For lighthouse aficionados, A1A offers the chance to experience 25 of the, according to Lighthouse Friends, 31 existing lighthouses in Florida (numbers vary on other websites).
Some can be viewed right off of A1A; others are offshore and will require much effort and coordination to visit; A1A will at least get you close to a boat launch site.
Take for example, Loggerhead and Garden Key lighthouses, both located in the Dry Tortugas. Both are part of the National Park Service; getting there requires a 70-mile boat or seaplane ride from Key West to Garden Key, home of Fort Jefferson. Day trippers can see Garden Key Lighthouse via the Yankee Clipper II, which leaves Key West Bight every morning for a full-day adventure.
Loggerhead Key is three miles from Garden Key; kayaking there is possible, but much planning is required, including camping primitively at Garden Key. Yankee Clipper II does bring campers/kayakers to Garden Key, but kayak space on the boat is very limited. Here are a couple of reads that provide more information: “A Kayak Trip in Dry Tortugas National Park” (Visit Florida) and “Dry Tortugas National Park | PADDLING” (National Park Planner).
The first five lighthouses along or near A1A, from Fernandina Beach to Ponce Inlet, are much easier to experience; with proper planning and attention to schedule, each can seen on a one-day trip.
It’s time to ride The Buccaneer Trail.
From the 1958 brochure:
THE BUCCANEER TRAIL offers motorists a thrilling introduction to the wonderful vacationland of picturesque Florida. It affords camera enthusiasts many opportunities to record unusual and beautiful scenes as they make the trip along this exciting coastal route.
To ride the trail completely, begin at the northern terminus of A1A in Callahan. Arriving on Amelia Island, the trail goes north, east, and south before arriving at the St. Johns River Ferry in Jacksonville. Crossing the St. Johns River, the trail continues through Mayport, the Jacksonville Beaches, and Ponte Vedra Beach.
From here, drive south along the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine. Arriving in Vilano Beach, the trail turns west, crossing the Tolomato River via the Francis and Mary Unsina Bridge into St. Augustine, then turning south and back east, crossing the Bridge of Lions over the Matanzas River and onto Anastasia Island. It heads south through St. Augustine Beach, Butler Beach, and Crescent Beach.
After crossing the Matanzas Inlet bridge, the trail continues south, paralleling sections of Old A1A. Next is historic Marineland, and its dolphin adventure—the first of several opportunities to swim with dolphins along A1A. Further down the trail, Palm Coast is just to the west; next is Beverly Beach and Flagler Beach; here, the trail threads through the ocean coastline and the Halifax River.
Scenic driving is interrupted once the trail enters Ormond-By-The-Sea, Ormond Beach, and Daytona Beach; this stretch is dotted with high rise condominiums, high-rise hotels, smaller lodging establishments, adult entertainment establishments, restaurants, miniature golf courses, surf shops, and souvenir shops—traffic is usually thick.
In Port Orange, the Buccaneer Trail comes to an end; here also, A1A turns westward and joins US 1 after crossing the Halifax River on the Dunlawton Bridge. To get to Ponce Inlet and its lighthouse, avoid the turn westward and head further south for about eight miles.
Within the Buccaneer Trail is another designation: A1A Scenic & Historic Coastal Byway, which begins at the border of Duval and St. Johns counties and ends at Flagler Beach’s Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area.
These directions are admittedly long-winded; however, it does show that the Buccaneer Trail portion of A1A offers much, and to truly experience it, you will want to give yourself a few days to do so. There are 16 state parks along the trail, and many sites to see, especially in Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine; both offer much in the way of pirate history and culture, hence the name Buccaneer Trail..
But the purpose is to experience the five lighthouses on the Buccaneer Trail in a day, so here we go.
The first lighthouse on the Buccaneer Trail is Fernandina Beach’s Amelia Island Lighthouse. Built in 1838, it is the OLDEST in Florida. Materials used to build this light were brought from a lighthouse in nearby Cumberland Island (Georgia), which was built in 1820. Amelia Island Light is still operational.
