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Guiding Lights: Exploring the Rich History of 10 Florida Keys Lighthouses

florida keys lighthouses

Seeing a place from above is made possible by lighthouses. However, many of the Florida Keys lighthouses are of the skeletal form and are situated on the reef off the coast, making it impossible to climb them. Thankfully, this does not hinder you from visiting by chartering a boat or leaving from the location where you have rented a private boat slip. Some are visible from the ground and are fantastic places to go snorkeling.

If they are already on your itinerary, you should know each Florida Keys lighthouse’s location and how to find them. In addition to providing stunning views, these charming structures provide a window into the rich maritime past of the Florida Keys.

Explore these 10 stunning Florida Keys lighthouses:

Alligator Reef Lighthouse

Alligator Reef Lighthouse was built in 1873 and is close to the Matucumbe Keys, four nautical miles east of Indian Key. This tower is visible when traveling overseas routes close to Islamorada, unlike other lighthouses farther away from the highways. The U.S. Coast Guard runs it, and isn’t accessible for public climbing, but diving and snorkeling activities are excellent there. 

The name Alligator Reef Lighthouse was inspired by the Navy Schooner “Alligator,” a ship that fought pirates in the Key West. This lighthouse was first constructed in 1873 as an iron pile skeleton frame with a black lantern situated 136 feet above the sea. To help sailors determine their sector, the light alternates between shining red and white.

Over the years, this lighthouse employed many keepers until it was automated in 1963. Though it may have been a little depressing for the men guarding it, having no one in danger was safer because the area is vulnerable to hurricanes. Although the light was turned off in 2015, it was said in 2019 that any organization wishing to use it for preservation or education would be granted access to the lighthouse. Watch this recent news from WPLG Local 10 saying the Alligator Reef Lighthouse is shining again:

You cannot reach this lighthouse by road because it is situated in the waters of Alligator Reef. To obtain a closer view, you can dive or snorkel nearby. You can also rent a boat to get there.

Sombrero Key Lighthouse

Sombrero Key Lighthouse near Marathon, Florida, is atop a submerged reef. The name “Cayo Sombrero” for the location was given by the Spanish, who lived in this lighthouse dating back to the early 1800s. This was formerly an island, but the land was washed away over time. Sometimes, the reef below is visible at low tide. 

Having been constructed in 1858, this lighthouse is 142 feet tall and is the tallest of all the lights on Florida Key. This building is an iron construction that is octagonal and painted crimson. The tower had two distinct platforms: the keeper’s residence was located on one, while the light generator was on the other.

In 2015, this lighthouse was formally deactivated. Nowadays, this is a well-liked location for snorkelers and divers. Here’s a sneak peek of the reef that can be seen around Sombrero Lighthouse from TAPP Channel:

You can also frequently see several boats nearby, carrying people attempting to get a better look at the lighthouse. Both approaches are excellent for seeing the building, although because of the tower’s height, it is preferable to travel by boat to the Sombrero Reef to have a clear view of the lantern and the lighthouse top. On Marathon, the light is seen from Sombrero Beach.

Discover hidden-gem beaches,  explore the Florida Keys food scene, find the perfect accommodation, experience the Keys’ stunning waters, and much more.

Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse

Point cloud animation of Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse by HABS HAER HALS

The Tortugas Harbor Light is located in the Dry Tortugas, around 70 miles west of Key West. It is a very isolated location. 

The Garden Key Light is another name for the lighthouse. Part of the octagonal Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, this lighthouse is seventy feet tall. 

Of course, the only ways to get to this Florida Keys lighthouse are by boat, seaplane, or the Yankee Freedom II high-speed ferry that departs from Key West. The ferry ride takes around two hours and can be very expensive, but the journey is worthwhile. The light was first turned on in 1826 and is currently run by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Dry Tortugas Lighthouse

Located on Loggerhead Key close to Fort Jefferson, the Dry Tortugas Light is not to be confused with the Tortugas Harbor Light. Built in 1858, it is an operating lighthouse that is 157 feet tall and is run by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

With a black lantern, it is black at the top and white at the bottom. It is inaccessible to humans and can only be reached by boat or seaplane. An oil house, kitchen, and 1926 residence are on the site.

American Shoal Lighthouse

American Shoal Lighthouse is located not far from Sugarloaf Key. It’s a skeleton brown structure with a living area and a white stairway. It is approximately 124 feet tall and was built between 1879 and 1880. 

The lighthouse is accessible by boat and is a well-liked snorkeling location in the Florida Keys despite not being publicly accessible.

Sand Key Lighthouse

Key West is seven miles to the southwest of Sand Key. On Sand Key, a 60-foot brick tower was constructed in 1827. A hurricane that struck the island in 1844 eroded some of it away. 

While a new lighthouse was constructed, a ship called Honey was bought and converted into a lightship to service the area. In 1853, the new tower was lit. The keeper’s lodgings are on a platform atop a skeletal tower supported by screw piles.

1938 saw the automation of the light. The light is functional and serves as an active navigational aid. The public is not permitted access. Although visible from Key West, the best way to see the light is by boat or aircraft.

Key West Lighthouse

The Key West Lighthouse was constructed in 1825, making it older than the others. The first 65-foot tower was destroyed during the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846. Thus, it is not the same one that is there now. Rebuilding took some time due to slow governmental reorganization, but it was completed in 1848.

