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Growing up off the coast of Maine, I found lighthouses fascinating. Everything from how they were designed to the type of lenses they used captivated my young mind like nothing had since I’d learned dinosaurs were a thing. And unlike dinosaurs, which were confined inside the covers of books, I could touch and explore lighthouses.

Even as an adult, I find myself drawn to them as a travel destination. There’s something mysterious — and a bit romantic — about these brightly-lit towers, standing apart from the world on their precarious cliffs and shepherding ships safely to harbor. 

When I left the East Coast, I never thought I’d find another place so rich in lighthouses again; but as it turns out, California’s coast is littered with them: tall lighthouses, short lighthouses, fat lighthouses, skinny lighthouses. Every kind of lighthouse you can imagine is within driving distance in California; you just have to know where to find them. 

What’s more, my daughters appear to have inherited my odd fascination with these seaside guardians. We’ve been spending quite a bit of time driving up and down the Pacific Coast to gawk at California lighthouses. So I thought it’d be fun to write a brief guide on our family’s favorite lighthouses — just in case there are any other little lighthouse aficionados out there. 

Whether you’re just going for a day trip or to satisfy a deep curiosity, please enjoy the 9 best lighthouses to visit on the California coast with kids! 

 

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9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

 

Point Reyes Lighthouse

Perhaps most famous for appearing in John Carpenter’s film The Fog, a spooky flick about ghost pirates haunting a seaside town, the Point Reyes Lighthouse is much more than just a movie set. Operated by the National Park Service, this remote lighthouse offers gorgeous views of the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Gulf of Farallones from atop its towering headlands.

From the parking lot, you’ll have to walk about half a mile to the Lighthouse Visitor Center and then down 313 steps to the actual lighthouse. Be careful on the way down, as the stairway is narrow and rickety; we held our daughters just to make sure no one accidentally slipped. Trust me, the walk is worth it though: as soon as we reached the bottom, we were greeted by some of the most stunning views of the Pacific Ocean we’d ever seen. 

 

Pro Tip: Remember to pack a windbreaker when you visit Point Reyes Lighthouse, as the coastal breezes can buffet you from atop the bluffs.

 

Point Reyes Lighthouse - 9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

The view descending to Point Reyes Lighthouse. Photo by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash.

 

Point Bonita Lighthouse

Located at the entrance to the Golden Gate Straits, the Point Bonita Lighthouse has guarded the entrance to the Bay for over 150 years. I first saw this lighthouse when our family crossed the Golden Gate Bridge a couple years ago, and I’d wanted to visit it ever since. Finally, on a foggy day in spring (Surprise, it’s the Bay!) we finally made it down to Point Bonita — and it was well worth the wait.   

To reach this lighthouse, you pass through a hand-carved tunnel and cross a narrow suspension bridge over frothing breakers. Our youngest got a little wobbly crossing over, but she was fine once we got her back on terra firma

Needless to say, it’s a bit of an adventure even getting to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. But once you’re there, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible panorama of the California coastline and the Bay. 

Please note: This lighthouse has limited visiting hours: Sundays and Mondays from 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm. We highly recommend getting there early as lines can get longer towards the end of the day.

 

Pro Tip: Point Bonita Light is an incredible spot for a family photo session, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco visible on clear days.

 

Point Bonita Lighthouse - 9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

Watch your step on this suspension bridge leading to the Point Bonita Light. Photo by Siam Choudhury on Unsplash.

 

Battery Point Lighthouse

At first glance, Battery Point Lighthouse appears grim and remote, perched atop its craggy islet. Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll find an inviting Cape Cod-style lighthouse set atop a small hill, picturesquely surrounded by lavender flowers and beach grass. Situated just off the coast of Crescent City, California, the Battery Point Lighthouse is a lovely spot for a family picnic and photo session, especially on warm summer days when the weather is o’ so fine.  

