14 Historic Lighthouses that Still Watch Over the California Coast
Along the over 800 miles of California coastline, more than 35 lighthouses still stand proudly above the shore. And while the Global Positioning System (GPS) has rendered them all but obsolete, these iconic structures still serve as nostalgic reminders of a time when only a beacon of light and the booming echo of a foghorn guided mariners along their way. We’ve rounded up a list of the California lighthouses worthy of a visit today, each one a captivating memorial to 19th-Century maritime history, the shipwrecks they strove to prevent, and the fascinating lives of lighthouse keepers.
Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove
Point Pinos Lighthouse was among the first eight lighthouses built on the West Coast. The stone structure began operating in 1855, later becoming the oldest active lighthouse in California. Its original third-order Fresnel lens is still in use in the tower today. Two of the more noted lighthouse keepers at Point Pinos were women: Charlotte Layton—appointed to the post after her husband (the lighthouse’s first keeper) was killed while riding with a posse in pursuit of a bandit—and Emily Fish—known as “the socialite keeper” because she was such a prolific and congenial host. Robert Louis Stevenson visited the lighthouse in the late 1800s and wrote of his admiration for the keeper. The lighthouse and nearly 70 acres of land surrounding it are now owned by the City of Pacific Grove. It has been lovingly restored and furnished with period pieces, creating a homey ambiance that takes visitors back in time.
Where to stay: In downtown Pacific Grove, Gosby House Inn is a Victorian mansion with a charming courtyard patio. Centrella Bed & Breakfast Inn features Victorian antique furnishings and clawfoot soaking tubs. The oceanfront Martine Inn is known for its museum-quality antiques and antique MG collection. Green Gables Inn is a Queen Anne Victorian steeped in storybook style overlooking the ocean. Seven Gables Inn exudes opulence with crystal chandeliers, gilded-framed mirrors, and ocean views from every room.
The Point Loma Lighthouses (New and Old) in San Diego
In 1855, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse became the fifth activated on the West Coast. At a height of 462 feet, it was the tallest in the nation. Its height meant fog often shrouded its light, so after 36 years, the old lighthouse was abandoned in favor of a lower elevation. Fortunately, the old lighthouse was left standing and has been restored with period furnishings, an authentic lantern room, and a visitor’s center. The surrounding Cabrillo National Monument offers views of San Diego and migrating grey whales. Taking the place of the old lighthouse, the new 70-foot pyramidal tower at nearby Pelican Point is the only one of its kind on the West Coast. The keepers’ quarters at the New Point Loma Lighthouse still house Coast Guard officers, but it can be seen from a lookout point near the old lighthouse or (for a closer view) from the tide pools at the base of the point.
Where to stay: Hillcrest House Bed & Breakfast Inn is a handsome Craftsman bungalow within walking distance of Balboa Park’s northwest corner, in the vibrant uptown neighborhood of Hillcrest. The historic 1906 Lodge at Coronado Beach is nestled in a quiet neighborhood just a block from Coronado’s shops and cafes, just two blocks from the beach.
East Brother Light Station in Richmond
East Brother Island is one of two small, rocky islands in the strait that connects San Francisco Bay with San Pablo Bay. Built in 1874, the East Brother Light Station has been guiding mariners through these waters for nearly 150 years. East Brother’s wooden lighthouse was the most common style of the 70 or so lighthouses built along the West Coast in the late 1800s. Today, it’s one of the last of its kind. From the island, visitors can take in spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline, Mount Tamalpais, and the Marin coastline. The light station was slated for demolition in the 1960s, but the Contra Costa Shoreline Parks Committee stepped in and secured recognition for the lighthouse on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1979, a non-profit organization was formed to restore the lighthouse and make it available for public use.
Where to stay: Visitors to East Brother Light Station don’t have to travel far for overnight lodging, since it’s also a bed and breakfast inn. Inside, the lighthouse is a virtual living history museum filled with books and vintage photographs. The inn offers five elegant guest rooms, an amazing four-course dinner, and a full gourmet breakfast. Proceeds from the inn pay for the ongoing restoration and maintenance for the lighthouse.
