I’ve always been fascinated by lighthouses. When I was a kid, I dreamed about living in one – either as the child of a lighthouse keeper or as a lighthouse keeper myself.
Though automated beacons and GPS navigation have ended the days of the lighthouse keeper, the lore and romanticism of lighthouse life has been kept alive by volunteers and organizations that preserve and restore our picturesque and historic beacons. Along the 840-mile coastline of California, about 15 lighthouses offer tours and several others can be visited and seen from the outside.
One of the most rugged and spectacular is Point Sur, on the northern end of the Big Sur coastline. The lighthouse has stood on a rock since 1889. Until the 1930s, it could only be reached by boat or mule trail, making it one of the most isolated light stations in the nation.
Today, the lighthouse continues to shine as an additional source of security for mariners. It also welcomes visitors on regularly scheduled tours. Although it is owned by California State Parks, it is maintained by devoted volunteers.
Over the past few decades, they have worked to restore the light tower and the buildings that stand atop the rock. A complete light station consists of more than just a light tower, and Point Sur is the only complete light station in California that the public can visit.
When I first visited it as a child in the early 1990s, only the tower was open. When I returned last month, it was exciting to see that the tower had undergone a complete restoration and I was able to explore several additional meticulously restored buildings: the carpenter/blacksmith shop, the barn and the head keeper’s house. The three-story residence of the three assistant keepers and their families is being restored and will be open in the next few years. A visitor center/gift shop offers additional exhibits, souvenirs and warm drinks at the end of each tour.
The knowledgeable and friendly guides do an excellent job of explaining the story of the lighthouse and other interesting history – such as the nearby Point Sur Naval Facility’s role during the Cold War and the helium-filled dirigibles the Navy used to patrol the coast in the 1930s. From April to October, tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and at 1 p.m. Wednesdays. In July and August, additional tours are offered at 10 a.m. on Thursdays.
From November through March, tours are offered Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m. and Wednesdays at 1 p.m. The cost is $12 for adults and $5 for ages 6 to 17; children under 6 are free. Because tours are popular and reservations are not offered, I recommend arriving at least 30 minutes early. Visitors meet the tour guides at a gate on the west side of Highway 1, 19 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel. On your tour, expect to walk about a mile and climb about 360 feet in elevation. Accommodations can be made in advance for visitors with disabilities.
A special living history day to celebrate the first lighting of Point Sur’s beacon is set for Aug. 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Instead of walking to the top of the rock, transportation will be offered every 15 minutes. Docents in period costumes will lead the events, including games, activities and crafts for children. Although food is not allowed on normal tours, picnicking will be allowed on this day. Admission is $25 for adults and $15 for children.
A variety of special tours, including tours on full-moon nights, whale-watching tours and Halloween-themed tours are offered. For information about all tour options, go to www.pointsur.org or call (831) 625-4419. If you visit the lighthouse, be prepared for strong winds by wearing layered clothing and a hat without a brim.
You can visit Point Sur as a long day trip from the Merced area, or you can stay overnight in the Monterey-Carmel-Pebble Beach area, or in Big Sur itself. If you stay in the Big Sur area, there are plenty of hiking, scenic driving, campgrounds, restaurants and picturesque beaches to enjoy. For more information, go to www.bigsurcalifornia.org.