Cape Cod is known for its beaches, golf courses, clam chowder and saltwater taffy. You can add lighthouses to that list. One could spend a full day or more touring the Cape’s iconic lighthouses, which have served as a beacon of safety for mariners for two centuries.
There are five lighthouses within around a 30-minute drive of Harwich, all worth visiting. You could begin your day in Chatham, home to Chatham Lighthouse and Stage Harbor Lighthouse.
Chatham Lighthouse, which opens to visitors in summer, sits 80 feet above sea level and remains an active Coast Guard station. In the old days, it was the only means of preventing ships from running aground, as its giant flashlight highlighted the jagged rocks of the coastline. It was moved from its original location in 1877 due to the erosion of the shoreline. Today, it is a favored spot for locals to take on the panoramic view, especially when the winds blow and the sea grows angry.
Stage Harbor Lighthouse, also called Harding’s Park Lighthouse, is the youngest on the Cape, having been built in 1880. Today, the lighthouse sits on private property, although tours are possible by appointment. But you don’t need to enter the gates to catch a glimpse of its remarkable architecture. Wonderful views are available from Harding’s Beach, and from the other side of the harbor, towards the end of Stage Neck Road.
From Chatham, venture to Eastham, home to Nauset Light since 1923. Originally constructed in 1877 as one of two towers in Chatham, it was moved to Eastham to replace three small wood lighthouses, known as the Three Sisters of Nauset, that had been decommissioned.
Located within the Cape Cod National Seashore, it is perhaps the most photographed lighthouse on the Cape. The top half of the all-white tower was painted red in the 1940s, giving the lighthouse its iconic appearance.
Its popularity became evident in 1993, when the Coast Guard proposed decommissioning the light. Public outrage followed, the nonprofit Nauset Light Preservation Society was formed, and it leased the lighthouse from the Coast Guard two years later. In 1996, the tower and the brick oil house, which weighed around 80 tons, had to be moved as coastline erosion brought it only 37 feet from the cliff’s edge. The light was again lit on May 10, 1997.
Continue along Route 6 into Truro and you’ll reach Highland Light, which is located alongside Highland Links Golf Course and was originally built in 1797. It is the oldest lighthouse on the Cape. (The golf course holds that same distinction.)
The current tower, favored by visitors such as Henry David Thoreau, was constructed in 1857. At the time, it stood 500 feet from the edge of a 125-foot cliff. By the early 1990s, only 100 feet separated the lighthouse from a watery grave.
So, just like Nauset Light would later, Highland Light underwent a dramatic move that would take 18 days, as the tower was lifted onto a wheeled platform that rested on a pre-constructed railway, and pushed slowly down the rails to its current site 450 feet away. It now sits between the seventh and eighth holes, where an errant golf ball actually once shattered a pane of glass in the lantern room. Unbreakable panes were quickly installed.
The tower is closed for major structural repairs until 2022, but the grounds, which include the Highland House Museum, remain open, providing breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean.
There may be no more scenic spot to complete your lighthouse tour than Race Point Light in Provincetown, which was first lit in 1816. Be sure to have your walking shoes on, for reaching the lighthouse requires a 45-minute journey over sand, although you can also make the trip in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
The original light featured one of the earliest rotating beacons, which distinguished it from others on the Cape. In 1876, the original tower was replaced with a 45-foot cast iron tower lined with brick, and a Fresnel lens was installed.
Race Point Light, at the tip of the Cape, feels like the end of the world and provides the perfect way to end your day. Bring a blanket, some cheese, and a bottle of wine and watch the sun disappear into the ocean behind the iconic lighthouse. It doesn’t get much better than that.