Piedras Blancas Light Station in Cambria
Piedras Blancas Light Station is one of only a few tall, classic lighthouse towers on the Pacific Coast. The site was named for the large white rocks just offshore, a recognizable landmark for mariners at the time. A first-order Fresnel lens first illuminated the 100-foot-tall lighthouse in 1875. When the tower was automated and the light station de-staffed in 1975, the Coast Guard began using the site to study sea otters and sensitive marine life. Ownership was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2001, which manages the site as a historic park and wildlife sanctuary. Much of the station has been restored, with plans currently underway to replicate the original lantern room. Just south of the lighthouse is an elephant seal colony that attracts up to 10,000 seals each year. Other varieties of seals, gulls, cormorants, and other winged creatures can also be spotted from the light station.
Where to Stay: Stretched across nine seaside acres, Oceanpoint Ranch boasts a private beach trail, a fire pit, and family-friendly lawn games. Contemporary décor and modern amenities make Fireside Inn on Moonstone Beach ideal for couples seeking a romantic oceanside escape. With the Pacific to the west and rolling green hills to the east, Cambria Landing Inn & Suites is a modern-yet-classic boutique hotel. Across from Moonstone Beach, FogCatcher Inn has an old English feel, complete with rounded thatched-style roofs and flower-lined brick paths. Overlooking Cambria’s famous boardwalk, Pelican Inn & Suites is a pet-friendly property with 41 oceanside guest rooms and suites.
Point Sur Lighthouse in Monterey County
Standing atop a 361-foot rock off the Big Sur Coast, Point Sur Lighthouse is a three-story, sandstone triplex that now offers year-round guided walking tours. Most of the structures built on the rock are still standing, making it one of the most complete light stations still in existence in California. First illuminated in 1889, the light station continues to guide ships along the treacherous Central California Coast. The site was once home to a military base charged with protecting the surrounding coast during World War II. It also houses the only remaining complete, stand-alone Cold War Naval Facility on the West Coast. Now on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by the State of California, the meticulously restored example of a late-nineteenth-century light station is now part of the Point Sur State Historic Park.
Where to stay: Coachman’s Inn places guests in the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea, with galleries, restaurants, and shops nearby in every direction. L’Auberge Carmel is a historic hotel known for its graceful architecture, personalized guest services, and elegance. The Carmel Cottage Inn consists of five historic cottages set in a garden, just one block from Carmel Beach. With a heated swimming pool and a range of room configurations, Hofsas House is one of the most family-friendly hotels in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Tradewinds Carmel blends Japanese, Balinese, and Chinese design elements to create a luxurious oasis of tranquility just a few blocks from downtown. Nestled in a quiet residential setting yet close enough to walk to town, Carmel Country Inn is well-known for its uber-pet-friendly hospitality.
Point Arena Lighthouse in Point Arena
On the Mendocino Coastline near Point Arena, the coastline changes direction. As ship traffic carrying redwood lumber increased in the mid-1800s, so did the need for a light to mark this critical turning point. This year, Point Arena Lighthouse is celebrating its 152nd Anniversary of lighting the way on the Pacific Coast. Surrounded by water on three sides, Point Arena is one of the best whale-watching spots on the Northern California coast. From the site’s bluffs, trails, and gazebo, visitors might spot migrating gray whales, humpbacks, killer whales, and even blue whales. Point Arena encompasses 23 coastal acres, including the 115-foot lighthouse tower that is open to the public for tours, a light station store, an 1896 fog signal building museum, and a 23-acre outdoor museum.
Where to stay: In Point Arena, Wildflower Boutique Motel has been transformed from a former roadside motel into an eco-friendly getaway with blooming gardens and modern décor. Mar Vista Farm + Cottages is a bucolic hideaway with 10 bright and airy vintage cottages scattered around a small farm. The Elk Cove Inn & Spa is perched in peaceful seclusion atop a bluff with spectacular oceanfront views.
Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park in Mendocino
Work on the Point Cabrillo Light Station was completed in 1909. Over a century later, it’s still an active-duty aid to navigation. In a roundabout way, the lighthouse owes its existence to an 1850 shipwreck. Salvagers who came looking for the shipwreck were impressed by the mighty stands of redwoods along the Mendocino Coast, which eventually led to hundreds of sawmills in the area. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, increased maritime lumber traffic from the coast to San Francisco necessitated a new lighthouse at Point Cabrillo. The lighthouse building resembles a small church, complete with a 47-foot octagonal tower that, from a distance, looks like a steeple. The light station is part of a state historic park, on a headland that extends out into the Pacific. At the park, visitors can visit a lighthouse museum, an assistant lightkeeper’s house museum, and a restored blacksmith and carpentry house that houses a marine science exhibit.
