Acadia National Park Part III – Lighthouse Extravaganza
Brace yourselves my dear blog readers because I’m about to dedicate an ENTIRE blog post to lighthouses! This is not a new endeavor for me nor (for my long-time readers) is it unexpected, but I’m aware that not everyone shares our crazy passion for the protectors of the coast.
So for those of you who have no interest in such things you can just skip this post altogether and wait for the next (and final) installment of our time in Acadia. But for our fellow “lighthouse nutters” out there get your beverage of choice, snuggle into your favorite chair and dig in. This is the post for you!
Now most folks only think of a single lighthouse when they think of Acadia National Park, and technically they’d be both correct and incorrect.
Bass Harbor Light sits at the very tip of the “quiet” side of MDI and is (by far) the most well-known lighthouse in the area. It’s the only lighthouse that’s physically located on the Island, but it’s still owned and manned by the U.S. Coast Guard. So although it lies within the National Park, the lighthouse itself is not park property. It’s also a popular sunset photography point, so even folks that aren’t very interested in lighthouses have very likely seem its image.
On the other hand Baker Island Light, a much-lesser known light that’s located on an island 4 miles southeast of MDI, is actually part of Acadia National Park. So the park DOES own a lighthouse, although it’s not the one most people usually think of…
But those are not the ONLY lighthouses in the area, not even close.
The coast here is curved and crazy, littered with islands and treacherous rocks which means there are many, many more lights in the area. Take the ferry from Bass Harbor and you’ll find another light just 6 miles away, if you know where to go. Hop over to the “popular” side Mount Desert Island and there’s yet another one tucked away on a small Island just off the coast. And if you manage to get yourself on the water there are even more on various islands and outcroppings within just a few hours sail or cruise of MDI.
Oh be still my beating lighthouse heart, it’s enough to make a “nutter” like me rather faint….
So how do you actually see them? Well that’s exactly what I’m going to cover in today’s post. We certainly didn’t see ALL the lights in the area, but we saw many and if you’re like us you’ll want to dedicate at least a few of your days in the park seeking out these beauties too. Here’s the 3 ways we hunted them down….
Bass Harbor Lighthouse (1858, active)
This is by far the easiest (and most popular) lighthouse to see on MDI.
Bass Harbor Light is a small cylindrical tower just 33-foot tall that was first lit in 1858. She sits on the edge of a granite bluff which makes for a spectacular setting and also raises the light to 56-feet above sea level. Plus she’s got a beautiful red light signature, making for a lovely contrast with the brilliant white tower. It’s an easy drive down to the parking lot (right by the light) and then you can walk around and take pics of the structure both from above and below.
But you can’t get inside unless you time it just right.
Once a year (usually during Sept) the United States Coast Guard, the Maine Office of Tourism and the American Lighthouse Foundation sponsor something called Maine Open Lighthouse Day. On that day around two dozen Maine lighthouses are opened to the public, including several that are typically closed. It’s an important day for fellow “nutters’ everywhere and you’re likely to meet many similar-minded folks on your tours.
And Bass Harbor is included in the list!
We happened to be in Acadia during the event so we loaded Polly in the car and zoomed down to see the tower. It was a looong wait to get in (over an hour in line), but we had fun chatting to fellow lighthouse enthusiasts as well as the local Coast Guard boys who were on-site to manage the tours. Plus of course it was super cool to get in the tower and see the 4th order Fresnel lens with the red cover.
Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station (1872, active)
This particular light is a bit of an expedition to see, but she is so VERY worth it!
Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station guards the tip of Swans Island, a sleepy little community that’s ~40 mins (6 miles) ferry ride from the town of Bass Harbor. The strange name comes from Samuel de Champlain who apparently saw the coast just after a fire had devastated the landscape in 1604. So in typical explorer style he named it Brûlée-Côte or “Burnt Coast”, and the French version of the name kinda sorta stuck (Côte == Coat?)
These days of course the Island is both lush and green, but it’s retained a natural beauty of centuries past, and best of all (for folks like us) almost no-one goes there! There’s only ~330 locals that live permanently on the Island and the ferry is a smaller deal that only runs ~6 times per day, so once you get out here you literally enter a different world.
Remember when I told you (a few posts ago) that we found a secret spot to get away from it all? THIS is the spot!! In this place, the crowds of Acadia will fade away replaced by quiet roads, abundant nature and and hiking trails with nothing but birds and wildlife to keep you company. It’s totally remote and about as “old-time” Maine as you can get.
And the lighthouse is a fascinating visit that just adds to the experience.
First lit in 1872 she’s 32-foot tall square brick tower with a gorgeous white keepers house topped with a red roof, an Oil House and the remnants of an old Bell House. She’s an icon of the Island and a source of fierce pride for the locals.
She was automated in 1975 and soon thereafter the station was scheduled to be demolished, but thanks to a slew of petitions from the Islanders she was saved! In 1988 she was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1994 she was deeded to the Town of Swan’s Island. She was fully restored in 2000 and is now managed & maintained by volunteers of the Friends of the Swans Island Lighthouse. Only the light is still tended by Coast Guard.
What makes her even more intriguing is that she’s got several features that I’ve never seen anywhere else.
The tower stairs are square (rather than circular) and have arches between the levels which adds an almost Mediterranean feel to the structure. So unusual! Plus instead of a Fresnel-type lens in her tower she’s lit by a very modern solar-powered doughnut-shaped Marine LED light (VLB-44/2.5). She was one of the first lighthouses in Maine to get this very new light and the very first I’ve ever seen. You could say she’s an old lady well ahead of her time! Plus of course she’s surrounded by gorgeous Maine coastline, meaning no end of beautiful views.
