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Last summer, Rich and I headed down Cape for a day of exploring, as we often do when guests are safely off on their own adventures. The day dawned bright blue with clear skies, a picture-perfect day for exploring. We headed east on Route 6 checking the map for interesting places to scout out for our guests. I spotted Highland Light in Truro and charted a course to this new and as yet unexplored (at least by us) destination.
Unlike many of Cape Cod’s lighthouses, Highland Light offers guided tours for a small fee and is open most days from late spring through fall. The lighthouse sits on a bluff adjacent to the Highland Links golf course and the Highland House museum, a former turn-of-the-century grand summer hotel. We did not spring for the entrance fee to the museum, which is home to a collection of Victorian era artifacts. The lure of the lighthouse itself was too powerful.
Having paid our entrance fee, we began the ascent of a spiral staircase, whose 59 steps would bring us to the top. At the first landing, we were greeted by a docent, whose knowledge of all things lighthouse was truly enlightening. We learned that each lighthouse has a signature beacon that identifies its location to sailors, the true meaning of the word “cape” as in Cape Cod, and a myriad of other trivial tidbits of lighthouse lore.
Although the docent moved to Cape Cod in 1946, he was still considered a “wash ashore”, not unlike a “flatlander” to our mountain neighbors in North Conway, NH, or anyone who is “from away” in a locale whose natives bear a proud history and tradition. The docent’s neighbor had been none other than Edward Hopper, the artist who spent his summers painting in Truro, and whose home still stands among the dunes of the National Seashore.
The view from the top of the lighthouse extends from Cape Cod Bay around the Provincetown hook to the Atlantic ocean. On any given day from May through October visitors might spot the distant spout of whales frolicking offshore. We climbed the remaining steps to the lighthouse beacon itself and were rewarded with a 360-degree view that included the Jenny Lind Tower.
Extending over 50 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Cod has always been difficult to navigate due to its rugged coastline, dangerous sand bars and rip tides, and few safe harbors. Over the past 300 years, there have been more than 3,000 shipwrecks in the waters off the Cape, mainly along the treacherous outer shore between Provincetown and Chatham.
Before the days of the Cape Cod Canal, during the 19th-century heyday of busy shipping between Boston and New York, lighthouses were essential to protect ships from dangerous shoals. Today, seven lighthouses still operate, and several decommissioned lights still stand along the coastline. We highly recommend visiting at least one lighthouse during your visit to Cape Cod.
Nobska Point Light, Woods Hole
Nobska Point Light Station is extremely picturesque and may appear familiar, since it is frequently photographed. It towers over the waters of Vineyard Sound and serves as a beacon for Woods Hole Harbor and as a guide for mariners traveling between the Cape Cod mainland and Martha’s Vineyard Island. The light is easily accessible, and the view from the grounds looking across Vineyard Sound to Martha’s Vineyard is breathtaking. To get to Nobska Point Light from Falmouth, turn left at the intersection of Mass. Rt. 28 and Woods Hole Road, and follow Woods Hole Road about 3 miles to Church Street. Turn left and Nobska Lighthouse will appear about 1½ miles on the left. Limited parking is available opposite the light.
Stage Harbor Light, Chatham
This light used to serve as a beacon for Chatham’s “Old Harbor,” or Stage Harbor. In 1933 the original tower was disconnected and sold to the government. It remains as private property today and is occasionally opened during specially scheduled events. It provides a great backdrop upon entering and leaving Stage Harbor on a seal cruise. Stage Harbor Light is inaccessible by road. Off Mass. Rt.28 in Chatham, turn right at Barn Hill Road and continue one-half mile to Harding Beach Road. Turn right and continue to Harding Beach parking lot. You’ll walk over 1 mile along the beach to the light. Or you can view it from the end of Champlain Road in Chatham.
