Between 1870 and 1896 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed 11 lighthouses on promontories and at the entrances to major estuaries on the Oregon Coast to assist the fishing and shipping industries. Today, 4 can’t be visited at any time, 4 are opened only part of each year, and 3 offer tours year round but on a reduced winter schedule. Ruth and I arrived at Heceta Head, my favorite, on a grey, blustery day during the last week of 2014.
The northernmost lighthouse, Tillamook Rock, is one of the 4 that can’t be visited. Nicknamed Terrible Tilly due to its location on a leveled island/rock 1.2 miles off Tillamook Head, it’s privately owned. The best way to see it is from Ecola State Park. The other no-access lighthouses are the southernmost one at Pelican Bay, Cleft of the Rock at Cape Perpetua, and Cape Arago at the entrance to Coos Bay. The first 2 are privately owned homes, and Cape Arago is the property of 3 Confederated Native American Tribes–Coos, Siuslaw, and Upper Umpqua.
Cape Meares and Cape Blanco welcome visitors traveling along the coast only from April through October. Umpqua River and Coquille River open in May and close at different times in October. There are reasons to see all 4. Perched on a sensational promontory at the end of a tree-lined path, Cape Meares, the shortest of the 11 at 38 feet, is in a park like setting that includes the Octopus Tree, Oregon’s largest sitka spruce. Cape Blanco, the oldest lighthouse, sits on a remote, especially beautiful cliff 256 feet above the turbulent Pacific. The lighthouse called Umpqua River is the 2nd to occupy the entrance to Winchester Bay near Reedsport. The 1st lighthouse literally fell into the Umpqua in 1861. Coquille River once helped mariners cross a dangerous bar like the one near Astoria. It’s the only accessible lighthouse that I’ve yet to see.
Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon’s oldest structure, is the tallest lighthouse at 93 feet and the most popular with 350,000 annual visitors. Up 114 steps, it’s now fully automated Fresnel Lens still aids navigation. The grounds open at sunrise and close at sunset year round, but the interpretive center and lighthouse are on a reduced schedule from November to June. Just down Highway 101 at the north end of Newport’s major bridge is Oregon’s 2nd oldest lighthouse, Yaquina Bay. It was re-lit in 1996 after being off for 122 years, which must be a record. It’s the only one of the 11 with living quarters attached.
My favorite of them all is Heceta Head, where Ruth and I arrived just after 2 pm during a storm called a Pineapple Express in the Northwest. On reduced winter hours, Heceta closed at 2; but Pam, who volunteers her time, gave us a tour anyway. Closed in 2012 for extensive restoration, Heceta Head just reopened to the public and Pam loves to show it off. It has the strongest light of the 11. The only active British-made Chance Brothers lens of its kind in the United States provides illumination that can be seen 21 miles from land. The detached assistant lighthouse keeper’s dwelling built in 1893 is now a b&b that’s a considerable bargain during the winter. On a 1,000 feet promontory, Heceta Head affords a view of a Conde McCullough bridge and the Oregon Coast that is 2nd to none.