Tour California Lighthouse Guide
When the California Gold Rush came into full swing in 1850, California and the San Francisco Bay became a magnet for tall ships delivering goods and men ready to seek their fortunes in the Hills of Gold. However, the ragged California coastline can be dangerous for mariners, with hidden shoals and submerged rocks.
California lighthouses sprung up at the most dangerous points, to preserve life and keep cargo from destruction. Beacons by night and symbols of strength, the lighthouses evolved from single lights in homeowners’ windows to fully-automated, independent structures on prominent peninsulas and sea cliffs.
The lighthouse was kept by people concerned for sailors’ safety and they also acted as visual navigation aids. Most of the lighthouse keepers were men, but a few hardy women also tended the lights. It was a hard life and the lighthouse keeper at Point Reyes once wrote: “Better to dwell in the midst of alarms than reign in this horrible place.”
Maintenance kept the light keeper busy, maintaining oil lamps throughout the night and day. When the skies became heavy with damp fog, manually rung warning bells kept the keepers around the clock. On treacherous nights, it was not unusual for a lighthouse keeper to stay awake all night to ensure that their light guided travelers safely along the ragged California coast.
Visiting California Lighthouses
The almost-300-year era of manned California lighthouses is over, but many light towers are automated and still in use today. Lighthouses no longer on active duty still remain important, adopted by non-profit organizations determined to save them. The northern California coast offers some of the oldest lighthouses in the state, while the southern California coast offers additional interesting lighthouse finds, each with a unique history. Each structure has purpose. The tall structures signal seamen great distances from the shore, while the low structures avoid fog and low visibility. Some lighthouses are freshly painted in contrasting colors making them a distinct landmark, while others are weathered and blend with the landscape and still reflect their lights brightly.
Almost 30 lighthouses still stand strong on the California coast. Just over a dozen are open to the public:
Alcatraz, San Francisco Bay
Few people know that Alcatraz was the location of the first light houses on the Pacific coast, set up long before the infamous prison was constructed. Alcatraz island was named for the birds that inhabited the island – pelicans (alcatraces in Spanish). It sits right in the middle of the San Francisco Bay shipping channel.
During the height of the Gold Rush, many ships, small and large, arrived in the northern California bay, desperately in need of a navigational aid on those all-too-frequent days when the weather turned foul. The Alcatraz Light, a Cape Cod-style cottage with a short tower, was completed in 1852, and the beacon was first lit in 1854 to guide ships through the bay. It was the first operational US lighthouse on the west coast, and it was outfitted with a third-order Fresnel lens from France.
For many years, the small tower was the only real structure on the island. It was damaged in the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt in 1909 when the prison was built. The original concrete tower was replaced by an 84-foot-tall concrete tower next to the cell house. The light was automated in 1962, and the island was added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1963.
Getting to Alcatraz Lighthouse
The Alcatraz Lighthouse is located in San Francisco Bay. To visit, take the ferry and guided tour of Alcatraz Island. Reservations are a must.
Battery Point, Humboldt County
Battery Point Light, near the Oregon border in Crescent City, was lit for the first time in 1856, long even before Spanish had any influence on the region’s architectural design. The structure has seen many changes since then, including automation in 1953 and a tidal wave that flooded the peninsula in 1964.
Battery Point, which is only accessible by foot at low tide, is now a Maritime Museum run by Del Norte County. The Cape Cod structure, made of brick and granite, provides visitors with an insight into the region’s maritime history as well as the life of a light Keeper. This 45-foot tower and attached lean-to, battered by storms and tidal waves, continues to serve as an important navigational aid for seafarers along the northern Pacific coast.
The light is said to be haunted by a ghost, who has been seen by at least six different people and heard its sea-booted feet slowly climbing the tower steps during storms.
Getting to Battery Point Lighthouse
Because access to the light is dependent on the tide, it is necessary to call ahead (707) 464-3089. Visit the Del Norte County website to learn more about visiting the Battery Point Lighthouse. Crescent City, just a few miles south of the Oregon border, is home to Battery Point. From US 101, take Front Street west, then left onto A Street.
