Lighthouses are built to provide a critical service to mariners: to warn them about dangerous shallows and perilous rocky coasts. As coastal weather can often be foggy and disorienting, their brightly colored exteriors and spinning light serve as an early warning to nearby vessels. Plus, their shining lights are beacons that help to guide ships safely into and out of harbors.
However, in addition to serving a key functional purpose, lighthouses have captured people’s imaginations. It’s partially because lighthouses are seen as gatekeepers between the ocean and the mainland, but it’s also due to the fact that they’re often located in stunning locations along rugged coastlines.
If you love the mystique of lighthouses, there are numerous lighthouses dotting the East Coast, starting in Maine and continuing down the coastline to Florida. You can visit them individually or begin in Maine and embark on an epic East Coast lighthouse road trip. Either way, it’s well worth taking some time to experience the lighthouses and communities along the coast. To help with your trip planning, we’ve rounded up a list of the most iconic lighthouses on the East Coast.
The general coastline of Maine is only 228 miles, but the tide coastline — which includes bays and inlets — covers 3,478 miles. Maine has the fourth largest coastline in the United States and has 65 historic lighthouses along its shores. Below are four lighthouses that we highly recommend visiting.
West Quoddy Head Lighthouse is a notable landmark because it’s the first lighthouse to see the sunrise every morning in the United States. The lighthouse is located in Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point in the contiguous United States. In addition, the lighthouse is surrounded by spectacular hiking trails and some cliffs with vistas, setting up stunning views of the bay. Also, the Canadian border to New Brunswick is only minutes away, so you can take an international detour if you bring your passport.
Portland Head Lighthouse is Maine’s oldest lighthouse, dating back to 1791 when George Washington commissioned it. The lighthouse sits at the entrance to Casco Bay, a historically significant shipping channel, and is located inside Fort Williams Park. Fort Williams Park contains over 90 acres of recreational space and plenty of room to explore the coastline, have a picnic, and fly kites.
Cape Neddick Lighthouse Is commonly referred to as Nubble Lighthouse. Congress appreciated funds in 1874 to build the lighthouse, and it has been guiding ships since construction was complete in 1879. It’s one of the few lighthouses in operation still using its Fresnel lens. It puts out a flashing red light visible for 13 miles and sits on the rocky island of Nubble, just off-shore from Cape Neddick Point, located on the north end of Long Sands Beach in the village of York Beach. You can view the lighthouse from the mainland via a telescope located in Sohier Park. An image of the lighthouse was included on the Voyager Golden Record carried by the Voyager spacecraft as an example of a prominent man-made structure.
Whaleback Lighthouse is located on the border between Maine and New Hampshire. It’s a sturdy stone structure that seems to stand alone at the mouth of the Piscataqua River and was built to protect Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s harbor. You’ll find the best views of the all-brick lighthouse from Fort Foster Park, as it sits just off the coast of Kittery, Maine.
New Hampshire has a short shoreline, so it doesn’t have as many lighthouses as other East Coast states. However, it still has a few standout lighthouses that are well worth the visit.
Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse hosts numerous open houses throughout the year, allowing visitors to climb into the lantern room and enjoy views of the harbor. It’s located on the island of New Castle at the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor, inside Fort Constitution in New Castle. It was established before the American Revolution in 1771, and the tower that still stands today was built in 1878.
White Island Lighthouse — also known as the Isles of Shoals Lighthouse — is located on the Isles of Shoals, a small group of nine islands that sit about six miles off the Atlantic coast. They border the space between New Hampshire and Maine. You would have to take a cruise or boat ride to see this lighthouse, but it’s definitely worth the ride to see it. It’s a conical tower with white and black markings. In 2008, one of the first VLB-44 LED light units was installed in the lighthouse.
Take a lighthouse tour in Cape Cod, where you’ll find these five lighthouses within 50 miles of one another, listed in order from the southern end to the northern tip.
