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Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia is one of the oldest, most historic lighthouses in the United States.
It stands adjacent to Cape Henry Memorial and First Landing Cross. This slice of shore at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay marks the site where the first settlers bound for Jamestown landed in 1607.
I’ve visited these parks in Virginia Beach and the surrounding First Landing grounds numerous times and absolutely love them!
But these landmarks aren’t your ordinary park-look-leave roadside attractions in Virginia Beach.
Cape Henry Lighthouse, Cape Henry Memorial, and First Landing Cross are located on an active naval base. So, getting in won’t be as easy as just parking your car and paying admission to enter the lighthouse.
What’s it like to visit Cape Henry Lighthouse?
Here’s my experience at Cape Henry — so you will have an idea of what to expect when visiting this Virginia Beach landmark…
What It’s Like Visiting The Cape Henry Lighthouse
My first visit to the Cape Henry Lighthouse was in October 2018.
I knew the shoreside landmark is located on the active Fort Story navy base — but I didn’t realize how much security protocol was necessary to clear before getting onto the base.
Pulling up to the front gate and getting initial clearance was simple enough…
“What’s the purpose of your visit?” asked the base security officer.
“To visit Cape Henry Lighthouse,” I replied.
“Would you please show me your ID?” I did.
“OK, I’ll need you to park your car just to the left and you’ll wait for a shuttle there.”
Umm…. What? I pulled through the gate and veered toward the left to a visitor parking lot where about a dozen other cars were parked. I quickly realized visiting this famous Virginia Beach landmark wasn’t going to be as simple as I thought. Good thing I wasn’t in a hurry!
More Security Measures
I parked my car and then proceeded up to a canopy staffed by 3 military soldiers. They were polite but deliberate in their handling of some further security details I needed to pass. One asked me to empty my pockets of all metal items, and I was scanned by a metal detector.
After that, I had to surrender my driver license before I received a laminated guest pass that I needed to hang on to. (It had to be returned at the end of my visit.)
Then, I waited for a shuttle to come and pick me up at the parking lot. From there, it was about a three-quarter-mile ride to the lighthouse and park.
On one visit, while waiting for other families to get checked in so we could all board the shuttle at once, I overheard one group get ejected. Why? Because a family member who was over the age of 18 didn’t have her driver license or other government-issued ID with her. They weren’t going to be allowed in until all adults in their group had a license or other legal form of ID to get in.
The Shuttle Ride
After waiting a few minutes with other tourists at the check-in booth, the shuttle pulled up and we all shuffled onboard.
We had a short ride lasting 4 or 5 minutes to a little gift shop.
The gift shop serves as the entrance to the original Cape Henry Lighthouse. I say “original” because there are 2 lighthouses:
- The “original” Cape Henry Lighthouse was built in 1792 and was the first federally funded public works project under the U.S. government. It’s open for people to climb inside and reach the top for a spectacular view.
- A “new” Cape Henry Lighthouse was completed in 1881 and still operates today as a functioning lighthouse. It’s in use by the Fort Story and is not accessible to tourists.
After departing the shuttle at the gift shop building, I went up a short set of steps and walked inside. (These wouldn’t be the last steps I’d be climbing that day!)
I paid a $9 admission fee for the Cape Henry Lighthouse — discounted from the general admission price of $10 thanks to my AAA discount. (Don’t forget to ask about other types of discounts that may apply to you!)
After paying for my admission ticket, I headed out the back door of the gift shop and approached the lighthouse.
Climbing The Cape Henry Lighthouse
I’ve climbed many lighthouses and observation towers — but the ascension up the 191 steps to the top of Cape Henry Lighthouse proved a decent workout!
The kicker? At the top of the old, metal spiral staircase was a nearly vertical ladder. You must climb that to reach the circular catwalk at the top of the lighthouse.
But the climb is worth it. The view off the top of this 90-foot-tall lighthouse is impressive!