Piedras Blancas, near Hearst Castle
Piedras Blancas is named after a white rock outcrop at the point’s tip. This location was chosen in the early 1870s to fill a gap between lights at Point Conception and Point Sur, and $70,000 was allotted for the project, but it didn’t get finished until 1875. Captain Ashley, who had overseen the construction of the lighthouse at Point Arena, was in command.
In 1949, an electric beacon replaced the old kerosene beacon. In 1975, the station was automated and unmanned, and it was closed in 1991. In 2001, the Coast Guard turned over the Piedras Blancas Light Station to the Bureau of Land Management, and it reopened for tours in 2005.
Getting to Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
The Piedras Blancas lighthouse is located at 15950 Cabrillo Highway, just north of San Simeon, on California Highway 1. Meet the tour at the old motel about 1 1/2 miles north of the light station’s entrance. The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse Fresnel lens is currently on display on Main Street in Cambria, next to the Lawn Bowling Club.
Pigeon Point, Santa Cruz
Since 1872, the 115-foot-tall Pigeon Point Lighthouse on the Pacific coast, fifty miles south of San Francisco, has served as a beacon for those at sea. Pigeon Point is California’s most photographed lighthouse and the tallest lighthouse on the Pacific Coast, resembling the twin Outer Banks of North Carolina lighthouses Bodie and Currituck.
Getting to Pigeon Point Lighthouse
During the day, the grounds are open and visible from the outside. A few days a week, docents lead history walks around the grounds. The Pigeon Point keepers’ quarters are now a Hostelling International hostel.
Point Arena, Mendocino County
The Point Arena Light, originally a masonry tower built in 1870, is situated on a narrow spit of land that juts out into a section of the cold Pacific Ocean teeming with dangerous reefs. It had two steam whistles to warn mariners of foggy days, and the boilers that powered it used up to 100 tons of wood in a foggy year.
For 36 years, the original tower faithfully guided ships until the 1906 quake in San Francisco (130 miles away) shook the entire area and destroyed a slew of structures. Point Arena Light was condemned after a disastrous fracture in the brick and mortar facility and severe damage to the once-ornate Keepers’ residence forced workers to construct a series of new structures able to withstand future earthquake tremors.
Getting to Point Arena Lighthouse
The light was automated by the US Coast Guard in 1977, and a private institution took over the landmark in 1982, creating vacation lodging, a museum, and public tours. After the 1906 earthquake, four houses were built to replace the original Keepers’ quarters and are now used as guest cottages for overnight visitors. Reservations for cottages can be made by calling 707-882-2777 or 877-725-4448, or by going online.
Point Bonita, Marin Headlands near San Francisco
The grand entrance to the Point Bonita Light is provided by a trip thru the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The journey to the lighthouse is part of what has made a visit so enjoyable; you must first descend a big incline, pass through a tunnel, and then cross a narrow suspension bridge. The view is breathtaking, and on a clear day, the Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance.
Point Bonita was unique because it was the third lighthouse built in the San Francisco Bay area (in 1855). The original tower, built separately from the residence, provided the first light keepers with a lonely existence. There were no people within five miles and no direct communication. It was so hostile that seven keepers were hired within the first nine months of the light’s operation.
The lighthouse is still open to the public; for more information on public tour times, call 415-331-1540 or visit the lighthouse website. During the summer, full moon tours are available.
Getting to Point Bonita Lighthouse
Point Bonita is a small peninsula just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Exit US Highway 101 north at Alexander Avenue or south at the last exit before the Golden Gate Bridge and follow the signs up the hill, continuing as the road becomes one-way downhill.
Point Cabrillo, Mendocino County
After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse was built to keep ships carrying lumber to the city away from the coastal shoals. On June 10, 1909, its lens was illuminated for the first time by head keeper Wilhelm Baumgartner. Many of the structures from that era are still standing today.
The restored lighthouse, the Lightkeeper’s Home and Museum, and the grounds, as well as the surrounding nature preserve, can all be toured. An exhibit about the native Pomo Indians can be found at the Farmhouse Visitor Center in the parking area.
Getting to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
The Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is situated on the Mendocino coast, two miles north of Mendocino and 6 miles south of Fort Bragg on Point Cabrillo Drive, which is off California Highway 1. From the highway, follow the signs.
