The fog was so dense I could barely make out the island while kayaking glassy seas and hugging the wave-battered cliffs off East Anacapa Island. All I thought about was hot tea and dry clothes awaiting me at Landing Cove. Creeping alongside volcanic crags, I knew I was near. In heavy mist I paddled between two craggy spires towering above me. Perched on a ledge were several California sea lions barking at me as I paddled by.
Then I paddled beneath the 40-foot-tall volcanic arch, the symbol of the Channel Islands National Park. The raucous squabbles of western gulls were drowned out by the distinct sound of a foghorn bellowing from the only lighthouse on the five islands that comprise the National Park. Solid ground was close by, the lighthouse and foghorn keeping me safe like so many mariners before.
Lighthouses are significant and important parts of California history. The iconic landmarks lit the way for many ships navigating their path along the coast and across the offshore channel. The Central Coast has several worth visiting, and most are accessible either on your own or as a guided tour. Here’s a look at three lighthouses on some of the region’s most scenic locales. Hopefully, some day you can experience the thrill of reaching these lighthouses by kayak, but if not, here’s a little history and a few photos to enjoy.
It took a shipwreck in 1853 near the narrowest islet in the National Park to raise concerns that some sort of permanent lighthouse structure was needed to warn vessels to steer clear of the volcanic cliffs. The Winfield Scott, a steamship out of San Francisco, ran aground at Middle Anacapa Island, literally jolting the gold dust out of the rich pockets of frazzled passengers.
Although the island was initially deemed inaccessible by the U.S. Coast Survey, it was later agreed that Anacapa Island was a natural location for a lighthouse with its close proximity to the eastern entrance of the Santa Barbara Channel. It wasn’t until 1928, however, that the Lighthouse Bureau began allotting funds for a fog signal and radio apparatus near the edge of East Anacapa Island.
After construction, the lighthouse was turned on for the first time on March 25, 1932. Today it’s the only lighthouse within the Channel Islands National Park. It can be approached only to a certain point before a sign warns of potential hearing damage. Western gulls and California brown pelicans circle the easily visible lighthouse that can be seen from the mainland with binoculars.
Point San Luis Lighthouse
Ascending above the Point San Luis Harbor, the views are intoxicating. The sweeping coastal bluffs are smothered in coastal chaparral. The ocean off Avila Beach is a shimmering blue. And this pristine coastal wilderness is enhanced by the area’s main attraction: the restored Point San Luis Lighthouse.
Construction on the historic lighthouse finished in June of 1890, and the kerosene lamp was officially lit for the first time on June 30th that same year. In 1933, an electric light replaced the kerosene lamp in the tower, and in 1969, the Fresnel lens was replaced with an automated light. Five years later, the U.S. Coast Guard shut the lighthouse down, but in 1992, the Point San Luis Harbor District received the 30-acre site from the federal government with the understanding that the lighthouse station would be restored and opened to the public. Two years after the Pecho Coast Trail opened, the Point San Luis Keepers nonprofit corporation was created to restore the lighthouse.
The docent-led, 3.5-mile roundtrip hike along the Pecho Coast Trail is available on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from 9a.m.-1p.m., and the hike is free. Online registration to secure a day hike is required at www.sanluislighthouse.org.
Piedras Blancas Light Station
When maritime traffic increased along the West Coast, President Andrew Johnson authorized the construction of 13 lighthouses by signing the Lighthouse Reservation Act as a precautionary safety measure. In 1872, funds were approved by the U.S. Congress and construction of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse began in 1874 and was completed in 1875. The lighthouse is unique among others on the east and west coasts – boasting a 34-foot base diameter, a white conical tower, a masonry cornice, and cast iron detailing.
The lighthouse endured severe damage after a 4.8 magnitude earthquake in 1948 and a storm in 1949. Afterward, parts of the tower were removed, including the lens, which has since been restored. A lantern room was constructed to surround and house the lens, now located at the Pinedorado grounds on Main Street in Cambria.
Taking a tour of this weather-beaten lighthouse is truly experiencing a step back in time. Located six miles north of San Simeon, weekend tours are offered on the third Saturday of each month and feature guides dressed in Victorian-era, lighthouse keeper uniforms.
Reservations are required for a Saturday tour. Call the National Geographic Theater at Hearst Castle State Historical Monument, (805) 927-6811. The Piedras Blancas Light Station is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, www.piedrasblancas.gov.
This story appeared in the
November 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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