The 360-degree panorama offers sweeping vistas of:
- Atlantic Ocean
- Chesapeake Bay
- First Landing Park
- Virginia Beach
The most important tip I offer for climbing Cape Henry Lighthouse is to pace your climb! Don’t hustle up the steps too quickly. Save some breath for that last-stretch ladder to the top of the lighthouse.
What It’s Like Visiting The Cape Henry Memorial Cross
After I shimmied down the spiral staircase in Cape Henry Lighthouse back to dry land, I took a walk a few hundred feet up Atlantic Avenue past the “new” Cape Henry Lighthouse and over to First Landing Cross.
The cross was erected by the National Society Daughters of the American Colonists on April 26, 1935,
It honors the English colonists who landed nearby on April 26, 1607 and established nearby Jamestown on May 13, 1607.
The Cape Henry Memorial grounds features a courtyard with benches and gardens for contemplation.
Standing tall in the Cape Henry Memorial is a statue of Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse. He was a French admiral who commanded his fleet during the Battle of the Chesapeake during the American Revolutionary War in 1781. (For you history buffs, the Battle of the Chesapeake precipitated the British surrender of Yorktown — about 40 miles to the west — and was pivotal in the American victory against the British.)
My Tips For Visiting The Cape Henry Virginia Lighthouse And Cross
It’s probably pretty clear by now that a visit to Cape Henry Lighthouse isn’t a 20-minute stop-off along your road trip to wherever.
In fact, the Cape Henry Lighthouse and Cape Henry Memorial Cross are really tucked away from the major thoroughfares altogether.
Good To Know Before You Go
Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning your visit to Cape Henry in Virginia Beach:
- Before you drive there, make sure the base is open first. One time I pulled up and the entrance was closed to civilian visitors because of an unspecified event.
- Bring your ID and make sure everyone else accompanying you who is over the age of 18 has theirs, too. Otherwise, you may not be able to visit Cape Henry Lighthouse or First Landing Cross.
- Go to the restroom before arriving at Cape Henry. It’s a beautiful place to visit, but there aren’t as many amenities for tourists as at other landmarks. The only restrooms and places to buy snacks and drinks are at a gas station and convenience store located between the Lighthouse and the Cross.
- Allow at least 2 hours for your visit to Cape Henry. With the lines to get onto the base, time to get processed by military staff, the wait for the shuttle to and from the parking lot, paying for admission, climbing the lighthouse, walking to the Cross memorial, and buying gifts… your time there will pass quickly.
Important Rules To Remember:
- Follow all the posted rules — unless you want to end up in the clink! Remember, Cape Henry Lighthouse is located on an active military base.
- Don’t bring big bags, packages, or other things on your visit to Cape Henry. Everything you bring is subject to inspection by military personnel. The more you bring with you, the longer you delay the processing procedure during admission.
- Stay off the beach! While it appears inviting, the beach is only accessible to military personnel and their family members. There is a picturesque boardwalk you can access that takes you to the beach. I was permitted to walk it at the time of my visit — but, I was NOT allowed to step foot on the beach. This is an important rule you’ll likely be reminded of by military personnel during your visit.
- It’s OK to take photos of Cape Henry Lighthouse (both lighthouses) and Cape Henry Memorial Cross — however, you are NOT allowed to take photos of any other facilities without permission. The reason? This is an active military base!
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I’m a Florida native, a roller coaster junkie, and a frequent traveler. (Long road trips are my favorite.) Born and raised in Tampa, I grew up visiting Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. I authored the book Busch Gardens Tampa Bay: Images of Modern America, which details the colorful history of the Busch Gardens theme park. As a local historian, I’ve also written about other popular landmarks and attractions for a variety of publications. Here, on this Travel Guide, I like sharing little-known facts and fun stuff about all the places I’ve been — so you will have a good idea of what those places are like and what you should know before you go. I especially enjoy helping others plan fun trips… on a budget!