Find history, intrigue and stories along the way on Washington’s lighthouse loop
This loop showcases some of Washington’s best lighthouses, with a drivable route that begins and ends in Seattle.
It’s easy to love lighthouses. Born of necessity, products of tempestuous seas and dangerous shores, they help us imagine the drama of life in another time, an age when sailors looked to stars instead of satellites and relied on human commitment and endurance to keep these critical beacons ashine. Irresistible trappings of the past, they beckon from remote places, steadfast symbols of hope and connection.
“Lighthouses are altruistic in nature, purposefully built to save lives,” says Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society. “People have an inherent emotional reaction to them.”
Headquartered in Hansville, Washington, on the tip of land called Point No Point, the nonprofit historical organization continues on its decades-long mission to save and share the legacy of American light stations and support lighthouse preservation across the nation. While Gales’ knowledge and enthusiasm extends to lighthouses around the globe, he admits to having a soft spot for our region’s local lights.
“Washington lighthouses are special because our waters and our coastlines are so special. You can travel just a short distance and find great variety. A full range of architecture and design, but something else, too,” he says. “These are places where multiple stories converge and overlap: natural history, Native American history, maritime history. With so many living layers to explore, there’s something to interest everyone.”
Here, we’re showcasing some of Washington’s best lighthouses, with a drivable route that begins and ends in Seattle. Divided geographically, with 22–26 hours of total travel time including ferry crossings, use it to plan a day trip, a weeklong adventure, or anything in between.
Seattle to San Juan Island
The jewel of Discovery Park’s wraparound beach, the West Point Lighthouse has marked the dangerous shoals of the northern entrance to Seattle’s Elliott Bay since 1881. The first Puget Sound light station to be manned and the last to be automated, it still illuminates this sandy point, which can offer stunning views of the Olympics, Mount Rainier and passing ships of every size and shape. A 1.8-mile trail to the beach begins just south of the Discovery Park Visitor Center; closer parking is reserved for visitors with disabilities or limitations.
Less than an hour north of Seattle, the Mukilteo Lighthouse winks from its namesake city park in an area that served as important meeting grounds for local Native American tribes for thousands of years. Designed by famed architect Carl Leick, this rare wooden lighthouse has an 1852 Fresnel lens with impeccable timing. A shoreside signal here since 1906, early lighthouse keepers considered it an ideal posting, with entertainment and amenities close at hand — a characteristic that remains happily true today.
The ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor arrives equidistant from the two very different lighthouses that inhabit San Juan Island, both worthy of a visit. The small but stately Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse within the state park of the same name sits on the rocky western shore overlooking Haro Strait, a slice of water that is part of the Pacific Northwest’s “orca highway.” A self-guided tour of the grounds offers opportunities to spy passing pods of resident whales, whose calls are recorded at the onsite research station. Further southeast, in a contrasting, arid landscape, the Cattle Point light keeps a lonely watch over a watery panorama, with captivating pools that glisten from below during low tides. (A Discover Pass parking permit is required; there’s no pay station onsite.)
Hit the Coast
A ribbon of highway cruises through quaint farmland and coastal forests to the Grays Harbor Lighthouse next to Westport Light State Park. Although it was built only 400 feet from the high tide line in 1898, years of accretion have completely landlocked this light, which now sits more than 3,000 feet from the water’s edge. The local marina, a mid-20th-century gem, never disappoints.
On the Long Beach Peninsula, two towers guard the infamous Graveyard of the Pacific. The North Head Lighthouse, a recent beneficiary of a three-phase, multimillion-dollar restoration, stands more than 200 feet above the ocean, with 180-degree views enveloping painstakingly preserved buildings and grounds. Spearheaded by Washington State Parks with support from the Keepers of the North Head Lighthouse community group, the project empowers its 75,000 annual visitors to experience a piece of life in 1898 with 21st-century perspective.
“We are what we are because of the past,” says Keepers President Lona Niemi. “This lighthouse celebrates that past and stands as a monument to history and the people who dedicated and sometimes sacrificed their lives in service to others.”
A state and local treasure, the spot offers self-guided interpretive walks and connects with the paved Discovery Trail hiking/biking route that runs from Long Beach to Ilwaco. Further south on state park premises, catch a glimpse of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and its signature black stripes from the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center or the Jetty Road overlook just beyond Waikiki Beach.
South Sound to Seattle
On the grounds of a well-kept neighborhood park with full amenities, Tacoma’s Browns Point Lighthouse is an unexpected pleasure that feels more like a Cold War radio relic than a maritime beacon, making it all the more fascinating. Juxtaposing views of the city and the mountains enhance the allure, along with the ever-present ship traffic.
On the southeastern tip of Vashon-Maury Island, the 10-acre park on Point Robinson is a perfect urban escape with a 38-foot-tall octagonal lighthouse keeping a careful eye on a former salt marsh habitat that nudges up against the sandy shore.
Further north and back across Puget Sound in West Seattle, its mirror image looks out from Alki Point. Positioned on an active Coast Guard Station in a residential area, hours of direct access to this elegant lighthouse are limited, but sneak peeks can be had from the beach at the right low tide. For perfect happiness, simply add a sunset.
– Written by Lynette Rae McAdams, who previously guided Journey readers to Northwest tide pools and the incredible humpback migration between Hawaii and Alaska. Her favorite Washington lighthouse experience is spotting Pacific gray whales and their new calves migrating past North Head in May.
This article appears in the July/August 2021 edition.
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