Once the sailors began complaining about the landscaping, work on the tower resumed in 1894. Originally just fifty feet tall, the 1848 reconstruction was eventually raised. This resulted from the lighthouse’s surroundings growing trees, which obscured the light’s visibility to mariners. 

The Key West Lighthouse is easily accessible by foot. Though only 86 feet tall, it is the tallest lighthouse in Key West and perched atop a hill. The light is no longer on. Because of the breathtaking aerial views, it is a well-liked tourist spot accessible for climbing (96 steps to the top).

Run by the Key West Art & Historical Society, it features a museum housed in the original keeper’s quarters as well as a gift store. Numerous Fresnel lenses, including a first-order fixed lens from the Sombrero Reef Light, are on display in the museum. A chicken coop (which makes sense if you’ve ever been to Key West) and an oil storage house are among the other old buildings

You may drive to this lighthouse for a day of touring, and it is also easily located using a map or GPS. Parking is accessible close to the museum. Parking is free; you can access the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters for a reasonable cost. Children under six also go in for free.

Key West Lighthouse Full Tour in 2023 by Fantabulous Travels

Key Largo Lighthouse

The history of the Key Largo Lighthouse is lengthy and full of setbacks and financial difficulties. Originally, the Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse was built using the lamp from this lighthouse. However, after difficulty obtaining the necessary funding to complete the construction and, ultimately, vandalism, the building was demolished and sold, piece by piece, to salvage yards.

Following this, a former Rebecca Shoal Lighthouse owner found the lantern and used it to light the new lighthouse he was building in Key Largo. The lighthouse was sold, painted a distinctive red and white checkerboard pattern, and converted into guest rooms for visitors. This original component of the lighthouse remains today.

The building was abandoned in 2014, and the lights have yet to be turned back on. Driving is the only way to get there, and the beach area gives easy access to a lot of surrounding wedding locations.

Boca Chita Key Lighthouse

florida keys lighthouses in biscayne

Since the 1930s, this 65-foot lighthouse has made Boca Chita, Florida, its home. Using limestone and white brick, it was constructed by Mark C. Honeywells and situated at the northernmost point of the port.

Originally intended for commercial usage, Honeywells had to quickly close it since he had yet to obtain the necessary building permits. When the proper staff allows it, this non-operational lighthouse’s natural beauty and skillfully built structure provide a breathtaking spectacle for both tourists and locals. Typically, this period spans from September to May, with certain days and times also accessible throughout the summer.

From the observation deck, views of the entire Miami skyline can be seen. Since the Boca Chita Lighthouse is located in Biscayne National Park near the head of the harbor, entering the park is the most obvious route. United States Highway 1 leads to this park.

Travelers on a tight budget will find the Biscayne National Park a great choice because there is no entrance fee and no parking fee unless you intend to stay overnight.

Carysfort Reef Lighthouse

Congress ordered the construction of the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse to begin in the 1840s. It became the third screw-pile lighthouse in the United States, but the construction project grew far larger than anticipated.

The lighthouse and the white lantern were painted red so that at night, seafarers could see them clearly against the dark ocean. The old building was later demolished, but it included a fully enclosed balcony and keeper’s apartments.

The fact that this lighthouse is in the middle of the ocean perhaps explains why it is not accessible to the general public for tours or observation. However, you can plan a snorkeling excursion nearby to get a closer look if you want to get close enough to view it. Since the area’s reefs are a major tourist attraction, many companies will let you rent boats and other gear.

Here’s a drone video of the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse for a sneak peek:

Behind the Scenes at Florida Keys Lighthouses

Florida Keys Lighthouses are coastal beacons that have silently witnessed centuries of seafaring tales. From the panoramic views atop Key West Lighthouse to the remote allure of Dry Tortugas, each lighthouse holds a unique chapter in the maritime story of the Florida Keys.

As you contemplate the panoramic views, maritime histories, and architectural marvels behind each lighthouse in the Florida Keys, this article might inspire you to cherish the past and embark on your explorations. Whether you are an avid historian, a nature enthusiast, or simply someone seeking a breathtaking view, the Florida Keys lighthouses beckon—a call to explore, appreciate, and revel in the rich history behind the scenes of these coastal treasures.

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Florida Keys Lighthouses FAQs

The Key West Lighthouse is arguably the most famous among the Florida Keys lighthouses. Its iconic structure and rich history make it a popular attraction, drawing visitors to explore its grounds and climb to the top for stunning panoramic views.

Run by the Key West Art & Historical Society, it features a museum housed in the original keeper’s quarters as well as a gift store. Numerous Fresnel lenses, including a first-order fixed lens from the Sombrero Reef Light, are on display in the museum. A chicken coop (which makes sense if you’ve ever been to Key West) and an oil storage house are among the other old buildings.

The Florida Keys are home to several lighthouses, each with its own unique charm and history. There are a total of six major lighthouses in the Florida Keys: Alligator Reef Lighthouse, Sombrero Key Lighthouse, Dry Tortugas Lighthouse, Key West Lighthouse, Sand Key Lighthouse, and American Shoal Lighthouse.

Lighthouses are special for various reasons. Firstly, they serve a crucial navigational purpose, guiding ships safely through treacherous waters and around obstacles. Secondly, they often have rich histories, with tales of keepers’ dedication and maritime adventures. Additionally, lighthouses are architectural marvels, each with a unique design and character.

Author: Janelle

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