Lighthouses on Cape Cod have a storied history of guiding mariners across the cape’s jagged coastline and into safe harbor. From the days of the earliest explorers and colonial settlers, ships have wrecked along the hidden sandbars from Chatham to Provincetown at regular frequency. Along with the several manned lifesaving stations along the beaches, the lighthouses served to keep sailors alive, letting ship captains know their whereabouts as they traversed the perilous coastline prior to opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914.
Lighthouses from Bourne to Provincetown
In total, there are 14 lighthouses standing on Cape Cod today. They are a mix of active navigational beacons maintained by the US Coast Guard, privately owned towers that have been left in trust to non-profit organizations, and strictly private residences. Some can be visited easily with minimal walking involved, while others require a long hike or boat ride. Still, some are simply inaccessible except from a distance due to the private nature of their ownership. But no matter where you are visiting on Cape Cod, there will be a lighthouse that you can enjoy with a picnic, a stroll on a nearby beach, and a few selfies with an impressive lighthouse tower in the background.
In 2021, while you may still enjoy the outdoor grounds of many lighthouses, interior tours have ceased until further notice due to COVID-19 precautions.
Nobska Light, Falmouth/Woods Hole
This is one of the most picturesque lighthouses on Cape Cod. The property sits atop a small bluff at the shoulder of Cape Cod with the island of Martha’s Vineyard offshore. The lighthouse was constructed in 1826 and like many early lighthouses, consisted of a keepers house with a lantern room protruding from the roof of the home. Half a century later, in 1876, the current tower was erected, providing a more powerful light signal to mariners. The tower stands 42 feet tall.
While many of Cape Cod’s lighthouses were decommissioned in the early 20th century, Nobska light continued operation with an active lightkeeper until 1973, at which time it was automated and placed under the care of the US Coast Guard. For some time thereafter, the light keeper’s house served as the residence of the commanding officer of USCG Group Woods Hole, later termed USCG Sector Southwest New England. In 2012, it was determined that the property required significant repairs and ceased to function as a residence. In 2015, Nobska Light was licensed to the town of Falmouth and managed by a newly formed non-profit organization, The Friends of Nobska Light. Under their management and fundraising, the property has undergone extensive repairs and the keeper’s house is being refurbished as a maritime museum.
Nobska Light is a great point of interest to visit when in Falmouth. There are small (about 5-6) parking spaces located at the base of the tower, so it is good for those with difficulty walking long distances.
Wings Neck Light, Bourne
Originally constructed in 1849 to guide ships into the ports in Wareham and West Sandwich, it became even more important after the opening of the Cape Cod Canal, which drew heavy shipping traffic as vessels traveled between New York and Boston. By the mid-20th century, the lighthouse was facing obsolescence and was eventually sold in 1947, when it became a private residence for the next 50+ years. Today, Wing’s Neck Light is rentable through AirBnb for weekly stays in the summer, and for three-night minimum stays in the off-season. For a few thousand dollars, you could have this property all to yourself for an incredible summer vacation.
Cleveland Ledge Light
Generally, the only folks that visit this lighthouse are boaters. Located 2.5-miles offshore in Buzzard’s Bay, this is not only Cape Cod’s newest lighthouse, but also the newest on the east coast with construction being completed in 1943.
The beacon served to guide large ships through the channel and into the southern entrance of the Cape Cod Canal. It is constructed atop a massive concrete cylinder 52-feet in diameter and includes a two-story keeper’s house with a 50-foot light tower at its center. The station was manned by the US Coast Guard from its beginning until 1978 when it was automated.
The entire structure is built on top of Cleveland Ledge, a 20-foot deep shoal that was originally known as Pocasset Ledge. It is named after Grover Cleveland, the nation’s 22nd and 24th President and the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms. Cleveland purchased a home on Buzzard’s Bay in 1890, called it Gray Gables, and used it as the summer White House during his second term. He would frequent Pocasset Ledge on fishing trips while in the area.
