The Point Bonita Lighthouse sits on one of the most breathtaking locations on the California coast.
It clings to a rocky point in the Marin Headlands in a spot so precarious that you might wonder how it stays standing. To get to it, you have to walk across a suspension bridge. And on a windy day, that walk feels almost like a thrill ride.
A drive through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area provides a grand approach to the Point Bonita Light. In fact, the drive to the lighthouse is part of what makes a visit so much fun. Just to get there, you motor past an eye-popping view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Then you descend a steep hill, pass through a tunnel and hold your breath as you walk across a hanging bridge. When you arrive, the view alone is worth the journey, and you may think you're standing on the edge of the world.
And you are - sort of - at least on the edge of the North American continent.
Point Bonita is still a working lighthouse, with its original Fresnel lens. The light flashes every four seconds, and you can see it as much as 18 miles from the coast.
What You Can Do at Point Bonita Lighthouse
The small lighthouse is open to visitors and offers public tours. Everyone loves to go there. You can read some reviews of it at Yelp.
Its hours vary, and you can get the current schedule at the lighthouse website. Full moon tours are offered during the summer months. Check the special events schedule here and make reservations - these tours fill up fast.
Point Bonita Lighthouse's Fascinating History
Point Bonita was the third lighthouse built in the San Francisco Bay area (in 1855). Just offshore at this spot is Four Fathom Bank - also called the Potato Patch Shoal. It's a dangerous patch of churning white water that sailors want to avoid.
The original lighthouse had a tower which was separate from the residence. It provided a lonely home for the first light keepers. They were the area's only inhabitants and had no direct communication with the outside world. The place was so inhospitable that no one wanted to stay here. In fact, seven keepers worked at Point Bonita during just the first nine months of the light's operation.
The first fog signal at Point Bonita was a surplus army cannon, the first "fog signal" on the West Coast. Its successor was a 1,500-pound bell that the keepers struck with a hammer. A steam-powered foghorn came later.
After 22 years, authorities gave up on the original Point Bonita site. Besides its isolation, it was too high. You might think that a lighthouse should be high so it can be seen easily, but not if frequent, dense fog makes it nearly impossible for sailors to see the light.
In 1877, the lighthouse moved to "Land's End" - the broken, unstable, narrow, steep and seemingly impossible end of Point Bonita. It moved in the most literal sense: the original building was relocated, but doing it was complicated. An incline railway had to be built to carry materials from ships up the rock to the construction site.
When it was complete, John B. Brown became the keeper of the new light. He stayed there for more than 20 years and rescued more than 40 shipwrecked sailors.
The keeper's quarters were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In the 1940s, a landslide destroyed the thin strip of dirt and rock that led to the light. A suspension bridge was built to enable access. The original bridge was replaced in 2013 with a modest but sturdy, 132-foot-long span.
For a more detailed history of Point Bonita, visit Lighthouse Friends.
Visiting Point Bonita Lighthouse
Point Bonita is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Exit US Hwy 101 north at Alexander Avenue - or going south, take the last exit before the Golden Gate Bridge. Follow the road up the hill, continuing as it becomes one-way going downhill. You'll pass an old military installation along the way.
If you use Google maps or other mapping apps, they may try to take you to the lighthouse by a less scenic route. Instead of taking their suggestion to follow McCullough Road, stay on Conzelman Road. When the road reaches a t-intersection, you can follow signs to Point Bonita.
From the parking area, it's about a half-mile walk to the lighthouse.
Parking space is limited, and you may have to wait for a space to open up. You can also park in a larger lot near the YMCA center and walk up.
More California Lighthouses
If you're a lighthouse geek, you will enjoy our Guide to Visiting the Lighthouses of California.