6 Perfect Days: Cape Cod Lighthouses
If you count lighthouses among your favorite coastal sights but have never viewed one from the inside, your ultimate Cape Cod day awaits. These six lighthouses are iconic for a reason, with picturesque grounds, unmatched views and histories that will remind you why Cape Cod would never be the same without them.
Take a day (or six) to explore the Cape’s brightest lights.
Hidden away in the woods near Nauset Light in Eastham, you can still spot the old “Three Sisters” lighthouse towers, relics of the days when multiple lights designated spots on the coastline––single in Truro, the twins in Chatham and a trio in Eastham. (Fun fact: The iconic red-and-white Nauset Light, faithful beacon of mariners and Cape Cod Potato Chip eaters everywhere, is actually one of the former Chatham twins.) Like Chatham, the light has seen its share of dramatic rescues, including its own—in 1996, the tower was relocated from the eroded edge of a 60-foot cliff. (Erosion is an ongoing threat; it will need to be moved again from its current perch within the next 30-something years.) Take a peek into the nearby oil house, a pint-sized history museum, before stepping inside the light, where the view up the spiraling cherry-red staircase is a classic photo op. At the top, portholes to the Cape Cod National Seashore and a panorama of treetops provide a sweep of color in autumn.
Tours: Mid-May through October, Sundays (hours vary from 1–7:30 p.m.), with additional weekdays in July and August. Visit nausetlight.org for information.
Make it a perfect day: Rent a set of wheels and take the scenic route to the lighthouse via Nauset Bike Path. Make a stop at Coast Guard Beach on the way, frequently cited among the country’s most picturesque. If you follow Ocean View Drive to Nauset Light, don’t forget to seek out those Three Sisters on nearby Cable Road before the day ends. After all that biking, you’ve earned your dinner at Fairway Restaurant & Pizzeria and the waffle cone––with jimmies–– at Ben & Jerry’s (both in North Eastham).
Some days you might spot half of Chatham in the lighthouse parking lot by noon––early birds convening for summer-morning yoga on the beach, day-trippers posing for selfies and locals stopping for a quick timeout overlooking the famous ocean break. The downtown boutiques and inns may tend toward the upscale, but Chatham keeps its maritime history close to heart. Originally built as twin lighthouses before rotating Fresnels made multiple towers obsolete (the light still flashes twice every ten seconds), Chatham Light shares its grounds with an active Coast Guard station and a monument at the site of the former twin tower in memory of lives lost at sea during a tragic 1902 rescue. If your visit was prompted by another famous rescue–– the S.S. Pendleton during the town’s 1952 blizzard, as depicted in Disney’s The Finest Hours––you’ll be pleased to find that Chatham lighthouse tours are conducted by Coast Guard Auxiliarists who can give you the real-deal history of the waters and light. When you reach the top, your up-close look at today’s modern aerobeacons comes with quintessential Chatham views: fishing boats chugging to and from the pier, summer whites on the tennis courts below, and scenic Lighthouse Beach, where thrill-seekers hope for a glimpse of those other summer whites—the great white sharks that have made their home on the town’s coast.
Tours: May through mid-October, select Wednesdays and Saturdays, 1–3:30 p.m. Visit the Coast Guard Auxiliary site for full schedule.
Make it a perfect day: Pay tribute to the town’s seafaring heart. After picking up a breakfast burrito at The Corner Store in Chatham, head to the fish pier to catch the Beachcomber Boat Tour for a morning of seal watching (tours require a minimum of 10, so call ahead for times and availability). After your lighthouse tour, stop at the Atwood House and Museum to see the original 1857 Fresnel lens and turret. For dinner, follow the locals to the Longshore Restaurant for the day’s haul of scallops or just-dug clams. Live music at The Chatham Squire is your dessert.
Most of the Cape’s lighthouses evolved through some trial and error––foundations rebuilt, towers relocated, lights replaced—and many have stories as adventure-fraught as tales from the sea. Truro’s Highland was the Cape’s first lighthouse, originally a wooden structure built in 1797 (the current tower was built in 1857) and also home of the first flashing light, installed out of fears it would be too easily mistaken for the one in Boston Harbor. Your view will be earned (69 steps up!), but it’s one of the most spectacular, with a panorama that extends as far as 20 miles on a clear day. You’re in good company if you find that the surrounding Truro highlands nearly steal the show from the ocean views; Thoreau also waxed poetic about the landscape here. You’ll find that even the manmade structures are scenic: That medieval-looking parapet on the nearby horizon is the Jenny Lind Tower, named for an opera singer and the stuff of legends (while stories abound, no one really knows why it is there), making the views feel all the more like a fairy tale.
Tours: April 14 through May 25, noon to 4 p.m. Late May through late October; 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Keeper’s shop open daily late May through late October 10 a.m.– 6 p.m. $6 admission, $5 students and seniors. Visit highlandlighthouse.org for full schedule.