Where to stay: On the quiet northern side of Mendocino village, Mendocino Seaside Cottage stands just 70 yards from the ocean and trails running along the headlands. The Inns of Mendocino is a collection of three stylish inns, each with its own modern coastal vibe. Built in 1883, the Seagull Inn Bed & Breakfast is steeped in Mendocino history and has been serving travelers since the 1960s. Alegria Oceanfront Inn & Cottages offers secluded ocean views and a private path to the beach. Headlands Inn Bed & Breakfast is a charming retreat just a stone’s throw from the village shops, galleries, and restaurants. One of Mendocino’s finest Victorian landmarks, the MacCallum House Inn stands at the center of the village and exudes the charm and romance of a bygone era.
Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse in Santa Cruz
In 1965, an 18-year-old surfer drowned near Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz. To honor his memory and his fascination with lighthouses, his parents donated proceeds from his life insurance policy to the city of Santa Cruz to construct Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. The lighthouse was built near the site of Santa Cruz’s original lighthouse, which was first lit in 1870. For the first 70 years, there were only three lighthouse keepers. During World War II, coastguardsmen lived in the lighthouse and used its tower as a lookout. The area surrounding the lighthouse was also home to the 54th Coast Artillery Regiment, an all-Black unit assigned to protect the nearby coastline. The original lighthouse stood until it was dismantled in 1948. After the new brick lighthouse was built in 1967, it became home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, featuring photographs, surfboards, and other artifacts tracing the history of surfing in Santa Cruz. The lighthouse overlooks Steamer Lane, now an internationally renowned surf break.
Where to stay: Within walking distance of Lighthouse Point, every room at the Sea & Sand Inn has an ocean view. Housed in a beautifully renovated 1877 Italianate Victorian, West Cliff Inn features a wraparound porch with stunning views of the Monterey Bay. Directly across from Main Beach, the Beach Street Inn & Suites is an ideal crash pad for families with kids. The Casablanca Inn on the Beach is a historic hotel with Spanish colonial-style flair and spectacular oceanfront views.
Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove
The original site of the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse was California’s westernmost land point and the entryway to one of the most inhospitable coastlines in the state. First lit in 1868, it became the highest lighthouse in the United States in 1891, when Point Loma was deactivated. The lighthouse’s then-rare forged-iron construction allowed it to resist the winds, earthquakes, storms, and gales typical of the area. Still, housing for the lighthouse keepers had to be rebuilt three times in just over 40 years. The lighthouse had a service life of 103 years before it was abandoned. In the late 1990s, it was sliding down a hillside and succumbing to rust when a group began working to save the lighthouse and relocate it 35 miles south to Shelter Cove. Restored, painted, and fitted with new glass by the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse Preservation Society, the lighthouse opened to the public on Memorial Day in 2001.
Where to stay: The Inn of the Lost Coast stands on a cliff overlooking the ocean, surrounded by the black sand beaches and the unparalleled scenic beauty of Shelter Cove.
Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin County
In 1595, Point Reyes was the site of the first recorded shipwreck on the west coast. Before Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870, there would be many subsequent shipwrecks off the coast of these 10-mile headlands. Deemed one of the foggiest and windiest stations in the United States, the sixteen-sided, 37-foot-tall iron tower served for 105 years. The lighthouse was retired in 1975, after which ownership was transferred to the National Park Service. As the agency considered the site a unique specimen of the nation’s maritime heritage, it undertook a major renovation in 2003. The restored lighthouse reopened to visitors in 2019. A visitor center offers exhibits on the history of the lighthouse and houses the Fresnel lens from another light station. The lighthouse itself is another 900 feet beyond the visitor center at the base of 313 steps.
Where to stay: In a sheltered cove of Tomales Bay, Nick’s Cove & Cottages is known as much for its award-winning cuisine as it is for its elegantly restored 1930s cottages nestled along the water’s edge. The Pelican Inn captures the spirit of 16th-century England’s West Country from its location near Muir Beach, barely 20 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Point San Luis Lighthouse in Avila Beach
The only Prairie Victorian lighthouse left on the West Coast, Point San Luis Lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite calls for a lighthouse as early as 1867, construction didn’t begin until 1889, prompted in large part by the sinking of the Queen of the Pacific a year before. Work was completed in 1890, and the lighthouse operated until it was decommissioned in 1974. Nearly 20 years later, the Federal Government transferred ownership of the 30-acre site to the Port San Luis Harbor District with the requirement that the station be restored and opened to the public. The non-profit Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers continue to maintain the lighthouse, offering weekly historical tours of the fully restored lighthouse tower. The site can be reached by a docent-led hike along the Pecho Coast Trail, by kayak, or by a van provided by the Lighthouse Keepers.
