Aquinnah is the westernmost of the six Island Towns and its headland is one of the most often visited tourist attractions, Island-wide. The brilliant colors of the mile-long expanse of the Gay Head Cliffs, now a national landmark, were an amazing site for early explorers and have continued to delight visitors to Aquinnah for centuries. Aquinnah is the home of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Indians, who are the only federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts. Several shops on the Cliffs sell Native American crafts and jewelry and the views from the Cliffs of The Elizabeth Islands and Nomans Land, a small island now a wildlife refuge, are truly fantastic.
The Cliffs are composed of layers of sand, gravel and clay of several different colors. As the cliffs erode from wind, tide and weather, they reveal fossils that tell a hundred-million year-old story. Because of fear of erosion, the cliffs are protected from climbing or taking clay samples. Many of Aquinnah's year-round residents are descendants of the Native Wampanoags. The Wampanoags showed the early colonial settlers how to hunt whales, grow corn and find clay for brick-making. Their courage was demonstrated time and again as they took to their boats to rescue survivors of shipwrecks on the deadly sandbars and rocky ledges below the Cliffs. Their skill as boatsmen was remarkable. In fact, at the height of the whaling era, Aquinnah Indians were known to be the best boatsteerers in the whaling fleet. The boatsteerers were the men who harpooned the whales and Aquinnah men were sought out for this role.
In 1799, because of the danger to mariners in the waters below the cliffs, one of the first revolving lighthouses in the country was erected here. The light had wooden works that became swollen in damp weather. When this happened the keeper and his wife would stay up all night and turn the light by hand. The current, red brick lighthouse stands in its place. During the summer season, starting on June 20th, the lighthouse is open to visitors for sunset viewings on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.