Chatham Lighthouse is located at an active Coast Guard station, so while you can’t go inside, you can still admire its natural beauty from the beach. It’s one of the few lighthouses in the United States that still operates 24-hours a day. The lighthouse initially contained two towers, although only one tower stands today. As the name suggests, it’s located in Chatham, on the southeastern tip of Cape Cod.
Nauset Lighthouse is the lighthouse pictured on the Cape Cod potato chip bag. Volunteer guides provide free tours, and surprisingly it’s still a functional lighthouse. Additionally, a U.S. Coast Guard station is located at the lighthouse, where search and rescue missions are still carried out. You can visit Chatham Lighthouse Beach, Harding Beach, or Ridgevale Beach, all within a short driving distance of the Nauset Lighthouse.
Highland Lighthouse was the first lighthouse that sailors could see when they finally reached this side of the Atlantic Ocean, located in North Truro. The oldest and tallest lighthouse on the Cape, it’s surrounded by beautiful beaches and a golf course. The lighthouse sits 450 feet west of its original location — it was moved in 1996 due to beach erosion of the cliff where it was originally located.
Race Point Lighthouse allows visitors to book a night in one of three bedrooms, complete with a well-equipped kitchen, lounge, back porch, and gas BBQ. However, unless you have a beach permit, be prepared to hike two miles in the sand each way to get to the lighthouse. To reach the Race Point Lighthouse, you have to engage in a 45-minute walk over sand. It’s located near Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Be sure to visit Herring Cove Beach, take a bike ride on Cape Cod Provinceland Trail, and check out local shopping at MacMillan Pier.
Wood End Lighthouse is about an hour and a half from Provincetown. To reach the lighthouse, you have to hike out to the location and cross the jetty. Wear good shoes that can endure sand and slippery rocks, and make sure you begin your trek at low tide. There are also boat rides and ferry services that can get you to the lighthouse. There are no other structures nearby such as Wood End Lighthouse, standing on its own and keeping ships safe.
The ocean state may not be that big, but it has 21 functioning lighthouses along its shore and even more inactive lighthouses. That being said, check out these three lighthouses next time you’re in Rhode Island.
Beavertail Lighthouse is one of the most accessible lighthouses located on the southern tip of Conanicut Island in Beavertail State Park. The grounds are open to the public, and there’s a museum in the keeper’s house. The tower is open with limited availability to the public. From Beavertail Light, you can see Castle Hill Lighthouse, Point Judith Light, and Rose Island Light, guiding ships through Narragansett Bay.
Ida Lewis Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in the United States named after a person. Ida Lewis took over as innkeeper when she was 15 years old after her father suffered a stroke. At that time, the lighthouse was known as the Lime Rock Lighthouse. Ida rescued 18 people from the Newport Harbor shores — the area that the lighthouse protects — and at one time was heralded as the Bravest Women in America by the press. You can view the lighthouse from Stone Pier at King Park and check out the original Fresnel lens in the Museum of Newport History.
South East Lighthouse was recognized as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1997 for being one of the most architecturally sophisticated lighthouses built in the U.S. during the 19th Century. Standing guard over Block Island, it was the scene of 59 shipwrecks in the early 1800s and is rumored to be haunted. It sits atop the Mohegan Bluffs, a beautiful natural setting that happens to be eroding. The lighthouse was moved back 300 feet in the 1990s to preserve it. As a landmark filled with nautical history, this lighthouse is sure to impress.
There are 14 active lighthouses in Connecticut. Two lighthouses are privately run, and six are standing but not actively working. The lighthouses in Connecticut are frequently photographed due to their stunning nature.
New London Ledge Lighthouse is located at New London’s Harbor entrance and can be seen by boat. It looks like a floating red house sitting at the entrance to the harbor, surrounded by water. It’s one of the most unique lighthouse structures in the United States. According to local lore, the lighthouse is haunted by the ghost of Ernie, an early keeper who perished while tending the lighthouse. The lighthouse has been featured on Scariest Places on Earth and Ghost Hunters.
