While camping at the Francisco State Beach Campground in Half Moon Bay, we stopped in the little Visitor Center and learned from the friendly docent that there are two lighthouses nearby: Pigeon Point Lighthouse to the south and Point Montara to the north. From the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, the Point Arena Light Station, and the Point Bonita Lighthouse, to the Point Pinos Lighthouse, the Point Cabrillo Light Station, and the Battery Point Lighthouse, we have visited quite a few lighthouses and there was no way I was going to miss these two!
After heading south and visiting Pescadero State Beach and Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park, we turned around and headed back north past Half Moon Bay to visit the Point Montara Lighthouse and we almost missed it! In fact, we did miss it because there aren’t signs like there are for other lighthouses, and had to turn around and go back.
We were shocked by just how small the lighthouse is!
The Point Montara Lighthouse tower is only 30 feet tall yet has the distinction of being the only lighthouse to stand on both the west and east coasts of the United States! From 1881-1922, the metal lighthouse tower originally stood at Mayo Beach in Cape Cod. It was then decommissioned and sent from Massachusetts to Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay in 1925 where it sat until it was installed a Point Montara in 1928. While the light tower is short, it is good for keeping the light beam beneath the fog.
The lighthouse is closed to the public, but you can explore the grounds, which include a peaceful semi-circle seating area with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and a short trail to a secluded beach. We relaxed on the benches for a while, watching some seals swim in the surf below, took in the beautiful views, and walked out onto the bluffs overlooking the beach before heading back to the campground for some beach time.
About The Point Montara Lighthouse
For many years, ships heading to San Francisco Bay encountered thick fog and were forced to hug the rocky coastline, which proved to be both dangerous and deadly. By the mid 1800s almost ninety vessels had wrecked on the jagged rocks near Montara, but it wasn’t until two high profile incidents pushed Congress to take action.
In 1868, the Colorado, a large Pacific Mail steamship carrying hundreds of passengers and the U.S. mail, ran aground on the unseen shoals off Point Montara. Although the ship eventually floated free and all the passengers and mail survived, the near disaster left its mark on public sentiment and the ledge where the ship had run aground, formerly called Uncle Sam, became known as Colorado Reef. Four years later, in 1872, the British sailing ship Aculeo collided with the rocks after being lost for more than three days in blinding fog. As the ship cracked open and filled with water, the crew made its escape in lifeboats. For over a week, the abandoned ship was pounded by waves before a salvage crew could get to it.
In 1874, construction of a light station began on a rocky bluff seventy feet above the ocean at Point Montara — halfway between Pigeon Point and Point Bonita. Then in 1875, the two-story, Victorian Gothic style lightkeeper’s dwelling was completed and the fog signal that could be heard up to fifteen miles away was placed in operation.
Unfortunately, the fog signal wasn’t enough to prevent continuing disasters off the coast and in 1876, the three-masted Welsh ship Rydal Hall crashed in the fog. Twenty-one of its thirty-man crew survived and the cargo was a total loss. After many more ships carrying railroad iron and lumber continued to wreck on the rocks, it became clear that a lighthouse was needed.
- In 1881, the fog signal building was enlarged to house a second signal and in 1884, a barn and stable were added to the property.
- In 1900, a kerosene lens lantern was installed on a post 300 feet southwest of the fog whistle, and the resulting red beam could be seen up to twelve miles.
- Two years later, the original fog signal was replaced by a 1.5 story, wood-framed structure built atop a concrete foundation.
- In 1912, the lens lantern was upgraded to a fourth-order Fresnel lens set atop a white skeletal iron tower, the light was changed from fixed red to a white light, and its power was increased.
- In 1919, the steam fog signals were torn out and replaced by a diaphone fog signal and once again, the candlepower was increased to 25,000. Then in 1928, the new metal lighthouse tower arrived.
During World War II, the Light Station was used to house military units, including the K-9 Corps and a mobile artillery unit. Then after the war, the coast guard assumed control of the station and in 1970, the foghorn was replaced by an off-shore horn buoy, the light was automated, and the original Fresnel lens was removed.
HI Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel
In 1980, the historic Point Montara Lighthouse became a hostel.
HI Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel sits on a windy coastal bluff overlooking the beautiful Pacific ocean. The original Victorian keeper’s dwelling houses the staff for Point Montara Hostel, two kitchens, a dining room, and bedrooms for the guests are located in the adjacent Coast Guard housing, and the fog signal building provides two dorm rooms and a large common room.
With dorm rooms and private room available, it is a unique yet affordable lodging option when traveling along California’s infamous Highway One. Located just outside the beach community of Montara, the hostel offers guests an on-site espresso bar, a beautiful beach, free WiFi, laundry facilities, free bag and bike storage, and first come-first served parking.
Know Before You Go
- Point Montara Lighthouse on the Point Montara Light Station State Property is located at 8800 Cabrillo Highway, Montara, California 94037 at the intersection of 16th Street and Cabrillo Highway just twenty miles south of San Francisco, 0.5 miles south of Montara, and seven miles north of Half Moon Bay. (Look for the American Youth Hostel signs on the ocean side of the road.)
- The Light Station property has been turned into the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel run by Hostelling International USA.
- The Point Montara Lighthouse tower is owned by the Coast Guard and the public grounds are managed by California State Parks. The small lighthouse isn’t open for tours, but you can visit the picturesque 1875 light station for free. The grounds are open from 9:00 am to sunset. The hostel requests that you stop by the office before visiting the grounds.
- From the lighthouse parking area, you can access a beautiful sitting area past the lighthouse to do some whale watching. Gray whales migrate by Point Montara between November and April.
- To the north, a short trail leads past a picket fence, over the bluffs, and down to a quiet sandy beach with tide pools that are accessible during low tide.
- Point Montara Light Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
- The original Fresnel lens has been moved to the San Mateo County Historical Society Museum where it is still on display.
- No public restrooms are available, as they are for hostel guests only.
- Dogs allowed on leash on the property but not allowed in the hostel.