Perched upon a cliff on the rocky coastline of Maine’s Mount Desert Island, with towering evergreen trees forming its striking backdrop, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse may be one of the Pine Tree State’s most dramatic landmarks. Built in 1858 as a means to guide mariners into Bass Harbor and Blue Hill Bay, the lighthouse now also draws sightseers, photographers, and history buffs to the shores of its classic New England fishing village.
The village of Bass Harbor is located within the township of Tremont, on the southwestern point of Mount Desert Island, but the lighthouse itself does not actually sit within the village. Though Tremont—where the lighthouse is located—is considered by locals to be on the “quieter side” of the island, many visitors are lured to the area by the breathtaking views of the lighthouse (the only one on the island) the harbor, wildlife, and the small islands that dot the surrounding Gulf of Maine.
With the exception of a small addition to the keeper’s home in 1900, the configuration of Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse has remained much the same as when its earliest light keeper, John Thurston, first stepped across the threshold in 1858. There’s been the usual upkeep and improvements including upgrades to the lighting and fueling systems: the original fifth-order lens was replaced by a larger fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1902 which is still used today; the light was converted to an electrical operation in 1949; and the station was fully automated in 1974, negating the need for a light keeper.
Since the light’s automation, the station has served as housing for a U.S. Coast Guard family. Due to its status as a full-time residence, the lighthouse is not open to the public, but visitors are welcome to tour the grounds, and trails are accessible on either side of the lighthouse. The path to the right of the house will take you directly to the lighthouse grounds and provide a beautiful view of the ocean and islands. For more adventurous visitors, the path to the left leads to a steep stairway, descending down the cliffside, where a stunning view of Bass Harbor lighthouse awaits. Caution is needed as the rocks can be slippery and there are no guardrails.
With its rich maritime history, Bass Harbor continues to be one of the most profitable lobster-producing ports in Maine. A fleet of lobster boats can be spied from many vantage points, bobbing on the waves as lobstermen haul in their traps.
One of the advantages of exploring a working fishing village is, of course, being able to indulge in the abundance of fresh-from-the-boat seafood, as we did at a restaurant called Maine-ly Delights. A truly New England experience can be had sitting on the deck, eating crab cakes, lobster, and all manner of delicious seafood, as you watch the very boats the food came in on sail in and out of the harbor.
After a filling meal of fresh local fare, watching the sunset at Bass Harbor lighthouse is the perfect way to cap off a visit. The lighthouse draws tourists throughout the day, with each hour offering a different cast of light on the pretty, little house and tower on the cliff. There’s something special about seeing it at sunset, however, as the sky fades into hues of pink and purple and the red beam of light from the tower slices through the darkness on its way out to sea.
The authenticity of this New England fishing village, the fresh seafood, and the promise of breathtaking views at Bass Harbor lighthouse are what keep visitors continually flocking to this little gem on Maine’s coast—a place I long to return to again and again.
Have you ever visited Bass Harbor Lighthouse?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.