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Board a boat, ride a bike or walk a breakwater to see stunning beacons

With more than 65 still standing, Maine has a rich collection of coastal lighthouses. Some are still-functioning navigational aids, but for centuries they’ve been more than that. They’re icons of our maritime history, symbols of strength and beloved representations of our love of the sea.

Lighthouses weren’t built as beacons of tourism. Perched on rocky outcroppings along a winding shoreline and often in remote locations that can be visited only by boat, their rarity is part of their appeal. We’ve all heard it said in that old-timey Maine-ah voice: “You can’t get there from here.”

But you can.

You just might need a tour guide—by foot or by van, by bike or by boat. You might need a reservation. Or you just might need a little information. And, before you know it, you’ll be standing at the top of a tower, overlooking the sea.

Wood Island Lighthouse Tours, Biddeford Pool

Wood Island Lighthouse Tours. Photo by Shannon Bryan

Southern Maine’s only island lighthouse open for public tours, Wood Island Light is a 15-minute boat ride from Vine’s Landing in the Biddeford Pool section of Biddeford. Friends will take you there—Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation established in 2004 to restore and protect the structures here. Once you arrive on the 32-acre island (most of which is a bird sanctuary), you’ll walk half a mile on a wooden boardwalk to the lighthouse. There, you can climb the spiral staircase to the top of the 47-foot light tower for a spectacular view. You can explore the rest of the grounds a bit, though access to the two-story keeper’s house may be restricted because of restoration work. To give a sense of how much history is in this place: The existing tower—the third one on the island—was built before the start of the Civil War.

Tours run in July and August on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, and the online tour reservation system opens in June. Rather than charge a fee, Friends pass a hat for donations on the return trip to Biddeford Pool. The suggested donation is $15 per person, $8 per child. (Note: Kids under 10 aren’t allowed up the light tower; woodislandlighthouse.org)

Summer Feet Cycling: Five Lighthouse Bike Tour, Portland

Five Lighthouse Bike Tour. Photo by Shannon Bryan

Five lighthouses—Bug Light, Spring Point Light, Portland Head Light and Two Lights—are clustered right in and around Portland. You’d have to really know your way around to see them all in one afternoon—or you can do on Summer Feet Cycling’s Five Lighthouse Bike Tour, which begins and ends on Commercial Street in Portland. The $99 per person, five-hour adventure includes bike and helmet, two experienced guides to lead the way, a lobster roll lunch (other options available) and a van to pick you up if the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse. Tours run May through October and can fill up quickly. Participants must be at least 12 years old. (For more info and reservations: summerfeet.net)

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, South Portland

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse. Photo by Shannon Bryan

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse is the country’s only caisson-style (or “spark plug”) lighthouse that visitors can walk to, and that walk earns you picturesque views of Portland Harbor. Volunteer tour guides open the lighthouse to visitors many Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. These guides are passionate storytellers about the history of this light, which has been safeguarding ships from a dangerous obstruction since 1897. Listen to them spin tales about shipwrecks and answer questions about how the lighthouse keeper lived, or just gaze out over Fort Gorges and the Casco Bay islands.

Buy tickets for $5 per person at the gift shop, then make your way over the 900-foot breakwater to the lighthouse. The breakwater can be slippery and the ladder to the house is rather steep, but with appropriate footwear the journey is part of the adventure! (Note: Kids under 51 inches tall aren’t allowed up into the lighthouse.) To get to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, drive through the Southern Maine Community College South Portland campus to Fort Road. Lighthouse visitors can park in visitor spaces in the student parking lot. (springpointlight.org/visit)

Scenic Route Maine Tours: Portland and Portland Head Light

The Scenic Route Maine Tours bus stops at Portland Head Light, and tour goers can explore the grounds. Photo courtesy of Scenic Route Maine Tours

Another way to see Portland, including Maine’s oldest lighthouse, is to take the scenic route in an air-conditioned van. If you’ve barely begun to explore the city, this is an ideal sampler. You’ll get a taste of the Portland Observatory, Fort Allen Park, Longfellow Square, Victoria Mansion, the Arts District and, of course, Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park. The trip lasts just under two hours, including half an hour to wander at Portland Head Light, and costs $31. (One important note, though, so you’re not disappointed: Portland Head Light is rarely open to the public, so you won’t be able to explore inside.) Scenic Route Maine Tours happen on days when cruise ships are in port; view the available dates on the reservations site. (thescenicroutemainetours.com)

Isle au Haut Boat Services: Lighthouse Cruises, Stonington

Isle au Haut Boat Services has a 46-foot passenger vessel that takes tourists to see six historic lighthouses from the water in one afternoon (tours are scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 19 and Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 8 and 9). Passengers get a real understanding of why the lighthouses were built and how lighthouses—though now automated—are still a crucial part of the commercial waterways of Penobscot Bay.

The narrated tour departs from Stonington wharf (just over three hours north of Portland) and cruises past Mark Island Light at the western entrance to Deer Isle Thoroughfare, then crosses into East Penobscot Bay to see Goose Rocks Light. You’ll pass North Haven Village and Browns Head Light and see Heron Neck Light. Weather permitting, you’ll get a chance to stop at remote Saddleback Ledge and on the return trip, get a peek of Isle au Haut Lighthouse on Robinson’s Point. A trip on Maine Open Lighthouse Day on Saturday, September 8, will include a chance to go ashore on Isle au Haut for a guided tour of the lighthouse, which is normally closed to the public. (Reservations for any of these tours are $75 per person, $45 for kids under 12; isleauhaut.com)

Sept. 8: Maine Open Lighthouse Day

Portland Head Light

Early September may be the most beautiful time of year to explore Maine’s rugged coastline, taking in some sea air and some maritime history. And on the second Saturday of September, dozens of Maine lighthouses are open to the public for free from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (hours may vary by location). Wise lighthouse lovers will visit a lighthouse that isn’t open to visitors the rest of the year, and they’ll go early. Don’t underestimate how many other people want to take advantage of this once-a-year opportunity to go inside lighthouses and get a glimpse at Fresnel lenses, sweeping views and keepers’ quarters. Consider that Portland Head Light—North America’s most photographed lighthouse—is open for interior tours just this one day a year. There, lines form well before the 9 a.m. opening, and late arrivers shouldn’t be surprised to be turned away. (lighthousefoundation.org/maine-open-lighthouse-day)

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who has edited several books about lighthouses.