Most tourists visit Cape Cod for its pristine beaches and its slew of water-focused activities like kayaking, boating, and fishing. But in their travels around the peninsula, they will surely notice the abundance of lighthouses, some of which date back to the 18th century.
Before the Cape Cod Canal was built in 1914, providing a safe cut-through from the Atlantic Ocean to Boston and points north and to New York and points south, ships sailing along the coast of the Northeast had no choice but to brave the ocean's notoriously treacherous currents and storms along the eastern coast of Cape Cod.
Estimates of the number of shipwrecks along that stretch of ocean-going back hundreds of years exceed 3,000, and the National Park Service, which operates the Cape Cod National Seashore, says that there were more than 1,000 wrecks in the waters between just two of the Cape's outermost towns of Truro and Wellfleet, where the peninsula reaches its farthest to the east.
So it's no wonder why, in the late 1700s through the 19th century, more than a dozen lighthouses were raised in various locations across the coastlines of Cape Cod. Many of the beacons still shine at night, and some of these historic lighthouses are open for public tours in the summer. Mostly, tourists stroll the grounds of the lighthouses, settle down with a picnic lunch, and take selfies in front of these looming and lifesaving structures.
With the shifting sands and erosion constantly changing the coast of Cape Cod, most of the lighthouses have been moved from their original locations to keep from falling into the sea, and several have been rebuilt, sometimes more than once, during the last 150 years.
Visitors Can Tour These Historic Cape Cod Lighthouses
Four of Cape Cod's historic lighthouses are open seasonally for either guided or self-guided tours. Three are located within the Cape Cod National Seashore: Highland Light, in North Truro, and Nauset Light and Three Sisters, all in Eastham. The fourth, Chatham Light, is still an active-duty U.S. Coast Guard station that carries out search and rescue operations when needed. Tours of the lighthouses are typically free, although donations to help defray costs are always welcome.
Highland Light, also known as Cape Cod Light, was the first lighthouse built on Cape Cod, in 1797, as a 45-foot-tall wooden tower. In 1857 it was rebuilt as a 66-foot-tall brick tower, the tallest on Cape Cod, and was connected by a covered walkway to a keeper's house. In the 1990s, Highland Light was a precarious 100 feet from the edge of the cliff it was built on and was moved back 450 feet. A museum on site welcomes visitors, and guided tours are offered in spring, summer, and fall.
Nauset Light is located across from the Cape Cod National Seashore's popular Nauset Light Beach in Eastham. Built in 1877, it was originally located some 20 miles south in Chatham. In the 1990s, the 48-foot-tall lighthouse was moved 300 feet back from the edge of its cliff overlooking the beach. Volunteers staff the lighthouse in summer, when visitors can explore the grounds and climb to the top of the light.
Also in Eastham, the Three Sisters is a trio of historic lighthouses that began life as three 15-foot-high masonry towers. According to the National Park Service, they were nicknamed The Three Sisters because, from a distance; they reminded mariners of women in white dresses with black hats. NPS rangers offer tours of the site in the summer season.
Chatham Light is open for tours during limited hours in summer. It was built in 1808 as two wooden light towers some 70 feet apart, which is why it is known as The Twin Lights. They were replaced in 1877, and one of the new towers was moved to Eastham and became today's Nauset Light.
Provincetown Is Home To Three Lighthouses
At the outermost tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown is the location of three historic lighthouses, including Race Point Light. It was built in 1816, its tower was replaced, and a keeper's house was added in 1876. Situated on a remote stretch of beach accessible only on foot or via a four-wheel drive vehicle, the light's keeper's house and another cottage on the site can be rented by tourists during summer.
Closer to downtown, Provincetown's Long Point Light, built in 1875, and Wood End Light, dating to 1872, can be seen from the harbor. They are not open to the public, but visitors can explore the grounds and view the exterior of these historic sites.
Wood End is accessible by walking at low tide across Provincetown's breakwater, located in the town's west end. It is a moderately difficult hike of about 45 minutes each way. Long Point marks the entrance to Provincetown Harbor and can be accessed on foot or by boat.
Several other lighthouses are now privately owned, under repair, or permanently closed and can only be admired from a distance, often by boat or ferry. These include Monomoy Light and Stage Harbor Light in Chatham; Bass River Light in West Dennis; Hyannis Harbor Light in Hyannis; Sandy Neck Light in Barnstable; Nobska Point Light in Woods Hole, and Wings Neck Light in Pocasset.