Each November, thousands of visitors gather to witness the annual lighting of the original first-order Fresnel lens at Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and to celebrate the anniversary of the first lighting more than 130 years ago. The annual celebration, instituted by Hostelling International more than a decade ago, has become so popular that the California State Parks department now acts as master of ceremonies by inviting the U.S. Coast Guard to switch the lights, and local community and environmental organizations participate as well.
The daylong festivities include living history demonstrations as well as guided tours by State Parks docents, who recount the light station's rich history while leading visitors among the old buildings and around the grounds. The Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel holds an open house, encouraging visitors to learn more about the traditions and benefits of hostelling, while educational exhibits and video screenings are on display in the hostel's fog signal building.
Pigeon Point's natural beauty is also a major attraction: Some 50 species of birds live here, and the high vantage point provides scenic views of harbor and elephant seals and whales. Tidepools are a short walk to the north, and as part of this year's lighting festivities the Peninsula State Open Trust invites visitors to explore "Mel’s Lane," the brand new hiking trail at Whaler's Cove. In addition, the Ano Nuevo State Reserve presents outdoor marine mammal displays out on the point, with docent naturalists on hand to answer questions.
The celebration culminates from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., when the light station’s automated Aero beacon is switched off, and the Coast Guard lights the original first-order Fresnel lens. Perched in a glass-enclosed room at the top of a 115-foot structure, it was the most powerful lens of the day when the lighthouse was outfitted in 1872. Designed by French physicist Augustine Jean Fresnel, the lens stands 16 feet tall, weighs four tons, and is fitted with 1,008 handcrafted brass-framed prisms and lenses. The fantastic spectacle of 24 beams of light rotating slowly around the tower and piercing the night sky for miles across the sea draws 2,000 to 3,000 spectators every year.
Make a weekend of it! Stay at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel.