A memorable day trip to the Lighthouses of Portland, Maine
Portland, Maine, boasts many charms. An adorable Old Port, incredible dining scene, stunning coastline—and gorgeous lighthouses. My dear friend Colleen (we’ve known each other so long, we don’t remember when we actually met) lives in Portland, and she happens to be a lighthouse connoisseur. I visited Colleen recently as part of an overnight trip to Portland. After brunch in her Munjoy Hill neighborhood, she took me on her lighthouse tour. We had ourselves a lovely day!
Lighthouses of Portland, Maine
You can tour Portland’s lighthouses, too
As not everyone is lucky enough to have Colleen for a friend (check out her photos!), I thought I’d share the tour we did, including good spots she’s found. Thankfully, the forecasted rain did not materialize, but I found the gray skies during the early part of our tour added to the romanticism of lighthouses.
This post includes a map of the lighthouses, as well as a link to a tour (affiliate link) you can do, in case you visit Portland without a car. Portland is an easy day trip from Boston if you have a car.
Lighthouses of Portland, Maine, Video
Lighthouses in Maine
Maine’s famous rugged coastline and islands aren’t just beautiful—it posed serious dangers to mariners. Lighthouses, often built after a tragedy, played a critical role in saving lives. While not all remain active, many of the sixty-five lighthouses still standing continue to protect sailors. One of the lighthouses we visited was the first lighthouse built in Maine, but they continued to be built into the early twentieth century.
Lighthouses loom in the New England imagination
Historically, lighthouse keeping (or a LOT of time with one’s family members). For those out at sea, this meant months without contact with those on land. Attempts to alleviate isolation included little Lighthouse Libraries (the precursor to those free libraries we see in neighborhoods?), but, even with reading, there was very little to do.
Lore abounds about lighthouse keepers going mad or haunted lighthouses with specters of their former keepers continuing to keep watch and the sailors who lost their lives on the rocks below still calling for help centuries later. Lighthouses have inspired artists for centuries, and their lonely beauty today draws thousands of visitors a year. In peak summer, expect throngs flocking to the lighthouses, but visit in the shoulder or off seasons, and you’ll experience the quiet grace of Maine’s lighthouses.
A tour of the Lighthouses of Portland
With Colleen, I visited Two Lights, Portland Head Light, Ram Island Ledge (visible from Portland Head Light), Spring Point Ledge, and Bug Light. She showed me the best viewing spots and shared what drew her to lighthouses. We ended our tour at East End Beach, on Portland’s Eastern Prom, where you can see Bug Light and Spring Point Ledge.
Two Lights (Cape Elizabeth Light), Cape Elizabeth
We started in Cape Elizabeth, just outside of Portland, to see Two Lights (also known as Cape Elizabeth Light Station). As the name suggests, Two Lights is actually two lighthouses. Dating back to the 1820s, only the East tower remains active. You can see the West tower, but it is privately owned and in a residential neighborhood.
The best view of Two Lights is not in the , but rather at On the Rocks at Two Lights park (shown on the map), a rocky beach and cliffs. Bonus: you don’t have to pay to park at On the Rocks, though it can get very crowded.
Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth
If you only have time to visit one lighthouse, make it Portland Head Light. By far the most beautiful, Portland Head Light is considered one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the US. The surrounding Fort Williams Park makes for a perfect afternoon destination on Maine’s rocky coast.
A quiet, lonely beauty
Jutting out into the surf, Portland Head Light quiets your mind and transports you back in time to when the light from this tower would have been the only thing keeping you from crashing onto the rocks below. Waves crash against the rocks, making you grateful for our modern comforts, but perhaps longing for the romance of days gone by.
You aren’t alone. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is said to have written his poem the Lighthouse, after spending time at Portland Head Light.
Portland Head Light history
Commissioned to be built on the site where Cape Elizabeth residents kept watch out for the British during the Revolutionary War, Portland Head Light began its service in 1791. It continued to be improved through the nineteenth century, passing into national service until 1989, when the light was automated.
Take in the lighthouse, and then stroll around the park (an affogato from the gelato stand may be in order). You might not run into your old dear neighbors and their amazing dog, but perhaps you’ll meet someone else with the same idea and strike up a lovely conversation.
Ram Island Ledge Light
Visible from Portland Head Light, Ram Island Ledge Light was the only offshore lighthouse we saw on our tour. Other than passing by it on a boat tour, this island is not open to the public. It marks a dangerous spot just off the coast from Portland, where rough seas caused the lighthouse to be rebuilt several times.
We often think of lighthouses as a relic of yesteryear, but a significant crash happened here in 1990 (thankfully all were rescued). Ram Island Ledge Light was decommissioned in the late 2000s and is in private hands.
Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse
Dubbed a spark plug for its squat appearance, Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse dates back to the late nineteenth century. As with other lighthouses in Portland built after tragedy, this Spring Point Ledge (note: not a secure site) went up after too many shipwrecks in the area. You can, if you have good shoes and nimble feet (I don’t), easily walk out to the lighthouse now, but the breaker didn’t come until the 1950s.
