Touring Lighthouses In the National Wildlife Refuge System
Travelers the world over love America’s lighthouses, reminders of the country’s seafaring past. Today, the lights that once kept sailors off rocks and shoals have a second mission: providing safe harbor for nesting seabirds and a broad variety of other wildlife on federally protected land.
The role has become established over the last few decades since the U.S. Coast Guard transferred several lighthouses and the surrounding land to the National Wildlife Refuge System, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As word spreads about these historic and environmental treasures, their popularity continues to rise. Here are some favorite lighthouse sites, rich in both history and wildlife.
New England: Maine, Massachusetts
All of the refuge lighthouses except Two Bush Light (c. 1897) on Petit Manan Refuge date back to the early- to mid-1800s and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can view only the lighthouse exteriors. Viewing is best from the water; landing a boat on these remote offshore islands can be hazardous.
Seabirds using the islands include Atlantic puffins, endangered roseate terns, black guillemots, razorbills and common eiders. Thanks to Service efforts, many species that had suffered population declines have now returned to historic nesting areas. Other island nesters include wading birds and bald eagles. To minimize disturbance to nesting birds, the islands are closed to the public during nesting season, April 1 through August 31.
But the mainland also offers lots to see, including songbirds, such as hermit thrushes and Nashville warblers; shorebirds, such as red knots and sandpipers; and in the fall waterfowl, such as black ducks and green-winged teal. Visitors can also view island birds and lighthouses from tour boats. For more information and directions, visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/mainecoastal/ or call 207-546-2124.
On the “elbow” of Cape Cod, near the summer playground of Chatham, Massachusetts, the Monomoy Point Light Station, including a lighthouse, a keeper’s house and an oil shed, has stood since 1849. The light station wasn’t always the pristine area of beach grass and marshes it is today; during the early years of World War II, the U.S. Navy used nearby land as a gunnery range. In 1944, the land became the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.
Monomoy Refuge is a key shorebird migration rest stop along the North Atlantic Flyway and a magnet for birders. Many take pleasure in seeing federally protected species such as the piping plover and roseate tern. To protect vulnerable species, the Service fences off some areas of Monomoy Island. Peak bird migration is in the Fall, late July through September. The island also provides habitat for more than 200 resident bird species, including one of the largest colonies of common terns on the Atlantic seaboard, varying from 3,000 to over 10,000 nesting pairs.
Island tours, many with a focus on birdwatching, are conducted by several groups, including the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Tour fees range from about $20 to $35 per person. In season, the island ferry, called the Rip Ryder or (508-945-5450) takes visitors back and forth from Chatham for bird- or seal-watching tours; private charters are also available. Monomoy Island Excursions(508-430-7772) offers seal and seabird tours aboard a high-speed, 43-foot catamaran, leaving from Saquatucket. Harbor Outermost Adventures (508-945-5858) provides water taxi service to Monomoy Island; it also offers fishing, birding and seal-watching cruises.
The refuge headquarters and visitor contact station on Morris Island are a five-minute drive from downtown Chatham. The island also has a three-quarter-mile nature trail that winds through a variety of coastal habitats. Overlooks along the trail provide views of the refuge's North and South Monomoy Islands. Actually, South Monomoy is no longer an island; the Thanksgiving Day nor’easter of 2006 deposited enough sand in the Southway channel to form a land bridge between South Monomoy and South Beach. And this land bridge continues to grow.
North Monomoy Island is accessible only by private boat or commercial ferry. Most visitors to South Monomoy also prefer to access it by boat, although hardy visitors can reach it by walking about eight miles (one way) from the Chatham lighthouse. Visitors arriving by boat are advised to land on the west side, where a trail leads to the Monomoy Light. Visitors should check ahead with refuge staff to determine which parts of the refuge are open. For more information and directions, visit http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monomoy/ or call 508-945-0594.
Further up the coast, near Rockport, Massachusetts, the Cape Ann Light Station National Historic Landmark stands on Thacher Island National Wildlife Refuge and is also accessible by boat only. The lighthouse, built in 1861, replaced a 1771 beacon the last constructed in the American colonies under British rule. The 1771 structure was the first lighthouse built to mark a dangerous spot along the coast, rather than just a harbor entrance.
Thacher Island Refuge, managed by Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, is home to herring gulls and great black-backed gulls. It’s also a stopover site for songbirds and other seasonal migrants, including loons, grebes, cormorants and alcids (or auks). Today, the Thacher Island Association maintains the Cape Ann Light, also known as the north tower. A twin lighthouse called the south tower is located on adjacent town property and is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.
During the summer, the Thacher Island Association operates a 15-passenger tour boat to the island out of Rockport on Saturdays at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Reservations are required; to reserve, call 978-546-7697. The trip takes about 30 minutes. The boat returns to the mainland about two hours later. To contact the association, visit http://www.thacherisland.org. The island is also accessible by kayak (rentals are available in Rockport) or private boat. There is a boat ramp, but no dock, on the island. For more information and directions, visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/parkerriver/ or call 978-465-5753.
The South: Florida, Virginia
Today, the historic light is a major attraction at the St. Marks Unit of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, celebrated for its fishing, hiking, butterfly watching and birding. Boat ramps and nature trails help make this stretch of Gulf Coast popular with outdoor enthusiasts.
