When you find yourself on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, checking out a lighthouse is a no-brainer. And there’s this one lighthouse that’s likely crossed your path, whether you’re a local or not.
I’m talking about the Nauset Lighthouse—the iconic beacon that graces the packaging of those delicious Cape Cod potato chips.
Below, I’ll dish out some cool tidbits about its very interesting history and throw in a few pointers for your visit.
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What is the Nauset Lighthouse
The Nauset Lighthouse is perhaps the most iconic lighthouse in Cape Cod and all of Massachusetts. Its rich history goes back to 1836 and it’s also become famous for its appearance on the Cape Cod potato chip bags. It’s a very accessible lighthouse and easy to visit making it a popular tourist attraction.
Nauset Lighthouse history
Like many other lighthouses dotting the coastline, the Nauset Lighthouse had its roots in a series of shipwrecks plaguing the area. Back in 1836, Eastham residents had seen enough and decided to petition the Boston Marine Society for a beacon of safety.
The initial light station was multi-structure setup, featuring three 15-foot-high masonry towers, a brick keeper’s house, an outhouse, and a well. It stood more than 500 feet east of where you’ll find the lighthouse today.
But thanks to the relentless forces of beach erosion, the station had to pick up and move westward not once, but four times. This whole “lighthouse shuffle” seems to be a recurring theme and we’ve learned about it as we’ve journeyed through Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
Back in 1836, when the lighthouse station was set with three wooden towers mentioned above, erosion had its say, prompting a switcheroo in 1892. Out went the original trio, replaced by three sturdier 22-foot-high wooden towers, charmingly dubbed “the Three Sisters of Nauset.”
Fast forward to 1911, and the ongoing battle with erosion led to another move. The center tower was moved back from the bluff’s edge, while the flanking towers gracefully bowed out and were auctioned off.
But don’t mourn their departure just yet. Those towers found a new home about 1,000 feet down the road on Cable Road, where they still stand (short and proud) today, although only one still has her lantern room.
The red and white tower of Nauset Light that you’re laying eyes on today (that replaced the three sisters) has had quite the journey itself.
It was first built in 1877 as one of two towers (called the “Twin Lights”) located at Chatham Lighthouse. Found about 30 minutes south of Nauset Light, you can visit Chatham Lighthouse and see Nauset Light’s former base (pictured in the image below to the right, where the anchor is).
I’d highly recommend visiting Chatham because there are a lot of beautiful maritime houses/mansions and we saw tons of whales in November from the lookout point just across the lighthouse!
But back to Nauset Light….
The lighthouse embarked on a relocation adventure from Chatham to Eastham in 1923. When it first found its new spot, planners attempted to deal with the erosion situation by placing it a good distance from the encroaching tides.
Yet, by 1996, it had edged within a mere 35 feet of the coastal road. So, in yet another effort to save the lighthouse, they picked it up and moved it across the street to where it now proudly stands.
In 1981, the light’s Fresnel lens was replaced by two rotating aero beacons, but I believe you can still view the original Fresnel lens at the Salt Pond Visitor Center Museum.
The iconic wooden house standing shoulder to shoulder with the lighthouse was the second house to join the party, constructed back in 1875. This keeper’s house has done the relocation hustle not once, but twice. First in 1923, and then again in 1998.
And let’s not forget about the little oil house, a vintage gem constructed in 1891. It’s a classic example of the outbuildings that were par for the course during the heyday of oil-fueled lighthouses.
Back in the day, the light station used a lot of different fuels. From spermaceti (the sperm whale oil, that made the whale industry so big in the 1800s), to rapeseed oil, lard oil, and eventually kerosene—this place has witnessed quite the evolution in illuminating technology.
Where is the Nauset Lighthouse?
The Nauset Lighthouse is found in Eastham, Massachusetts at: 120 Nauset Light Beach Rd, Eastham, MA 02642. This is on the southern portion of the “Outer Cape” and part of the Cape Cod National Seashore so National Park rules apply here.
Visiting the lighthouse
During your visit, there’s a convenient large parking lot available. Keep in mind, though, that summer months tend to draw crowds. We, however, opted for a November visit and encountered only two other individuals throughout, with the parking lot nearly deserted. Amenities include restrooms at the parking lot and, I believe, a bathing house, operational seasonally.
Once parked, a trail runs alongside the fence from where you can easily navigate your way to the lighthouse.
This spot marks the path of one of the initial cables linking Europe to North America, hence the name “Cable Road.”
Spanning a staggering 3,000 miles, this transatlantic telegraph cable was a game-changer, enabling the swift transmission of messages on topics ranging from wartime updates to natural disasters.
For a solid 24 years, it played a pivotal role in slashing communication times from weeks to mere seconds. Its reign, however, came to an end in 1903 with the advent of wireless communication, offering a new era in rapid information exchange.
Make a stop at the visitor center at Salt Pond and you can actually hold a piece of this cable!
After making your way through the trail, you’ll have a modest ascent up some steps, and voilà, you’re there. (Keep in mind, not pets allowed.)
Take a moment to peruse several interpretive panels offering insights into the lighthouse – it adds a meaningful dimension to the visit. Tower and oil house tours are available in the summer, although regrettably, we were unable to partake.
If you’re aiming to snag a photo resembling the one gracing those potato chip bags, you’re in luck. However, keep in mind that a direct match might be a bit elusive. It seems they’ve spiced up the chip bag image by adding the ocean into the mix. Essentially, it’s a fusion of two perspectives to amp up the packaging’s visual appeal.
To get that shot, take it from the south and experiment with different angles to capture a vibe similar to the chip bag’s iconic view.
One thing to note: the lighthouse didn’t always sport that distinctive red stripe. Back in the 1940s, they jazzed up the top section with a coat of red paint, creating the now-iconic appearance.
I’m all about snagging awesome lighthouse shots with my drone, but the National Park Service doesn’t allow drones of course. It’s a bit of a downer, but I get it.
I’m on board with the no-drones policy in national parks, mostly because lots of drone pilots don’t have common sense or decency. But it’s worth noting the coastline here is pretty extensive, and if they were allowed it wouldn’t be hard to find a spot away from people or wildlife.
After soaking in the lighthouse vibes, consider extending your coastal adventure to Nauset Light Beach. Look out for signs guiding you there, then follow the walkway down the bluff—it’s a manageable stroll for most.
Now, this beach is a scenic slice of Cape Cod, but it’s been wrestling with some serious erosion issues. Along the Outer Cape’s ocean-facing beaches, the average erosion rate is about three feet per year.
But Nauset Light Beach is an erosion “hot spot,” shedding over 45 feet of bluff edge between 2012 and 2016. It’s wild to see images of the 1960 parking lot which would now sitting submerged in the ocean!
But the real showstoppers around here? Gray seals. These animals have made a remarkable come back over the decades and you’ll catch these guys bobbing and diving in the surf, putting on quite the entertainment. Remember to keep a respectful 150-foot distance, especially if they’re lounging on the beach.
And here’s a heads up: swimming near the seals might not be the best plan, considering the local residents—great white sharks. Oh, and those rip currents mean business, so dipping your toes in the water calls for some serious caution.
A trip to a lighthouse is always a good day, but it’s extra special when there’s a dose of intriguing history involved. Take, for instance, the Nubble Lighthouse in Maine, part of the Voyager Golden Record. Here in Cape Cod, the Nauset Lighthouse boasts its own unique story, with all that shuffling around and its claim to fame on the Cape Cod potato chip bag. And hey, the fact that there’s a sweet beach nearby just seals the deal. So, if you find yourself in Cape Cod, this lighthouse is a definite must-visit.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC.