Lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay region were designed to serve people who travel by water. In September, 12 lighthouses — and one lightship — can instead guide you to land-based adventures on the popular Maryland Lighthouse Challenge.
The Maryland Lighthouse Challenge takes place every two years, with this year’s event slated for Sept. 18–20. Organized by the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, it’s both a blitz-tour for lighthouse enthusiasts and an easy way for curious visitors to sample a few of these historic maritime structures.
“Everybody loves lighthouses,” said Karen Rosage, the event’s organizer. “They have a kind of mystique about them and sit in some of the most gorgeous waterside locations in the state.”
The Challenge is organized as a driving tour to a specific list of lighthouses, with details and directions available at cheslights.org. You can visit as few or as many as you’d like, in any order. Each stop will earn you a complementary souvenir depicting the lighthouse that you visit.
If you want bragging rights, you’ll need to make 10 “mandatory” stops. Those who succeed will receive yet another souvenir proclaiming that they’ve “seen the lights!”
Most of the lighthouses must be visited Saturday and Sunday. Two Eastern Shore sites are also open Friday. “The Eastern Shore lighthouses are a little off the beaten path from the rest of the tours, so we wanted to give folks an opportunity to do them early,” Rosage said.
For an added treat, the Challenge offers bonus lights that provide souvenirs but don’t count toward the 10-stop challenge. They include Sandy Point Shoal, viewed from Sandy Point State Park by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; the Blackistone Lighthouse Replica on St. Clement’s Island, accessed by shuttle boat; and Millers Island Lighthouse, viewed from the Dock of the Bay Restaurant in Sparrows Point.
The Millers Island bonus lighthouse is a metal skeletal tower. It’s the first time that a light with this design has been included in the Challenge because of the difficulty in finding a good viewing spot for the public.
Rosage is especially pleased to have the skeletal tower on the list because the theme of this year’s Challenge is architecture. The Chesapeake region has a variety of styles to showcase.
“It’s a unique group of sentinels because they aren’t all the typical tall ones,” Rosage said. “They are diverse, depending on what part of the Bay they guard.”
Along with the skeletal and conical styles, the Challenge includes cottage-style lighthouses with the light integrated in the rooftop, screw-pile lighthouses that were screwed into the bottom of the Bay, and Caisson lighthouses, which have a heavy watertight foundation.
The Challenge is also a good opportunity to see the interior of the lighthouses, some of which are not regularly open to the public.
For yet another option, a cruise from the Eastern Shore will carry guests past six additional lighthouses and stop on Smith Island for a seafood lunch. The cost is $125 per person and reservations are required.
The Lighthouse Challenge draws guests of all ages, from within and beyond the Chesapeake region. “People literally come from all over the country. One year, we had representatives from 27 different states,” Rosage said.
In 2013, the event logged more than 5,300 visits to Maryland lighthouses, with 344 people completing the full route.
“Our volunteers are always excited to see them arrive,” Rosage said. “We’re all preservations at heart, and we really want to draw people to the lighthouses and draw attention to their stories.”