Stonington Harbor Lighthouse is located on the east side of Stonington Harbor. It was built in 1840 and was the first lighthouse in the United States to be turned into a museum back in 1927. It’s an excellent example of a 19th Century stone lighthouse. It has not been used to guide ships since 1889 when the Stonington Breakwater Light was added further out in the harbor, now serving as a local history museum.
Penfield Reef Lighthouse protects mariners from running into the Penfield Reef, known to mariners as the Blue Line Graveyard, due to multiple Blue Line barges becoming grounded on the reef. You can see the lighthouse from the shores of both Fairfield and Bridgeport, although if you want the best view of it, then we recommend hopping on a boat.
Sheffield Island Lighthouse is located on Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to taking in all that the lighthouse offers, there are many beaches and spaces to hang out around the lighthouse in the refuge, which is a popular summer destination. Sheffield Island is the largest of the sixteen Norwalk Islands, just off the coast of Norwalk, Connecticut. Seasonal caretakers live at the station in the summer and open the lighthouse for tours.
New York City gets so much attention It’s easy to forget that the state of New York has miles of shoreline that are protected by dozens of lighthouses. There are both historic and active lighthouses all along New York’s shoreline you can visit.
Tibbetts Point Lighthouse is located where Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River intersect at Tibbetts Point. The lighthouse tower was originally built in 1827, then replaced with a circular tower in 1854 – when a Fresnel lens was also installed – which still stands today. If you want to check out this lighthouse, we highly recommend hopping on a bike at Cape Vincent and cycling out to the lighthouse grounds.
Montauk Point Lighthouse on Montauk, Long Island, was authorized by the second congress, under the authority of President George Washington in 1792. It’s the oldest lighthouse in the state and is located where the Block Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean. It has a distinctive design, a black top, and layers of white and red on the tower itself. While you are in the area, get out on the water. There are numerous leisure cruises and sports fishing charters in the area.
Saugerties Lighthouse is located along the Hudson River, on the Ruth Reynolds Gult Natural Preserve in Saugerties. The lighthouse is currently a bed and breakfast where guests can stay overnight. The lighthouse has a cupola design, with the tower coming up from the center of the house. It was built on a man-made island of stone fill and wood cribbing.
National Lighthouse Museum, on the other hand, may not be a lighthouse, but it’s worth visiting when you’re in New York City. It has 180 different lighthouse models, making it a great place to learn about how various lighthouses work and function.
New Jersey may be small, but it has 18 lighthouses on its shores. There are 11 lighthouses open to the public, and since they’re located in some stunning areas of the state, they’re well worth making the trip.
Absecon Lighthouse stands out in front of the rest with its yellow and black color scheme and statuesque 171-foot tower. It’s the only lighthouse in New Jersey that still uses the original first-order Fresnel lens, protecting mariners from the dangerous shoals of Absecon and Brigantine since 1857. It’s located in the north end of Atlantic City, where there are lots of word-class restaurants, epic nightlight, and casinos to enjoy.
Cape May Lighthouse is located on the state’s southernmost tip and inside Cape May Point State Park. The park contains hiking trails, picnic areas, and many bird-watching opportunities. It’s a distinctive and tall cream-colored tower with a fading red top. It has a unique double-wall structure built to withstand hurricane-force winds.
Barnegat Lighthouse State Park is located on the northern tip of Long Beach Island and dates back to 1857. The lighthouse offers incredible views from the top if you’re willing to climb the 217-winding staircase of Old Barney. You can see Island Beach, Barnegat Bay, and Long Beach Island from the top of the lighthouse. The park also has a maritime forest, perfect for bird watching. You can cool off by sticking your feet in the tidal pools.
Twin Lights of Navesink is a unique lighthouse. It has a twin tower design and looks more like a medieval fortress than a traditional lighthouse. The lighthouse was the first to use the Fresnel lens in the United States. In 1989, it was the first electrically lit lighthouse in the country. It’s located in Highlands, New Jersey, which was a vital strategic site for the British and Colonial armies during the American Revolution. Enjoy the small-town charm while visiting the farmer market at Huddy Park every Saturday from early summer to the end of fall, or grab a meal at one of the many restaurants with a view of the water, such as Inlet Cafe and Bahr’s Landing.