Wednesday tours of the lighthouse will resume April 21 (with limited capacity). The grounds of the lighthouse are open on Saturdays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Visitors will not be able to climb to the top.
An excellent alternative to view the lighthouse is to visit Fort Clinch State Park—the FIRST state park along A1A south—and drive the Canopy Road until you get to Egan’s Creek Scenic View. This a beautiful spot revealing the maritime forest surrounding the park. It allows a distant view of the lighthouse across the salt marshes of Egan’s Creek. This alternative is what you will need to choose in order to see the five lighthouses in one day.
It costs $6 per vehicle to get into the park, plus another $2.50 per person to see the actual fort; you have a little time to explore before heading to the next lighthouse. Those that dabble with photography will get a nice photo of Amelia Island Light; the brick-laid architecture of Fort Clinch will also provide some dazzling photo ops.
Kids of all ages will enjoy exploring the fort, and the surrounding beaches, a haven for shark teeth hunters; if pressed for time. let the kids pay $1 for some shark teeth at the fort’s gift shop.
Plan to arrive at Fort Clinch at 8 a.m. and budget 90 minutes, including a quick 30 minutes at the fort which opens at 9 a.m.
Next stop: Mayport.
The St. Johns River Lighthouse (1858), an approximately one-hour drive from Amelia Island Lighthouse, is Mayport’s OLDEST surviving structure. Located on the premises of Naval Station Mayport, visitors are not allowed to enter and climb this lighthouse; however, it is effortless to get to the fence and see it closely.
A highlight of this visit will be the barely less than a mile ride across the St. Johns River via ferry, the only ferry service on A1A. The ferrry runs from Fort George Island to Mayport every half hour on the quarter hour (the ferry is currently closed for maintenance and repairs; the Dames Point Bridge provides a detour to Mayport).
Mayport, like Fernandina Beach, is known throughout the world for its shrimp; there are two excellent options for lunch: Singleton’s Seafood Shack (featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives) and Safe Harbor Seafood.
A lunch stop here, however will significantly cut into the day’s schedule as both open at 11 a.m. Ideally, you will want to take a quick look around Mayport and the lighthouse. Suggested time frame here is 10:30-11 a.m.
Not to be confused with the St. Johns River Lighthouse, the St. Johns Lighthouse, built in art deco style in 1954, is also located at Naval Station Mayport, and is not accessible to the general public.
However, the phrase “It’s the journey, not the destination” applies here. To see this lighthouse, head to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park in Atlantic Beach and visit “the Poles.” Here is the beachside boundary between the park and the navy base. The Poles is considered one of the top surfing spots in Northeast Florida.
Hanna Park provides a diverse eco-system; from its pristine ocean shoreline to its freshwater lake to its maritime forest, it serves as a bird sanctuary within the urbanized area of Duval County. There is plenty to do, from hiking and biking to kayaking and camping. Cost to enter is $5 per car (up to eight people).
Hanna Park is about a 10-minute drive from Mayport, thus these two lighthouses are the CLOSEST in proximity throughout Florida. Hanna Park is definitely worth an extended visit, but there are still two lighthouses to see, and you will want to climb both. Get back on trail no later than noon.
For the next 50 miles (and about 90 minutes), A1A brings you to the OLDEST city in America. Driving through St. Augustine will tempt you to stop and see the many sites that you pass. Through downtown, you get a perfect view of Castillo de San Marcos, the OLDEST masonry fort in the Lower 48, and the OLDEST structure in St. Augustine.
You also come to the entrance of the pedestrian-only area, St. George Street, and its array of restaurants, bars, shops, and historic sites such as the OLDEST schoolhouse in America. If you were to visit any of the souvenir shops along St. George Street, you will clearly see how St. Augustine cherishes its lighthouse; many items, including some cool looking t-shirts, it off.
Without getting out of your vehicle, you will have a chance to see some of what St. Augustine offers; traffic here slows significantly for a couple of miles. Once you finally cross the Bridge of Lions, you are five minutes from the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum.
