Guide To Visiting The Sombrero Reef Lighthouse

Sombrero Reef is the largest coral reef in the Middle Keys, and part of the greater Florida Reef system. Located offshore of Vaca Key, Sombrero Reef is accessible by boat from Marathon, and is just five nautical miles south of Pigeon Key. Visitors are welcome to tie-off on one of the 11 mooring buoys on the south side of the reef lighthouse to explore some of the most extensive spur-and-groove reef formations in the Florida Keys.

Sombrero Reef Lighthouse

Sombrero Reef Lighthouse (or the Sombrero Key Lighthouse) is situated on a portion of the reef that is mostly submerged, though centuries-old charts reveal that it once was a bonafide island, albeit a small one. Parts of the reef may still be slightly exposed at low tide.

The foundation of the 142-foot tall lighthouse consists of iron pilings and disks, holding a skeletal, octagonal cast-iron tower with two platforms. The lower one once held supplies and a workshop, while the upper platform served as staff quarters.

History Of The Lighthouse

Before General George Meade gained prominence in the Civil War for his defeat of Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, he was overseeing the construction of lighthouses in the Keys. After completing work on the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse and a rebuild of the Sand Key Lighthouse, Meade built the Sombrero Key Lighthouse - the tallest in the Florida Keys, and the last lighthouse built under his supervision. Construction was completed in 1858 and Joseph Bethel was appointed as the first head keeper of Sombrero Key.

The Lighthouse Today

In 1960, Sombrero Key Light went automated, and in 2015, it was deactivated. The original first-order Fresnel lens is now on display in the Key West Lighthouse Museum. In February of 2019, the United States Coast Guard decided to release ownership of the structure, making it available to eligible organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The Florida Keys Reef Lights Foundation has been formed to promote the establishment of a lighthouse museum with future lighthouse tours and access.

Visiting The Lighthouse

Though you can't traditionally "tour" the lighthouse just yet, there's plenty to do on the reef as you admire its striking centerpiece!

Experienced kayakers may choose to partake in the 10-mile paddling loop to and from Sombrero Key Lighthouse. Find the closest launch spot on the west end of Sombrero Beach. Be advised that it is an open water journey for the entire trip. You can also bring your own boat or rental, or take part in a charter or a snorkeling/diving tour.

With a depth ranging from 2-30 feet, Sombrero Reef is a favorite spot of saltwater divers and snorkelers of all experience levels. The bright, clear tones of the water combined with the magnificent coral structures and thriving schools of colorful fish make this a remarkably rewarding snorkel and scuba site - perfect for underwater photography!

While exploring the barrier reef, expect to encounter a diverse underwater world bustling with various species, including stingrays, nurse sharks, barracuda, snapper, parrotfish, sea sponges, sea turtles, hogfish, yellowtail, moray eels, and grouper, as well as a large, natural elkhorn coral limestone archway large enough to swim through.

The reef is a designated Sanctuary Preservation Area and as such, it is strictly regulated. Fishing and lobstering are strictly prohibited within the SPA area, marked by three yellow boundary buoys. Sombrero Key Lighthouse is located in the northern corner of this area.