Best Lighthouses in and Near San Francisco (and a Few More Besides)

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Best Lighthouses in and Near San Francisco (and a Few More Besides)

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Lighthouses hold a perennial appeal – standing guard over rocky shorelines and rugged seas, boldly guiding the captains who ply these waters. For nearly 300 years, the numerous California lighthouses were manned by intrepid lightkeepers, but today most are fully automated. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy them for their charm and photogenic quality. Within San Francisco and north and south of the city, there are several lighthouses to visit – and a few you can even spend the night in or next door to. Check out the best lighthouses in and near San Francisco (and a few more farther afield):
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Alcatraz Island Lighthouse
Perhaps the most iconic of San Francisco-area lighthouses is the Alcatraz Island Lighthouse. This active lighthouse continues to operate at the southern end of the island, near the entrance to the former prison. This was the first lighthouse built on the US west coast, back in 1854, approved by Congress for funding after gold was discovered in California. Fun fact: Many of th lighthouses on the west coast were actually designed and built on the east coast, then disassembled and shipped to the west coast for placement. The Alcatraz Lighthouse sustained devasting damage following the 1906 earthquake and was replaced by a taller concrete tower in 1909. The approximately 84-foot-tall tower is an operational lighthouse and museum operated by the US Coast Guard and hosts more than 1.5 million visitors annually. Reserved Alcatraz Island tours include a tour of the outside of the lighthouse.


Point Bonita Lighthouse
Another Gold Rush-era beacon, the Point Bonita Lighthouse was positioned on the north entrance of the Golden Gate in 1855 to help ships navigate the San Francisco Bay. In 1877, the lighthouse was moved to a lower spot near Point Bonita (at its higher elevation, it was usually masked by fog). Hike a half-mile trail to the Marin Headlands, then walk the swaying suspension bridge to the light, which is open to the public Saturday through Monday afternoons. While you can’t actually stay overnight on-site, there are two nearby campsites that will help extend your stay: Kirby Cove and the Bicentennial. There’s also a hostel at the Marin Headlands. For the best view of the lighthouse, go to the Bird Island Overlook.


Fort Point Lighthouse

The US Army Corps of Engineers built the small Fort Point Lighthouse below the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge in the mid-1850s. The fort was intended to protect the city from naval attacks during the Gold Rush, but it never saw action. The National Historic Site is not operational, but it is open to the public Fridays through Sundays, October through May and five days a week the rest of the year.

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Point Reyes Lighthouse
A popular destination within Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, the Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1879 to help ships navigate around the peninsula of land that sticks 10 miles out into the ocean here. It hasn’t been in service since 1975, but it makes a wonderfully scenic hike (just over a mile), with more than 300 steps down to reach the lighthouse. The Point Reyes headlands about approximately one hour north of San Francisco. You can stay here in a variety of ways, including backcountry camping, dorm-style accommodations and private rooms. There are numerous beaches, several historic structures and three visitor centers to explore, in addition to the lighthouse. Stay awhile to enjoy the dramatic view, especially on a clear day, when you might just spot migrating whales in the distance.


Point Montara
South of San Francisco, and just north of Half Moon Bay, you’ll find the Point Montara Lighthouse, dating back to 1875. The lighthouse isn’t operational anymore, but The Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel allows guests to stay in its basic, budget-friendly rooms – you can’t ask for a better deal when it comes to the coastal setting near Montara State Beach. Explore the secluded beach cove, tide pools and landscaped native plant gardens, as well as nearby Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Pillar Point Harbor and Marsh, the Devil’s Slide Coast Trail and Mount Montara.


Walton Lighthouse
Santa Cruz boasts not one, but two iconic lighthouses: Walton Lighthouse and the Santa Cruz Lighthouse and Surfing Museum. The striking white Walton light sits on a human-made jetty off Seabright Beach. It was designed and constructed in 2002 and stands more than 40 feet tall and weighs 350,000 pounds – enough to stand up against a quarter-million pounds of wave energy. Before the Walton light was built, a box light structure stood on the west jetty to protect the entrance to Santa Cruz Harbor. Fundraising efforts led to its eventual replacement by the Walton Lighthouse, something more modern and elegant. It’s not open to the public, but it’s a great photo op.


Santa Cruz Lighthouse and Surfing Museum
California’s first surfing museum is set in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse at Lighthouse Field State Beach, also known as Point Santa Cruz. Stroll along the three-mile West Cliff Drive for great views and a peek at the sea lions lounging on the rocks – brilliant butterflies and birds, including the Black Swift, are always fluttering about, as well. Then check out the lighthouse museum, with its interesting display of photographs, surfboards and other artifacts covering 100 years of local surfing lore.

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Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Take a day trip 50 miles south of San Francisco to the 115-foot-tall Pigeon Point Light Station, one of the tallest lighthouses on the west coast. Several shipwrecks occurred at this location, near Pescadero, including the lighthouse’s namesake, the Carrier Pigeon, in 1853. After three more ships met their demise, the lighthouse was built in 1872. It’s still active, but not open to the public. However, you can stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel in a private room or a dorm-style bunk or stay at the campsite. Sign up for a half-hour guided history tour around the grounds. As you explore (or soak in the guest-only hot tub), keep an eye out for the gray whales that migrate past the point, as well as pelicans and Pacific harbor seals. And don’t miss the only mainland breeding colony of the Northern Elephant Seal at the nearby Ano Nuevo State Reserve. Looking for a hike? Check out Wilbur’s Watch Trail in the Peninsula Open Trust that brings you to some impressive vistas.