Where to stay: Hotel San Luis Obispo is a modern urban resort with bright and airy guest rooms, a rooftop bar, restaurants, and an on-site spa. Every guest room at the historic Granada Hotel & Bistro features exposed brick walls, hand-crafted steel windows, Persian rugs, and original hardwood floors. Built in 1887, the delightful Garden Street Inn combines old-world charm with new-world hospitality. The Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast is steeped in San Luis Obispo history and offers a creek-side garden and thoughtful touches.
Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park in Pescadero
Perched on a cliff on the central California coast, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse has been guiding mariners since 1872. The site of the lighthouse was named for the 175-foot clipper ship that shipwrecked there in 1853. Pigeon Point’s 115-foot lighthouse tower shares the title of tallest west coast lighthouse with California’s Point Arena Lighthouse, and although the original Fresnel lens is no longer in use, the lighthouse is still an active U.S. Coast Guard aid to navigation. While the lighthouse tower has been closed to the public since 2001 due to structural damage, it can still be viewed from the grounds. The California State Parks Foundation is currently spearheading a fundraising campaign to restore and reopen the lighthouse. The surrounding coastal areas are rich with marine life, with regular sightings from the shore of marine mammals like seals and whales.
Where to stay: South of San Francisco near Half Moon Bay, Seal Cove Inn borders a marine reserve featuring secluded beaches, tide pools, and windswept ocean bluffs. An easy stroll from downtown Santa Cruz and the beach, Babbling Brook Inn is an enchanting oasis tucked alongside a trickling stream lined with redwoods, lush gardens, and a working waterwheel. An eco-friendly boutique hotel, Pacific Blue Inn is conveniently located halfway between downtown Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
Table Bluff in Eureka
A decade after the first lighthouse to mark Humboldt Bay was built in 1856 (one of the first of eight on the West Coast), flooding and dense fog led to its abandonment in favor of 165-foot-high Table Bluff. It wasn’t until 1892 that the new lighthouse was completed, later becoming one of the first in the United States to be automated. The lofty bluff property has gathered a rich history since then, from supplying produce and chickens to local grocery stores to becoming host to a coastal lookout and radio station during World War II. The lighthouse was deactivated in the early 1970s, and while none of the light station’s historic structures remain on the property, visitors can still experience the site’s panoramic views. They can also visit the original two-story lighthouse at Eureka’s Woodley Island Marina or an old Fresnel lens at the nearby Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum.
Where to stay: The Carter House Inns are an enclave of four magnificent Victorians perched alongside Humboldt Bay, at the gateway to Eureka’s Victorian historic district.
Walton Lighthouse in Santa Cruz
Although Walton Lighthouse wasn’t dedicated and activated until 2002, a harbor light has marked the entrance to Santa Cruz Harbor since 1964. In 1998, the Santa Cruz community proposed replacing the simple pipe structure that held its harbor light with a lighthouse of classic design. The resulting lighthouse, one of two in Santa Cruz, stands over 41 feet above the west jetty and nearly 60 feet above the mean low water mark. The lighthouse was named in honor of Derek Walton, the late brother of a major donor to the construction effort (Charles Walton). Derek served in the merchant marines and was lost at sea during World War II. While the lighthouse tower is not open to the public, visitors can walk out to the lighthouse via the harbor breakwater. In addition, Seabright State Beach and Twin Lakes State Beach both offer great views of the lighthouse.
Where to stay: In Santa Cruz’s Live Oak neighborhood, Bella Notte Inn is a Mediterranean-inspired boutique hotel with easy access to the yacht harbor, downtown Santa Cruz, and Capitola. Just 100 feet from Sunny Cove Beach in Santa Cruz, Ocean Echo Inn & Beach Cottages is a serene beachside retreat within walking distance to coffee shops, markets, and restaurants. Blending vintage glamour and modern comfort, Rio Vista Inn & Suites offers 12 luxurious suites in a handsomely restored Victorian. Cliff Crest Bed & Breakfast Inn is a beautifully-restored 1887 Queen Anne Victorian overlooking the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.