AAA Magazines

Legendary lighthouses in Northern New England

 Cape Neddick Light Station (a.k.a. Nubble Light) | Photo by Howard Arndt Cape Neddick Light Station (a.k.a. Nubble Light). | Photo by Howard Arndt

This road trip takes you to some of the nation's most beautiful beacons and breathtaking scenery.

From Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Maine’s easternmost tip at the Canadian border, more than 60 working lighthouses guide mariners along the rugged, rockbound Northern New England coast. 

These structures, some dating back more than two centuries, bear witness to the days before automation when they demanded constant hard work and sacrifice of the keepers and their families who endured isolation, fierce weather, and other daunting challenges. Standing sentinel in harbors, beside treacherous waters, and atop remote shores, they draw visitors with breathtaking settings and compelling tales of the past. 

“Lighthouses are among the most sought-after destinations for our visitors,” says Steve Lyons, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. “On social media platforms like Instagram, we see that their allure is as strong as ever, with lighthouse photos being some of the most popular posts by our visitors.”

Most towers on the mainland are relatively easy to access. Sightseeing cruises, regularly scheduled ferries, and sightseeing flights offer views of many others located in offshore waters and on islands. Some lighthouses schedule visiting hours during the warmer months, and more than 20 welcome visitors during the annual Maine Open Lighthouse Day held on a Saturday in September.

Most of the lighthouses on this list can be reached by car. Follow Route 1 northeast along the coast, turning seaward onto secondary roads to find them on craggy headlands and scenic coves. 

Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse

25 Wentworth Road, New Castle, New Hampshire

Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse

Photo by Michael Labbe

This 48-foot-tall, white, cast-iron tower—one of the only two lighthouses on New Hampshire’s 18-mile coast—was erected in 1878 near the spot where the first lighthouse north of Boston was built in 1771. Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse's distinctive and uncommon green light—caused by an acrylic cylinder that surrounds the lens, which distinguishes it from other nearby lights—radiates from atop a rocky outcropping next to the ruins of two-century-old Fort Constitution near Portsmouth.

In December 1774, Paul Revere rode here from Boston to warn of British plans to reinforce the fort. Portsmouth residents quickly raided it, seizing ammunition and guns in what some consider the first victory of the Revolutionary War. Because the lighthouse is on the grounds of an active Coast Guard Station, access is limited on most days. Visitors can view the lighthouse from Great Island Common, a town park in New Castle.

Cape Neddick Light Station, a.k.a. "Nubble Light"

Sohier Park Road, York, Maine

Cape Neddick Light Station

Photo by Gary Nomura

So close, yet just beyond reach, Cape Neddick Light Station tantalizes from 260 feet offshore on an inaccessible rocky nub of land that inspired its moniker. Before the 41-foot beacon was built at the eastern end of York Beach in 1897, nearby shoals claimed multiple vessels. Some say a specter of the bark Isidore, which sank with all hands aboard in 1842, still sails surrounding waters.

There’s a true tale about Sambo Tonkus, a 19-pound cat who lived with keepers in the 1930s. The cat often swam between the island and mainland, a feat that drew admiring fans. For safety reasons, today’s human visitors aren’t permitted to repeat the cat's stunt, but they can enjoy the stunning view from the mainland—especially when the tower and gingerbread-trim keeper’s house are illuminated during the holiday season and for the summer York Days celebration.

Portland Head Light

1000 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Portland Head Light

Photo by Tony Baldasaro

Commissioned by George Washington in 1791, Maine’s oldest lighthouse marks the southerly approach to Portland Harbor. The 92-foot-tall white-painted, rubble stone tower and red-roofed keeper’s house sit on a rock-bound bluff overlooking Casco Bay.

In the early 1800s, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow often walked from his downtown Portland home to visit the keepers at Portland Head Light, and the site is thought to have inspired his poem The Lighthouse. On Christmas Eve 1886, the three-masted bark Annie C. Maguire wrecked just 100 feet from the lighthouse. Laying a ladder across the rocks, the keeper and his family rescued all 18 people on board. A hand-painted inscription on a rock beside the tower commemorates the event.

Today, the lighthouse and a small museum in the keeper’s quarters are surrounded by 90-acre Fort Williams Park’s rolling lawns and seaside paths.

Portland Breakwater Light

South Portland Greenbelt Walkway, South Portland, Maine

Portland Breakwater Light

Photo by Mimi Steadman

South Portland has two lighthouses marking the busy shipping lanes into Portland Harbor. The older is Portland Breakwater Light, dubbed Bug Light because of its petite 24-foot height. Originally constructed in 1855, it was replaced in 1875 by one built in the style of a classical Greek monument.

The surrounding Bug Light Park is on the site of a World War II shipbuilding enterprise that produced 236 cargo-carrying Liberty ships in less than four years. A scaled-down, 32-1/2-foot-tall skeletal sculpture of a ship’s bow serves as a powerful reminder.

