There’s nothing quite like your first visit to Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park (find tips here for your next trip). I’ll always remember mine, standing before the park’s iconic lighthouse as massive winter swells pounded the rocks below. The wild energy of the landscape is inescapable, especially if you’re familiar with its stormy background of shipwrecks and drowned mariners. I paired a bluffside stroll with a spin around the station’s interpretive center. Housed in the Fog Signal Building, the exhibit lends a chance to see maritime artifacts and the many glass prisms of a first order Fresnel lens up close. First lit 150 years ago this year, this literal beacon is well worth a gander.
Clearly, I’m a nerd for both history and dramatic vistas. But in all of my visits to this place I’ve never been able to actually step inside the lighthouse. In late 2001, several large pieces of iron fell from near the top of the tower, weathered from nearly 130 years of dutiful service. This prompted California State Parks to close the structure to the public and for the past two decades. It has remained guarded by a chain-link fence, patiently awaiting its renovation.
If you’re interested in a peek into the lighthouse, mark your calendar for the upcoming 150th anniversary celebration. This may be the last time docent-led tours of the ground floor will take place before the restoration work begins next year.
Fall is one of the best times to visit this stretch of coastline as autumn’s easterly winds breakdown the ever-present fog bank.
In July 2021, the state allocated over $18 million for the complete restoration of the lighthouse. “We couldn’t be more excited to one day soon invite the public back inside,” said Linda Hitchcock, senior park and recreation specialist with California State Parks. “It’s the beginning of a new life for this coastal treasure.”
Restoration is soon to begin, and it will likely last at least 18 months. Shoring up the ailing structure is a complex task. Crews will erect scaffolding up the tower, strengthen its insides with concrete beams, and repair the catwalk, cast iron bracing and guard rails. Replacing the tired roof is also on the list. Fortunately, the surrounding park will remain open during that time, but before you go, a little context is key for a more meaningful experience.
Our experiences at Pigeon Point would feel very different had POST not protected Whaler’s Cove from the threat of being developed into a motel site or had the adjacent 6,857-acre Cloverdale Coastal Ranches been reduced to luxury estates.
Imagine standing at the top of the 115-foot tower, tied with the Point Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County for the tallest on the West Coast. To the west, there’s a seemingly endless expanse of ocean, a view shared by local seabirds. To the east, the sights are equally profound: a wild, raw landscape that still looks and feels much like it did in 1871, when the lighthouse was brand new.
The rural character and beauty of this coastal treasure is no happy accident. Since our founding in 1977, POST has been hard at work to protect more than 80,000 acres of open spaces within San Mateo, Santa Clara and northern Santa Cruz counties. Much of the landscape surrounding Pigeon Point has been preserved, in large part, through this diligent effort.
Our experiences at Pigeon Point Light Station would be much different had POST not contributed $2.65 million in 2000. These funds helped block a nine unit motel from being constructed along the banks of Whaler’s Cove — land that has since been transferred to State Parks. Or if the nearly 7,000 acres of Cloverdale Coastal Ranches — the largest contiguous property along the San Mateo Coast and much of the backdrop for this State Park — had become luxury estates. Linda Hitchcock from State Parks put it plainly when she said, “this beautiful restoration of the lighthouse just wouldn’t be the same if there was a motel right next door.”
For millennia, many Indigenous groups have called Pigeon Point and the surrounding area home, including the Awaswas, Muwekma and Ramaytush Ohlone. This location is one of the most prominent points along this stretch of coast. As such, a natural shelter on its southern side provides ideal protection from the prevailing and, at times relentless, northwesterly winds. It has always been a natural place to access the abundance of the life-rich, cool Pacific waters.
In the Spanish and Mexican eras of California, the point was known as “Punta de las Balenas,” or “Whale Point.” This is due to the gray whales that frequently pass offshore on their annual migrations between the Arctic and Mexico. In the late 1800s, Portuguese whalers would hunt these gentle behemoths off the point, hauling them ashore along the protected southern side at what is still known today as Whaler’s Cove.
The discovery of gold in 1848 and the following rush of ship traffic marked a seismic shift in this landscape’s modern history. Vessels of all types carried gold-seekers and goods to the booming town of San Francisco, and a veritable marine highway developed almost overnight. Eagerly searching for sights of land, many ships ventured too close to shore. They learned the hard way just how foggy this coast can be.
The original, first-order Fresnel lens is now on display inside the adjacent Fog Signal Building, with plans to one day be reinstalled in its rightful place. Here the top of the tower is artificially illuminated with powerful flashlights.
One of the most infamous shipwrecks along this stretch of coastline took place on the foggy night of June 6, 1853. A clipper ship named the Carrier Pigeon — with a finely-carved gilded bird gracing her bow — ran aground just 500 feet from the point’s rocky shore. You can imagine Capitan Azariah Doane’s shock and the ensuing panic as he succeeded to save the lives of his entire crew. Little did he know that the event would inspire the point’s namesake, the unintended legacy of his newly tarnished career.
Pressure continued to mount on the federal government over the next two decades to build a lighthouse along that stretch of coast. But it wasn’t until sunset on Friday, November 15, 1872 that the mammoth French-made Fresnel lens atop the newly constructed lighthouse was lit for the very first time. With the beacon ignited, a new era of maritime navigation along the San Mateo Coast was able to safely take root.
It’s a long drive to Pigeon Point no matter what direction you’re coming from. (It’s 20 miles from Half Moon Bay, nearly 30 from Santa Cruz, and around 40 over winding roads from inland areas like Mountain View.) Plan at least a half day for a proper visit and longer if you have the time. An overnight stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel is the best way to experience this place, affording enough time to really soak it all in.
Day parking here can be crowded at times, so we suggest arriving as early as possible to grab a spot close to the lighthouse. The park’s visitor center (Thursday – Monday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.) offers stellar educational opportunities. What’s more, you could spend hours talking to rangers, reading about the lighthouse’s history and exploring the grounds and the gift shop. Half-hour guided history tours are also available upon request (staff permitting) by calling (650) 879-2120.
A great pastime at this park is to sit back and enjoy the view of passing wildlife. You can keep an eye out for gray and humpback whales on their annual migrations (south in November and north in April). The cornucopia of seabirds seeking refuge on the rocky coast also provide ample entertainment. Pack a few extra layers and maybe a thermos with your favorite warm beverage for an ideal experience.
Beachgoers will enjoy the protected water of Whaler’s Cove. It’s the best place to escape the wind (nearby Pistachio Beach tends to be a bit windier) and the relatively calm waters are much safer for kids to splash around in. The steps POST constructed down to the beach are quite steep and not recommended for anyone with mobility issues. The adjacent Mel’s Lane trail, however, is flat and short with epic views of the cove. And the boardwalk near the lighthouse is wheelchair accessible and leads to an observation deck with breathtaking views of the rugged coastline.
For me, a trip to this stretch of coastline isn’t complete without a quick stop at Wilbur’s Watch. This one-mile out-and-back trail on POST-protected Cloverdale Coastal Ranches offers one of the best views of the lighthouse. I often complement my trip with a stop at Pie Ranch (also protected by POST) for a sampling of their delicious pies. Wash this all down with a warm cup of coffee from Whale City Bakery just down Highway 1 and you’ll wonder why you don’t visit this scenic coastline more often.
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Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more