Even though the nearly 300-year-long era of manned California lighthouses is now over, many of these light towers are now automated and still in use today. Meanwhile, other lighthouses are no longer on active duty but remain historic sites to visit, adopted by non-profit organizations determined to save them.
Tall structures signal seamen great distances from the shore, while low ones help them to navigate in fog and low visibility. Some lighthouses are freshly painted in contrasting colors making them a distinct landmark. Others are weathered and blend with the landscape, but still shine their lights brightly.
The northern California coast offers some of the oldest lighthouses in the state, while the southern California coast offers additional interesting lighthouse finds, each with a unique history and purpose. Today, almost 30 lighthouses still stand proudly on the California coast and 16 of them are open to the public. Visit as many of them as you can on your California coast road trip, listed here from north to south.
Battery Point Lighthouse
It's been shaken by earthquakes and swamped by a tidal wave, but Battery Point Lighthouse is still standing. Built in 1856, this lighthouse is quite literally a house with a light on it, instead of the towering column structures that most lighthouses resemble. It's located in Crescent City in Northern California, right off of the scenic Redwood Highway and just 20 miles south of the Oregon border. It sits on a small piece of land about a half-mile from the lighthouse parking lot, but you'll have to time your visit accordingly. It's only accessible during low tide, so be sure to check conditions before driving out there.
Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
Built after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to help warn ships carrying lumber to the city away from the coastal shoals, Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is located in the town of Mendocino. The lighthouse is open daily to visitors at no cost, as are the surrounding grounds of the Point Cabrillo State Historic Park. If you're looking for somewhere scenic and romantic to stop at on your California road trip, overnight lodging is available on the grounds.
Point Arena Lighthouse
The Point Arena Lighthouse was first lit in 1870, but the structure you see today was built after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the original. It's located in Mendocino County about three hours north of San Francisco off of Highway 1 and is perhaps most famous for being one of the tallest lighthouses on the west coast (it's tied with the Pigeon Point Lighthouse). Guided tours are available daily if you want to enter the tower, or you can just go on a self-guided tour around the grounds.
Point Reyes Lighthouse
Point Reyes is a harsh place. Winds howl past the point and it's foggy 2,700 hours a year. The winding roads to get there aren't the easiest by car, nor is the steep climb that's required to get back up the hill from the lighthouse. But if you're willing to brave the journey, the Point Reyes Lighthouse and surrounding national seashore offer some of the best scenery in Northern California. The lighthouse is just 60 miles north of San Francisco, but it takes about two hours to arrive by car due to the winding roads. Plan to stay at least an entire day, so you can hike around and see other highlights around the park such as Drakes Beach and Alamere Falls.
Point Bonita Lighthouse
The Point Bonita Lighthouse is one of the most photogenic, since it sits on a lonely piece of land that's only reachable by a man-made bridge. The still-active lighthouse dates back to 1877 when the trail reached all the way to the tower, but a landslide in the 1940s destroyed the natural land bridge. Located in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco, the tower has been a beacon for ships entering the foggy environment around the San Francisco Bay, ushering them toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
It's about a half-mile walk from the parking lot to the lighthouse on somewhat steep terrain, so wear appropriate footwear to prevent slipping.
The Alcatraz Lighthouse was first built in 1852, making it the first operational U.S. lighthouse in the west. It was damaged in the 1906 earthquake, and after that, the current structure was built. Since it's on an island in the San Francisco Bay, you'll either need to admire this tower from the shoreline of San Francisco or book an Alcatraz tour to get up close. The lighthouse itself isn't open to the public, but if you're already on the island to visit its infamous prison, you'll pass right by this maritime relic.
Point Montara Lighthouse
This short little lighthouse was built to keep ships out of danger on their way north toward San Francisco, its light working together with its foghorn. Point Montara Lighthouse is located on Highway 1, just 30 minutes south of San Francisco. Now leased by Hostelling International, you can book a shared or private room right on the premises for an unforgettable trip with breathtaking views.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Pigeon Point Lighthouse may be the most beautiful lighthouse on the coast, located on the scenic Highway 1 about 50 miles south of San Francisco and just north of Santa Cruz in the town fo Pescadero. Built in 1872, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse is tied with the one in Point Arena as the tallest lighthouse on the west coast at an impressive 115 feet. The lighthouse itself has been closed to tours since 2001 due to structural issues, but the old employees' bunkers have been turned into a popular youth hostel. Located in Pigeon Point State Park, there are plenty of hiking trails and unbeatable views of the Pacific to keep travelers entertained.
