By EMILY NIPPS
Standing tall and majestically along the south end of the Key Biscayne shoreline, the Cape Florida lighthouse is a staggering sight.
It’s not hard to imagine the towering structure once guiding mariners and fisherman in the 1800s, back before LED navigation lights and other standard lighting fixtures found on modern-day boats.
It’s a beautiful piece of history, left over from a not-so-kind history of Indian attacks, Civil War battles, hurricanes and other harrowing and heroic times in Florida history, and it’s a treasure that has withstood more than its share of wear and tear over the decades.
In fact, the Cape Florida Light – which sits as a stately landmark within Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park – remains the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County, though it has been reinforced and refurbished several times since its original build in 1825.
Tours are offered on select days, to regale visitors with tales of sinking ships, Seminole Indian ambushes and the many lighthouse keepers that have occupied the keeper’s cottage over the years.
The stories are incredible. But what really blows guests away, said Assistant Park Manager Lu Dodson, is what they find when they reach the top of the lighthouse.
“By far, what we hear the most is, ‘What a stunning view,’” Dodson said. “Once you finish climbing those 109 stairs, it’s breathtaking. In more ways than one.”
An enchanting icon for the romantic
Lighthouses have been inspiring artists, writers and lovers for years, representing beacons of light in a dark journey and serving as reminders of our intrepid history of sea travel. Some find religious connotations in the towering structures and others simply like the clean, classic architecture that all lighthouses share in common.
“Many people get married on the grounds around the lighthouse, and this past year we’ve had a lot of requests to propose at the top of the tower,” Dodson said. “It’s such a beautiful and unique setting.”
The park once hosted a crew and stars for “Der Bachelor” – the German version of the popular reality matchmaking TV show – which came to film a rose ceremony using the lighthouse and beach as a backdrop.
Because it’s a public beach and park, the lighthouse and park cannot be cleared of all visitors for such interludes, but after the lighthouse closes at 5 p.m., the park will allow special rentals for those looking to make the lighthouse a part of their special and personal memories.
Fascinating Florida history told through the eyes of a tower
Initially built as a 65-foot lighthouse with wooden stairs, Cape Florida Lighthouse guided sailors and served as a lookout to protect the area from the pirates and other invaders that had been posing dangers to Florida throughout the 1700s and early 1800s. The first keeper and his family moved into the lighthouse’s cottage, becoming the first American family to reside in Key Biscayne.
Eleven years after opening, while the keeper and his family were away, a band of Seminole Indians attacked the tower, burning all of the wood structure inside and pillaging the cottage. It would be several years – well after the threat of Indians had subsided – before the lighthouse was rebuilt and operating again.
After Florida seceded from the Union in the 1860s, it was again damaged by Confederate sympathizers, and then went in and out of service several times over the next 100 years for various reasons ranging from tropical storm damage to lack of funding to operate the tower. It was restored and reopened in time for Miami’s Centennial Celebration in 1996, and the lighthouse now sits on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Visitors can hear about the area’s history in more detail when they visit the lighthouse and tour the keeper’s cottage. It’s a replica, of course, as are the antiques and artifacts inside, which give a glimpse of life as a secluded keeper’s family before Indians chased them away.
A serene setting for a day-long stay
The lighthouse is surrounded by the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, a gem in its own right, as it is lush with palm trees and other tropical vegetation and has a lovely beach that overlooks the calm Atlantic Ocean waters.
“It’s very peaceful there, very breezy and the water is extremely clear and clean,” said Dr. Stephen Leatherman, known as “Dr. Beach,” a well-known South Florida coastal ecologist who publishes a prominent list of the world’s best beaches each year. “Visitors don’t go there for nightclubs and stuff like that. It’s a favorite spot for bike riding and fishing.”
It’s also very safe, Dr. Beach pointed out, as an offshore reef keeps waves low and gentle and rip currents weak. The Lighthouse Café serves fresh seafood and overlooks the ocean, and the beach is popular among locals who travel there by boat.
If you’re planning to climb the stairs of the lighthouse, bring comfortable shoes and plan on spending about 10 minutes stair-stepping, said Dodson. The trek can seem long with only one lookout window on the way up, she said, but the effort is well worth it.
When you go…
Visitors can tour the tower five days a week at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. The tower is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Guests must be able to climb 109 spiral steps with narrow spaces and heights. Children must be 42 inches tall (106 cm) and able to climb independently. Infants may be carried in a harness with the carrier's arms free to use handrail. Pets are not permitted.