A seven-mile drive winds from the refuge visitor center through fresh and brackish water impoundments to the foot of the Apalachee Bay, near the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open to the public only a few days a year during special events. Future dates the lighthouse will be open for tours include during the annual Wildlife Heritage and Outdoors Festival on Saturday, February 5, 2011, and Florida Lighthouse Day on Saturday, April 23, 2011. Even when the refuge is closed, however, visitors can get a great view of it from the refuge.
The refuge charges a $5 entrance fee; the fee is waived for visitors with a federal Duck Stamp or annual pass. A plan to transfer lighthouse ownership from the U.S. Coast Guard to the refuge is near completion. Tours. For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/saintmarks/ or call 850-925-6121.
Cedar Key Light, located on Seahorse Key offshore from Cedar Key, Florida, was built in the mid-1850s in the hope that development would bring settlers to the area. The light now beckons travelers to the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, a national treasure known for its colorful birds, its marine life and its history. The refuge’s 13 coastal islands, reachable only by boat, provide feeding, nesting and breeding grounds for more than 20,000 wading birds such as ibis and egrets.
The light sits on the highest Pleistocene dune on the Gulf Coast. Since 1952, the University of Florida has used the lighthouse as a marine research center. Cedar Key Light is open to visitors only twice a year. Once, on a Saturday in July (the date varies with tide schedules), and again during the third week of October in conjunction with National Wildlife Refuge Week and the Cedar Key Seafood Festival.
A boat ramp in the town of Cedar Key, a base for commercial and sports fishing, is the closest access point to the refuge islands. The town charges a fee to use the ramp. Boat rentals and tours are also available from concessionaires. For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/cedarkeys/ or call 352-493-0238.
Assateague Lighthouse, surrounded by Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, is popular with tourists for its history, abundant wildlife and rich refuge lore. Built in 1833, the original lighthouse was only 45 feet tall. Found too short, it was rebuilt in 1867. The lighthouse now stands at 154 feet above high water mark on the Virginia portion of Assateague Island.
More than 320 species of birds have been recorded on this barrier island refuge, which has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and a National Audubon Society Top Ten birding hotspot. Its resident species include the bald eagle and piping plover. Famously, the refuge is also home to the famous wild Chincoteague ponies, descended from horses presumed to have swum ashore from Spanish galleons that foundered off the coast in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Lighthouse tours are offered by the Chincoteague Natural History Association on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. from April 1 through May 29, and from October 1 through November 30. Entry fees are $3 for children, ages 17 and under, and $5 for adults. Fees support the maintenance and restoration of the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open daily, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., from June through September.
The refuge maintains several miles of trails for hiking and biking and a loop wildlife drive. The Lighthouse Trail, a quarter-mile foot path through the woods to the lighthouse, is for walkers only. The refuge charges an $8-per-car entrance fee. Adjacent Assateague Island National Seashore, managed by the National Park Service, offers beach parking and bathhouse facilities. For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco/ or call 757-336-6122.
West Coast: Washington, Oregon
The light was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Lighthouse tours are available daily from volunteer keepers from the New Dungeness Light Station Association.
Public access to the refuge is by foot or horseback. Horses are not allowed on the main part of Dungeness Spit; hikers have year-round access to the spit. An easy 3/8-mile trail takes visitors through the forest from the refuge parking lot to an overlook on the bluff above the spit. From there, the trail drops down steeply for a half mile and continues 4.5 miles along the beach to the light station.
Refuge waters are open to boating (no-wake zone) from May 15 to September 30 up to the 100-yard buffer. Boats may land only at the designated landing site near the lighthouse; reservations are required. The entrance fee is $3 per family daily; the fee is waived for those with a federal Duck Stamp or annual pass. Pets are prohibited. Camping is available near the refuge in the adjacent Dungeness Recreation Area. For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/washingtonmaritime/dungeness/ or call 360-457-8451. Or visit http://www.newdungenesslighthouse.com/wildlife-refuge.html.
From April 1 through October 31, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, visitors can enter the base of the lighthouse tower, a quarter-mile down from the refuge parking lot. Admission is free. Both levels of the lighthouse were closed to the public in early 2010 after vandalism damaged the historic Fresnel lens but the lower level, containing a gift shop, has reopened.
Back up the hill, at the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint and Refuge Overlook, visitors can look over the cliff top on a clear day and view Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge to the south and Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge to the north. This makes it the only viewpoint in the country where three national wildlife refuges can be seen at once.
Elsewhere on the refuge, huge Sitka spruce and western hemlock, some of them hundreds of years old and more than 200 feet tall, provide habitat for a federally threatened bird species, the marbled murrelets, as well as nesting bald eagles. The popular Oregon Coast Trail runs through the center of the refuge.
The refuge hiking trail and the State Scenic Viewpoint are open year-round from sunrise to sunset. The viewpoint has two accessible viewing decks overlooking the nesting falcons and Three Arch Rocks Refuge. For more information, visit http://www.fws.gov/oregoncoast/capemeares/ or call 541-867-4550.
For a map of all national wildlife refuges and a detailed description of what each has to offer, visit http://www.fws.gov/refuges/.