The approach to the Golden Gate is one of the most hazardous sea routes in the world. It is narrow with swift currents, is flanked by numerous partly submerged rocks, and is often the site of dense fog. It furthermore is heavily trafficked. Even with today’s navigational aids such as radio, GPS, and radar it can be perilous.
In the days of sail and steam it was much more so, as shown by the occurrence of many shipwrecks. These dangers motivated the construction of this lighthouse on the north side of the passage in 1855. The original location proved to be too high, such that the light was often obscured by fog, and so the lighthouse was moved to its present site in 1877. The light was first fueled by whale oil, then by kerosene, and then by oil vapor. Since 1927, the light has been an electric incandescent lamp. Though all these changes, the original Fresnel lens, made in the 1850s, has remained in use.
The lighthouse also included a foghorn and a building housing a steam boiler, built in 1903, still exists below the lighthouse proper, although it is usually closed to the public. The foghorn was basically a steam whistle like those on locomotives. A foghorn still exists, but it is now electric.
The light was finally automated in 1981, the last on the United States west coast, and the lighthouse keeper’s cottage was torn down.
Although the light still actively operates under the management of the US Coast Guard, the rest of the structure is accessible as a historic site managed by the National Park Service, with scheduled open times when docents are available for talks and to take questions.
Know Before You Go
Point Bonita Lighthouse is completely contained within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and detailed directions to the site are on the National Recreation Area website. Check the website also for the tour days and hours, as they are limited. Be sure to arrive well before the posted closing time. The tours are also subject to weather closures.
The trail out to the lighthouse is wide and paved and at one point goes through a tunnel. Uniquely among US lighthouses, a suspension footbridge leads out to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is closed when gusts over 30 miles per hour are measured at this bridge.