Battery Point Lighthouse is only accessible at low tide and only on certain days, depending on the time of year. Tours of the lighthouse are available, including of the tower and lens. Our girls had a lot of fun popping into the lantern room and admiring the classic prism. From atop this lighthouse’s observation deck, you’ll find lovely views of Crescent City Harbor.

One of the first beacons ever built in California, Battery Point Lighthouse has been continuously occupied for over 160 years. Now considered a “private aid to navigation”, this adorable little lighthouse is cared for by the Del Norte Historical Society who’ve built a museum about its history close by.

 

 

Battery Point Lighthouse - 9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

Battery Point Lighthouse at high tide. Photo by Jenny Bayon on Pixabay.

 

Old Point Loma Lighthouse 

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse only operated for 36 years, making it one of the shortest run lighthouses in California history. After determining that the lighthouse’s beacon couldn’t pierce the dense fog banks in the region, the City of San Diego moved the keeper and his family to the New Point Loma Lighthouse closer to the water.

After its retirement, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse (as it became known) served as a museum, displaying what life was like for the families that tended to it during its brief tenure. The museum is excellent, displaying all sorts of artifacts from the Golden Age of Lighthouses.

Today, Old Point Loma Light is part of the Cabrillo National Monument. From its perch, you’ll be greeted by stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and San Diego. Near the lighthouse is a two-mile walking trail that looks out to downtown San Diego and the surrounding harbor. Our girls particularly enjoyed walking along the edge of the coast and picking wildflowers to weave into bracelets.

 

Don’t Miss! Flying Over Trees – Ziplining in Wrightwood, California 

 

Old Point Loma Lighthouse - 9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

Old Point Loma Light on its perch. Photo by Manuel Weber on Unsplash.

 

Point Arena Lighthouse 

Towering 115 feet tall and standing at the edge of Point Arena, the Point Arena Lighthouse is difficult to miss. Unlike many of the lights on this list, the Point Arena Lighthouse is still in operation, over 150 years after its beacon was first lit in 1870. In 1984, the Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers, Inc. acquired the historic lighthouse from the U.S. Coast guard and the Department of Transportation. After 25 years of careful stewardship, they became the lawful owner of the lighthouse and manage its care to this day.

In addition to the region’s natural beauty, the area around Point Arena Lighthouse is popular with whale-watchers who come to see the yearly migration of Gray Whales, Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, and even the gargantuan Blue Whales. 

 

Pro Tip: Point Arena Lighthouse is a perfect place to sit back, relax, and watch the sunset with your family.

 

Point Arena Lighthouse - 9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

Point Arena Lighthouse towering over the bluffs. Photo by Simon Hurry on Unsplash.

 

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse

Not to be confused with the Point Loma Lighthouse in the Cabrillo National Monument near San Diego, the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is located in northern California near Mendocino. Perched at the edge of a sandstone headland, this lighthouse offers a spectacular look at the Pacific Ocean, particularly around sunset. Like the Point Arena Lighthouse, this light station is also an excellent spot to watch the annual whale migrations.

 

Pro Tip: Bring your binoculars on a clear day and see how much marine life you can spot from atop the headlands!

 

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse - 9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

Look at that prism! Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash.

 

Alcatraz Island Lighthouse 

Although it may not be the most attractive lighthouse on our list, we’d be remiss not to mention one of the first lighthouses ever to be illuminated on the West Coast: the Alcatraz Island Lighthouse. The island prison on Alcatraz Island itself is worth a visit, and while you’re there, we encourage you to check out this little-known lighthouse situated smack-dab in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. 

Sadly, the lighthouse has mostly fallen into disrepair, meaning you won’t be able to go up to the lantern room. Nevertheless, from its base, you’ll find excellent views of San Francisco, especially at night when all the City is brightly lit up like a carnival.

 

Don’t miss! Family Trip To San Francisco on the Cheap

 

Alcatraz Island Lighthouse - 9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

The Alcatraz Ferry affords excellent views of the lighthouse. Photo by Tamás Szabó on Unsplash.

