been preserved for their historic and aesthetic value. As outdoor destinations, lighthouses offer a unique alternative to fire lookouts, rich with the atmosphere of the past. Hike along the bluffs and beaches of the West Coast and breathe in deeply the smell of salt and seaweed and the wind out of the west—rising above you is a pinnacle that once guided merchants and marine vessels safely into port. Wherever they stand, the beautiful structures stoke the imagination with images of rough sailing in heavy seas, white sails pulled taut by strong winds, and the undulating flag strung high on a mast.
No fewer than 87 lighthouses dot the West Coast from Washington to California, and many of them have been converted into museums for visitors. Here’s a rundown of some our favorites.
- Alcatraz Island is known for a more invidious history—and perhaps some exciting cinema—but the island penitentiary also boasts a lighthouse. It was the first one built on the West Coast, and it predates the military fortifications on the island that became the modern-day landmark. It is still in operation, and unfortunately it is closed to interior tours.
- Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco Bay and one of the windiest and foggiest places on the West Coast, presented a hazard to passing ships, and the Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870 to warn vessels of the danger. It has been converted to a museum and is easily accessed just a half mile from parking.
- Looking over the Marin Headlands, the Point Bonita Lighthouse gives visitors a unique perspective of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline.
- Although closed to the public, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse is very photogenic with a nearby hostel for visitors. Unfortunately, until funds for renovation can be raised, the lighthouse will remain closed, but there are numerous trails and overlooks in the 4.5-acre landmark.
- Commissioned in 1852 by Congressional decree, Point Pinos Lighthouse lights over Monterey Bay. Entrance is free, though donations are strongly recommended to keep this landmark in shape.
- In Trinidad, north of Eureka in northern California, the Trinidad Head Memorial Light offers beautiful views and a memorial for souls lost at sea.
- And where can you spend the night? Point Montara Lighthouse near Half Moon Bay.
- The Cape Meares Lighthouse north of Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge was a record-setter, and it has been open to the public as a museum since 1980. Tours are available, and the unique Octopus Tree is nearby as well.
- North of Bandon Dunes, the 40-foot Coquille River Lighthouse is open for tours between May and October.
- Douglas County maintains and operates the Umpqua River Lighthouse. Although it is still functioning, the lighthouse offers public tours and museum that integrates a history of the Coast Guard.
- Although closed to the public, and isolated on Tatoosh Island, the lighthouse at Cape Flattery is a picturesque lighthouse on the Olympic Coast. The hike includes beautiful coastal rock formations that likely motivated the lighthouse’s construction.
- Some lighthouses doggedly carry out their purpose, and Grays Harbor Light Station, along the central Washington Coast, is one of them. Visitors can climb 135 stairs for a striking view to the Pacific and a beach that, thanks to sediment deposits from Grays Harbor, is now 3,000 feet away.
- Point Wilson Lighthouse isn’t open to the public, but the views from the grounds make it more than worthwhile. Guarding the entrance to the Puget Sound at Admiralty Inlet, the lighthouse looks on to Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan in the North Cascades.
- You’ll need a ferry to get there, but the still-operating Cattle Point Lighthouse on San Juan Island is one of the most photographed in Washington.