Today, the lighthouse is privately owned but remains an aid to navigation. While some other private lighthouses serve as summer homes for their owners, Cleveland Ledge Light would make for a poor vacation spot. The upkeep and maintenance would be incredibly expensive, and the foghorn that blasts once every 15 seconds would be quite inhospitable.
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Sandy Neck Light
Sandy Neck is a spit of land that projects six miles from its origin near the town line between Sandwich and Barnstable. With Cape Cod Bay on its northern side and Barnstable Harbor to its south, it is a popular location for beachgoers, boaters, hikers, and even allows permitted off-road vehicles to access its miles of beachfront. The lighthouse, located at the neck’s eastern point, was constructed in 1826 to guide vessels into Barnstable Harbor. Of course, the weather at most coastal locations can ruthless, and Sandy Neck was no exception. The original tower was replaced in 1857 with the 48-foot, brick tower that is present today, while the keeper’s home was replaced around 1880 due to conditions that were beyond repair.
Sandy Neck Light was in operation for a century, being decommissioned in 1931. The shifting sand common to Cape Cod had changed the geography and made the lighthouse too far inland from the point of Sandy Neck. A small, automated light was placed at the point to replace the lighthouse, and the head of Sandy Neck Light was lopped off in order to remove the risk of light reflecting off of the glass tower and confusing mariners. The tower would remain “headless” for 75 years.
The light is privately owned today and not open for public viewing, but you can still see it, albeit from a bit of a distance. It just takes a bit of leg power. Hikers can walk the 6-mile beachfront or the Marsh Trail that begins at the public parking area, or by fat-tire bicycle. Off-road vehicles are also allowed by permit, but even then much of the beach access is closed due to seasonal/summer restrictions due to the protection of nesting piping plovers.
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Hyannis Harbor Light
Also known as Lewis Bay Light, this small lighthouse is quite honestly, unimpressive to see. The wood-framed tower barely rises above the height of the homes that surround it. However, the light guards the inner portion of Hyannis Harbor, and to be fair, even during the time of construction in 1849, there was no need for a large tower that could be seen for miles. The light was simply meant to illuminate the harbor.
The lighthouse is best seen from the decks of the Hy-line or Steamship Authority ferries that run from Hyannis to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. However, if you are in the neighborhood, it can also be seen from a few of the restaurants on Hyannis Harbor including Baxter’s Boathouse, Spanky’s Clam Shack, and Trader Ed’s.
Stage Harbor Light
One of three lighthouses in the town of Chatham, Stage Harbor was constructed in 1880, being one of Cape Cod’s newest lighthouses, and was in service for a short 53 years. It was constructed in order to mark an anchorage area that was used by mariners in low visibility. Captains would hold their vessels at a known deepwater point in the fog, hence the name Stage Harbor. Once the fog lifted, the vessels would continue around Monomoy Point and sail north to Boston and other trading ports.
The lighthouse was deactivated in 1933, being replaced by an automated tower nearby. At the time it was taken out of service, the head of the tower was removed to avoid light reflections on the glass that could confuse sailors. Today, the property is privately owned, but you can still view it from Harding’s Beach if you are up for a hike. The lighthouse is a 0.8-mile hike from the parking lot along either the beach or sandy road.
Monomoy Point Lighthouse
Dripping off the elbow of Cape Cod are North and South Monomoy Islands. Once connected to the mainland with a small fishing village located on the sandy spit, it is now only accessible by boat owing to the constant erosion and shifting geography of Cape Cod.
Monomoy Light was constructed in 1823 to mark the boundary between Nantucket Sound and the open Atlantic Ocean. Sailors would use the light to round the corner and continue north to Boston, Maine, and Halifax, or southbound to New York. After the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914, marine traffic around Monomoy reduced significantly, and in 1923 the lighthouse was retired from official service.
The lighthouse was sold after its decommissioning and remained in private hands until it was purchased by the Audubon Society in 1964. It was renovated, then sold back to the federal government. It was renovated again in 1988 with federal grants, and then again in 2009 with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. However, despite all of this investment, it remains one of Cape Cod’s least visited lighthouses due to its remote location. It has been accessible only by boat since 1978 when a storm broke through the sand spit that connected Monomoy Point with the mainland.
