The New Jersey Lighthouse Challenge — set for Saturday and Sunday, October 19 and 20 — is an annual event marking its 20th year of mixing history and fundraising with a contest.
Created by the New Jersey Lighthouse Society to draw attention to the state’s substantial lighthouse history and maybe get some financial support in the process, the event features two days of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. lighthouse tours, with some remaining open for evening visits.
Participation in the contest portion of the Lighthouse Challenge is simple. Visitors choosing to play start at a self-selected lighthouse, purchase a challenge souvenir, and then attempt to visit all participating lighthouses where the souvenir will be augmented. Individuals whose souvenirs prove visits to all lighthouses will be eligible for a $1,000 drawing.
Those only interested in visiting lighthouses can just show up or wait until another time. Lighthouses are open to visitors throughout the year.
And since many of the lighthouses offer a winter day’s diversion and a good family destination — as I discovered taking my son to all but the new one just added — they’re worth knowing and considering.
So let’s have a look at them, moving from north to south down the New Jersey coast:
The Sandy Hook Lighthouse in Monmouth County is the oldest operating lighthouse in the United States. Located in the Gateway National Recreation Area in Atlantic Highlands and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, the 103-foot-tall structure has been in service since 1764.
A witness to history — including a takeover by the British during the Revolutionary War — the lighthouse takes visitors into another era. That includes climbing a ladder to the lens room.
It’s open May through October, 1 to 4:30 p.m., and November through April, 1 to 3:30 p.m. The tours are free.
As indicated by the ladder, the lighthouse works best for older children and spry adults. And there is a $15 entrance fee to the park between Memorial Day and Labor Day. nps.gov/gate/planyourvisit/sandy-hook-hours.html
Twin Lights in Atlantic Highlands, also Monmouth County, is a brownstone double lighthouse structure built in 1862 on the site of a former one built in 1828. Located at the top of a hill, the lighthouse’s two medieval-style towers treat visitors with a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean to one side and an opportunity to see New York City across New York Harbor from the other.
Although it was decommissioned in 1948 the lighthouse has a secure place in history. It was the first U.S. lighthouse to install the famous French-made Fresnel lens, and it was the first U.S. lighthouse to use electricity. A small museum area provides ongoing exhibitions.
Operated by the Twin Lights Historical Society, it is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Exhibits and gift shop are accessible to the disabled. Donation requested.
It is an easy visit in just about every way. And since designers used the hill for height, it is a short stair walk to the top of the tower. Visitors in December may also get a glimpse of a Christmas tree in one of the towers. www.twinlightslighthouse.com
Sea Girt Lighthouse in Sea Girt, again in Monmouth County, is a Victorian house-like structure with a revolving Fresnel lens at the top.
It began operating in 1896 as a navigation point between Twin Lights and Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island.
Decommissioned in 1945, the lighthouse is operated by the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee.
Open Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m. between mid-April and mid-November. Closed on major holidays. Free admission. Donations welcome.
While traffic and parking may be problematic during the summer, an off-season visit makes for an easier visit to this museum-like recreation of a bygone era. www.seagirtlighthouse.com
Squan Beach Life Saving Station in Manasquan is the newest stop (and the only one not visited).
The Dutch-styled station was built in 1902 to house equipment and staff to rescue shipwreck victims. Later a U.S. Coast Guard Station, it was decommissioned in 1999 and sold for $1 to Manasquan Borough. It opened as a museum in 2012.
General touring hours are posted as Thursdays, 4 to 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, 2 to 5 p.m. manasquanlifesavingstation.wordpress.com
Tucker’s Island Lighthouse at the Tuckerton Seaport in Tuckerton, Ocean County, is the recreation of the lighthouse that fell to sea in 1927. It’s one of the main attractions of this maritime village in what was once an important New Jersey port town.
In addition to the lighthouse and its display galleries, 14 other buildings and stations offer exhibitions and the opportunity to watch decoy carvers and boat builders.
It is open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and entrance fees range from $5 to $9.
It’s an easy and engaging way to connect with the state’s maritime history. www.tuckertonseaport.org
Barnegat Lighthouse in Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island in Ocean County was lit in 1859 to help shippers navigate past dangerous shoals and sandbars.
One of the three federally built cylindrical lighthouses engineered by George Meade, “Old Barney” has 217 steps to the top.
An interpretive center provides visitors with information about the building’s history and to get a view from the top of the tower via camera.
Decommissioned in 1944, it is operated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Operations are supported by the Barnegat Lighthouse Historical Society and Friends of Barnegat Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is open all year, daily from April through October and weekends from November through March. General hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. While there is a climbing fee from Memorial Day to Labor Day — $3 for adults and $1 for children ages 6 to 11 — the rest of the year is free.
