Pensacola Lighthouse - Atlas Obscura

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Pensacola Lighthouse

A striking lighthouse with views of the Gulf of Mexico and of a military air show. 

Sponsored by Visit Pensacola

Climbing the 177 steps to the top of the Pensacola Lighthouse brings you to a vantage point 191 feet above sea level. From there, you can see the sparkling Gulf of Mexico and three historic forts: Fort Barrancas, Fort McRee, and Fort Pickens. As you stand at the top of the lighthouse, smelling the salt water and feeling the cool breeze, views stretch out for miles in every direction. But one of the next views is much closer than that: the Pensacola Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, located on Naval Air Station Pensacola, offers a front-row look at the air shows put on by the Navy’s Blue Angel flight squadron.

The lighthouse has a long history. A previous lighthouse just nearby was first illuminated (with whale oil lamps!) in 1824, more than 20 years before Florida even became a state. Before that lighthouse was erected, sailors were guided not by a lighthouse but by a lightship, the Aurora Borealis, which was positioned in the calm waters of Pensacola Bay. The lighthouse that now stands was built in the 1850s and first illuminated on New Year’s Day, 1859. Almost immediately, Pensacola became a hotly contested city in the Civil War. Union cannons struck the lighthouse in December 1861, but no major damage was sustained.

The Pensacola Lighthouse was struck by lightning in 1874, melting metal fixtures throughout the lighthouse. Improbably, it was struck by lightning again just one year later. In 1885, a group of wild ducks flew through the lens room, damaging the lighthouse’s lantern. In 1886, a three- or four-minute-long earthquake shook the tower. To compound all of this, the lighthouse went through 11 different lighthouse keepers between 1863 and 1886, nine of whom were fired for neglect or for being drunk on the job. The sheer number of unhappy keepers who have passed through is perhaps why the Pensacola Lighthouse is said to be one of the most haunted lighthouses in the country.

Despite all the drama, the lighthouse survived into the 20th century, when it became fully automated by the Coast Guard. As the building deteriorated in the 1960s, there were discussions about tearing the whole thing down, sparking a preservation movement that contributed to the establishment of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Today, the striking black and white lighthouse is visible from miles away. The attached Keeper’s Quarters, built in 1869, has been converted into a maritime museum, and an old carriage house is now a visitor center and gift shop selling t-shirts, taffy, and all manner of lighthouse-themed home decor.

While most visitors come for the views from the lighthouse, the grounds also reward exploration. Passionflower vines garland a white picket fence, and Southern live oaks grow wild. A curious red and white structure in front of the Keeper’s Quarters is another navigational aid called a range marker, which, when visually matched up with another marker, helps mariners navigate the channel.

Know Before You Go

Because the Pensacola Lighthouse is aboard the Naval Air Station, a government-issued ID is required for entry. International visitors must be accompanied by a U.S. citizen. Make sure to enter through the West Gate of the Naval Air Station, the only gate open to civilians. 

The lighthouse is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and costs $9.50 for adults or $6.50 for children, seniors, and military members.

To climb the tower, you must wear shoes with a closed back. Backpacks and large purses are not permitted

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February 22, 2024

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