Florida Lighthouses Welcome Visitors

Florida Lighthouses Welcome Visitors

Florida Lighthouses – When it comes to climbing St. Augustine Lighthouse, remember this number – 219.

Florida Lighthouses - St. Augustine
St. Augustine Lighthouse. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

It will become important to you.

Getting to the top of St. Augustine Lighthouse means going up, up, up, yes, you got it, 219 steps up the curving staircase in a tower that gets narrower as it ascends.

But the effort is worth it. St. Augustine Lighthouse, built in 1874, stands 165 feet above sea level and the view is incredible.

I’m glad I made this climb.

At the top the first order Fresnel lens is still an active automated beacon – now powered by a 1,000-watt bulb. In the old days lighthouse keepers carried kerosene up all those stairs to light the light. They did this every day.

A Fresnel lens is a thing of beauty, not easily made or maintained. The St. Augustine lens has 370-hand cut glass prisms in a beehive shape. The lens reflects light so well mariners can see the fixed light signal for 19 miles and the flashing light signal for 24 miles.

Back on the ground, a Maritime Museum at the lighthouse base (former home of the lighthouse keeper and greatly restored) has all kinds of changing exhibits including a new one about shipwrecks.

Of course, what is a museum without a gift shop? Incomplete. No worries, there is a gift shop here.

I confess I bought the bumper sticker. The one that says I climbed all those steps.

Admission to the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum includes tower access, the restored Keepers house, nature trails and maritime archaeology artifacts. Behind the scenes tours at 11 a.m., 12 p.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. are included in admission.

Normal hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with extended summer hours of 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Adults are $12.95, seniors (60 and up) $10.95 and children ages 12 and under and 44’’ or taller, $10.95.

By the way, when it comes to children climbing the tower stairs with their adults, there are restrictions – children must be 44 inches tall and able to climb the stairs on their own.

See the Lighthouse Web site for additional educational tours like a Lighthouse paranormal tour: dark of the moon or a sunset/moonrise tour.

Florida Lighthouses are visual beacons and light beacons

Did you know Florida Lighthouses are both light beacons and also visual beacons? No two lighthouses are painted the same, so a mariner close to shore can easily see the black and white stripes on St. Augustine lighthouse, compare the colors to their charts and know where they are.

Further down the coast Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse is painted a deep shade of terra cotta. This is the tallest lighthouse in Florida, standing 175 feet tall. Construction was finished in 1887.

Florida Lighthouses - Fresnel lens
Fresnel lens at Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse & Museums. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

There are 203 steps to the top. I did this one too! And got the T-shirt. Did I mention that I really like lighthouses?

Their museum has, among other things, a lovely exhibit of Fresnel lenses. To me it was like walking through an art exhibit, quite exquisite.

The Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse and Museums are open 365 days a year, opening at 10 a.m. in the morning but evening closing changes with the seasons, so plan ahead.

Admission is $6.95 for adults 12 and over, $1.95 for children 11 and under and free for children up to the age of two.

Foodie alert: Just across the inlet is the Hidden Treasures Rum Bar & Grill, with outdoor deck seating that looks across the inlet at the Lighthouse. If you walked the 203 steps, you deserve to come here afterwards! Great food, great view.

Lighthouse keepers are long gone. Beacons are automated. But lighthouse allure continues. These front porch lights onto our communities make for a great road trip plus you get some serious exercise climbing steps as a side bonus.

Florida, with 1350 miles of coastline, has just 30 Florida Lighthouses left. Many need restoring and that is the priority for the Florida Lighthouse Association.

A number of lighthouses are open to the public, often with restored lighthouse keeper homes.

Florida Lighthouses are a good road trip anytime

My suggestion: Consider purchasing a book or two: “The Florida Lighthouse Trail” by Thomas Taylor and Paul Bradley and/or “Florida Lighthouses” by Kevin McCarthy, both on Amazon.

Also check individual lighthouse Web sites for hours, admission and all the trip essentials.

If you like your lighthouses closer to the ground, much closer, then visit Port Boca Grande Lighthouse built in 1890. It is just two stories tall, and the short steps to the light at the top are closed off. Walk up a short flight of stairs into what used to be the lighthouse keeper’s home and is now a small maritime museum.

The Lighthouse, on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island, marks the Boca Grande Pass entrance to Charlotte Harbor. It is inside Gasparilla Island State Park.

