From the world-famous sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, a barrier island extends to the south, down through the oceanfront hotels of Daytona Beach Shores and the sleepy town of Wilbur-by-the-Sea, an enclave of beautiful beachfront homes and decorative marine-themed mailboxes. Keep heading south along A1A and Atlantic Avenue and you will at last come to Ponce de Leon Inlet, where the Halifax and Indian Rivers meet and flow into the Atlantic. And here you will find Florida’s tallest lighthouse, the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum. I’ve been visiting this spot with my family for years, and it is definitely a favorite Florida place of ours. It is out of the way, but well worth your time. Come and take a look!
A little history: Completed in 1887 as the Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse, the tower has remained essentially unchanged for nearly 130 years now. In 1933 the original kerosene lamp and fresnel lens were replaced with an electric light and a rotating beacon (which was restored and re-installed in 2004). During World War II the station was staffed by Coast Guardsmen, and in 1953 the lighthouse was made fully automatic and abandoned in 1970, in favor of a new light on the south side of the inlet. After several years of neglect and vandalism, the property was turned over to the town of Ponce Inlet, who restored the lighthouse and turned it and its grounds into the fantastic attraction it remains to this day. In 1998 it was designated a National Historic Landmark, and is still registered as an operational private aid to navigation.
The entrance to the lighthouse and grounds is through the lovely (and nicely air-conditioned) gift shop, where you’ll find a great selection of books, apparel and other memorabilia. Pay the admission fee, get your wristband, and off you go to explore the grounds and climb the lighthouse tower (if you are so inclined–I do recommend it!).
There’s something about lighthouses that kids really love–maybe it’s visions of Rapunzel or conquering castles, maybe it’s just the thrill of the climb and what lies at the top. But my girls have always loved making their way up and up!
And of course every photographer knows the money shot of any lighthouse is the spiral of stairs. This immaculate tower especially offers simply stunning opportunities for those shots.
But the tower also offers a warning: the placard you can see in the windowframe here makes note of the fact that an assistant keeper of this lighthouse in 1919 suffered fatal heart failure near this spot while making his way up the tower. With that in mind, a break now and then is a good idea!
Upon reaching the top of the tower, an observation gallery encircles the tower just below the light beacon. Those with a touch of acrophobia (like me) will be pleased to find the gallery nicely enclosed by railings and a wire cage.
After a long and winding climb, the views from the top–and the lovely breezes off the ocean–make it all worthwhile.
Back inside the tower, the lantern is of course inaccessible since the lighthouse is still a functioning navigational aid. But you can peek your head in to take a look at the 3rd-order Fresnel lens, which was first installed in 1933 and restored in 2004.
A number of buildings surround the lighthouse itself, and make up the rest of the museum. These include the dwellings for the lighthouse keepers and their families, and a few other outbuildings.
A highlight is the lens house, which contains a collection of lighthouse beacons, including the original 1st-order Fresnel lens used in the Ponce Inlet light.
Just around the corner from the lighthouse is the Ponce Inlet Marine Science Center. It’s a smallish place, but very pleasant and well worth visiting. There are a number of nicely-done aquariums, a stingray touch tank kids really enjoy, and rehabilitation facilities for both sea turtles and seabirds which I always find educational and moving.
And finally, the location is a natural (pun intended) for beach access, which can be found in a number of spots along Atlantic Ave, or you can pay for access to Lighthouse Point Park, which offers plenty of parking (including on the beach itself), an observation tower, and lots of boardwalks and a rock jetty to explore. The beachfront in this area tends to be more natural–and less crowded–than Daytona Beach. And of course, most kids adore roaming the beach, playing in the surf and looking for seashells and critters!
All in all, Ponce Inlet is a wonderful place to spend part of a day if you’re in the area. There are some amazing things to see and do, plenty of nature and history to be found, lots to keep kids amused and amazed, and all without being crowded or expensive. Wander on down, you’ll be glad you did.
Directions: From I-95, take the Dunlawton Ave./SR 421 exit (exit 256) and head east over the Dunlawton Bridge. Turn right to head south on Atlantic Ave., and go approximately 6 miles and turn right on Lighthouse Dr. in Ponce Inlet. The Marine Science Center will be on the right. Continue south on Lighthouse Dr to South Peninsula Dr and turn right to reach the lighthouse and museum, which will be on the right. Parking at both sites is free (though somewhat limited).
Check the official websites for more details, as well as operating hours and current admission fees: Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum / Ponce Inlet Marine Science Center