Good Morning. A sunset for a Monday Morning Moment? You’d better believe it. Today, we’re heading just south of Portland, ME, to the Portland Head Light. It’s one of the area’s most famous lighthouses and an incredible place to end a busy day in coastal Maine.
Portland Head Light History
Portland Head Light is Maine’s oldest lighthouse and has been guarding the coast for more than two centuries. George Washington personally oversaw its design and construction in his first term as president, and it was dedicated by Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette when it was first lit in 1791. At the time, it was a crucial piece of infrastructure. Portland was one of the busiest ports in the new nation, not to mention the geographically closest to Europe.
The lighthouse has seen many upgrades over the decades but still retains its original tower. It was fully automated in 1989, bringing an end to nearly two hundred years of lighthouse-keeping tradition. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to check out the tower itself. Limited access is only provided once a year, on Maine’s Open Lighthouse Day.
Despite its name, the lighthouse itself isn’t located in Portland. It’s actually situated to the south, in the town of Cape Elizabeth. This location allows the lighthouse to sit close to the entrance to the shipping channels of Casco Bay.
Fort Williams Park
Portland Head Light is part of Fort Williams Park, a 90-acre piece of coastline filled with walking trails, sports fields, historic buildings, and military ruins. Up to a million people visit every year, most to check out the lighthouse and head on their way. But locals and repeat visitors know the park as one of the top free, easily accessible green spaces in the Portland area.
The area’s military history dates back to the Revolutionary War as a watch post to warn of potential British attacks on Portland. By 1898, the land that would become the fort (and then park) had been purchased, and the first gun batteries were installed. Fort Williams continued to grow and add defenses through the end of World War II. But by then, the future was clear for the fort. American coastal defenses were quickly losing value, and in 1950 Fort Williams officially transitioned from a defense post to an administrative one. Just over a decade later, it was shut down for good. The federal government sold to the town of Cape Elizabeth in 1964.
Still, it would be another 12 years before the park would officially open. The town used that time to add sports fields and other facilities and demolish most of the remaining military buildings, leaving a few interesting or historically valuable ones you can still view today.
Portland Head Light Sunsets: A Sight Worth Waiting For
Without question, Portland Head Light is one of the best sunsets near Portland, ME. It boasts panoramic views of Casco Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and an incredible amount of unique viewpoints along the park’s cliffside trail. On any clear evening, you’ll find dozens of tourists and locals alike taking photos, painting, birdwatching, or simply enjoying the view. In addition, you may spot tour boats out in the water, full of folk craning to get the perfect sunset view or picture of the lighthouse.
But despite all this action, it’s not difficult to find a peaceful corner of your own for a quiet few moments as the sun sets on another day in this gorgeous place. It’s also a pretty amazing place to catch the sunrise, too!
Things To Do At Fort Williams Park and Portland Head Light
Museum at Portland Head Light
This museum is located in former lighthouse keepers’ quarters and showcases how lighthouse technology changed over time and details the military history of Fort Williams.
Check out the Historic Ruins
Fort Williams hasn’t been an official military installation for decades, and it’s been almost 80 years since any of the gun batteries were even tested. So, as you might expect, the facilities aren’t in such great shape. But the remains of these military buildings offer a fascinating glimpse into the martial past of this peaceful place.
- Battery Blair – Already obsolete, it was last fired as a test on the day after Pearl Harbor. The incident destroyed nearby garages from the concussive blast.
- Battery Keyes – The final battery installed at the fort, finished in 1906.
- Goddard Mansion – This spacious mid-19th century home predated the existence of the fort, and was the home of local businessman John Goddard. It was later acquired by the military, and today, only a fenced-off facade still stands.
Walking and Hiking
Fort Williams Park is a great spot for some scenic but not too strenuous walking or hiking. Four primary loop trails wind through the park.
- Old Battery Loop (0.9 mi) – This trail includes a variety of battery and other ruins from Fort Williams’ days as a military post.
- Pond Loop (0.75 mi) – This elongated loop passes the park’s pond and children’s garden, as well as several sports fields and natural areas.
- Goddard Loop (0.8 mi) – The Goddard Loop takes its name from the historic Goddard Mansion, the ruins of which you’ll pass on this route that winds past the Ship Cove beach.
- Cliff Walk Loop (1 mi) – The longest of the park’s modest trail selection, this loop includes significant portions on the trail that traces the edge of the cliffs, and includes several scenic viewpoints of the lighthouse. A great early evening loop for catching Portland Head Light sunsets!
Of course, you can always combine these, make your own route, or simply stroll through the park and see what interests you!
Enjoy the beach
A beach day in Maine? Why not? The park is home to Ship Cove beach, near the northern edge of the area. It’s not the white sandy beaches of the Caribbean and the water may give you a chill, but this small sandy beach that emerges at low tide is a great place for a picnic or to just relax and get some sun.
View other lighthouses
Yes, Portland Head Light may be the biggest draw of the local lighthouses, but you can actually catch a glimpse of several others from Fort Williams Park, too. To the north, you’ll see Spring Point Ledge Light. Straight out, you can check out the small, solar-powered Ram Island Ledge Light. Looking south, you’ll see Cape Elizabeth Light. If you’re lucky and it’s a clear day, you may even be able to catch a glimpse of Halfway Rock Light, about ten miles from shore.
This 1.5-acre section of the park is designed just for kids, full of “daring adventures, quiet contemplation, great mysteries waiting to be revealed.” With the goal of developing a lifelong relationship with the outdoors and the natural world, children can explore a variety of carefully designed natural habitats up close and in a safe way. Parents may just be happy for a secluded area to let the kids get some of their energy out.
Directions to Portland Head Light and Fort Williams Park
Address: 12 Captain Strout Cir, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107 (Lighthouse), 1000 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107 (Park)
By Car: Portland Head Light and Fort Williams Park are located just about five miles from the Old Port and downtown areas of Portland, a drive that should take 15-30 minutes on most days, depending on traffic. You’ll need to cross the Casco Bay Bridge into South Portland. From there, it’s just a few minutes on local roads to the entrance of the park. Portland Head Light is also an easy drive of about ten miles off I-95. Due to the variety of ways to get there depending on traffic, consult your GPS for the best exit and route.
Parking is free and plentiful, so except on the busiest days, you should have no trouble finding a spot.
By Boat: For a truly breathtaking and unique view of Portland Head Light sunsets, head out on the water to take in this majestic area. If you’ve got access to a private boat, this would obviously be the best choice. But for the rest of us normal folks, there are still great options to see the area from the ocean. A trip on Casco Bay Lines should be on your itinerary anyway for your trip to Portland, and several of their regular or specialty routes pass the lighthouse.
See you on the road,