Make it a perfect day: If you golf, you’re in heaven. Eighteen-hole Highland Links is so beautiful that your worst swing still looks good against the backdrop of lighthouse and ocean blues. Non-golfers, pack a picnic to explore the nearby Cape Cod National Seashore trails at Pamet and Woods Walk. Leave time to browse the on-grounds lightkeeper’s shop and Highland House Museum before or after your ascent up the lighthouse. Dinner is buttermilk fried oysters and poached lobster at Blackfish, still as much a best-kept secret as any locally beloved restaurant can be.
RACE POINT LIGHTHOUSE
It’s worth doing a little planning before searching out Race Point Light in Provincetown. If you time it right with low tide, you can take the trail at Hatches Harbor, where your view of the lighthouse across the gold-tinged flats will feel otherworldly. You can also trek along Race Point Beach, one of the Cape’s prime viewing spots for whales, but if sand-trekking isn’t your thing, call the Cape Cod National Seashore Oversand Office (508-487-2100, ext. 0927) between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily to get a vehicle permit. As you’re rolling past the dunes, just imagine that the children of the earliest lighthouse keepers trudged three miles through sand to school each day, until an inventive keeper in the 1930s tricked out his Ford to build a makeshift dune buggy. Lightkeeping could be a grueling job, and perhaps never more so than in a location so far off the grid that only state-of-the-art solar and wind-powered systems generate heat and electricity for the lighthouse and adjoining keeper’s and whistle houses today. Race Point boasts another of the first revolving lights—some history you’ll pick up on your guided tour, if you can tear your attention away from the seriously majestic view. Keep an eye out for whale tails on the horizon.
Tours: Regular tours will be held June through early October on first and third Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will also be special tours for Mariner's Day on Sunday, May 20, 2018 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Note: Tour season may be affected by shorebird nesting; visit racepointlighthouse.org to check schedule.
Make it a perfect day: By the time you’ve soaked up the scenery along your route to the lighthouse, you’ve already had a perfect day. You can call it a night right here; the 1950s Keeper’s House and updated Whistle houses have simple but cozy accommodations you can reserve for shared or private stays. (See racepointlighthouse.org for information) If you decide to explore, you’ll find killer views all over town—the art on display at Provincetown Art Association and Museum, the lookout from the top of the Pilgrim Monument, and practically out-to-sea ocean views at Fanizzi’s Restaurant for dinner. Or, book an Art’s Dune Tour out to Race Point, and end the day with a sunset clambake on the shore.
WEST DENNIS LIGHT
As the story goes, mid-Cape ship captains chipped in their own money for kerosene to help ensure the building of the light on Bass River in West Dennis, which today stands as the only remaining Cape light that isn’t a freestanding tower. The lightkeeper’s house and grounds were converted to an inn in the 1930s that has been family owned and operated for three generations as The Lighthouse Inn—and West Dennis Light is the only privately owned and maintained working light recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard. All this to say you’ve found the ultimate lunch or dinner spot to experience authentic Cape Cod. Find a table on the deck or lawn, order the lobster roll, and feast on the ocean views.
Make it a perfect day: If you’re staying at the inn, you’ll hardly need to leave the property—you’ve got tennis, mini golf, a pool and your own private beach at your feet. Still, the family-friendly beaches and winding stretch of Route 6A on the mid-Cape beckon. Seek out the cobblestone tower atop Scargo Hill to check out the views, then choose your water sport of choice (kayaking, paddleboarding, you name it) to take in the serene beauty of the marshlands and beaches along the river.
By now you’ve noticed that none of these lighthouses are on the western coast of Cape Cod, which makes Nobska Lighthouse in Falmouth all the more special. If the lighthouse tower is not open for tours during your visit, you can still enjoy the spectacular 360-degree view of Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds, ferries steaming out to the islands, and picturesque grounds of Nobska Point. The town of Falmouth took over the lighthouse and outbuildings from the Coast Guard in 2015 (until as recently as 2013, it was still used by the Coast Guard for housing), and the Friends of Nobska Light was formed to preserve the light and renovate the lightkeeper’s house as a museum that is tentatively set to open by 2020. In the meantime, peer into the windows of the lightkeeper’s house, conjure bygone days, and soak up every inch of the scenery.
Tours: Visit friendsofnobska.org for updates on upcoming tours.
Make it a perfect day: Stop for lunch at Captain Kidd Restaurant & Bar in Woods Hole, where the ship-shape interiors and stellar lobster roll are as Instagram-worthy as the views. All this will have you dreaming of the open waters—head to Falmouth Harbor for an afternoon sail on the three-masted Liberté schooner. Your perfect day ends at Quicks Hole Tavern & Taqueria in Woods Hole, with a fresh lobster taco and a sangria toast to life by the sea.
Things to know before you go: Lighthouse stairwells are steep and narrow (some may feature partial ladders), with tight quarters at the top. Call ahead or check online for information and possible restrictions––children under a certain height may not be permitted, and some tours are weather-dependent. Sturdy footwear is required. The lighthouses are maintained by non-profit organizations, and most tours are free; please consider making a donation to support your visit.