September 22, 2011 — Once called The Graveyard of the Sea, New Jersey has one of the most treacherous coastlines along the Atlantic coast. Strung along the 127-mile coastline are lighthouses that shine through the night offering refuge to returning ships and perfect photo opportunities for those who visit.
Plan a trip in the spring or fall to miss the summer crowds. They’re all easily accessible by the Garden State Parkway, and your tour can easily be completed in a weekend, or even one day if you like to rise with the sun and go all day. Imagine seeing the sunrise on Sandy Hook’s quaint peninsula and the sunset on Cape May’s Sunset Beach. We begin our tour at the northern tip:
Located in Sandy Hook at the north end of the Jersey Shore, The Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in the U.S. Follow the signs from Route 36 to the Gateway National Recreational Area (exit 117 on the Garden State Parkway). Built in 1764, the Sandy Hook Lighthouse sits on the grounds of Fort Hancock. In 1964, on the anniversary of its first lighting, the light was declared a national historic landmark.
A short drive in Highlands, the Twin Lights Lighthouse doesn’t look like the typical cylinder-shaped house we’re accustomed to, but rather resembles a medieval fortress. Built in 1862, the lights aren’t identical, but fraternal twins, and are formerly known as the Navesink Lighthouse. Follow the signs when traveling from Sandy Hook; the lighthouse is located off of Route 36, which runs parallel to the ocean. There is a museum and gift shop on the grounds along with picnicking facilities. Guided tours for groups can be arranged by calling ahead.
About a 40-minute drive south of Sandy Hook, you’ll find the charming Sea Girt Lighthouse, located at Ocean and Beacon Avenues in Sea Girt (off exit 98 on the Garden State Parkway). Built in 1896 and restored in 1981, this house-style light is owned and operated by the city of Sea Girt. The lighthouse has an interesting history. It wasn’t built as a signal for ships, but rather for light between the Twin Lights and Barnegat. When you visit take a few moments to relax across the street on one of the many benches that overlook the beach and the ocean.
On Long Beach Island, a little over an hour’s drive from Sandy Hook, you’ll find the Barnegat Lighthouse, first built in 1834. Today it’s probably the Jersey Shore’s most photographed lighthouse. You can take the Garden State Parkway South from Sea Girt (exit 69) and follow the signs. “Old Barney”, as it’s fondly nicknamed, collapsed in 1856 during a storm, but was reconstructed the following year, and now stands strong. Its 217 steps are climbable for the adventurous, but only on weekends. There is also a gift shop on the grounds.
Located at Pacific and Rhode Island Avenues in Atlantic City (off exit 38 of the Garden State Parkway), the Absecon Lighthouse was built in 1857, and was a longtime landmark of Atlantic City. Because Atlantic City was the most popular tourist spot along the east coast, the lighthouse was once a major tourist attraction—probably the most famous in the country. Between 1912 and the early 1950s, it was the most visited lighthouse in the U.S. with over 10,000 visitors per year.
In Wildwood (off exit 6 of the Garden State Parkway), the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, a Victorian-style light unlike any other at the Jersey Shore, sits regally at First and Central Avenues. It was built in 1874 and meant to serve as a landmark for fishermen who worked off Five Mile Beach returning to shore through the treacherous channel in the inlet. It’s open to the public and houses the Wildwood Information center. Surrounded by gardens, with a short walk to the beach, the grounds will give you a great view of the inlet.
Located in historic Cape May, a short distance from Wildwood (follow Ocean Drive south), The Cape May Lighthouse can be found by following signs to Cape May Point State Park. Built in 1859, the light stands 157 feet, 6 inches tall and has 199 steps. The lighthouse is open to the public, and the area is popular for bird and marine wildlife watchers. Less than a mile south sits Sunset Beach, a spectacular place to watch the sunset, and a perfect way to end your day and your tour.