During the heyday of lighthouses in the late 1800s and early 1900s, close to 900 manned lighthouses dotted the shores of the United States, serving as sentinels for seafarers long before the advent of high-tech navigation. While American lighthouses have long been automated, a resurgence of interest in these historically significant beacons has made them popular stops on summer vacations. There’s no more thrilling way to discover lighthouses than to climb their towers, step-by-step, on the same staircases used by lighthouse keepers and their families a hundred years ago.
If your family loves lighthouses, consider purchasing a lighthouse passport from the United States Lighthouse Society (or pick one up at a participating lighthouse) and get it stamped each time you visit one.
1. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: Outer Banks, NC
The iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its black-and-white diagonal stripes and red base, is one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the United States. At 208 feet tall, it’s also the tallest, and it protects one of the most dangerous stretches of Atlantic coastline. The 248-step ascent to the top is said to be as strenuous as climbing a 12-story building, though there is a landing every 31 steps. Visit the keeper’s quarters and the Museum of the Sea on the lighthouse grounds to learn more about Outer Banks history. Cool fact: In 1999, the lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet inland to protect it from shoreline erosion and now stands 1,500 feet from the shore—its original distance from the sea.
2. Cana Island Lighthouse: Door County, WI
The muse of countless painters and photographers, Cana Island Lighthouse is the most famous of 10 lighthouses dotting the shores of Wisconsin’s scenic Door County on Lake Michigan. You can walk across a dry lake bed to the eight-acre island and climb 97 steps to the gallery deck to take in panoramic views of Lake Michigan. Take time to wander around the grounds and visit the oil house, keeper’s house and remnants from a shipwreck. This is a gorgeous spot for a picnic and exploring the shoreline. Cool fact: Cana Island is one of only a few remaining lighthouses in the United States whose original lens is still used as its primary navigational aid.
3. Heceta Head Lighthouse: Florence, OR
Perched on a breathtaking bluff high above the central Oregon coast, the recently renovated Heceta Head Lighthouse is one of the most beautiful and photographed lighthouses in the country. Make the half-mile hike from the parking lot to the tower, where a guide can lead you up 58 steps to the top. The lighthouse grounds are ribboned with trails leading down to the ocean, where you’ll find a picnic area, tide pools, and multitudes of seabirds flying overhead. Cool fact: Following the move from kerosene to electric power in 1940, the head lightkeeper’s house was demolished and the lumber sold for $10.
4. St. Augustine Lighthouse: St. Augustine, FL
The 219-step climb to the top of the 1874 tower rewards with a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean and the nation’s oldest city. Visitors can take a guided tour, watch traditional boat building, and view the keeper’s house and shipwreck artifacts. For kids who don’t meet the minimum height requirement of 44 inches to climb the tower, there is plenty of fun to be had. Kids can learn to tie sailor’s knots, play in a walk-in kaleidoscope to learn the science of how the lighthouse works, or be the captain of the playground ship. Cool fact: Teens and brave parents can take the “Dark of the Moon Tour” (featured on the TV show Ghost Hunters) and explore paranormal tales surrounding the lighthouse.
5. Statue of Liberty: New York City, NY
Though best known today as a symbol of freedom, the Mother of Exiles was originally intended to function as a lighthouse in New York Harbor. Trouble was, the light from her famous torch was nearly invisible at night, causing one newspaper to quip that it was “more like a glowworm than a beacon.” Even so, the statue became a landmark for immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, and her presence quickly took on a whole new significance. Liberty Island will reopen on July 4, 2013, after suffering extensive damage during Hurricane Sandy. Reservations are essential to climb to the crown, where you can gaze at the New York skyline through 25 windows. Cool fact: Unlike conventional lighthouses, the Statue of Liberty has two staircases—one for ascending and the other for descending, with two rest platforms in either direction.
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