Legendary Lighthouses in New England

This road trip takes you to some of the most beautiful beacons and breathtaking scenery

From Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Maine’s easternmost tip at the Canadian border, more than 60 working lighthouses guide mariners along the rugged, rockbound Northern New England coast. 

These structures, some dating back more than two centuries, bear witness to the days before automation when they demanded constant hard work and sacrifice of the keepers and their families who endured isolation, fierce weather, and other daunting challenges. Standing sentinel in harbors, beside treacherous waters, and atop remote shores, they draw visitors with breathtaking settings and compelling tales of the past. 

“Lighthouses are among the most sought-after destinations for our visitors,” says Steve Lyons, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. “On social media platforms like Instagram, we see that their allure is as strong as ever, with lighthouse photos being some of the most popular posts by our visitors.”

Most towers on the mainland are relatively easy to access. Sightseeing cruises, regularly scheduled ferries, and sightseeing flights offer views of many others located in offshore waters and on islands. Some lighthouses schedule visiting hours during the warmer months, and more than 20 welcome visitors during the annual Maine Open Lighthouse Day (lighthousefoundation.org) held on a Saturday in September. 

Most of the lighthouses on this list can be reached by car. Follow Route 1 northeast along the coast, turning seaward onto secondary roads to find them on craggy headlands and scenic coves. 

1 Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse

Sullivan Lane, New Castle, New Hampshire

portsmouthharborlighthouse.org

 

Photo by Michael Labbe

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Lighthouse
This 48-foot-tall, white, cast-iron tower—one of the only two lighthouses on New Hampshire’s 18-mile coast—was erected in 1878 near the spot where the first lighthouse north of Boston was built in 1771. Its distinctive and uncommon green light—caused by an acrylic cylinder that surrounds the lens, which distinguishes it from other nearby lights—radiates from atop a rocky outcropping next to the ruins of two-century-old Fort Constitution near Portsmouth. In December 1774, Paul Revere rode here from Boston to warn of British plans to reinforce the fort. Portsmouth residents quickly raided it, seizing ammunition and guns in what some consider the first victory of the Revolutionary War. Because the lighthouse is on the grounds of an active Coast Guard Station, access is limited on most days. Visitors must view it from the fort about 200 feet away, except when it is open to the public on Sunday afternoons from late May through mid-October.

2 Cape Neddick Light Station

a.k.a. "Nubble Light"
Sohier Park Road, York, Maine

nubblelight.org

 

Photo by Gary Nomura

Nubble Lighthouse in Maine
So close, yet just beyond reach, Cape Neddick Light Station tantalizes from 260 feet offshore on an inaccessible rocky nub of land that inspired its moniker. Before the 41-foot beacon was built at the eastern end of York Beach in 1897, nearby shoals claimed multiple vessels. Some say a specter of the bark Isidore, which sank with all hands aboard in 1842, still sails surrounding waters. There’s a true tale about Sambo Tonkus, a 19-pound cat who lived with keepers in the 1930s. The cat often swam between the island and mainland, a feat that drew admiring fans. For safety reasons, today’s visitors aren’t permitted to cross the channel, but they can enjoy the stunning view from the mainland—especially when the tower and gingerbread-trim keeper’s house are illuminated during the holiday season and for the summer York Days celebration.

3 Portland Head Light

1000 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

portlandheadlight.com

 

Photo by Tony Baldasaro

Portland Head Light
Commissioned by George Washington in 1791, Maine’s oldest lighthouse marks the southerly approach to Portland Harbor. The 92-foot-tall white-painted, rubble stone tower and red-roofed keeper’s house sit on a rock-bound bluff overlooking Casco Bay. In the early 1800s, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow often walked from his downtown Portland home to visit the keepers, and the site is thought to have inspired his poem The Lighthouse. On Christmas Eve 1886, the three-masted bark Annie C. Maguire wrecked just 100 feet from the lighthouse. Laying a ladder across the rocks, the keeper and his family rescued all 18 people on board. A hand-painted inscription on a rock beside the tower commemorates the event. Today, the lighthouse and a small museum in the keeper’s quarters are surrounded by 90-acre Fort Williams Park’s rolling lawns and seaside paths.

4 Portland Breakwater Light

South Portland Greenbelt Parkway, South Portland, Maine

bit.ly/buglighthouse

 

Photo by Mimi Steadman

South Portland has two lighthouses marking the busy shipping lanes into Portland Harbor. The older is Portland Breakwater Light, dubbed Bug Light because of its petite 24-foot height. Originally constructed in 1855, it was replaced in 1875 by one built in the style of a classical Greek monument.
The surrounding Bug Light Park is on the site of a World War II shipbuilding enterprise that produced 236 cargo-carrying Liberty ships in less than four years. A scaled-down, 32-1/2-foot-tall skeletal sculpture of a ship’s bow serves as a powerful reminder.

