Cape Cod, a hook-shaped peninsula in Massachusetts, is renowned for its stunning sandy shores, charming towns, and choppy waters teeming with migrating whales. For many years, Cape Cod lighthouses have safely guided seafarers along those beautiful coastlines and rough seas.
Many historic lighthouses remain, some presenting serious challenges for anyone visiting them. Are these beacons worthy of your time? We review the hard-to-reach Cape Cod lighthouses so you can decide.
Disclosure: I received gifted products from adidas that I am sharing in this post. All opinions are my own.
Public Cape Cod Lighthouses
Cape Cod comprises fourteen lighthouses. One location contains three separate beacons. So, some state that Cape Cod houses sixteen lighthouses. For our purposes, we credit the region with fourteen.
Of these beacons, five are private. That leaves us with nine lighthouses open to the public to explore. In some cases, we can climb the tower; in others, we must settle for exploring the grounds and peering heavenward at the historic structure. Either way, you have nine opportunities to stand in the presence of greatness.
We will start with the five towers that provide easier access and then analyze the four Cape Cod lighthouses that are more challenging to see. You will discover much history and natural beauty even at the accessible locations.
The Nauset Beach Light Station proudly dons a white base, red top, and black enclosure that houses the lantern. It is conveniently located adjacent to the Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham.
No, you are not crazy if you feel like the iconic lighthouse seems familiar. If you have ever eaten Cape Cod potato chips, it is the famous beacon pictured on their packaging.
The Nauset Light was originally part of the Chatham Twin Lights in 1877. They relocated the 48-foot tower to Eastham in 1923. In 1996, it was moved back from the eroding shoreline to its current position. The Nauset Light Preservation Society currently operates the lighthouse, opening it seasonally to the public.
Julie and I were fortunate to climb the tower during our visit in early October. The cost is free, but donations are welcome. I felt giddy ascending the famous beacon’s spiral staircase. The experience was a thrill, and the surrounding area was beautiful. Looking out the porthole-like window, you gain excellent views of the beach below.
We suggest you visit Nauset Lighthouse due to its fascinating history, prominent colors, and proximity to the beach and the national park site visitor center. The visitor center offers plenty of parking, and you can easily access the visitor center, lighthouse, and coast on foot.
As a bonus, you can see the Three Sisters Lighthouses with a short walk.
Three Sisters Lighthouses
Legend says that from the sea, the trio of lighthouses looked like three women in white dresses and black hats. The original towers were built in 1838 and constructed of brick. Due to erosion, wooden replacement towers were erected in 1892. Engineers moved the structures to the current location in the 1980s.
You will discover a tiny lot near the Three Sisters Lighthouses. It only accommodates two or three cars. The walk from Nauset Light is about ⅓ mile each way. It is an easy, level walk that is well-marked and takes you through a lovely grove of shade trees.
At just 15 feet, I hesitate to call these towers. These are worth your time due to their proximity to Nauset Light. Plus, how often do you see three lighthouses so close together?
More commonly known as the Cape Cod Light, the Highland Light became Cape Cod’s first beacon in 1797. Commissioned by George Washington, it holds the honor of being the first light seen on a voyage from Europe to Boston. The current brick tower in North Truro was constructed in 1857 and is 66 feet tall.
Lighthouse tours are typically available between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. from early May through October. You will climb 69 steps in a narrow spiral staircase to reach the top.
Tours cost $8 for adults and $5 for students. Seniors and military members pay $7. Tours typically last about 20 minutes. Visitors must be at least 48″ tall to climb the tower. Group sizes are limited to 10 to 12 people. The narrow climb may leave you short of breath with sore legs, but it is well worth it. Your view from the tower is excellent.
The guide provides more information about the tower’s history and explains what you can see in each direction. Information signs also describe what sits on the distant horizon. Guests occasionally spot whales in the water.
Julie and I thoroughly enjoyed the tour. You learn about the tower’s fascinating history, including preservation efforts. Surprisingly, the lighthouse currently houses a 10-watt LED light that flashes every five seconds and is visible for nearly 18 miles.