Point Pinos Lighthouse
This Point Pinos lighthouse is one of the light stations that's still active today, and has been since 1855 when it was first illuminated. It's located in Pacific Grove near the affluent beach town of Monterey, not far from the famed scenic route known as the 17-Mile Drive. It's open to the public every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and California's oldest still-active lighthouse does charge admission to tour the premises—$5 for adults and $2 for youth. After visiting the lighthouse, there are plenty of things to do around the area, such as whale watching, trekking around Point Lobos State Park, or visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Point Sur Lighthouse
The Point Sur Lighthouse must have been one of the loneliest places in California when it was first operated in 1889. It's situated on a steep sandstone island overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Oddly, one of its most famous incidents didn't involve a ship at all. In 1935, the military airship the USS Macon—longer than three Boeing 747s parked end-to-end—crashed and sank just off the coast.
The lighthouse is located just off of Highway 1, about 15 minutes south of the iconic Bixby Bridge in Big Sur.
Piedras Blancas Lighthouse
Most people who are stopping at Piedras Blancas on the Central Coast come to see the hoard of resident elephant seals who occupy the beach, but completely miss out on the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. It's easy to overlook since the top section with the light has been removed and it's now just an unlit tower. Its fresnel lens was removed and is currently on view on Main Street in nearby Cambria, next to the Lawn Bowling Club. Guided tours are available, so check the schedule in case your stop happens to coincide with one of them.
Point San Luis Lighthouse
This Victorian-style Point San Luis Lighthouse is near the town of San Luis Obispo located on property owned by PG&E, but public tours are given with a guide. Its unique architecture is known as "Prairie Victorian" because it blends the lavishness of Victorian buildings with the practicalities of living on the prairie. It's one of only three lighthouses ever built in this style and the only one that's still standing.
Since the lighthouse sits on private property, it's prohibited to drive yourself there. The parking lot is about a 10-minute drive from the lighthouse itself and those who have purchased a tour will be picked up from there. Another option is to join one of the organized hikes on the Pecho Coast Trail. It's about an hour of trekking along the scenic coastline until you reach the lighthouse.
Point Vicente Lighthouse
The Point Vicente Lighthouse is one of California's newest lighthouses, built in 1926 on Los Angeles' Palos Verdes Peninsula. If it looks familiar, that's probably because it has been featured in dozens of movies and television episodes. It's currently in active use by the U.S. Coast Guard, so it's generally closed to the public. However, it does open for public tours on the second Saturday of every month, making this lighthouse an especially unique place to visit.
Point Fermin Lighthouse
The light is integrated into the keeper's quarters in the Point Fermin Lighthouse in San Pedro at the Port of Los Angeles, just 30 miles south of downtown L.A. The lighthouse is open every day except Monday and is free to visit—although a donation is suggested—including the afternoon guided tours for a more comprehensive trip. The lighthouse was put out of commission during World War II to prevent enemy attacks along the coast and hasn't been turned on since.
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Built in 1855 on what seemed to be an ideal site in San Diego's early days, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse was so high that it often was obscured by low cloud banks, and it was replaced in 1891 by the "New" Point Loma Lighthouse. The first one was only in use for 36 years, but the original structure still stands on the highest point of the hill (or loma in Spanish) and is open to visitors every day of the year except December 25. Apart from the amazing views you get of San Diego on a sunny day, you can also visit inside, which has been restored back to how it looked in the 1880s.
New Point Loma Lighthouse
A less scenic but more visible replacement for San Diego's Old Point Loma Lighthouse, the new one was built in 1891. The two lighthouses are just a few minutes from each other on foot, so it's easy to see them both on a trip to Point Loma. While you're walking down, be sure to make a stop at the nearby tide pools on the Pacific Ocean side of the peninsula. These pools are excellent for kids and adults to visit during low tide, making a great educational experience about the natural habitat of shallow sea creatures such as crabs, starfish, and even the occasional octopus.