Last updated on September 26th, 2021 at 09:06 pm
From one tip of Florida to the other, the coast is studded with historic structures located in spectacular sites – Florida’s 30 lighthouses.
No traveler will see them all on one trip, but even one lighthouse visit can give you postcard-like views and a memorable experience.
About 10 Florida lighthouses are open to visitors on a regular basis; another few are open periodically.
Others are located in remote locations – built into a reef in open water, accessible only by boat, or located on an island miles from the mainland.
Which Florida lighthouses can I climb?
The most visited Florida lighthouses are Ponce Inlet, St. Augustine, Pensacola, Jupiter, and Key West, according to Josh Liller, historian for the Florida Lighthouse Association and historian and collections manager for the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum.
Each of these lighthouses is located in a much-visited region and each lighthouse can be climbed for a spectacular view of its coastal community. There are good reasons to visit each one.
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, 4931 S Peninsula Drive, Ponce Inlet, near New Smyrna Beach, is a towering 175-foot red and granite lighthouse from the 1880s. It’s the tallest lighthouse in Florida and all three original lighthouse keeper houses survive. Ponce Inlet Lighthouse has a special exhibit building with Fresnel lenses of all sizes including the original first-order lenses from Ponce Inlet and Cape Canaveral. They are like jewels. Find info at the website. (A fresnel lens has a series of concentric rings that concentrate the light into a narrow beam. It was breakthrough technology that allowed lighthouses to be seen from as far as 20 miles away.)
St. Augustine Lighthouse, 81 Lighthouse Ave. (use 100 Red Cox Road for GPS) St. Augustine, is a privately owned active, working lighthouse with an original keeper’s house that is surprisingly large. (It housed up to three lighthouse keepers and their families.) The 165-foot black-and-white striped lighthouse has a maritime archaeology program, which seeks to find and explore new shipwrecks. Find info at the website. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on visiting St. Augustine.
Pensacola Lighthouse, 2081 Radford Blvd, Pensacola, is painted black on the top and white on the bottom and is located on the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. This historic 151-foot structure is in great shape after a decade-long restoration of the tower and keeper’s dwelling. The lighthouse offers a great view of the Naval Air Station and Pensacola Bay. Find info at the website.
Jupiter Lighthouse, 500 Captain Armours Way, Jupiter, is a 105-foot red lighthouse located in a complex with an adjoining local history museum, a pioneer house and a natural area for hiking and wildlife viewing. It’s easy to make a day out of visiting Jupiter Lighthouse. Find info on Jupiter Lighthouse on its website.
Key West Lighthouse, 938 Whitehead St, Key West, isn’t that tall – 73 feet – and it isn’t located along the coast. But it offers the best view you can get of Key West. When it opened in 1848, the lighthouse keeper was, unusually, a woman. It was the first lighthouse in Florida to be regularly opened to the public. Find info on the website.
These Florida lighthouses are survivors
Several of Florida’s lighthouses have withstood all sorts of challenges – hurricanes, erosion, attacks.
If lighthouses had personalities, these would be strong, proud and feisty (and that also describes the people who love and have preserved them.)
Cape San Blas Lighthouse, 200 Miss Zola’s Drive, Port St Joe, was moved in 1918 and then again in 2014, when it was transported 12 miles, along with its two keepers’ quarters and its oil house. Cape San Blas is apparently a harsh location: This is the fourth lighthouse on this site; prior ones were destroyed by hurricanes and erosion. The current 105-foot lighthouse in its new location was hit hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018, but survived. Like several other lighthouses, it’s a “skeletal” design – a tower with open iron skeleton framework. You can tour this lighthouse Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Find info here.
Cape Florida Lighthouse, located inside Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, 1200 Crandon Blvd, Key Biscayne. Built in 1846, this is the oldest structure in Miami Dade County, replacing a lighthouse damaged in an attack during the Second Seminole War. The 95-foot lighthouse was abandoned for a decade, withstood Hurricane Andrew and was recently restored. From the top of the Cape Florida light, you can see the houses of Stiltsville and Miami’s spectacular skyline. Find info on site of the Friends of Cape Florida. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on making a great day of visiting Cape Florida.
Cape St. George Lighthouse, 2B, E Gulf Beach Dr, Eastpoint, was destroyed by erosion. Locals salvaged most of the bricks and then the 70-foot lighthouse was rebuilt in a new location with grants and state dollars. Lighthouse historian Liller said, “It’s considered a major triumph in the lighthouse community to have the tower rise again like a phoenix.” Find info here. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on visiting the Cape St. George area.
Take a Florida lighthouse roadtrip
Two groupings of Florida lighthouses lend themselves to a roadtrip. If you have a couple days and want to drive along the Atlantic Coast of Florida, you can visit four of Florida’s most popular and easy-to-tour lighthouses — St. Augustine, Ponce, Jupiter, and Cape Florida.
