Lighthouses have been part of the New Jersey coast for more than 250 years, helping ships to safely navigate the Atlantic Ocean, Delaware Bay, and Delaware River.
Those sentinels of the shoreline will get their moment in the spotlight this weekend with the 19th annual Lighthouse Challenge of New Jersey. The rain-or-shine event on Saturday and Sunday allows people to visit 10 land-based lighthouses, two life-saving stations, and one museum in seven of the state's counties, in locations ranging from Sandy Hook to Paulsboro. Visitors who travel to all 13 sites will be entered into a drawing with the chance to win $1,000 worth of lighthouse-related prizes.
"It's the one time of the year when all the lighthouses agree to stay open for the whole weekend," says Nanci Coughlin, director of tour operations for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities in Cape May. The city's lighthouse is one of the stops on the challenge.
The challenge is designed to publicize the lighthouses and raise funds for their maintenance and preservation. Participants pay a $2 registration fee at their first stop and receive a playing card featuring that site on the face side of the card. Cards will be given away at each location.
Susan Krysiak, director of media relations for the center, successfully completed the challenge in 2013 and recommends it.
"I climbed all of them. It was exhilarating and exciting, great exercise," the Cape May resident says of the experience.
Proper footwear and clothing are important for undertaking the challenge, Krysiak notes, since the weather can change. "I wore my sneakers and layers of clothing, including a T-shirt and a light jacket."
She also took meals with her to save time. "I did bring bottled water, and I packed lunches and dinners for each day."
She advises those undertaking the challenge to plan a route to follow. "It depends on where you live. Some people go north to south; others go south to north," adds Krysiak, who completed the challenge in two days with an overnight stay in Ocean City with a family member.
"Everyone should enjoy the experience in his own way," she says. "There is no reason not to participate, even if you can visit just a few lighthouses or just one."
New Jersey has its share of historic lighthouses. Sandy Hook Lighthouse, which dates to 1764, is the oldest operating lighthouse in the nation. Gen. George Meade, who commanded Union forces to victory in the battle of Gettysburg, helped oversee construction of the lighthouses in Barnegat and Cape May.
This year's challenge will include night climbs at three sites – Cape May, Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City, and Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse in Paulsboro. Food trucks will be available at Cape May, Absecon, Tuckerton Seaport, and Sandy Hook.
In 2017, 23,000 people took part in the challenge, Coughlin says. "It was our best year so far."
The challenge helps to showcase some of the lesser-known sites, such as Tinicum Rear Range, the closest of the lighthouses to Philadelphia. After being closed for renovations for the 2016 and 2017 challenges, the lighthouse will be open for climbers.
"It's our biggest weekend of the year," says Marc Kamp, president of the Tinicum Rear Range Lighthouse Society. "Last year without people being able to climb, we had about 1,800 visitors," he says.
Built in 1880 to aid commercial navigation along the Delaware River, the lighthouse is 88 feet high and has 112 steps to the top, according to Kamp. The lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Constructed on land 100 feet above sea level, the lighthouse offers a unique perspective for those willing to make the ascent.
"It's a fantastic view of the Philadelphia skyline," Kamp points out. "On a good day, you can see from the Commodore Barry Bridge to the Walt Whitman Bridge."