At a height of 165 feet, the St. Augustine Lighthouse is the seventh tallest in America, beaten out by only six feet by the fourth tallest in America, New Jersey’s Absecon Light. It is the second tallest in Florida, only a basketball goal shorter than the final lighthouse on this day tour.
However, as was empathically shared to me by the lighthouse attendant on duty during my recent visit, St. Augustine Light, with 219, has the MOST steps of all the Florida lighthouses. For sure, it would be a hard argument to make against referring to this lighthouse as the most beautiful in Florida. Florida Smart’s website article by Cortney Tarell, “Florida’s 10 Best Lighthouses,” rates it as #1:
There really is no doubt that the St. Augustine Lighthouse is Florida’s best lighthouse. This is the Florida lighthouse. Its image is an iconic part of our nation’s oldest continuing city. The lighthouse and its museum are a must-see on any St. Augustine vacation and it’s 190,000 visitors a year seem to agree.
Along with the lighthouse are exhibits within “four historic buildings,” a play area for children, a pretty large gift shop, and a WWII-era garage now converted into The Tin Pickle where food and drinks are served, including spicy pickles wrapped in tin foil. For this day tour, the Tin Pickle will make for a good, though basic, late lunch spot, fueling you up for an awesome climb and keeping you on schedule to complete the day trip.
Also located on the grounds is Heritage Boatworks; here volunteer boatwrights handmake wooden watercraft.
While general hours are from 9 a.m.-6 p.m., there are special tours offered at night, including a sunset/moonrise tour and a “Dark of the Moon” ghost tour, featured on several television shows, including Ghost Hunters on A&E. To get a comprehensive look at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, check out this comprehensive YouTube video by Chad Gallivanter.
There is much to do here, and you are also very close to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. and Anastasia State Park (I will do another one-day blog featuring these sites soon) But let’s stay focused—we have one more lighthouse to visit.
Leaving the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum no later than 3 p.m. should provide enough time to get to the TALLEST lighthouse in Florida. Ponce Inlet is also the third tallest lighthouse in America (175 feet); it offers 203 steps to the top. Important point—Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum closes at 6 p.m., but tickets are sold only up until 5 p.m. Their website will announce days with extended hours (Daytona Beach’s bike week and race week, for example), as well as unexpected closures due to weather or maintenance.
Traveling on the trail, 60 miles separate the St. Augustine and Ponce Inlet lighthouses; it is best to give yourself 90 nonstop minutes to make this drive, which includes getting through Daytona Beach traffic. As mentioned earlier, get off A1A and the Buccaneer Trail and continue down South Atlantic Avenue.
For me, Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is the grand finale on this day trip. While I consider the St. Augustine Lighthouse as most beautiful, Ponce Inlet offers the most spectacular view from the top, including the clearest ocean view.
Not as elaborate as the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, the museum at Ponce Inlet nevertheless offers much for lighthouse fans to see; for literary fans, a pre-visit reading of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” will provide an enhanced appreciation of Ponce Inlet Lighthouse; the story is based on his experiences following the sinking of the S.S. Commodore, of which Crane was serving as a seaman, his time on a lifeboat with four other men, and how the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse guided him and three others to safety.
On the grounds, you will have the chance to see a collection of Cuban refugee rafts, walk a quaint hiking trail, and shop at a well-stocked gift shop.
With some planning, you may arrive and take the “Climb to the Moon” tour, offered once a lunar month; this of course, would allow you more time to complete this day trip during the spring, summer, and early fall months when sunset comes later in the day. Reservations are required.
To wrap up the day and celebrate this five-lighthouse challenge, Ponce Inlet offers three waterfront restaurants: Hidden Treasure Rum Bar and Grill, Down the Hatch Seafood Company, and Off the Hook at Inlet Harbor. Each will provide a chance to see a beautiful sunset over the Intracoastal Waterway.
For those that decide to venture on this lighthouse venture, whether for a day or as part of an extended trip, make sure to comment on this your experience.