Florida Lighthouses - Boca Grande
Port Boca Grande Lighthouse. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

If you are visiting for the first time, as I did this past week, be prepared to be confused. Directions say to go all the way to the end of the road but there are signs along the way saying “welcome to Natural Florida” and “Parking for Gasparilla Island State Park” – you think you are there but you are not. Ignore all the signs, just keep going until finally, at long last, the dirt road dead ends.

Oh, and just to confuse things, along the way you will pass a tall structure that has a mini-lighthouse look – this is what is called a “rear range light” and was installed in 1927. Keep on going . . .

Nice beaches all around. Parking in the state park costs $3 plus getting over the causeway to Gasparilla Island costs $6. There is no entry fee to the museum.

Visitor alert: The lighthouse is closed the month of August for annual maintenance.

And, gentle readers, saving the surprise of the day for last, today August 6 is National Lighthouse Day!



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Florida lighthouses have great views

Florida lighthouses - earn the T shirt
Florida lighthouses – earn the T shirt

Florida lighthouses have great views but it takes effort to get to the view.

I earned this T-shirt pictured above the old-fashioned way – by actually doing what it says – climbing 203 stairs to the top of Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse. The lighthouse is 175 feet tall and the view from the top looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and Ponce Inlet.

This is a serious piece of construction. Brick walls are eight feet thick at the bottom tapering to two feet thick at the top. In the days long gone when blue uniformed lighthouse keepers keep things going they walked these stairs several times day and night.

What the shirt neglects to mention is that there are also 203 steps going DOWN, making a total of 406 spiraling stairs. Gasp!

Florida lighthouses have many steps to the top

No, they don’t give you a shirt. I bought it as a reward.

Florida lighthouses – a long climb to the view at the top

You see I am afraid of heights and claustrophobic. So what was I doing climbing the tallest lighthouse in Florida? Overcoming fears and knowing the only way to see the great view is to get up there. In the grand view of things, I’d rather be challenged climbing up a lighthouse than hanging off ropes in a ropes course for character building or whatever it is called.

Oh, and there was a video crew from Visit Florida following me wheezing up the spiral stairs. Yes, your Authentic Florida expert at work. The video on Florida lighthouses will be up on their site in a few weeks. Check out Visitflorida.com then click on Authentic.

Florida lighthouses - fresnel lens

Every landing there is a window and sometimes a ledge to sit on. While pretending to admire the view, I am actually trying to get breathing back to semi-normal. The windows have transoms that open allowing air inside, a really good idea.

I know doing this deed is not right up there with climbing Mount Everest or biking across the United States, but there is a rush to doing something difficult and succeeding. And when you see kids prancing up the stairs and down again, it becomes a matter of pride not to be bested by the younger set.

This lighthouse has a museum on the grounds that houses Fresnel lenses. To me they are amazing works of art – specially cut pieces of glass meant to magnify a small light (in the beginning given off by kerosene lantern) into a big light that can be seen by mariners 20 miles out to sea.

The Coast Guard deactivated the light in 1970. A Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association started in 1972. They maintain and restore the Lighthouse and grounds. The town of Ponce Inlet bought the lighthouse from the Coast Guard.

When you step inside the white picket fence, everything inside the picket fence dates from 1887 when the lighthouse opened. Museum staff restored the 1933 Rotating Third Order Fresnel lens and had it reinstalled. It gives out the signal from that era, but it is a private aid to navigation not a regular Coast Guard approved beacon.

Florida lighthouses

Of course, all that work means you’ve earned lunch too. Ask the staff where locals do lunch. They have several very good suggestions close by involving inlet views and seafood.

Florida lighthouses are an example of heritage travel

Florida has 33 lighthouses. You can work your way through the Lighthouse Trail. Click on this link to Amazon to see the book about the trail. So far I’ve climbed St. Augustine Lighthouse, Cape Florida Lighthouse at Key Biscayne (with my son Martin) and now Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse. Only a zillion more stairs to go.

Lucy Beebe Tobias is the author of “50 Great Walks in Florida” published by University Press of Florida, February, 2008. You can buy the book (and get it signed by the author) at her Web site. She climbed two lighthouses while researching the book. Lucy also is the Authentic Florida expert for Visit Florida.


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