Before or after your tour, you can explore the keeper’s shop and exhibits. There is some fascinating history here as well. Take a few minutes to explore the grounds outside the keeper’s shop. You will discover lovely views worthy of photographs.
The Chatham Lights were initially constructed as twin towers with a keeper’s house in 1808. Accordingly, the light station was known as the “Twin Lights” for many years. Some of the locals still use the name.
Due to erosion, Chatham built two new towers in 1877. Eventually, they separated the twin lights in 1923, with the North Tower becoming the Nauset Light in Eastham.
The historic tower stands 48 feet tall. A rarity in the modern world, the Chatham Light operates 24 hours daily. The United States Coast Guard maintains the light and offers summer tours. Even if you can’t climb the tower, you get an excellent view from the street.
The Nobska Light sits along Cape Cod’s southwestern tip in Woods Hole, a village of Falmouth. It was initially built in 1829 and rebuilt in 1876. The current structure is a 40-foot iron cylinder.
Many people have worked tirelessly to preserve and renovate the historic landmark. In 2017, the people of Falmouth rallied to save the lighthouse from demolition and to keep it open as a lighthouse and museum. The Friends of Nobska Light runs it.
You can tour the lighthouse on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon during summer. From the tower, you gain 180-degree views of Martha’s Vineyard, Woods Hole, the Elizabeth Islands, and Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds.
The grounds are open year-round from dawn to dusk, yielding stunning ocean views. Even if you can’t climb the tower, those picturesque views are worth a trip.
Now, let’s dig deeper into the sand to see if the harder-to-reach Cape Cod lighthouses are worth it.
Race Point Lighthouse
First lit in 1816, the Race Point Light sits in Provincetown within the Cape Cod National Seashore. Engineers built the current tower and keeper’s house in 1876. You can hike to the 45-foot beacon from either Race Point Beach or Hatches Harbor. Either way, your 3.5-mile round-trip journey is through the sand.
It sounds easy enough. Let’s say I have a lot of respect for sand volleyball players. Walking in the sand is a slow, tiring process. I read many articles indicating the walk takes about 45 minutes each way. Admittedly, we took many pictures, but the round-trip walk required 3 hours.
So, is the journey worthwhile? Absolutely!
We started from Race Point Beach. Although tiring, you have an excellent view of the rugged, secluded beach the entire way. The scene is peaceful, with rolling waves and birds searching for food. You will likely discover large clam shells scattered along the sandy beach. A pleasant surprise: we spotted seals swimming along the shallow surf.
You can walk up to the historic lighthouse and see the fog horn whistle house and the keeper’s house. Another surprise is that the area houses cranberry plants.
Yes, the walk was a bit of work. However, the beach views, clam shells, birds, seals, and cranberries provide plenty of scenery. Then, of course, you get to stand next to the historic tower. For us, it was a rewarding walk and one we would do again without hesitation.
The National Park Service (NPS) allows visitors to drive along the beach to the lighthouse with the proper permit and type of vehicle. You can find more information about obtaining a vehicle permit on the NPS site.
Wood End Lighthouse
To reach Wood End Lighthouse, you must walk across the Provincetown Causeway. You can park at the First Pilgrim Landing Rotary before starting your journey. The causeway consists of many large rock slabs with uneven surfaces that can be slippery. If you decide to hike to the lighthouse, go during low tide and make sure you return before high tide.
Despite uneven surfaces, the overall walk is level. However, it requires concentration. If you slip, you could easily fall into the water or get a severe injury from falling onto the rocks. We encountered a couple of dicey sections where we had to scoot on our bottoms. Many segments required short hops across gaps in the stones. You will likely get jelly legs from this jetty walk.
We observed something intriguing while walking across the jetty. Birds repeatedly flew several feet above the surface, dropping a clam to break the shell open. The process typically took multiple attempts. When the clam finally opened, the bird would float down for its well-earned meal. In addition to an exhilarating walk, you observe nature in all its glory.