5 Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Park

3115 Bristol Road, New Harbor, Maine
bit.ly/pemaquidpointlighthouse

 

Photo by Jaci Tull

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Maine
Pemaquid Point, featured on the Maine quarter, draws visitors to the tip of a peninsula near Damariscotta not only to see the lighthouse and a small fishermen’s museum in the keeper’s house, but also to browse the small Pemaquid Art Gallery. Built in 1827, the white fieldstone lighthouse, surrounded by a white picket fence, was rebuilt in 1835 after its mortar, made with saltwater, crumbled. The 38-foot-tall tower rises from a surf-pounded cliff of striated bedrock that was heaved up and folded on itself millennia ago. The rocks are a magnet for photographers, artists, and anyone who loves sitting and gazing at the ocean. (Respect the waves—a few careless people have been washed away.) You can stay in the weekly rental apartment in the keeper’s house.

6 Marshall Point Light

Marshall Point Road, Port Clyde, Maine

marshallpoint.org

 

Photo by Roy Mowery

Marshall Point Lighthouse in Maine
In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks’ character ran up the wood ramp connecting the keeper’s house to the 31-foot-tall lighthouse during his cross-country run. Gump made a wise choice, because this spot at the end of St. George Peninsula offers serene grounds coupled with ocean vistas. Marking the entrance to Penobscot Bay and the fishing village of Port Clyde, the granite and brick tower was built in 1858 to replace an earlier one that was once illuminated by lard-fueled lanterns. Keeper Charles Clement Skinner, who was posted here from 1874 to 1919, accrued the longest tenure in the history of the lighthouse service. Lightning destroyed his house in 1895, and the current keeper’s quarters were rebuilt the same year. Inside are exhibits on the lighthouse, local lobstering, and granite quarrying.

7 Owls Head Light

186 Lighthouse Road, Owls Head, Maine

rocklandharborlights.org

 

Photo by Rebecca Thompson

Owl's Head Lighthouse in Maine
Just 30 feet tall, this white-brick tower built in 1852 at the southern edge of Rockland Harbor derives most of its elevation from its perch atop an 80-foot-high promontory. The vantage point offers panoramas of Penobscot Bay. According to lighthouse lore, the ghost of a former keeper sometimes returns to polish the beacon. In the 1930s, a keeper’s English springer spaniel learned to pull the rope to ring the fog bell whenever a ship sounded its whistle. The pup’s story is told in a children’s book sold at the small shop on the grounds. A stone near the bell marks the dog’s grave. The keeper’s house is headquarters for the American Lighthouse Foundation, which oversees many New England lighthouses, including those at Pemaquid, Rockland Breakwater, Portsmouth Harbor, and Owls Head.

8 Rockland Breakwater Light

Samoset Road, Rockland, Maine 

rocklandharborlights.org

 

Photo courtesy Maine Office of Tourism

This picturesque lighthouse beckons from the end of a 20-foot-wide breakwater stretching nearly a mile into Rockland’s broad outer harbor. Visitors delight in trekking across the uneven granite blocks—a hike touted as a walk into the ocean without wet feet. During the annual mid-July Windjammer Parade, it’s the primo spot for watching the area’s fleet of historic schooners sail by. The breakwater was built to protect anchored ships and shoreside structures from storm surge, but because it also posed a hazard to navigation, its end was marked by small beacons after it was completed in 1900. They were replaced in 1902 by the 25-foot-tall, red-brick light tower, which rises from the roof of the keeper’s house. Rockland may be less remote than some lighthouses, but its unmitigated exposure to storms led at least one keeper to resign.

9 Bass Harbor Head Light

Lighthouse Road, Tremont, Maine

acadiamagic.com/BassHarborLight.html

 

Photo by Reef Rogers

Bass Harbor Lighthouse
Bass Harbor Head Light, the only lighthouse on Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park, clings to a cliff’s edge at the southwestern tip of the island, a few miles beyond Southwest Harbor. It was featured on a U.S. postage stamp to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial in 2016. From the left corner of the small parking lot, a path and wood stairway descend to rock ledges with excellent upward views of the 32-foot-tall white-brick tower; from the steep path at the right of the lot you can get close to the lighthouse. The small parking lot is often crowded at sunset.

10 West Quoddy Head Light

973 South Lubec Road, Lubec, Maine

westquoddy.com

 

Photo by Mimi Steadman

West Quoddy Lighthouse

A little more than two hours’ drive beyond Mount Desert Island, this iconic, candy-striped lighthouse has stood at the easternmost point in the contiguous United States since 1858. The red-and-white bands encircling the 49-foot-tall tower aren’t just decorative; they enhance its visibility in the area’s notorious fog and storms. Witnessing sunrise here is a moving experience, especially around the spring and autumnal equinoxes, when this is the first place in the country to see the dawn. (Earth’s changing position relative to the sun bestows this distinction on other Maine spots at other times of the year.) Why is it called West Quoddy Head Light when it’s so far east? Because East Quoddy Head Light lies a few miles farther east on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada.

Mimi Bigelow Steadman lives on the Maine coast, not far from Pemaquid Point. She appreciates lighthouses not only for their beauty and role in maritime history, but also for their guidance when she and her husband navigate nearby waters.

Top photo: Cape Neddick Light Station (a.k.a. Nubble Light) | Photo by Howard Arndt

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