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 St. 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.
Several of these Gulf Coast lighthouses were impacted by Hurricane Ian in September 2022.
The Sanibel Lighthouse, which has survived dozens of storms since it was built in 1884, took a direct hit from the hurricane. The historic lighthouse keeper’s house was swept away and one leg of the lighthouse was destroyed. As of December, 2022, repairs are underway.
A nearby Gulf lighthouse, Boca Grande Lighthouse, 880 Belcher Rd, Boca Grande, survived with some damages that are also being repaired. 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.
The most remote Florida lighthouses were auctioned to private owners
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.)
These lighthouses, strung out along the Florida Keys, were auctioned by the federal government because they no longer aid navigation. They fetched high prices in auctions held in May 2022.
- Carysfort Lighthouse (off Key Largo) had a final auction price of $415,000. It is located about six miles off Key Largo and has a 124 foot high cast iron octagonal screw-pile tower with keepers quarters built inside the tower with a landing dock. Carysfort Lighthouse was constructed and first lit in 1852. It served as an active navigational beacon until 2015.
- Sombrero Lighthouse had a final price of $575,000. It is located about seven miles off Marthon and is the tallest lighthouse in the Florida Keys at 142 feet high. It is a cast iron skeletal octagonal screw-pile tower with keepers quarters on a platform at approximately 40 feet above the water. Sombrero Key Lighthouse was constructed and first lit in 1858. It served as an active navigational beacon until 2015, and its original first order Fresnel lens is now on display at the Key West Lighthouse Museum.
- American Shoal Lighthouse went for $860,000. It is located about six miles off Sugarloaf Key and stands approximately 109 feet tall. It is a cast iron skeletal octagonal screw-pile tower with octagonal keepers quarters on a platform at approximately 40 feet above the water. American Shoal Lighthouse was constructed and first lit in 1880.
The U.S. General Services Administration does not identify winners or bidders. After the auction closed, the winners have 45 days to complete the transactions, which puts those dates in early July.
Each has an attached dwelling that once housed up to three keepers at a time, according to lighthouse historian Josh Liller. None are habitable in their current condition; all will require restoration as part of fixing up the lighthouses.
Another screwpile lighthouses, Key’s West’s Sand Key Lighthouse, was auctioned in 2021 through a process established by the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA) and Fowey Rocks, on a reef east of Miami, is maintained as part of Biscayne National Park.
Other lighthouses in private hands
The federal government recently transferred ownership of two other Florida Keys lighthouses.
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. (It will be Sept. 9, 2023.) The group plans to raise $9 million to preserve the lighthouse.
Sand Key Lighthouse off Key West was auctioned in 2021. 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.
According to lighthouse historian Liller, 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.”
FAQs 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.
Are any of the lighthouses haunted? The St. Augustine Lighthouse has become a destination for ghost hunters because of the tragic story of three girls who died here on July 10, 1873, and who some believe haunt the lighthouse. Three white sisters and an African American playmate were playing at the construction site of a new lighthouse, riding in a rail cart that was used to bring supplies to the site. The girls would ride the cart down the tracks to the water like a roller coaster. At the bottom, a board would stop the cart from continuing. On this day, however, the board was not in place and the cart tipped into the water, trapping the girls underneath. The youngest sister was saved and the three others drowned. Many encounters with the ghosts of these girls have been reported over the years. The lighthouse has a variety of tours and experiences for those interested in ghosts.
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 $20 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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Notes from the editor:
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.