Cape May Lighthouse is located on the tip of Cape May and is easy to see from the Cape May Lewes Ferry. Best of all, you can tour this lighthouse during your visit. Give yourself some time to hike the Cape May Point State Park trails and visit the Cape May Bird Observatory. Grab some seafood at Quincy’s Original Lobster Rolls, or be sure to grab a drink at the Ugly Mug.
Delaware has 22 beautiful lighthouses along the coastline. If you want to check out multiple lighthouses in one area, you’ll want to visit the five lighthouses around Delaware Bay, known as the traffic lights of the sea.
Brandywine Shoal Lighthouse is located in the middle of the Delaware Bay and was the last lighthouse in Delaware with an on-site light keeper. It sits on a concrete superstructure and looks like part of a big ship rising up from the water. When it was completed in 1850, it became the first screw-pile lighthouse in the United States.
Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse is located inside Cape Henlopen on the southern side of the bay, and its foghorn was famous for blaring for hours on end. It’s located near the town of Lewes, where you can enjoy Cape Henlopen State Park, where swimming, fishing, surfing, and biking are popular, and there are campsites if you want to spend a night under the stars by the ocean.
Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse is located right outside Lewes, Delaware. It sits out on the southeast end of the outer breakwater at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. In 1926 the current cast-iron structure was built, and although it looks a little rusty, it still helps guide ships through the area. It has a white conical tower with a black lantern.
Miah Maull Shoal Lighthouse is made from cast iron and was initially painted brown. Since 1940 it’s been painted red, making it stand out on its perch offshore in the shipping channel on the northside of Delaware Bay. It’s only accessible by ship, as it’s located in the middle of Delaware Bay, although you might be able to see it from shore on a clear day.
There are over two dozen lighthouses in Maryland, and many of them are still active. So while you have plenty of options to choose from, we’ve listed our top three choices below.
Cover Point Lighthouse has an iconic white structure with red trim. You can tour this lighthouse and even rent out the keeper’s quarters for a more authentic experience. It’s one of the oldest continuously working lighthouses in Maryland and is located in Lusby. Be sure to visit Calvert Cliffs State Park, Flag Ponds Nature Park, and Solomons Island Winery while in the area.
Concord Point Lighthouse is the second oldest lighthouse in Maryland. It’s a classic white lighthouse that guided sailors through the Upper Chesapeake Bay until 1975. The lighthouse has been fully restored, and you can visit both the lighthouse and the keeper’s house during the weekends from April to October. It’s located in Havre de Grace, the gateway to the Chesapeake Bay. Visit one of the many antique shops in the area, hit the links at Bulle Rock Golf Club, and take a stroll on the Promenade while shopping and dining.
Cove Point Lighthouse is an active lighthouse located in one of the narrowest parts of Chesapeake Bay. Visitors can rent the inn keeper’s house, which fits up to 16 guests. The Cove Point Lighthouse was automated in 1986, eliminating the need for an on-site innkeeper. It’s Chesapeake Bay’s oldest operating lighthouse, so it’s well worth the trip to see this historic landmark.
Virginia only has nine active lighthouses, but that doesn’t mean you should skip this state. The lighthouses in this state are very picturesque.
Assateague Island Lighthouse is located right off the coast of Virginia on Assateague Island, and the light is still used as a navigational aid. You can ride out to the lighthouse and climb to the top. It’s one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the state, and it stands out with its red and white stripe design. You can also take a cruise or kayak trip and explore both Assateague Island and neighboring Chincoteague Island. It was built in 1883 and is still active today.
Cape Henry Lighthouse is located in Fort Story – near Virginia Beach and Norfolk – at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay. It has a distinctive white and black vertical striped design which stands out against the natural landscape and is accessible by land. While in the area, be sure to stop by Virginia Beach Boardwalk and dip your toes in the water at Virginia Beach.