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse

3115 Bristol Road, New Harbor, Maine

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse

Photo by Jacqui Tull

Pemaquid Point, featured on the Maine quarter, draws visitors to the tip of a peninsula near Damariscotta not only to see Pemaquid Point Lighthouse and a small fishermen’s museum in the keeper’s house, but also to browse the small Pemaquid Art Gallery.

Built in 1827, the white fieldstone lighthouse, surrounded by a white picket fence, was rebuilt in 1835 after its mortar, made with saltwater, crumbled. The 38-foot-tall tower rises from a surf-pounded cliff of striated bedrock that was heaved up and folded on itself millennia ago. The rocks are a magnet for photographers, artists, and anyone who loves sitting and gazing at the ocean. (Respect the waves—a few careless people have been washed away.) You can stay in the weekly rental apartment in the keeper’s house.

Marshall Point Light

178A Marshall Point Road, Port Clyde, Maine

Marshall Point Light

Photo by Roy Mowery

In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks’ character ran up the wood ramp connecting the keeper’s house to the 31-foot-tall lighthouse during his cross-country run. Gump made a wise choice, because this spot at the end of St. George Peninsula offers serene grounds coupled with ocean vistas.

Marking the entrance to Penobscot Bay and the fishing village of Port Clyde, the granite and brick tower was built in 1858 to replace an earlier one that was once illuminated by lard-fueled lanterns.

Keeper Charles Clement Skinner, who was posted at Marshall Point Light from 1874 to 1919, accrued the longest tenure in the history of the lighthouse service. Lightning destroyed his house in 1895, and the current keeper’s quarters were rebuilt the same year. Inside are exhibits on the lighthouse, local lobstering, and granite quarrying.

Owls Head Light

186 Lighthouse Road, Owls Head, Maine

Owls Head Light

Photo by Rebecca Thompson

Just 30 feet tall, this white-brick tower built in 1852 at the southern edge of Rockland Harbor derives most of its elevation from its perch atop an 80-foot-high promontory. The vantage point offers visitors to Owls Head Light panoramas of Penobscot Bay.

According to lighthouse lore, the ghost of a former keeper sometimes returns to polish the beacon. In the 1930s, a keeper’s English springer spaniel learned to pull the rope to ring the fog bell whenever a ship sounded its whistle. The pup’s story is told in a children’s book sold at the small shop on the grounds. A stone near the bell marks the dog’s grave.

The keeper’s house is headquarters for the American Lighthouse Foundation, which oversees many New England lighthouses, including those at Pemaquid, Rockland Breakwater, Portsmouth Harbor, and Owls Head.

Rockland Breakwater Light

Samoset Road, Rockland, Maine

Rockland Breakwater Light

Photo courtesy Maine Office of Tourism

The picturesque Rockland Breakwater Light beckons from the end of a 20-foot-wide breakwater stretching nearly a mile into Rockland’s broad outer harbor.

Visitors delight in trekking across the uneven granite blocks—a hike touted as a walk into the ocean without wet feet. The breakwater was built to protect anchored ships and shoreside structures from storm surge, but because it also posed a hazard to navigation, its end was marked by small beacons after it was completed in 1900. They were replaced in 1902 by the 25-foot-tall, red-brick light tower, which rises from the roof of the keeper’s house.

Rockland may be less remote than some lighthouses, but its unmitigated exposure to storms led at least one keeper to resign.

Bass Harbor Head Light

Lighthouse Road, Tremont, Maine

Bass Harbor Head Light

Photo by Reef Rogers

Bass Harbor Head Light, the only lighthouse on Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park, clings to a cliff’s edge at the southwestern tip of the island, a few miles beyond Southwest Harbor. It was featured on a U.S. postage stamp to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial in 2016.

From the left corner of the small parking lot, a path and wood stairway descend to rock ledges with excellent upward views of the 32-foot-tall white-brick tower; from the steep path at the right of the lot you can get close to the lighthouse. The small parking lot is often crowded at sunset.

West Quoddy Head Light

973 South Lubec Road, Lubec, Maine

West Quoddy Head Light

Photo by Mimi Steadman

A little more than two hours’ drive beyond Mount Desert Island, this iconic, candy-striped lighthouse has stood at the easternmost point in the contiguous United States since 1858. The red-and-white bands encircling the 49-foot-tall tower aren’t just decorative; they enhance its visibility in the area’s notorious fog and storms.

Witnessing sunrise at West Quoddy Head Light is a moving experience, especially around the spring and autumnal equinoxes, when this is the first place in the country to see the dawn. (Earth’s changing position relative to the sun bestows this distinction on other Maine spots at other times of the year.)

Why is it called West Quoddy Head Light when it’s so far east? Because East Quoddy Head Light lies a few miles farther east on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada.

Mimi Bigelow Steadman lives on the Maine coast, not far from Pemaquid Point. She appreciates lighthouses not only for their beauty and role in maritime history, but also for their guidance when she and her husband navigate nearby waters.

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

Travel offers and deals

" "

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

" "

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

" "

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

" "

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

back to top icon