Two other Florida lighthouses along the coast are open on an occasional basis. Cape Canaveral can be toured once a week and here’s info on how to do it. Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse in Deerfield Beach can usually be toured one day a month. (You must travel to the lighthouse by tour boat and because of that, it’s more expensive than most lighthouse visits — $35 per person.) Here’s info on Hillsboro. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on visiting Hillsboro Lighthouse.
The second Florida lighthouse roadtrip would be through the scenic Big Bend region and the distances are shorter. Over a weekend or even a day, you can stop and admire St. Marks, Crooked River, Cape St. George, and Cape San Blas lighthouses. Of those, you can climb 103-foot Crooked River in Carabelle and the Cape George and Cape San Blas lighthouses. Here’s more about driving the Big Bend Scenic Byway.
Florida lighthouses on the Gulf Coast
What about the Gulf Coast? It has some scenic lighthouses, but they are often located on difficult-to-reach barrier islands. While that makes it a little harder to visit several on a short trip, it does mean their locations are especially scenic.
One Gulf lighthouse you can tour is the Boca Grande Lighthouse, 880 Belcher Rd, Boca Grande. It’s not a traditional tower; it’s a house with a light on its roof and five rooms of historic exhibits. It’s surrounded by a spectacular beach on a barrier island with a second lighthouse nearby – Boca Grande Rear Range. More about Boca Grande Lighthouse. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on visiting Boca Grande.
While you cannot climb it, the Sanibel Lighthouse is beautifully situated on the beach near the fishing pier and is worth admiring.
The most remote Florida lighthouses are up for grabs
Six of Florida’s lighthouses will never be part of your lighthouse roadtrip because they’re not near any roads. They are bolted directly on the coral reef miles out to sea in open water. (They’re called screw-pile lighthouses.)
Right now lovers of lighthouses are concerned about what’s going to happen to four of these lighthouses, which no longer aid navigation.
Of the reef lighthouses, Fowey Rocks, east of Miami, is already maintained as part of Biscayne National Park, so it’s safe.
Alligator Reef Lighthouse off Islamorada was given by the US Department of the Interior to a Florida Keys community group called Friends of the Pool Inc. in September 2021. This community group hosts an annual eight-mile swimming race to the offshore lighthouse to fund college scholarships. The event, which will be Sept. 11, 2021, is one of the most challenging open-water swims held. (Registration is full for 2021.) The group plans to raise $9 million to preserve the lighthouse.
But the fate of the other four lighthouses that are strung out along the Florida Keys is unclear – Carysfort Reef (off Key Largo), Sombrero Key (off Marathon), American Shoal (off Sugarloaf Key), and Sand Key (off Key West).
According to lighthouse historian Liller, the federal government is in the process of disposing of them. There is a specific process via the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA). If awarded to a nonprofit, preservation is required and the new owner faces at least $3 to $5 million dollars to preserve each one, Liller said.
Key’s West’s Sand Key Lighthouse was the first to enter that NHLPA process and it was sold in 2021 by government auction to a private owner.
Lighthouse historian Josh Liller says here’s how that went: “The winners were apparently a group of friends, one of whom then backed out so they defaulted on the award and it went to the second-place bidder, which was a private individual who as far as I know was able to pay up.” The final high bid was $83,000. The lighthouse had a dwelling, but it was destroyed by a fire in 1989.
Making any of these screw-pile lighthouses “unique vacation homes for fishing and diving getaways” would be feasible, Liller said, “if you’re a billionaire.”
Four of the lighthouses have attached dwellings which once housed up to three keepers at a time, according to Liller. None are habitable in their current condition; all will require restoration as part of fixing up the lighthouses.
Carysfort, Sombrero, and American Shoal lighthouses went into the disposal process under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act at the same time as Alligator Reef, so Liller thinks if they are not awarded to a non-profit, they will go to auction (separately), like Sand Key did.
Frequently asked questions about Florida lighthouses
Some facts about Florida lighthouses from the Florida Lighthouse Association.
Which Florida lighthouse is the oldest? The oldest present lighthouse in Florida is Amelia Island, 1839. The St. Augustine was the first lighthouse, built in 1824 but the current St Augustine lighthouses is one built in 1876.
What is tallest Florida lighthouse? At 175 feet, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida and also one of the tallest in the United States.
Is Florida the state with the most lighthouses? Not even close.The winner is Michigan with118. Florida only has 30.
Can I get married in a lighthouse? Many people do. The Jupiter Lighthouse has 30 to 40 weddings a year. All six lighthouses that are open to the public have hosted weddings.
Learning about and supporting lighthouses
In 2020, the Florida Lighthouse Association published a new edition of “The Florida Lighthouse Trail,” a guide and reference book to Florida’s lighthouses, past and present. The comprehensive book is a good companion for travels. Here’s how to order it for $15 from Amazon.
If you’re a lighthouse lover, you might be interested in the new “Visit Our Lights” license plate featuring Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse. The new design debuted in 2019 and is an official Florida license plate available at any DMV in the state. The sale of these license plates not only shows you love lighthouses, it raises money to restore and preserve them.
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