You can find seven lighthouses located in North Carolina from the Outer Banks to the Brunswick Islands. So if you decide to see some of the lighthouses in the state, be sure to check out the two listed below.
Roanoke River Lighthouse stands out, in part because it’s located near the Lost Colony of Roanoke in Edenton, North Carolina. The current lighthouse is a replica of the original and sits along the Roanoke River. The local maritime museum – located right across the street – also has information about this historically significant port city, so be sure to stop by while you’re there.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located on one of the most hazardous areas of the Atlantic Coast due to how the Gulf Stream connects with the Virginia Drift. The area the lighthouse protects is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The lighthouse is painted in a distinctive black and white candy cane pattern to stand out to mariners. It’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, standing just under 200 feet tall.
There are eleven lighthouses in South Carolina — however, only two are still functional, and the U.S. Coast Guard runs them.
Hunting Island Lighthouse is the only publicly accessible lighthouse in South Carolina, with the admission of only $2. You can climb all 167 steps and stroll around the observation deck for great views of Hunting Island and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s made from brick and has a cast-iron shell with a black top and a white bottom, giving it a very distinctive look.
Harbor Town Lighthouse and Museum is located on the famous Hilton Head Island. The lighthouse’s iconic red and white candy-cane design makes it one you must see. You can see all the Lowcountry areas from the top of the lighthouse. The museum is full of information from various historical periods, and there’s lots of shopping nearby. You have to go over a bridge to get to Hilton Head Island. While on the island, check out the 12 miles of beautiful beaches, and enjoy endless paved bike trails, fishing charters, and dolphin cruises. When you are ready to eat, head over to Harbour Town, where there are numerous dining options.
There are five lighthouses in total along Georgia’s coastline, but only three that you can visit and tour, so we’ve outlined those options for you in the list below.
Cockspur Island Lighthouse is located on the south channel of the Savannah River. Its tall white structure stands out against the blue sea all around it. Due to the challenges of accessing the lighthouse, It’s currently not open to the lighthouse. However, you can view the lighthouse by hiking the 1.5-mile out-and-back Lighthouse Trail inside Fort Pulaski National Park. Or you can take a kayak out on the water and see it up-close.
Tybee Island Lighthouse is one of the few surviving colonial-era lighthouses in Georgia. It’s the oldest and tallest lighthouse in the state, standing at 145 feet tall. It’s open every day of the week except for Tuesdays throughout the year, and you can climb all 178 steps to the top of the lighthouse to take in the breathtaking views. It’s one of the most intact historic lighthouses in the United States. Grab some seafood at the Crab Shack or Sting Ray’s Seafood in Tybee Island.
St. Simon’s Island Lighthouse was originally constructed in 1810 and still uses a Fresnel lens to help guide ships to safety. You can climb the 129 steps to the top of the lighthouse and visit the Keeper’s Dwelling, which is a Victorian structure located nearby. St. Simon’s Island is a beautiful place to visit, with beautiful beaches, golfing, and fishing opportunities.
In a state with so much shoreline and potential hazards, there are still 30 active lighthouses that help guide ships around the shores of Florida. So while you may not want to visit them all during your trip to Florida, below are the top two that deserve your time and attention.
St. Augustine Lighthouse offers a fantastic view of the city of St. Augustine, Matanzas Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. The Spaniards built the first lighthouse in the late 1500s to protect their settlement. The current lighthouse was built in 1874. You can sign up for multiple tours, including sunset and moonrise tours that allow you to see the sunset and the moon rise from the top of the lighthouse while enjoying drinks and appetizers.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is located near Smyrna Beach and is the tallest lighthouse in Florida at 175 feet. The lighthouse has a distinctive red and granite design, making it a must-see site if you’re in the area. It’s located just ten miles south of world-famous Daytona Beach, where you can lay on the beach, enjoy a dinner charter, or see a race at Daytona International Speedway.
Whether you decide to visit just one of these iconic lighthouses or try to see them all, you need a place to stay. You can find the perfect vacation accommodations while taking in all the iconic east-coast lighthouses at VacationRenter.