Chatham Light is Cape Cod’s second oldest lighthouse, put into service in 1808. Originally, the station had two 40-foot towers to distinguish it from the Cape’s other lighthouse, Highland Light located to the north in Truro. The twin lights also served to provide a known bearing to sailors when the lights were in alignment, one on top of the other, known as a range light. However, in time it was deemed that a single tower would be sufficient and the second tower was relocated in 1923 to Eastham and became Nauset Light.
Chatham Light is still a functioning aid to navigation today, and the keeper’s house serves as an active US Coast Guard station. It is the same Coast Guard station featured in The Finest Hours, a 2016 film that details the daring rescue of the crew from the SS Pendleton that was split in two during a storm in 1952. The Coast Guard Auxillary usually conducts tours in the summer, but due to maintenance, all tours have been suspended until further notice (2020-2021 season). For more information, visit Historic Chatham’s webpage.
Knockabout Oak Bluffs Audio Tour
Take a self-paced walk through Martha’s Vineyard’s most popular town. Explore the historic gingerbread cottages, the initial rift between the religious worshippers and the commercial resort developers, where to grab the best drinks, and more. The tour includes 45 minutes of audio narration, an interactive map, and is completed in 60-90 minutes depending on your pace.
Erected in 1923 from one of the towers at Chatham Light, Nauset Light has become the most photographed lighthouse on Cape Cod. You may even get a strange feeling of deja vu when you visit. Maybe you have seen some pictures of Nauset Light before, but more likely it’s because the iconic red and white tower is featured on every bag of Cape Cod potato chips.
The tower that stands today is made of cast iron with a brick interior lining, similar to many other Cape Cod lighthouses. It stands 48 feet tall and its beam can be seen by mariners for 24 nautical miles. That’s 28 miles to the non-seafarers. Also like many other Cape Cod lighthouses, it had to be relocated due to coastal erosion. In the early 1990s, the Coast Guard proposed decommissioning the light due to its impeding toppling from the sandy cliff where it sat. Of course, there was public resistance to the move, and the Nauset Light Preservation Society was formed. The society raised the funds necessary to move the tower and keeper’s house 336 feet inland, which was completed in 1996 when the tower was a mere 37 feet from the cliff’s edge.
Nauset Light is great for all visitors. It is accessible directly from the road and requires minimal walking. In non-pandemic years, Nauset offers tours throughout the summer and shoulder seasons, but for 2021 those events are on hold.
Three Sisters Lighthouses
When Nauset light was put into service, it replaced a trio of small lighthouses that stood on the dunes and provided overwatch for the mariners off the town of Eastham. Those lighthouses were the Three Sisters and were given the name due to their white towers with black lantern tops, making them look similar to three ladies wearing white dresses with black bonnets.
The original towers were built in 1837 and made of brick. There were three of them in order to distinguish it from the single tower in Truro to the north and the two towers of Chatham Light to the south. In time, much like Chatham and Nauset lights, erosion took its toll and the Three Sisters became dangerously close to falling into the sea. The original towers were taken down in 1892 and three wooden towers constructed in their place a bit further back from the edge of the dune.
In 1911, the Three Sisters were again about to fall due to continued erosion. This time, two of the towers were decommissioned and eventually used as part of a summer cottage. The remaining tower was moved back from the cliff and with the advent of better technology, was able to flash three times in order to distinguish it from the other lights nearby. No longer were multiple towers necessary.
The last tower remained in service until replaced by Nauset light in 1923. Like its sisters, it was incorporated into a summer home for some time. In 1965, and again in 1975, the National Park Service made purchases on the sisters and moved them to a field approximately 400 meters from their original location.
The Three Sisters no longer provide any guiding light to sailors but instead stand nearby where families can visit and enjoy. The lighthouses are now part of Cape Cod National Seashore and are managed by the National Park Service. Visitors are welcome.