Chatham Light, Chatham
Today Chatham Light is also Chatham Coast Guard Station, a very important lifeboat station along this dangerous shore. There is ample parking at this site for a magnificent view of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Beach break, known as the Chatham Spit. Coin-operated telescopes along the bluff give you an enhanced view of the barrier beach beyond the entrance to the little harbor. The beach is easily accessible by stairs leading down from the parking lot. Look carefully and you might see seals sunning themselves on the beach any time of year. To get to Chatham Light, drive east on Main Street, Chatham, to the junction with Shore Road. Turn right and drive half a mile. Lighthouse parking is opposite overlook parking area.
Monomoy Light, Chatham
Monomoy Point Light is at the southern tip of Monomoy Island some 8 miles from the mainland. The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History is the only organization that can give you permission to enter the lighthouse and enjoy the expansive view of the entire island from atop the lighthouse tower. You can stay overnight with a naturalist in the keeper’s quarters for an unforgettable wilderness experience by calling the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, (508) 896-3867; the cost is $145 per person. Reservations are required on a first-come first-served basis, and the museum runs two or three overnight excursions per month May through September. The island is only accessible by boat. The light itself is at the south end of the five-mile-long island.
Nauset Light, Eastham
Nauset Beach Light was, until recently, located atop a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to the efforts of friends of the lighthouse and the funds they raised, the light tower and keepers’ home (which is privately owned) was moved just west of its former site on property of the Cape Cod National Seashore to protect it from encroaching dune erosion. This working lighthouse is visible 15½ miles out to sea. It’s not tough at all to get to Nauset Light. Take U.S. Rt. 6 through Eastham and at the traffic lights at Cape Cod National Seashore Visitor Center turn right onto Nauset Road. Follow Nauset Road and it will merge with Doane Road; follow Doane to the intersection with Ocean View Drive. Bear left onto Ocean View Drive; 1 mile down the road is the Nauset Light Beach parking lot.
Three Sisters Lighthouses, Eastham
Nauset Beach Light Station was first established in 1839 with the construction of three small brick towers. Because of the three separate structures, the light station has always been known locally as the “Three Sisters of Nauset.” The Three Sisters have been moved back about a half-mile from the shore and are arranged in an attractive parklike setting, standing as a monument to all lighthouses still in existence. Directions: Same directions as to Nauset Light. Park in the beach parking lot and walk inland a quarter of a mile along a paved trail parallel to Cable Road. You’ll find the Three Sisters at the end of the trail.
Highland Light, Truro
Also known as Cape Cod Light, this is the Cape’s first lighthouse, built in 1797 at the request of George Washington. The light was rebuilt in 1857 and this is the 66-foot tower that you see today. This lighthouse’s other claim to fame is that it was moved away from the eroding high dune cliffs during 1996 and part of 1997 to save it from falling into the ocean. One of the most important lights on the East Coast for mariners, it is also a favorite destination for photographers and travelers. The current beacon, with over 620,000 candlepower, is the most powerful light in New England and shines about 20 miles to sea. You can get to Cape Cod Light from U.S. Rt. 6 in North Truro, turn onto Highland Road, which is over three miles north of Truro Center. At the end of Highland Road, turn right onto Lighthouse Road and you’ll see the parking lot.
Race Point Lighthouse, Provincetown
Built in 1876, this lighthouse was manned by a lightkeeper until 1972 when the light station was automated and the last keeper vacated the house. After the light station was automated (it now runs on solar power) the lightkeeper’s house fell into disrepair. In recent years, the New England Lighthouse Foundation has completed a splendid renovation of the house, which is now used as a retreat for scientists and artists. It is not easily accessible; you can only reach it by four-wheel-drive vehicle or on foot, if you want to enjoy a ramble along the outermost shoreline. It takes some extra effort to get to the Race Point Light. From U.S. Rt. 6, turn right at the traffic lights onto Race Point Road, follow it to the end, and park in the parking lot at Race Point Coast Guard Station. Heading west, you must walk along the beach for about 2 miles.