One of the best outdoor getaways in the Bay Area is the Point Bonita Lighthouse in Marin. “Bonita” means pretty or beautiful in Spanish, and the term couldn’t be more appropriate. Crossing the new 132-foot-long footbridge toward the lighthouse, you have a phenomenal view of the rugged cliffs and Pacific ocean to the west, and the rolling green hills of the Marin Headlands behind you.
And Point Bonita is just one if numerous historical lighthouses that stretch from Big Sur to the Oregon border—the perfect excuse for a spring road trip along the California coast. Plus, the cost to visit these historical beacons is often free or a very low fee.
1877 Point Bonita Lighthouse, Marin
If you live in the Bay Area you needn’t drive far to experience one of the best lighthouse self-tours on the California coast. Closed to the public for years due to storm damage, the precariously perched 1877 Point Bonita lighthouse on the southwest tip of the Marin Headlands is once again thrilling those tourists who are brave enough to traverse the dark tunnel and new million-dollar bridge leading to the active beacon situated 124 feet above the ocean (the story goes that, because the cliffs along the passageway are so steep, one 19th century lighthouse keeper rigged ropes around his children to prevent them from slipping into the raging water below).
The reward for such bravery is, among other things, a rare and sensational view of the entrance to the bay. Visiting hours are Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays from 12:30pm to 3:30pm; for more information call 415/331-1540 or log onto www.nps.gov/goga/pobo.htm. And for great hotels deals near the lighthouse click here.
Trip Tip: If you’re interested in photographs, directions, and the history of every lighthouse in the United States, log onto www.lighthousefriends.com.
Point Reyes Lighthouse Tour
The most popular attraction at Point Reyes National Seashore is the venerable Point Reyes Lighthouse, at the westernmost tip of Point Reyes at the end of Sir Francis Drake Highway. Even if you plan to forego the thigh-burning 308 steps down to the lighthouse, it’s worth the visit just to marvel at the scenery, which includes thousands of common murres and prides of sea lions basking on the rocks far below (binoculars come in handy).
As an added bonus, when the fog burns off, the lighthouse and the headlands provide a fantastic lookout point for spying migrating gray whales. Heck, the scenic drive alone is worth the trip—a 45-minute scenic excursion through windswept meadows and working dairy ranches. And dress warm: Winds at the Point Reyes Lighthouse have reached up to 133mph, the highest wind speed recorded on the Pacific coast.
Admission to the lighthouse visitor center is free; it’s open Thursday through Monday from 10am to 4:30pm, weather permitting. For more information call 415/669-1534 or log onto www.nps.gov/pore. And for hotel deals near Point Reyes National Park, click here.
Point Sur Lighthouse Tours, Big Sur
About 13 miles south from Carmel on Highway 1 you’ll see the Point Sur Lighthouse off in the distance, perched 361 feet above the surf atop Point Sur, a volcanic rock promontory just south of Bixby Bridge (and the perfect lookout point for spotting migrating gray whales). It was built in 1889, when only a horse trail provided access to this part of the world.
Tours, which take 2 to 3 hours and involve a steep half-mile hike each way, are scheduled on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays in the winter months. Moonlight tours are offered as well; check the website for specific dates. For more information call 831/625-4419 or log onto www.pointsur.org. And for Big Sur hotel deals, click here.
Point Arena Lighthouse Tour & Museum
If you’ve never heard of Point Arena, it’s a small coastal community located north of Bodega Bay. The town’s main attraction is the Point Arena Lighthouse, built in 1870 after 10 ships ran aground here one night in a storm. A small fee covers parking, entrance to the lighthouse museum, and an interesting tour of the six-story, 145-step lighthouse (the view through the dazzling 6-ft.-wide, lead-crystal lens is worth the hike—if the fog has lifted).
The lighthouse is located at 45500 Lighthouse Road, at the end of scenic Lighthouse Road, about 5 miles northwest of downtown Point Arena off Highway 1. It’s open daily from 10am to 3:30pm; half-hour tours run every 20 minutes. For more information call 877/725-4448 or log onto www.pointarenalighthouse.com. And for lodging deals in Point Arena, click here.
Point Pinos Lighthouse Museum, Pacific Grove
The Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast and a National Historic Landmark. Its 50,000-candlepower beacon has illuminated the rocky shores since February 1, 1855, when Pacific Grove was little more than a pine forest (“Point Pinos” is Spanish for “Point of the Pines””).
The Cape Cod-style lighthouse continues to operate as an aid to navigation, run by the Coast Guard and leased to the City of Pacific Grove. The highlight of the lighthouse’s museum is a historical photo collection documenting the perils of sailing near rocky shores.
The museum and grounds are open and free to visitors, Thursday through Monday from 1 to 4pm. It’s located on Asilomar Boulevard at Lighthouse Avenue; for more information call 831/648-5716 or log onto www.pgmuseum.org. And if you’re looking for great hotels deals in Pacific Gove, click here.
Pigeon Point Light Station, Pescadero
Located halfway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, about 50 miles south of San Francisco, the 115-foot Pigeon Point Light Station is one of the tallest lighthouses on the Pacific Coast, as well as one of the most photographed lighthouses in the United States. The lighthouse has been guiding mariners since 1872, and offers a 270-degree view of the ocean that can’t be matched anywhere in the region (great for whale watching).
The station’s four buildings were originally home to the Coast Guard lighthouse staff until high-tech lighthouse electronics gave them the boot, and is now a popular hostel. The lighthouse structure is currently closed to the public for safety reasons, but half-hour guided history walks around the lighthouse grounds are available 10am to 4pm Fridays through Sundays, except on rainy days.
It’s located at 210 Pigeon Point Rd on Highway 1, south of the Pescadero turnoff. The station is open to the public from 8am to sunset; for more information call 650/879-2120 or log onto www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=533. And for LocalGetaways hotel deals near Pescadero, click here.
Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, Santa Cruz
A visit to the Abbott Memorial Lighthouse in Santa Cruz comes with an added bonus: It’s also home to the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum. Antique surfboards, videos, photos, and other memorabilia depict the history and evolution of surfing worldwide. The lighthouse is located near one of the most popular surf breaks in the country (they’ve been surfing the waves off this grassy point for more than a century).
It’s named after Mark Abbott, an eighteen-year-old who drowned in 1965 while surfing near the point, and his parents used the insurance money to build this stout brick lighthouse. It’s located at 701 West Cliff Drive and open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm in the summer, Thursday through Monday from noon to 4pm in the winter. Admission is free but donations are suggested.
Battery Point Lighthouse Tour, Crescent City
If you’ve driven this far north, you might as well take a little time out of your day to visit the Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City. The operational lighthouse, built in 1856, is on a small island off the foot of A Street, and is accessible on foot only at low tide (you have to cross a tide pool to get there, which adds a bit of adventure).
It houses a museum with exhibits on the coast’s history and the original Fresnel lens, and guided tours of the lighthouse and the light-keeper’s living quarters are offered Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 4pm, tides permitting, April through September (call ahead to see what the tides are up to).
If you have your own tips and recommendations on great outdoor getaways throughout California that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments below. We’d love to hear from you.