I’m not sure when my fascination with lighthouses began. They certainly were not on my radar before we started full-timing. Living in the landlocked state of Vermont, lighthouses were only something I ever saw while on vacation at the coast. Even then, I only viewed them as a pretty sunset backdrop, certainly not something I would seek out and fork over a few bucks to tour.
But when we started traveling full-time and spending more time on the coast(s), lighthouses suddenly became a favorite destination. It might have something to do with the self-proclaimed “lighthouse nuts” over at the Wheeling It blog. As one of the first travel blogs I regularly followed, Nina and Paul were always a source of inspiration and I closely followed all of their adventures, including the several years they spent lighthouse hosting on the Oregon and Washington coast. As a result, when we finally made it to the Northwest one of the top priorities was to see the lighthouses I had read so much about.
Those first few lighthouses sparked an interest that has continued to grow. Since then we’ve visited lighthouses all over the country. From west to east and places between, we’ve climbed, admired, learned about, and photographed dozens of lighthouses. Every lighthouse has a different story and I never get tired of visiting them.
Some of my favorite lighthouses are those that require a journey to get to. Like the Seguin Island Lighthouse in Maine that we had to kayak three miles out in the ocean to visit. Or that time we put our house on a ferry so we could climb to the top of the tallest lighthouse in the U.S. and step out on the balcony to see the view despite fierce winds and driving rain.
During our time in Provincetown, we had another go at a fantastic lighthouse journey. Provincetown has three lighthouses on its shores. None are accessible by road or open to tours, but with a little determination (and some good old-fashioned walking) it is possible to get to all of them. The Woods End and Long Point Lighthouse are both located on the spiral end of the Cape. Dating back to the mid-1800s, these lighthouses are the last remaining structures on the tip of Cape Cod and for years have guided ships in and out of Provincetown Harbor.
To reach both lighthouses you first need to navigate the 1.5-mile breakwater that stretches across the harbor.
It’s not a difficult walk, but the massive granite chunks that make up the breakwater are uneven and do require precise steps. There are also a few low spots that look like they might be nearly underwater at high tide. I found many references to this being a “strenuous walk”, but If you time it right and make the journey at low tide on a sunny day it’s really more of an easy stroll with fantastic views in all directions.
As we headed across we could see the Long Point Lighthouse to the left and the Woods End Lighthouse to the right.
The breakwater ends at a stretch of sandy land covered with beach grass and scrub brush. From here you won’t find a designated path to either lighthouse, but you can see the Woods End Lighthouse in the distance with a kind-of, sort-of path leading in that general direction.
After trudging through the sand for a while we reached the Woods End Lighthouse and adjacent oil house (now used for storage). For many years there was a keeper’s house stationed next to the light, but in 1961 when the light was automated with a modern beacon the house was torn down. In the early ’80s, the lighthouse was outfitted with solar panels making it one of the first to be run completely off the power of the sun.
The lighthouse isn’t open to the public, and the modest square structure is admittedly not the most impressive looking lighthouse, but the trip to get there makes for a fun adventure. And as a bonus, the adjacent beach is gorgeous and completely deserted. The only way to reach the beach is on foot or by boat, so I think it would be fair to assume that you will never find a crowd here.
The beach follows the land to the very tip of the Cape where the Long Point Lighthouse resides. If it was earlier in the day we certainly would have made the nearly 2-mile sandy trek to see the twin to the Woods End Lighthouse, but with daylight on short supply at this time of year, we skipped it in favor of making it back across the breakwater before dark. We did get to see the lighthouse from the water though (see the photo near the beginning of this post). We also got to gaze out over the former location of the Long Point community. (Remember the floating homes from my last post? This is where they used to be). Hard to believe that 200 people once resided on this now barren stretch of isolated land.
The final lighthouse in Provincetown is the Race Point Light Station. Like the other two, Race Point is a challenge to reach. It resides on the northwest corner of Cape Cod in close proximity to an area often referred to as an “ocean graveyard.” This section of coastline is made treacherous by rocky offshore shoals and a strong racing currents. You can see on this map the crazy amount of shipwrecks that have occurred around the Cape. You can also see the red marker for the Race Point Lighthouse at the top of the land mass.