Point Arena Lighthouse
As tall as the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, the Point Arena Lighthouse has the added bonus of public access to the top. You’ll get a great view from this landmark – 130 miles north of San Francisco. Explore the Point Arena Light Station Indoor Museum in the historic Fog Signal Building and its fascinating array of information on both the lighthouse and the local area. While you’re here, keep an eye on the horizon for the northerly migrating gray whale moms and calves. There are 23 acres of oceanfront ground to traipse through, as well as a harbor seal rookery and Shell Beach. If you choose to stay at the lighthouse, you’ll be welcomed with local wine and chocolates and a guided hike. Want more? Check out Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, Bowling Ball Beach and the Point Arena B. Bryan wildlife preserve.


Point Pinos Lighthouse
Originally intended to be the first lighthouse built on the California coast, the Point Pinos beacon was met with delays and was therefore eclipsed by the Alcatraz light. It was eventually built and lit in 1855 and has been guiding ships ever since – in fact, it’s the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the US west coast. Visit it in Pacific Grove – near Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea) and climb its narrow spiral staircase for great views from the top.

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East Brother Light Station
Visit and perhaps stay at the Victorian-style East Brother Light Station, northeast of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It sits by itself on an island in the bay, resulting in one of the prettiest skylines around. Take the 10-minute boat ride from Point San Pablo Harbor in Richmond to visit. The light sits atop the Victoria house, which itself operates as a bed-and-breakfast Thursday through Sunday night. You’ll be rewarded for your effort to get here with champagne and hors d’oeuvres upon arrival, a communal four-course dinner with wine and a full gourmet breakfast. Your stay also includes a history tour and demonstration of the 80-year-old foghorn.


Point Cabrillo Light Station
With two larger houses and two small cottages available for overnight stays, Point Cabrillo Light Station just might be your hotel of choice on the Mendocino coast. Set in a 270-acre California State Historic Park, the 30-acre 1909 light station presides over coastal bluffs and prairie land. Look for Frolic Cove, named for the ship that wrecked here, harbor seals lounging offshore, sea lions in the water, whales (December to April) and plenty of seabirds. Check out the lighthouse museum and the Marine Science Exhibit. There are several hiking trails within the park, including the main Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail, which brings you to the Lighthouse, 1st Assistant Lightkeeper’s House and the Marine Science Exhibit.


Yerba Buena Lighthouse
The best way to see the Yerba Buena Lighthouse is from the water, so hop on a boat tour. The 25-foot-tall lighthouse sits on a US Coast Guard island between the two spans of the Bay Bridge. The lighthouse was built in 1874 to help passenger boats and ferries navigate between Oakland and San Francisco. After the Bay Bridge was constructed, the light remained operational to aid with the increased shipping traffic in the area. No public access is permitted to the now fully automated lighthouse.


More California Lighthouses Worth Visiting


Battery Point Lighthouse

Earthquakes and tidal waves haven’t stopped Battery Point Lighthouse. It’s a house with a light on it, yes, but although it doesn’t have the typical tower shape, Battery Point is as adorable as they come. Look for it off the Redwood Highway in Crescent City in Northern California. It’s only accessible during low tide.
Point Sur Lighthouse
Dating back to 1889, Point Sur Lighthouse is located on a steep sandstone island. A military airship, the massive USS Macon, wrecked and sank off the coast in 1935. Look for the Point Sur Lighthouse off Highway 1 south of the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur.


Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
The main draw at Piedras Blancas in San Luis Obispo County is the colony of resident elephant seals who hang out on the beach. The lighthouse, named for the white rock outcrop at the tip of the point, no longer has its light atop it, but you’ll notice the tower if you’re driving between Carmel and Morro Bay on Highway One. Check out the original fresnel lens on display on Main Street in nearby Cambria. Guided tours are available.


Point Vicente Lighthouse
One of the state’s newer lighthouses, Point Vicente has played a role in several Hollywood movies and television shows. Set on the Los Angeles Palos Verdes Peninsula, this photogenic lighthouse is open for public tours the second Saturday of each month.


Point Fermin Lighthouse
This pretty lighthouse, where the light is part of the keeper’s quarters, is in San Pedro south of Los Angeles. There are afternoon guided tours every day except Monday.


Old Point Loma Lighthouse/New Point Loma Lighthouse
Built a little too high to be useful – it was often obscured by fog – the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was in use for 36 years before being replaced by, you guessed it, the New Point Loma Lighthouse. Visit the old structure at the highest point on the hill for its incredible views of San Diego and to get a peek inside. The new light house was built in 1891 and while not as pretty as the old one, it’s certainly more visible and useful to passing ships. There are great tide pools on the Pacific side of the peninsula.


Offshore Lighthouses
While you can’t get out to these, they make for fun binocular viewing – St. George Reef, off the coast north of Crescent City, and Mile Rocks, off the Lands End Viewpoint in San Francisco’s portion of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

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