Point Fermin, Los Angeles
Unlike many other lighthouses on the California coast, Point Fermin’s lighthouse is integrated into a Victorian-style house. It is one of only six lighthouses built in this style, and one of only three that are still standing (the others are East Brother in the San Francisco Bay and Hereford Light in New Jersey).
Getting to Point Fermin Lighthouse
The Point Fermin Lighthouse is located on San Pedro’s south side, just west of S. Pacific Avenue’s southern end. The tower is not accessible to children under 40 inches tall.
Point Loma, San Diego
The original Point Loma Light House, built in November 1855, is one of the original eight Cape Cod-inspired structures built along the California coast to aid sea navigation.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is the focal point of the Cabrillo National Monument, which honors Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who discovered San Diego Bay and charted the California coast.
The interior of the Cape Cod-style lighthouse has been restored to its historic 1880s appearance by the National Park Service, serving as a reminder of a bygone era. Check the visitor center for information on ranger-led lighthouse tours. An exhibit about both lighthouses can be found in the reconstructed assistant keeper’s quarters next to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
The “new” Point Loma Lighthouse, located down the hill toward the ocean from the old one, is also included in the National Monument. It is visible from the road, but it is not open for tours.
Getting to Point Loma Lighthouse
The Cabrillo National Monument website includes driving directions from all major San Diego freeways. If you’re using a GPS, enter the above address. You can take the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) bus 28 or 84C, which stop at Cabrillo National Monument every hour.
Point Montara, San Mateo County, south of San Francisco
In the mid-1800s, after numerous shipwrecks along the San Mateo coast, a foghorn was installed at Point Montara, near Moss Beach. The horn, which was first sounded in 1872, aided ships entering San Francisco Bay from the south. In 1900, a short light tower was built to work in conjunction with the fog horn to make the approach to the Golden Gate even safer. The light is still active as a navigational aid today, visible for 14 miles at sea.
The lighthouse and outbuildings from the turn of the century have been well preserved and restored. Hostelling International leases the Point Montara Lighthouse, and you can spend a night there in private or shared rooms located in the old Coast Guard quarters. There are no tours inside, but you can walk around the grounds.
Getting to Point Montara Lighthouse
The Point Montara Lighthouse is located on CA Highway 1 between Montara and Moss Beach, 25 miles south of San Francisco.
Point Pinos, Pacific Grove, near Monterey
The Point Pinos Lighthouse is the west coast’s oldest active lighthouse. The light, which was built in 1855, has never been turned off. It is located on the western end of the Monterey Peninsula and is one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the state, with its beautiful surroundings making up for the fact that its tower is less dramatic than other lighthouses along the Pacific coast.
Charles Layton, an Oxfordshire, England native, was the first keeper of the Point Pinos Lighthouse’s Cape Cod-style bungalow with a light tower jutting from the roof. He was killed in his first year as keeper while serving with a sheriff’s posse attempting to apprehend a notorious outlaw. His wife Charlotte A. Layton and their children were completely destitute as a result of the incident.
Getting to Point Pinos Lighthouse
The Point Pinos Lighthouse can be reached from CA 1 by exiting at CA 68 west and turning left onto Lighthouse Avenue, or by driving along Ocean View Blvd from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Follow Lighthouse Avenue north from downtown Pacific Grove until it intersects Asilomar Avenue.
Point Reyes, Marin County
Point Reyes Lighthouse is located in California’s foggiest area, so it had to be built at the bottom of a cliff near the water to be visible to seamen navigating through the fog and along the coast during a storm.
The Lighthouse Visitor Center, located on the west side of the Point Reyes peninsula, provides information about the 1870 structure as well as the lifesaving services provided during the 125 years it served as a navigational guide.
If you walk to the lighthouse, more than 300 steps descend in a steep descent equivalent to a three-story building, and the only way out is the same way you came in, by walking! Even when it’s warm inland, bring warm clothing to Point Reyes because it’s one of the foggiest places on the planet.
Getting to Point Reyes Lighthouse
The long, scenic drive makes the lighthouse appear far away from San Francisco Bay. It’s at the very end of Sir Francis Drake Blvd. You can reach Olema by taking US 101 north of San Francisco, then west on Sir Francis Drake, or by taking California Highway 1 north to Olema. It will take about an hour to drive out to the lighthouse from the Point Reyes National Seashore entrance.