Spring Point passed into a land trust in the late 1990s, but it continues to operate and is open to the public.
From both Spring Point and Bug Light ,you can see Fort Gorges, a nineteenth century fort that is today a quiet park. Colleen mentioned that she’s planning on doing some kayaking this summer and plans to visit it. From the shore, you can walk around Fort Preble, built in the early nineteenth century and active through World War II. A Nor’Easter in ealry 2023 damaged the fort, so take care in walking around.
Portland Breakwater Lighthouse, aka Bug Light, is absolutely darling. While I found Portland Head Light the most powerful, Bug Light, nicknamed for its cute little squat stature, earned a little place in my heart. You can walk right out to it from Bug Light Park and admire the scroll work and Corinthian columns adorning the nineteenth-century lighthouse. It was decommissioned in the 1940s and added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s.
East End Beach
To end our tour, on our way back to Colleen’s neighborhood, we visited East End Beach, Portland’s only beach, on the Eastern Prom, which allows you to see Bug Light and Spring Point Lighthouses and Fort Gorges. Had we not already had gelato at Portland Head Light, we might have treated ourselves to some from the Gelato Fiasco truck in the park.
Such a lovely day visiting Portland’s lighthouses
I loved my lighthouse tour with my dear friend. I hadn’t be on the coast since I left Zadar for Zagreb, Croatia, back in October, and the sea was a most welcome sight. I learned a lot about the lighthouses, got some good snaps, and reconnected with one of the very first friends I ever made.
Visit the lighthouses of Portland, Maine
Not all of us are so lucky as to have a Colleen in our lives, so here’s how you can visit the historic lighthouses of Portland, Maine, on your own.
- Wear good shoes, as terrain is uneven in a number of places.
- It can be much cooler right on the coast than it is inland, so on all but the hottest summer days, you’ll want at least a light sweater or jacket.
- Portland’s lighthouses are wildly popular. Even in the off season, it can get crowded. If you’re visiting on a beautiful summer day, be prepared for huge crowds.
Every year, Maine hosts Lighthouse Day (scheduled for 9 September 2023 this year). While the crowds are immense, this is your opportunity to potentially venture into one of Portland’s historic lighthouses. Check the website for the lighthouses open on the day.
An easy day trip from Boston—if you have a car
Especially if you have a car, Portland is an easy day trip from Boston. Depending on traffic, the 180 km/112 m trip will take you about 2 hours (note that there are tolls, most of them cashless). If you’re planning on visiting all of the lighthouses, I would go in the order given above, as it will take you back into Portland, where you can eat and wander around Portland’s cute Old Port before heading back.
Take a tour of Portland’s Lighthouses
If you don’t have a car, let alone a Colleen to explain things to you, or you just don’t want to worry about driving around, you might want to take a tour of Portland’s Lighthouses instead. While I didn’t take this small-group tour, I saw it in action throughout the day, and it has a good reputation.
Book through Viator (affiliate link).
Visiting Portland’s lighthouses without a car from Boston
If you don’t have a car, you can take the Downeaster train from Boston’s North Station (~2.5 hours, from $44), or take a bus from South Station (~2 hours, depending on traffic, $48). Both are very easy rides, and you can catch a taxi or a rideshare to head into town. If you don’t have a car, you’ll most definitely want to book a small-group tour (affiliate link).
Buses and trains head back to Boston from Portland early
Here’s the rub: both of these routes are designed more for getting people from Portland into Boston for the day than the other way around. The last bus leaves Portland at 19:45, which doesn’t allow much time for dinner, and the last train leaves at 18:33. Personally, I always found that really frustrating (I’d stay over at Colleen’s, but she has a cat, and I’m allergic).
Overnight stays in Portland are very expensive
An overnight stay would definitely make for a more enjoyable visit, as Portland has a great dining scene, but be prepared for sticker shock. Staying in Portland is eye-poppingly expensive, even during the off season. My recent overnight cost nearly $200, and my accommodations, while clean and full of character, were definitely on the modest side. Thank goodness for points, right?
It is certainly doable, and I have gone to Portland for the day several times from Boston in the past, but do know that your time in town will be limited.
Solo travel/solo female travel
This is a great activity for the solo traveler. I think on a moodier weather day, it would be a very peaceful trip. Normal precautions apply as far as safety is concerned.
Portland Head Light has some accessible pathways (I couldn’t find any accessibility information on their website), and you can certainly see Bug Light easily from Bug Light Park (you wouldn’t be able to get directly to the lighthouse in a wheelchair).
For general information on Portland’s accessibility, the Visit Portland, Maine, site’s Accessibility page may be able to help. There is an email address for specific questions.
Map of the Lighthouses of Portland, Maine
This map shows the lighthouses and locations we visited and has links to parks where available. Do note that parking can be extremely limited in peak season, as the lighthouses are popular attractions. You may need to pay for parking in some locations and observe all rules and regulations.
Have you been?
Have you taken a day trip to see the lighthouses of Portland, Maine? What was your favorite? Any tips? Let us know in the comments!