When you reach the end of the stone breakwater, you will then walk across the sand to the lighthouse on your right. The causeway alone is over one mile long. You will walk on the sand for another ten or fifteen minutes.
Although you may not climb the tower, you can walk up to it. The white square building, initially lit in 1872, stands 39 feet tall, emitting a flashing red light every ten seconds.
This one is more about the journey. It is thrilling and scary at the same time. We felt an immense sense of joy and pride upon completing the hike.
Long Point Lighthouse
The Long Point Lighthouse sits at the very tip of the Cape Cod arm in Provincetown. Your journey starts the same as that for the Wood End Light. The only difference is after crossing the causeway, you will head left across the sand.
Long Point Lighthouse was illuminated in 1827 and rebuilt in 1875. The square white structure stands 38 feet tall with a green light.
Your walk from the jetty’s end to the beacon is about 1.25 miles. If you are physically fit and have the time, you can see the Wood End and Long Point lights on the same hike. In total, the trek is over 6 miles and typically takes around 4 hours. In general, you have roughly 6 hours between low tide and high tide. To see both lighthouses on the same trip, start near the beginning of low tide and be efficient with your time.
I must stress the jetty gets dicey in a few spots. You will encounter more of these sections the further you go. It is the most rewarding lighthouse hike we have ever taken. The scenery is lovely, and the sense of accomplishment is off the charts.
While making your way back across the causeway, you can see a tower in the distance. The Provincetown Monument honors the Pilgrim’s first landing place on the Cape.
I recommend wearing sturdy shoes with good traction and a windbreaker. Strong winds regularly blow across Cape Cod, and in particular, the causeway. Julie tested out her jacket on our October trip to New England. It passed with flying colors. During our lengthy walks along the Cape Cod beaches and across the Provincetown Causeway, the lightweight windbreaker did its job perfectly, keeping her warm and comfortable.
Monomoy Point Lighthouse
The Monomoy Point Lighthouse is the most difficult Cape Cod lighthouse to reach. It was initially constructed in 1823 and rebuilt in 1849. The current red cast-iron tower is 40 feet tall. It sits near the southern end of South Monomoy Island and is part of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. The historic structure is one of America’s earliest cast iron lighthouses.
In full disclosure, Julie and I did not see Monomoy Point Lighthouse. You can observe the tower from a distance while taking a boat ride. If you want to reach the light station, it will require an adventurous spirit, dedication, and likely a few hundred dollars or more. Your best opportunity to reach Monomoy Point Lighthouse is by taking a private boat charter and guided tour. These typically depart from Chatham, near Cape Cod’s elbow.
The boat ride takes 45 minutes. Since there is no dock, you must hop from the boat into water that is typically knee to waist deep and wade to shore. You will not find any roads, buildings, or vehicles on the island. From the beach, you will hike about one mile inland to see the tower.
Those who make the journey will be rewarded with views of the untouched island wilderness and the historic red tower. The island is an excellent birding destination, attracting many shorebirds, songbirds, and migrating birds. So, you will observe many of our feathered friends. You may also spot horseshoe crabs and seals.
If you love lighthouses and adventure, seeing the Monomoy Point Lighthouse may be worthwhile. Otherwise, you can utilize your time, money, and energy toward seeing the other Cape Cod Lighthouses.
If you seek additional adventures or want to include Cape Cod as part of a road trip, consider visiting Boston. You can tour the city, walk the iconic Freedom Trail, and ride a ferry across the famous Boston Harbor. You will discover many restaurants, bars, and taverns to explore.
For those who want even more history, head to Salem. You can learn about the infamous witch trials, visit America’s oldest candy company, and explore America’s first national historic site.
Cape Cod Lighthouses
The Massachusetts peninsula, resembling a flexed arm, harbors nine public lighthouses for you to discover. Some are harder than others to reach. If you decide to trek to the hard-to-reach Cape Cod lighthouses, you will be grateful for the journey and feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. May the historic beacons light your way.
Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey
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About the author
We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.