The distinction of Cape Cod’s first lighthouse goes to Highland Light. It was authorized by President George Washington himself and the original wooden structure was built in 1797. Of course, the elements eventually got the best of the tower and it had to be replaced in 1833, this time being constructed of brick. However, the winter weather on Cape Cod can be fiercer than the Big Bad Wolf, and even that tower did not last long. It was deemed unsafe and torn down in 1857, being replaced by the current tower that is in place today, also built with brick. It stands tall at 68-feet, making it the tallest lighthouse on Cape Cod. But this tower, too, had to be moved due to beach erosion and in 1996 it was relocated 450 feet west of its original location and planted next to the Highland Golf Course, where in short order a rogue golf ball smashed one of the windows on the tower. They are now replaced with shatter-resistant window panes.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service and the grounds are open for visitation. However, due to COVID restrictions, interior tours as well as the keeper’s house, which has been converted into a small museum and gift shop, remain closed until further notice.
Race Point Light
There are not too many lighthouses that offer overnight stays, but Race Point Light is one of them. While Wing’s Neck Light is private property and has been converted to a weekly rental vacation home with all of the modern amenities, Race Point is operated by the non-profit American Lighthouse Foundation, and the actual light tower is maintained by the US Coast Guard. Furthermore, you have to walk 45 minutes over sand to get there or secure a 4WD vehicle and an over-sand permit from the National Park Service. To say that this would be a more rustic experience would be accurate. The good news is that it is significantly cheaper and does not require a week-long stay.
Race Point Light was the third lighthouse constructed on Cape Cod, behind Highland and Chatham Lights. It was an important aid to navigation, signaling to southbound mariners the beginning of the sandy ship graveyard that was the outer coast of Cape Cod. The original tower was built in 1816 and consisted of a 25-foot tall rubble pile with a rotating beacon, which was cutting-edge technology for a lighthouse of the day. The original tower was replaced in 1876 with a cast-iron tower lined with brick, while the stone keeper’s house was replaced with a wood-framed home of a more modern and comfortable design.
Like all lighthouses, renovations continued over the generations. The station was fairly late in being supplied with electricity, getting that particular convenience in 1957. Another series of renovations in 1995 allowed Race Point Light to begin operating as a short-term inn, with overnight stays beginning in 1998. Booking a stay at Race Point is highly competitive, so ensure you have your dates picked well in advance so you can book as soon as the calendar opens.
Wood End Light
Lying just offshore along the tip of Cape Cod is Wood End Bar, a massive sandbar that has claimed many ships prior to the advent of modern navigation. Wood End Light was constructed in 1872 to protect mariners sailing into and out of the ports of Provincetown and Wellfleet. The tower is made of brick and is square in design, giving it a unique look compared to other Cape Cod lights. Although there was once a wooden keeper’s house located on the site, with disrepair and age it was decided to simply tear the building down. By the time of its razing in 1961, the tower was fully automated.
Wood End Light is not easily accessible. It takes a fairly decent walk, approximately 1 mile, across the breakwater in Provincetown to get to the lighthouse. If you plan to do this hike, go at low tide to avoid the possibility of the causeway becoming flooded. It is recommended that you are off of the causeway no later than 90 minutes prior to high tide. There is no interior access to this station and no on-site facilities. Be sure to bring water and bug spray.
Long Point Light
Located at the tip of Cape Cod, Long Point Light is the sister light to Wood End, made of the same brick construction and dimensions. Visitors will mostly come by boat or kayak, enjoying a beach day on Long Point and taking a leisurely stroll to the 35-foot tower. However, visitors can depart on foot from Provincetown and hike across the breakwater just like visiting Wood End Light. However, instead of a one-mile hike to Wood End, hikers will end up walking over 2 miles to get to Long Point. Spending some time at land’s end on Cape Cod may be something to put on the ticket list, but if you are traveling on foot, you probably can skip the extra mile and simply visit Wood End Light. They are practically identical.
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