The present light source, located 89 feet (27 m) above sea level, is a 1 kilowatt bulb, which produces a 50,000 candela beam visible under favorable conditions up to 15 miles (24 km) distant. Formerly, the light had a rigid schedule of being lit one hour prior to sunset, and extinguished one hour after sunrise. With automation completed in 1975, a small battery-operated back-up strobe light was installed outside the tower, and the main light was turned on permanently. The present signal has a simple 3-second on/1-second off signature. As a further navigational aid, a Class D radio beacon operated continuously which had a range of up to 20 miles (30 km). A foghorn was also located below the lighthouse closer to shore which could be turned on manually by the Coast Guard personnel when lack of visibility warranted its use. With the advent of global positioning satellite navigation in 1993, the radio beacon and foghorn were deactivated.
Point Pinos was named by the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602 during an exploration of the California coastline for the Count of Monterrey, the acting Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico). The name Punta de los Pinos translated to "Point of the Pines", an appropriate designation for the thickly wooded northern tip of the Monterey Peninsula where the pines grew almost to the water's edge. The Franciscan missionaries explored the point from their camp near the Carmel River in 1769. The diaries of Father Crespi mention a freshwater pond located on the point which is now considered to be Crespi Pond, situated on the edge of the golf course just past the lighthouse.
The point was originally part of a large parcel of 2,667 acres (11 km²) granted to Jose Maria Armenta in 1833 by the Mexican government, and regranted to Jose Abrego in 1844. In 1850, after the Mexican-American War and the American acquisition of Alta California, Congress appropriated funds for the construction of lighthouses on the West Coast. In 1852, the Secretary of the Treasury ordered the building of seven beacons along the California coast, one of which was to be located at Point Piños, the dangerous southern entrance to the Monterey Bay. The government purchased 25 acres (101,000 m²) of the Rancho Punta de los Piños for this purpose, with an additional 67 acres (271,000 m²) being purchased later on. Construction began in 1853, but difficulties with the delivery of the lenses and prisms from France delayed the opening of the lighthouse until 1855.
The first lightkeeper was Charles Layton, appointed to the post at $1000 per year. He was killed in 1856 while serving as a member of the sheriff's posse chasing the notorious outlaw, Anastacio Garcia. He was succeeded by his widow, Charlotte, who remained head lightkeeper until 1860, when she married her assistant lightkeeper, George Harris. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of visiting lightkeeper Allen Luce in 1879 after a long walk through the woods from Monterey, praising Luce's hospitality, piano playing, ship models and oil paintings. He wrote about the light in his book From Scotland to Silverado.
The most famous lightkeeper was Mrs. Emily Fish, who served from 1893 to 1914. She was called the "Socialite Keeper" due to her love of entertaining guests at the lighthouse.