PENSACOLA, FL - As you drive west towards Gulf Shores, AL, a billboard looms, beckoning you to visit the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum. You make the left turn, and drive until you see a structure that says Naval Air Station. 

There, you are greeted by an armed guard who needs to see identification. It’s a bit intimidating, to be truthful. After telling the guard you are there to see the lighthouse, he lets you proceed.  

It is just up the road from there, and as you turn into the parking lot, you can see people looking out from the top. It is tall, colored black and white, made of brick, and conical to withstand hurricane-force winds. According to a marker, the original lighthouse was built in 1824, and it was the first on the Gulf Coast. Construction began on the current lighthouse in 1856, and it was lit in 1859. It is still in use today.

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Just like you have to make your way to the back of the supermarket to find the milk, here you have to pay for admission in the gift shop, resisting the temptation to pick up a souvenir hat or shirt. Since arriving in Florida from New Jersey, shoes had been traded for flip-flops. But you are told that you have to wear footwear with backs, or you have to climb barefoot. Back to the car for sneakers.

First up, a tour through the museum. You learn about the 16 cast iron gargoyles, shaped like the head of an eagle, with beaks open and eyes pointed to the horizon, that were installed underneath the exterior cornice of the lantern room. Only one original remains in the museum. Currently there are replicas that can be seen at the top of the tower.

You learn about Dorothy Stratton, who was promoted to the rank of captain in 1944, and became the Director of the Women’s Reserve of the Coast Guard. Later she became the Director of The Girl Scouts of America, serving until 1960.

Murals and demonstrations on how a lens casts light can also be viewed.

Then, on to climb the lighthouse that stands 191 feet above sea level, and includes 177 spiral steps. If you have to pass someone on your way up or down, it’s done slowly and carefully. Don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights!

The light from the Fresnel Lens at the top of the stairs can be seen from 27 miles out to sea on a clear night. Parisian lens maker Henry LePaute hand-cut the 344 individual glass prisms. If you run into Dave, a volunteer, you’ll get the full history on the panels.

Make your way through the lens room, and you emerge to a most spectacular view of the Gulf of Mexico. And if you’re lucky enough, you will see fighter jet planes blast off nearby. For a fee, you can reserve a spot at the top of the lighthouse to see the Blue Angels practice.

To learn more about the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, visit www.pensacolalighthouse.org or call 850-393-1561.