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Active & Historic Lighthouses in South Florida

by
May 22nd, 2024

Mariners have been navigating Florida’s dangerous waters for centuries, and many wrecks now litter the sea floor thanks to reefs, shoals and shallow sands. 

To combat the risk of wrecking and running aground, Florida’s lighthouses have been guiding the way for seafarers since the mid 19th century, offering safe passage and dire warning for sailors navigating these treacherous waters. 

Here are the lighthouses that are still standing in the Florida Keys and in southeast Florida, most of which you can still see today and some of which you can visit!

11 lighthouses in South Florida

Key West Lighthouse

Year built: 1825

Can you visit?: yes

Can you climb it?: no

This lighthouse is one of the most famous ones in the state and likely the one you've seen in pictures before. Built in 1825, it's located at the southernmost point of the continental United States and is a classic example of a brick lighthouse. It's open for tours and offers stunning views of the turquoise waters around Key West.

Life in the Florida Keys on Instagram: "Key West stair-stepper? The Key West Lighthouse is a historic lighthouse located in Key West, Florida. It was first built in 1825 but has y gone several renovations and upgrades since then. The lighthouse played a crucial role in guiding ships through the treacherous Florida Straits. Originally using oil lamps with a lens system, the lighthouse was later upgraded to a first-order Fresnel lens, significantly improving its visibility. Today, the lighthouse is a popular tourist attraction and is part of the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum, which provides visitors with a glimpse into the maritime history of the area. The view from the top of the lighthouse offers a stunning panorama of the surrounding landscape and the nearby ocean. It’s 88 steps to the top — but worth it! Have you been to the Key West Lighthouse yet? @kwlighthouse ✨Follow for more as we share our slice of paradise with you. __________________________ #nationallighthouseday #lighthouse #keywest #historic #history #historiclocations #keywestflorida #florida #travel #lighthouses"

13 likes, 2 comments - islandlifeinthefloridakeys on August 7, 2023: "Key West stair-stepper? The Key West Lighthouse is a historic lighthouse located in Key West, Florida. It was first built in 1825 but h...".

Dry Tortugas (Loggerhead Key) Lighthouse

Year built: 1858

Can you visit?: yes

Can you climb it?: no

This lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, built in 1858, is the stronger and taller of the two Dry Tortugas lighthouses and was constructed due to the numerous issues with the Garden Key Lighthouse. 

The 150-foot tall conical brick tower has a first-order Fresnel lens and is still an active aid to navigators in the treacherous waters. While visitors cannot enter the lighthouse itself, it's still a prominent feature when visiting Loggerhead Key at Dry Tortugas National Park.

Dry Tortugas National Park on Instagram: "The Carnegie Marine Biological Laboratory, also referred to as the Tortugas Laboratory, was a marine biology laboratory and research facility constructed on the northern end of Loggerhead Key that operated from 1904 to 1939. Constructed and operated by the Carnegie Institution of Washington under Director Alfred G. Mayor, it was at this very lab that researchers were able to capture the world's first underwater color photograph. Scientists also conducted undersea mapping of coral reefs and growth rates and studied the marine life found in the Loggerhead Key coral reefs. Some of these studies are still used today! As the first tropical marine lab in the western hemisphere, the lab and its scientists embodied a profound dedication to revealing some of the mysteries of the aquatic world. A new National Park Service video "Islands of Discovery" transports viewers to an era of scientific discovery that started over a century ago and still continues in Dry Tortugas National Park today. The film is part of the NPS series titled, "Parks in Science History," a series of articles and videos made in cooperation with graduate students from various universities, highlighting the roles that national parks have played in the history of science and, therefore, the world's intellectual heritage. To view the full short film, visit our website: https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/historyofscience_marinelaboratory.htm NPS Video by Hyatt Mamoun (@HyattoftheWoods ) Video Description: A short trailer for the film "Islands of Discovery" depicting Dry Tortugas National Park and the history of the Carnegie Marine Biological Laboratory. #ParksInScienceHistory #DryTortugas #DryTortugasNationalPark #FindYourPark #EncuentraTuParque"

1,124 likes, 4 comments - drytortugasnps on August 18, 2023: "The Carnegie Marine Biological Laboratory, also referred to as the Tortugas Laboratory, was a marine biology laboratory and research faci...".

Garden Key (Fort Jefferson) Lighthouse

Year built: 1826

Can you visit?: yes

Can you climb it?: no

Built in 1826, this lighthouse sits atop the massive Fort Jefferson out at the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys. It was the first of the two lighthouses built out there and played a crucial role in guiding ships through the treacherous waters for many years. However, it was soon apparent that the lighthouse was not strong enough to safely guide ships around the cluster of reefs, keys and shoals, and a second lighthouse was built on Loggerhead Key in 1858 to help. The Garden Key Lighthouse was later retired from service in 1924.