 

Point Pinos Lighthouse

First lit on February 1, 1855, the Point Pinos Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the West Coast. The Alcatraz Lighthouse is technically older, but it hasn’t been in continuous operation. In addition to being the oldest, Point Pinos is also one of the most complete lighthouses left on the West Coast: the lens, prisms, and building are all original, and in pristine condition, I might add. 

The Point Pinos Lighthouse, located on the Point of the Pines in Pacific Grove, CA, is open 1-4pm on Thursday through Monday. Unlike many other lighthouses on this list, which are pretty remote, Point Pinos is surrounded by a number of interesting attractions that you can visit, such as the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, and the Pacific Grove Golf Links

We made a day out of it when we visited, hitting the lighthouse first and then the other attractions in the afternoon. Our girls had a blast running around and exploring the park in which the lighthouse is situated. Just make sure to bring a stroller for them to crash in once the sugar rush ends. 

 

Pigeon Point Light Station 

Clocking in at a lofty 115 feet, the Pigeon Point Light Station and the Point Arena Lighthouse are tied for the tallest lighthouses on the Pacific Coast. But while Point Arena is up in northern California, Pigeon Point is only a half-hour’s drive from Santa Cruz. Complete with a white tower and red-roofed keeper’s house, this light station looks like it was plucked right from the cover of a New England children’s book. 

Admission and parking are free and open to the public from 8 am to sunset every single day. From the parking lot, it’s only a ten-minute walk down Pigeon Point Road to the lighthouse itself, making this one of the best lighthouses to bring younger kids. Check the state parks website for tours of the lantern room and operating hours. 

 

Pro Tip: As the name suggests, there’s tons of excellent bird watching opportunities at this lighthouse, so don’t forget your binoculars!

 

Pigeon Point Light Station - 9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

Pigeon Point Light atop its lofty roost. Photo by Stephen Bedase on Unsplash.

 

Before You Go

Visiting lighthouses is a fun and pleasurable way to have a little mini-family vacation without having to stretch the budget. While many of these lighthouses are remote, they are within an hour-or-so drive from major towns and cities in California.

Call ahead of time to check the visiting hours. Nothing’s worse than driving a couple of hours only to learn that the lighthouse tower (or the lighthouse itself) is closed. 

Always bring extra layers, even if the weather’s nice. Lighthouses are built in places where fog is known to gather, so it’s not unlikely that you’ll experience humid and cold weather while you’re there. Even on the warmest of days, those sea breezes can chill you to your bones. 

Be aware of your surroundings. Lighthouses are usually right on the edge of cliffs with nothing but cold, churning water below them. Always be mindful of your surroundings when walking around them and keep your head down. If you do decide to traverse down to the shore, be careful and take your time on the slippery rocks. 

Be respectful of marine life. You’re here for a short time, but the things you do and the trash you leave can impact the environment long after you’ve departed. Please be respectful of the myriad animals and plants that call this region their home. Pick up your trash. Keep a respectful distance from any wild animals you come across and never try to pick them up. Doing so can be harmful to both of you. 

Enjoy yourself! Lighthouses are some of the coolest structures ever built! Plus, it’s not like the lighthouse is going to run away on you; take your time when exploring it; really get to know the area, and take lots of pictures!

 

As you may have gathered, our family loves lighthouses and is fascinated by their history and beauty. The sad fact of the matter is that many lighthouses (including some on this list) are slowly falling into disrepair. And while many are still in operation, many more have simply been left to crumble or have to rely on sporadic donations to maintain them. 

This is a sorry state of affairs, particularly when compared with all the pleasure lighthouses bring to those that visit them annually. So I encourage you, if you feel the desire to visit these lighthouses, and are willing and able, to give a small donation to help keep the light burning for many generations to come.

 

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9 Perfect California Lighthouses For Kids

 

Matthew LaMourie II is a freelance writer and photographer based in San Francisco, CA. He is a regular contributor to a number of online publications, where he covers such diverse topics as travel, lifestyle, cooking, and classic short stories. When not writing, Matthew likes to explore new and interesting places together with his growing family.

 

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