Children and adults will rise to the challenge of climbing to the top, where the reward is a sky-high panoramic view of the region. www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/barnlig.html#barnlight
Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City, Atlantic County, began operating in 1857. It is the state’s tallest lighthouse at 171 feet tall, and its original Fresnel lens remains.
Absecon Light is open all year: September through June, Thursdays through Mondays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and July through August, daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays to 8 p.m. Climbing fees range from $3 to $8 with the last climb a half-hour before closing.
It is a beautifully restored building and interpretive center. Its 228 steps provide visitors with one of the best views of one of NJ’s most famous seaside cities. (See U.S. 1, October 17, 2018). www.abseconlighthouse.org
Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in North Wildwood, Cape May County, is a working lighthouse and museum.
Built in 1874, the lighthouse is maintained by the United States Coast Guard as an active navigational aid.
With the light on the upper floor, the house was also a home, and visitors can walk through its decorated rooms and imagine how its former occupants lived. A visit to the house’s Victorian-style garden with more than 200 varieties of plants helps set the mood further.
It is open October 21 through December 8, Friday through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; March 15 to May 9, Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and May 10 through October 20, daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
Overall it is an easy and pleasant trip to the past. www.herefordinletlighthouse.com
Cape May Lighthouse is located in the southernmost tip of the state in Cape May town and county and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay.
Another of Meade’s federally funded trio of cylindrical lighthouses, it was built in 1859 on the site of two other former lighthouses.
Located in Cape May Point State Park, it is part of several attractions and has a visitors’ center. But the main attraction is the 199 steps to the top of the tower to take in the sights.
Originally operated by the United States Coast Guard, it became the property of the State of New Jersey in 1992. It is now leased to the Mid Atlantic Center for the Arts, which raises funds to preserve and maintain the building and in 1994 had the tower painted to its original coloring: light beige with a red top.
The park is generally open sunrise to sunset. Lighthouse hours for climbing vary with the season and are posted on the lighthouse website. Climbing fees range from $5 to $10.
It is a fun stop that includes both a major lighthouse as well as the opportunity to see a World War II lookout tower and visit a nature museum. www.capemaymac.org/cape-may-lighthouse
Now heading north along the Delaware Bay and River:
East Point Lighthouse in Heislerville in Cumberland County is an active navigational aid. Built in 1849, the two-story brick Cape Cod-styled building is the second oldest New Jersey lighthouse and the only remaining land-based lighthouse on the Delaware Bay.
The lighthouse was operated by various entities including the U.S. Coast Guard, which extinguished the light in 1941. In 1956 the property was transferred to the State of New Jersey. The building suffered from neglect until the community-run Maurice River Historical Society formed and saved the structure through local fundraising efforts. The group also worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to reinstall the beacon light and return the lighthouse to an active lighthouse.
The lighthouse is open mainly weekends, 1 to 4 p.m., throughout the year, but it is best to check its Facebook page before venturing out. Admission ranges from $2 to $5.
With rooms fully furnished and cared for, it is a pleasurable trip to the past. However, the bay area is home of both greenhead flies and swarms of mosquitoes — so be ready to run. www.facebook.com/eastpointlight
Finns Point Lighthouse in Pennsville, Salem County, and Tinicum Island Lighthouse in Paulsboro, Gloucester County, are two Delaware River “range” lights: inland structures used to guide ships along the river.
Initiated by the federal government and opened for operation respectively in 1877 and 1880, both structures use a black metal cylindrical casing that holds a spiral metal staircase and painted tongue-in-grove wood walls that lead to the light tower and provide panoramic views of the region.
Both were decommissioned and eventually saved by community groups that continue to support them.
The 115-foot-tall Finns Point is open every third Sunday from March through May and September through November, weather permitting. Admission is free but donations are accepted.
Tinicum, an 85-foot-tall lighthouse owned by the U.S. Coast Guard, is open April through October on the third full weekend of each month from noon to 4 p.m. The group requests a donation to climb.
These bulky metal towers are markedly different from the usual brick or wood lighthouse, but their intriguing mixture of 19th-century engineering and interior design makes one think of Victorian-era science-fiction — best reflected in the term Steampunk — and the structures must have been daringly modern for their time.
While the recently restored Tinicum is bright, Finns Point shows its wear and tear. But both provide expansive views, with Tinicum giving visitors the opportunity to gaze at the Philadelphia skyline.
The trip to the remote Finns Point can be enhanced by a stop at nearby the state owned Fort Mott, built to protect the river during the Spanish-American War. www.tinicumrearrangelighthouse.org and www.friendsofsupawnarefuge.org
Lighthouse Challenge or not, all of the state’s lighthouses are worth a visit and offer a quick day trip to both the New Jersey coast as well as a chance to slip into another era.