Fun fact: although the lighthouse was originally built on the ground, it was disassembled and reassembled atop one of the fort’s bastions in 1876 after a series of storms damaged it.

Sand Key Lighthouse

Year built: 1826

Can you visit?: no

Can you climb it?: no

The abandoned Sand Key Lighthouse is now little more than a case study engineering and common sense.

This small lighthouse is located about 8 miles southwest of Key West and was built to warn mariners of the sandy shoals to the northwest. The lighthouse worked for a while, until the small island it was built on slowly got swallowed up by the water! A bad storm in 1846 washed away the keeper’s dwelling, the sea wall and the lighthouse all in one night, and although another lighthouse was built on the exact same spot in 1853, storms continued to slowly wash away any new dwellings, wharfs, piers and oil houses. The bare bones of the deactivated lighthouse still stand today, but there are no lights, no people and no land left to accompany it. 

American Shoal Lighthouse

Year built: 1880

Can you visit?: no

Can you climb it?: no

Built to fill the 50-mile gap between Sand Key and Sombrero Key Lighthouses, this historic lighthouse is located southeast of Key West and played a vital role in guiding ships past dangerous reefs.  

The American Shoal Lighthouse is a screw-pile-style lighthouse with a cast-iron platform supporting a wrought-iron tower. It's currently inactive, but efforts are underway to preserve this historic structure.

Sombrero Key Lighthouse

Year built: 1858

Can you visit?: no

Can you climb it?: no

The Sombrero Key Lighthouse, built in 1858, is located on a tiny island about 5 miles south of the Seven Mile Bridge. It’s made with a skeletal iron tower structure and is the tallest of the Florida Keys lighthouses at a full 142 feet above sea level.

It was deactivated in 2015, but the bright red lighthouse is still there and is a popular spot for snorkelers!

Alligator Reef Lighthouse

Year built: 1873

Can you visit?: no

Can you climb it?: no

This popular lighthouse is located about 3.5 miles off Islamorada in the Florida Keys. 

Named after the nearby Alligator Reef, the cast-iron skeletal structure was constructed to warn ships about the hazardous coral formations and shallow shoals in the area after a handful of complaints made their way to Congress. The lighthouse is currently inactive, however some scuba diving and snorkeling expeditions offer glimpses of the underwater remains of the USS Alligator, the namesake of the reef.

Carysfort Reef

Year built: 1852

Can you visit?: no

Can you climb it?: no

Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, located east of Key Largo, Florida, holds the title of the oldest functioning lighthouse of its type in the United States until its decommissioning in 2015.

Built in 1852, the lighthouse features a screw-pile foundation (a method where iron piles are screwed into the seabed to create a stable base) that supports a platform and a skeletal, octagonal tower painted red. This type of construction was particularly useful for lighthouses built on water, since it was easier to build than a brick-and-mortar structure and could withstand strong winds. 

Cape Florida Lighthouse

Year built: 1852

Can you visit?: yes

Can you climb it?: yes

This lighthouse has been standing watch over the busy Biscayne Bay for almost 200 years!

Built in 1825, the Cape Florida Lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is the oldest structure in Miami-Dade County. Constructed on a coral reef foundation, the tall white brick tower stands 95 feet tall and is topped by a black walkway and lantern house.

Side note: the lighthouse is currently (as of April 2024) under renovation, so keep checking their website for information on when it will reopen!

Fowey Rocks Lighthouse

Year built:1878

Can you visit?: no 

Can you climb it?: no

Located about 6.5 miles southeast of Key Biscayne, this lighthouse was built in 1878 to warn ships about the dangerous Fowey Rocks reef. Fowey Rocks Lighthouse is, like most of the lighthouses in Florida, a screw-pile lighthouse with a wrought-iron tower and was the last lighthouse in the state to be automated. been automated since 1967. Today, it's part of Biscayne National Park and is accessible by boat!

Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse

Year built: 1907

Can you visit?: no

Can you climb it?: no

This hundred-year-old lighthouse is located near Hillsboro Beach and played a crucial role in guiding ships through the Boca Raton Inlet. It's an active Coast Guard lighthouse and remains an important navigational aid to the Fort Lauderdale/Boca Raton area!

Unfortunately, this lighthouse isn't accessible to the public, so there’s no way to see the inner workings. You can see it from the beach, though, but that’s as much as you can do. 

If you live in or near our luxury South Florida apartments, then you’re close to at least a few of these amazing historic lighthouses! Go check them out sometime!

Enjoy!

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Featured photo by Adrian Diaz-Sieckel on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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