Precariously perched lighthouses dot islets and reefs off America's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They're photogenic landmarks, but also quite inaccessible. That is, all but one. In the last year, it's become possible for visitors to hop over the churning waves and set foot on one historic offshore lighthouse.
We might as well start this story at the very beginning, on a dark and stormy morning - in 1865.
That day, a steamer headed north from San Francisco runs into heavy seas near the Oregon state line. The side-wheeler turns back but shortly thereafter crashes onto a wave-swept rock, the end of a reef that stretches far out to sea off Point St. George, California. The terrible loss of life, some 165 souls, spurs Congress to authorize an offshore lighthouse near the wreck. The treacherous location resulted in the most expensive lighthouse construction project of the 1800s. For over 80 years, it was the most dangerous posting for light keepers. In 1975, the Coast Guard shut the St. George Light down and replaced it with an offshore light buoy.
Today, Guy Towers books public tours to this place of "fatal attraction." "It is such a magnificent structure and has such a wonderful history that it needed to be shown to the public and be appreciated," he says. "It costs $150 per person. That's relatively steep, [but] that's the basic money that's used for the restoration of the lighthouse. St. George Reef is the only offshore lighthouse in the entire world, unless someone corrects me, I'm fairly certain that's true only offshore lighthouse in the entire world that's accessible to the public. So, you can experience the huge waves and the sense of isolation that the keepers had when they were out there."
Visitors get to the quarter-hectare rock by a helicopter chartered by the St. George Reef Lighthouse Preservation Society. The chopper lands on a ledge at the base of the lighthouse after a 10 kilometer crossing from the mainland. Guy Towers assures me the tiny landing pad is safe. "I've compared it to probably the closest experience that the average person will have to landing on an aircraft carrier," he says.
The retired social worker says the most awe-inspiring part of the tour happens right after you alight. You stare upward at an eight-story square tower made of solid granite. It resembles a medieval castle, except for the flaking white paint.
The tour includes a climb to the top of the tower through the engine room, kitchen, sleeping quarters, watchroom, finally ending at the lantern, 50 meters over the sea. The tour attracts all sorts of people enamored by the mystique of lighthouses. For some, this is just one stop in a pilgrimage from beacon to beacon down the coast. They often get their first glimpse of St. George Reef from the Crescent City harbor entrance.
There's another lighthouse there where part-time keeper Stan Rexford welcomes these visitors and stamps their collector books. The point of land he occupies affords a fine view toward the offshore light, which some locals say resembles a spark plug. "We try to send as many people over there as we can. They look at our lighthouse and they want to go out there. That's a popular lighthouse because of the size and it is out to sea. People really like it. They've done a lot of restoration. They've worked hard on it. It makes it worth it," he says.
The $150 helicopter rides to Saint George Reef depart from the Crescent City Airport one weekend a month. Each set of visitors gets about one hour on the rock. While the lighthouse tour is a popular attraction, it shuts down during the peak tourist season of June to mid-October, in order to protect the summer denizens of the reef: A large herd of sea lions that raise their young on the rocky outcrops.