The iconic shape of the classic lighthouse—tall and thin against a nearly featureless seascape—invites the viewer to wonder about the view from the top. Fortunately, many lighthouses open to the public allow visitors to climb a spiral staircase and take in the vista. Most of these climbs aren’t for the faint of heart—literally—and the interiors of lighthouses can be hot on a summer day. Parents should also be careful about bringing a small child along; some lighthouses have a minimum height requirement for youngsters, usually around 45 inches. But the visual reward after a good workout is always tremendous.
Lighthouses allowing climbs have varying operating hours, often only during the summer months. Most charge a fee ranging from $2 to $10 for climbing to the lantern or an exterior gallery. The money often supports restoration efforts by a local historical society. Some lighthouses offer guided tours; other climbs are self-guided. Be sure to call ahead to check hours and availability.
Here’s my recommended lighthouses climbs, with input from my friends on Facebook’s “Lighthouse Hunters” group. Click the links in bold to find a map and contact information.
Assateague — At 154 feet, the Assateague Lighthouse is one of the tallest on the Atlantic Coast. Located in the Assateague National Seashore in Virginia, the 1833 structure is just a five-minute drive from the community of Chincoteague. The lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it’s still an operational beacon; the light can be seen 19 miles out to sea.
Cape Hatteras — “The climb is strenuous!” That’s the description that goes with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse climb on the National Park Service’s website for the tallest lighthouse in America. The barber-pole stripes on the exterior of this 1870 beacon, located in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, echo the spiral staircase on the interior. You’ll climb 248 cast iron steps to the top, the same height as a 12-story building (200 feet).
Cape May – Marking the New Jersey side of the entrance to Delaware Bay, the 1859 Cape May Lighthouse is one of the best preserved 19th century beacons on the Atlantic Coast. You’ll climb 199 steps to reach the gallery 157 feet above ground level, and you’ll see a panoramic view of the Jersey Cape, Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean. It’s a busy place; more than 100,000 visitors a year. But the experience is well worth braving the crowds.
Currituck Beach — Lovingly restored by a local non-profit preservation society, the 1875 Currituck Beach Lighthouse features 214 steps that lead to an outdoor gallery 158 feet from the ground. During the summer, the lighthouse is open Thursdays until 8 p.m., giving visitors a chance to see the operating light shine out to sea. guiding ships and small craft along the Outer Banks.
Grays Harbor — Located in the small town of Westport, Wash., on the Pacific Ocean, the 107-foot Grays Harbor Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse in Washington state. Volunteers at the Westport Maritime Museum welcome you to climb the 135 stairs to the lantern room, where the original Fresnel lens is still installed. A modern light maintained by the Coast Guard guides vessels into Grays Harbor, which the lighthouse has guarded since 1898. (Watch a Fyddeye video tour.)
Marblehead, Ohio — At just 50 feet, the Marblehead Lighthouse on Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio is one of the shorter lighthouse climbs. On the other hand, Marblehead is one of the oldest, just 11 years shy of two centuries. And the view from the top is just as thrilling as for taller, younger structures. The tower is located in Marblehead Lighthouse State Park, and tours are offered during the summer months.
North Point — The 1888 North Point Lighthouse is a prime example of historic Wisconsin lighthouses that have comforted ship captains on Great Lakes voyages. At 74 feet, the lighthouse is an important landmark in Milwaukee’s Lake Park, adding an extra dimension to a beautiful lakefront setting designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Unlike many lighthouses, North Point’s site includes a fully restored keepers quarters.
St. Augustine — Easily one of the most popular and well-preserved lighthouses in America, the 1874 St. Augustine Lighthouse in St. Augustine, Fla., is a challenge for climbers aiming to reach the top of the 165-foot tower after 219 steps. If the climb seems daunting, the amazing museum will more than satisfy. New this year is a series of moonlight “paranormal” tours of the tower, which examine whether or not the lighthouse is haunted.
Point Vicente — One of the lesser known climbable lighthouses on California’s rugged coast is Point Vicente Lighthouse, located in Rancho Palos Verdes. The 1926 cylindrical concrete tower is just 64 feet tall, and it’s only open a few days of the year by a local Coast Guard Auxiliary. But given its proximity to Los Angeles, and the nearby interpretive center, Point Vicente is one of the most accessible to a large population of lighthouse lovers.
Updated 9/8/2011 — My friends have suggested these lighthouses as great climbs, especially for kids: Yaquina Head (Oregon), Hunting Island (South Carolina), North Head (Washington), Mukilteo (Washington), and Crisp Point (Michigan).