View From the Top

Racing against time to complete New Jersey's Lighthouse Challenge.

Barnegat Lighthouse.
Barnegat Lighthouse.
Photo by Steve Greer

Climb all 11 lighthouses on New Jersey’s coastline in just two days. It sounds like a manageable feat. After all, it’s just 1,304 steps. But there’s a reason they call this the Lighthouse Challenge. The two-day marathon of driving and climbing requires nearly 250 total miles of travel from lighthouse to lighthouse. And, of course, for every step up, you must climb down.

Still, on the third weekend of October, hundreds of  intrepid souls set out each year on this journey along New Jersey’s shoreline. For history buffs, it’s a chance to delight in our state’s rich maritime history. For the rest of us, it’s an opportunity for bragging rights and some remarkable views.

The challenge, now in its 17th year, attracts visitors from throughout New Jersey and across the nation, says Nanci Coughlin, chair of the Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey and director of tour operations at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities in Cape May. One particularly motivated lighthouse fan from North Jersey does the entire challenge twice each year, Coughlin reports.

After driving down from Morris County, my mother, sister and I started our challenge at its northernmost destination: Sandy Hook Lighthouse, at the northern tip of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Owned and maintained by the National Park Service, the sturdy, white, stone structure has been guiding seamen since 1764. That makes it the oldest operating lighthouse in the nation. Its beam is visible for up to 19 miles.

Our first step of many is to pick up Lighthouse Challenge “passports” in the gift shop at the base of the tower. The goal is to get a stamp on each page of the passport, representing all 11 lighthouses, plus two lifesaving stations and one museum. Our reward will be the satisfaction of completing the challenge in the two-day window.

Time is of the essence. At 11:30 am we are ready for our first climb. Unfortunately, the lighthouse can only accommodate a small number of climbers at a time. As we wait in line, a lighthouse keeper shares stories of the tower’s long history. After an hour-long wait, we begin our ascent. We climb 95 steps before reaching a landing. A ladder with nine rungs takes us to the lookout platform. At the top, a park-service volunteer points out the southern tip of Manhattan, about 16 miles north. We take in the dramatic view, then begin our descent.

It is past 1 pm when we make it back to the car. We have completed only one ascent. And we only have until the 5 pm closing time to cover substantial ground on day one. Or so we think.

Leaving the park area, we cross the Shrewsbury River back to the Jersey mainland. At the peak of the bridge, we spot the Twin Lights nestled in the hill straight ahead. This dual-light station sits atop the highest spot of America’s coastline between Maine and Texas. Although no longer a guiding light, it maintains its claim to fame as the first American lighthouse to use a Fresnel lens, a distinctive, efficient lens developed by the French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel in the early 19th century. The towers are not more than 50 feet high, but they provide sweeping views across the Atlantic Ocean.

Quickly, we move on. The clock is ticking. Next stop: Sea Girt Lighthouse. Despite the need for speed, we take the scenic route, following the shoreline rather than detouring to the Parkway.

The 120-year-old Sea Girt Light rises from a stout, red-brick keeper’s house, which serves as a museum. After a brief wait in line, we climb the metal stairs, then pass through a trap door to reach the light perched atop the house. In just 15 minutes, we’re off to our next destination nearly 60 miles south.

It’s 3:30 by the time we cross Manahawkin Bay to Long Beach Island. This is off-season, so not much is open. We grab some burgers at Neptune Market, a year-round favorite, then head to the northernmost point of LBI for our visit to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park and the stately red-and-white tower affectionately known as Old Barney. By now the crowds have thinned out. We zip up and down Old Barney’s 217 steps, get our passports stamped at the nearby museum (the tour’s required museum stop), and hit the road again. The challenge is taking on the feel of a TV game show.

We’re hoping to make one more stop before closing time. With just 20 minutes to spare, we reach Tuckerton Seaport and Tucker’s Island Lighthouse, a replica of an earlier structure that toppled into the ocean in 1927.

After climbing just 40 steps to the top, we pause to enjoy the 360-degree view, take a deep breath of sea air and reflect on our day’s achievement. Just then, a couple from Pennsylvania informs us that this tower, as well as the lighthouses in Absecon and Cape May, is open for night climbs.

The news is deflating until we realize we now have a window for one more climb. Back in the car, we make a beeline for the 228-step Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City—the tallest lighthouse in the state and third tallest in the country. It’s nighttime now, and the lights of Atlantic City are twinkling for miles around.

We spend the night in Wildwood Crest. Like LBI, it’s eerily quiet in the off-season. We arise early, knowing we have seven stops—including two lifesaving stations—on our agenda for day two. We start the day by doubling back to Ocean City and Stone Harbor to get our passports stamped at the lifesaving stations, then return to North Wildwood for a stop at Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, a Victorian-style, residential lighthouse surrounded by an inviting garden. Volunteers serve snacks and beverages in the courtyard.

Our next stop is Cape May Lighthouse, about 30 minutes south. This is the state’s southernmost point. We make the 199-step climb to a bright red landing, where we are rewarded with a broad view of the ocean and Delaware Bay.

Time check: We have a little more than four hours left for three stops (a total of 552 steps) arrayed along the Delaware Bay and up the mouth of the Delaware River.

From Cape May, we drive north on the Parkway as far as Exit 10. Local roads take us through Belleplain State Forest and into the Heislerville Wildlife Management Area. The tall, marshy brush all around us begins to sway. Dark clouds roll in. A storm is coming. We hadn’t planned for this.

Undaunted, we reach East Point Lighthouse, a weathered brick building on a sandy promontory where the snakelike Maurice River empties into the Delaware Bay. The rain holds off.

Originally known as the Maurice River Light, the humble structure was built to help guide oyster fishermen from the bay to their home ports upstream. The lighthouse was blacked out during World War II and was not relit until 1980.

The small building can accommodate only four visitors at a time. Despite its remote location, we have to wait. The view of the bay from atop the tower is worth the wait—but it has put a significant crimp in our schedule.

It’s an hour-long drive to Pennsville at the mouth of the Delaware River. Here we find our penultimate destination, Finns Point Rear Range Lighthouse, an unremarkable, 115-foot-tall iron tower. It looks more oil rig than lighthouse. We arrive at 4:30 and jog to the entrance, still outrunning the rain. We enter the red door at the base of Finns Point and climb 119 steps to the top. Soon there will be a dramatic sunset, but we have to move on.

Just one more stop—and one more stamp in the passport—to go. We drive 30 minutes along the Delaware River and arrive, with half an hour to spare, at our final stop, the Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse in Paulsboro, about 15 miles south of Camden. Still no rain. A welcoming committee congratulates those who have finished the challenge, but there’s no stopping us now. We’ve got to make our final climb.

It’s 112 steps to the top of Tinicum, another oil-rig-like tower. A small door opens to a landing with a railing not much higher than my waist. The Philadelphia skyline looms to the north.

We walk back down, stepping slowly now, our knees aching. We have clambered up and down a total of more than 2,600 steps. We wait in line for the final stamp that will make our passports complete. We’ve met the challenge—and with minutes to spare.

This year’s Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey will be held October 15 and 16. Challenge hours are 8 am-5 pm Saturday and Sunday. Night climbs at Absecon, Cape May and Tuckerton take place 6-8 pm on Saturday. Several of the lighthouses charge a small fee to climb; others suggest a donation.

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