The park closes Sir Francis Drake Blvd. past South Beach on Saturdays and Sundays when the weather is nice and runs a shuttle to the lighthouse because so many people flock to Point Reyes in the winter to see the elephant seals and whale migrations. It is usually open from December to early April. You can catch it in the Drake’s Beach parking lot, and shuttle tickets are available at the visitor center.
Point San Luis, near Pismo Beach
The Point San Luis Lighthouse is built into a Victorian-style house, similar to the Point Fermin Lighthouse near the Los Angeles Port and the East Brother Lighthouse in San Francisco Bay. The architectural style is commonly referred to as “Prairie Victorian,” and Point San Luis is one of only three lighthouses built in that style, and the only one still standing.
It is only open for guided tours and is not visible from public roads.
Visiting Point San Luis Lighthouse
To get to the Point San Luis Lighthouse, you must pass through PG&E property, and unaccompanied access is not permitted. You can take a trolley from nearby Avila Bay or join a 3.5-mile round-trip guided hike through hilly terrain. To avoid disappointment, make reservations ahead of time regardless of how you decide to travel.
If you enjoy lighthouses, you should combine a visit to San Luis with a tour of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, which is located on the coast north of Morro Bay and Hearst Castle.
The Point San Luis Lighthouse is located just north of San Luis Obispo on Avila Bay. It is located on the grounds of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and can only be reached by trolley or a docent-led walk. The details are available here, and the tours meet in Avila Bay.
Point Sur, Big Sur
Unfortunately, this intriguing piece of maritime history is only accessible during guided tours. At other times, you can only see it from the highway. While this is a light you do not want to miss, getting there can be difficult. You’ll have to walk to the top of the isolated volcanic rock (360 feet elevation gain) and maneuver two sets of stairs, the longest of which has 61 steps.
Wear durable, comfortable walking shoes and take a spare layer or two of clothing in case the weather turns cold. Leave your pets at home; they are not permitted on the tour and cannot be left in your car. And, if you’re bringing children, you’ll have to leave the stroller at home.
Ghosts at Point Sur Lighthouse
The Carmel Pine Cone newspaper reported in October 2011 that ghost hunter Julie Nantes believes the Point Sur Lighthouse is haunted – by 18 or more spirits, making it one of the top ten most haunted lighthouses in the United States.
Every October, the lighthouse hosts special Ghost Tours, which can be quite entertaining even if you don’t believe in ghosts. It’s a fundraiser with a hefty fee, and reservations are required. More information can be found on their website.
Getting to the Point Sur Light House
The Point Sur lighthouse is located on CA 1, 19 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel, at mile marker 54. How to Read a Mile Marker in California
Visitors line up on the west side of the highway, north of the gated entrance, and drive in a caravan to the base of the rock, where they park for the tour.
Point Vicente, Los Angeles
According to local legend, the Point Vicente Light Tower is sanctuary to a lady ghost who lost her lover at sea. Sceptics will tell you that the shadowy images are actually reflections from the 67-foot-tall tower’s third-order Fresnel lens.
The view from the nearby cliffs is spectacular, and the nearby park provides excellent opportunities for avid whale watchers. The powerful lens of the Point Vicente Lighthouse can be seen up to 20 miles out at sea.
Getting to the Point Vicente Lighthouse
The Point Vicente Lighthouse is located near the intersection of Hawthorne Boulevard and Palos Verdes Drive on the Palos Verdes peninsula’s southwestern tip. People must show a photo ID if they are over the age of 18.
Sleeping in a California Lighthouse
Alive with stories of days gone by, these California lighthouses afford guests a unique opportunity to live as the lighthouse keepers once did, with the roar of waves and howl of the wind lulling them to sleep.
- East Brother Light Station is now a Bed and Breakfast Inn near San Francisco.
- Pigeon Pointand Point Montara both have youth hostels in the former keeper’s quarters.
- Point Arena offers lodging in the former keeper and staff quarters
- Point Cabrillo Lighthouse provides rooms in the main keeper’s house and two other cottages, six rooms total.