The Racepoint Lighthouse dates back to 1819 and is still in operation today. During the summer months, it’s open for tours on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Be prepared for a long sandy walk to get there though. The only way to reach the lighthouse is on a 2-mile sandy road that you can traverse by foot or with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, provided you have the correct permits. For hardcore lighthouse lovers, you can even book an overnight stay in the Keepers or Whistle house. How cool would that be? We didn’t have time to walk out and see this lighthouse in person, but like the Long Point LH, we got to see it from the water.
Finally, we come to the oldest lighthouse on the Cape — The Highland Lighthouse. Located only a few miles from Provincetown on the Atlantic side of the Cape, this historic light is a popular tourist destination. Operated by the national park service and open for tours during the summer months, it was teeming with people on the day we visited. Not sure if it’s always busy or was more so that day since it happened to be both a holiday (Columbus Day) and the last day they were open for tours.
Like most lighthouse tours this one began at the bottom with a little history about the structure. The Highland Light was established way back in 1887 to warn ships about the dangerous coastline. Since then, the original wooden structure has undergone several renovations and upgrades, including in 1996 a 450-foot move from the edge of the cliff to its current location due to beach erosion. This is a common theme among east coast lighthouses. I think the majority of those we have visited on the eastern side of the country have undergone similar moves for similar reasons. Sure does make you think twice about buying beach front property. After our brief history lesson, it was time to climb.
At 68-feet tall, this might be the tallest lighthouse on the Cape, but the 69 steps to the top only took a few minutes to climb. Once there we were treated to a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Check out that very cool lighthouse shadow! If you follow the walkway to the end you can see the octagon shaped spot where the lighthouse once resided. Beyond there is a steep and dangerous cliff that plunges into the ocean below. Seems like they moved it just in time.
That ends our lighthouse fun in Provincetown, but we still had time for one more adventure before moving on — whales! A whale watch was a high priority for our time on the Cape. It’s something we’ve been talking about doing for many, many years but for various reasons have never made it happen. Until now. There are several commercial and private companies that offer whale watches out of Provincetown. We choose the Dolphin Fleet simply because they were the only commercial operation offering tours this late in the year.
I called a few days ahead to make a reservation and as instructed we showed up about 30 minutes early on the day of the tour to pick up our tickets and wait for the boat. For a price of around $50 per person, we were promised a 3-4 hour tour including education on whales and marine life, and hopefully lots of whale sightings.
The Dolphin Fleet takes a few different routes depending on where the whales have been most active. For this trip, we cruised out and around the northern tip of the Cape. Only a few minutes after passing the Race Point Lighthouse whale spouts began appearing. As soon a spout was sighted the boat slowed and we all ran from one side to another trying to get a good look. Thankfully our guide did a great job announcing over the loudspeaker the location of the whales so we had a good chance of being in the right positions when they surfaced.
It didn’t take long for the whales to begin popping up everywhere. Some were alone, some in groups of three, and some were even mamas and babies. While we did see a lot of whales, I missed a good amount of them because I was either on the wrong side of the boat or there were too many people standing in front of me.
There’s no doubt that the front of the boat was the place to be if you want the best view, but I didn’t feel like pushing my way into the crowd, not to mention it was about 35 degrees out there.
Overall we really enjoyed our whale watch. The boat was nice (especially the heated interior for when we needed to warm up), the crew knowledgeable, and of course, the whales were awesome and soooo impressive up close. The only disappointment was that it felt a little short. We were out for exactly three hours, but only spent one of those hours actually watching the whales. I’m not dissapointed in the tour company becuase they gave us exactly what we paid for, but I could have spent all a lot more time watching those whales.
With that, we finally wrap up our time on the Cape Cod. I think it’s fair to say that we got the most out of our two-week visit. Up next I’ll be catching up the blog with our stops in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Delaware.