Once again we loaded Polly into the car for this one and took the early AM ferry to the Island. It was a beautiful and quiet ferry ride over followed by a very pleasant rolling hill 3.5 mile drive to the lighthouse. I think we saw a whole 2 other people on the way there, both of whom waved to us like old friends.
When we arrived at the light we spent several hours exploring the lighthouse and chatting to the local volunteer, followed by a lovely hike in the (totally deserted) 20 acre town park just next-door. Apart from the very friendly docent, we were quite literally the ONLY people there. Polly was welcomed everywhere (even inside the keepers house) and the area was just spectacular. It was the most peaceful and fun lighthouse outing we’ve done in a long time!
VISIT & PAW TIPS/ The Ferry to Swan’s Island goes around 6x per day (schedule varies daily). Only 4 reservable car spots per ferry (the other spots are first-come-first-serve). Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station is free to visit (donations accepted) and is open during the season most days (check their website for exact schedule) Dogs are welcome both on the ferry (they travel for free), at the lighthouse and on all the hiking trails around the light.
3 Hour Lighthouse Cruise
We’d seen two lighthouses, but of course we wanted more….many more. However the other lighthouses in the area required that we get on the water to reach them.
Now there are lots of sailboats and cruises in Acadia, most of which focus on day-sails or Whale Watching (a popular thing in the area that’s literally advertised everywhere). I initially thought we’d try one of those, hoping to maybe catch a glimpse of a lighthouse here and there, but a little Google magic revealed that those same companies also do cruises entirely dedicated to lighthouses.
In other words cruises for someone like me!
There’s actually a SLEW of offerings from easy 3-hour lighthouse cruises to massive full-day outings that take you practically all the way to Canada. I would have loved to do the “Grand Slam” (18 lighthouses!), but we’d missed the date plus we wanted to keep it short enough that we could both go and leave Polly at home without feeling guilty. So we settled on the 3-hour “lighthouse and national park” tour which would take us to 4 new-to-us lights and get us home in just under 4-hours round-trip, which is typically limit of time we like to leave the paws.
And it was pretty cool!
It was cold and overcast, so we needed our jackets. And I was rather worried I’d become seasick, so I bought some Sea Sickness Wrist Bands. I’ve had so many folks recommend these to me over the years and (surprise, surprise) they actually kept me level-headed the entire trip. It’s the first time I’ve managed a sea trip without drugs so I was pretty darn impressed!. The cruise along the park and into the Somes Sound (the only “fjord” on the East Coast) was lovely and we saw a nice selection of lights too:
- Bear Island Lighthouse (1839/1889) – Bear Island Light sits on a teeny tiny island right at the entrance to Mount Desert Harbor. First established in 1839, she was re-built to current form in 1889. The 31-foot white cylindrical tower and keepers house was de-activated in 1981, transferred to the Park Service in 1987 and subsequently listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. She is now managed as a private light (re-lit in 1989) and leased to a private party (what a place to live!). Beautiful little light!
- Winter Harbor Lighthouse (1857) – Winter Harbor Light a sprawling lighthouse that’s beautifully positioned on Mark Island (top notch photo op here!) just across Frenchman’s Bay from Bar Harbor. Also known as Mark Island Lighthouse, her 19-foot tower was first lit in 1857 and deactivated in 1933. Only 9 lighthouse keepers (and their families) ever lived here. She is now privately owned by a designer from New York. Another amazing place to live!
- Egg Rock Lighthouse (1875) – Egg Rock Light has been jokingly called the “ugliest lighthouse in Maine”, but I actually thought her blocky exterior was kinda modern and cool (I must be a true lighthouse lover, eh?). First lit in 1875 (still active), she sits on a remote and cold piece of rock out in the ocean and consists of a square brick tower in the center of a 1.5 story wooden keeper’s house. What a barren & difficult posting this must have been!
- Baker Island Lighthouse (1828/1855) – Baker Island Light is a 43-foot tower that’s barely visible from the cruise (unfortunately) as she sits right in the middle of a very heavily forested 123-acre island. She was the very first light station to be established in the Mount Desert Island area in 1828 , although she deteriorated and had to be rebuilt in later years. The current tower dates from 1855 and is still an active light today. She’s owned by the National Park Service and can only be visited if you book a special tour during the season.
We also got to see a Historic Life Saving Station (originally established in 1879) on Little Cranberry Island. It’s now a rental cottage & vacation home known simply as “The Station“. Interesting!
I can’t say the cruise was my favorite way to see the lighthouses (I MUCH prefer to see them in person, go inside the towers and talk to the docents face-to-face), but it did get us out to see many more lights that we would otherwise not have experienced. Plus our cruise guide was knowledgeable and the ship spent good time at each of the lights (and turned so that both sides could enjoy the view). It was a nice outing all-in-all.
VISIT & PAW TIPS/ Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co seems to provide the largest selection of lighthouse cruises in Acadia from short outings to full-day extravaganzas. We took the 3-hour tour which cost $98/person. Unfortunately dogs are NOT allowed on this particular cruise. For those who prefer to bring their paws on the sea there IS another cruise-line in Acadia which is pet-friendly -> Acadian Boat Tours offers pet-friendly Nature Cruises which look pretty cool too!
Useful External Links:
- Acadia Area Lighthouse Map -> Click HERE
- Bass Harbor Lighthouse -> Click HERE for history, and HERE for visit info
- Swan’s Island -> Click HERE for visitor info and HERE for ferry schedule
- Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station -> Click HERE for official website
- Lighthouse Cruises -> Click HERE (Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co) and HERE (Acadian Boat Tours)
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