Five Iconic American Lighthouses to Visit this Summer

For many Americans, lighthouses have an enduring appeal. These beacons act not only as guideposts for sailors, but also as reminders of a simpler past, one without satellite navigation and advanced technology.

Are they romanticized? Definitely — and for a good reason. Gazing at any lighthouse, your mind wanders to thoughts such as ships seeking safe harbor in a storm or an independent person manning the post as its keeper.

During the summer months, viewing a lighthouse becomes magical. Whether you admire it from a boat at sea or gaze at one from the banks of one of the Great Lakes, lighthouses appear to stand even taller than usual during the summer season. But deciding which ones to visit could be a challenge — there are nearly 1,000 across the country, with around 150 in Michigan alone.

Personal tastes dictate your choices. To give you a good start, these five jewels stand out in our minds as lighthouses that reflect interesting architecture, stunning locations, and a little bit of American history.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

It’s difficult to imagine any list of top American lighthouses without a pick from a state as strongly identified with the ocean as Maine. While Maine boasts an extraordinary collection of lighthouses, the Portland Head Light, built in 1791 and one of the oldest in the country, stands out from the others. The Portland Head Light exemplifies some of the most interesting architecture of the period, located in a stunning setting.

A watercolor of this iconic lighthouse by one of the most prominent 20th century American artists, Edward Hopper, hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.



Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina

One of five lighthouses along the Outer Banks, all adorned with a unique diamond pattern, this lighthouse has stood for over a century despite the susceptibility of this coast to hurricanes.

Somehow, it’s resisted the efforts of Mother Nature, and although it was damaged during the Civil War, it has remained in place for more than 150 years.



Split Rock Lighthouse, Minnesota

High on a cliff overlooking Lake Superior, drama comes easily to this lighthouse. It may not have the history of the others — it was built just over a hundred years ago — but the elevation and the mighty body of water it oversees make it worth a visit.

Though a spectacular sight in the summer, arrive there on November 10th, and you’ll see it illuminated in memory of the 29 people who lost their lives when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a Great Lakes freighter, sank in 1975.

Want to add even more drama to your visit? Download singer Gordon Lightfoot’s song about this tragedy on your phone and play it when you visit.


Heceta Head Lighthouse, Yachats, Oregon

If your interests lie in American history, architecture, and engineering, a trip to Oregon must include this spot. Erected in 1894, The Heceta Head Lighthouse has earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for engineering and architectural excellence. A bit hard to find and located off the beaten path, you will find the extra effort necessary to visit this spot well worth it.

Located in a lush forest within a state park, the Heceta Head Lighthouse is 14 miles north of Florence, Oregon, in the coastal haven of Yachats.

The lighthouse was named for a Spanish explorer rarely mentioned in the history books, Bruno de Heceta. Bruno, best known as the first European to view the mouth of the Columbia River, rambled about in the area sometime in the late 18th century at the behest of the Viceroy of New Spain. The Viceroy tasked de Heceta with determining the extent of any British or Russian encroachment on Spain’s Pacific Coast claims in North America.

For convenience, the lighthouse offers a charming on-site bed and breakfast. Make your reservations in advance given the popularity of the inn with tourists. 


Pigeon Point Lighthouse, Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park, California

Along one of the most celebrated roads in the United States sits one of the nation’s tallest lighthouses. Situated right alongside scenic Highway One between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse reaches 115 feet skyward.

Located within a state park, this spot has had several names appended to it over the years. Originally called Punta de las Balenas — “whale point” — the area was rechristened Pigeon Point after a famous mid-19th-century shipwreck when a boat named the Carrier Pigeon sunk near there in 1853, just off Half Moon Bay.
The restoration of this lighthouse includes transforming the original keeper’s quarters into a truly unique hostel. If you’re a photography buff, you may want to delay visiting this lighthouse until late fall. For one night in November, the lighthouse ignites all 24 beams, providing photographers the opportunity to capture long-exposure pictures.

See the Country’s Best

Lighthouses shine brightly in the history of the United States. Include a few or any of the other great beacons of America as part of your summer travel plans.