When I think of lighthouses, I think of Nantucket, North Atlantic, East Coast. I knew they existed on the west coast, but I never thought of them as being accessible. When I watched a tour on California’s Gold (PBS show) of a lighthouse it seemed they were somewhere you could only access with a TV crew and special permits.
Then I discovered a tour of a lighthouse on the Central Coast of California (our old stomping grounds for vacations) that I didn’t even know existed: Peidro Blanca Lighthouse near Cambria.We took a tour and it was pretty cool – even though it was missing the entire top!
Our next lighthouse experience was accidental – the Cape Meares Lighthouse, just west of the town of Tillamook. We were exploring beaches in the area, and came upon a lookout. It was nearing sunset when we got there, so the tiny gift shop was closed and the lighthouse tower is not accessible. But I did get a really cool picture of the sun coming through the glass.
I later learned this was the shortest tower of the Oregon Coast Lighthouses at thirty-eight feet tall and no longer in service.
After that, we drove up to Washington to a park called Cape Disappointment. It was great hiking and we found two more lighthouse there: the North Head lighthouse which was closed for renovations, and the Cape Disappointment lighthouse which was closed (and needs renovations!) The area was awesome, but neither one was too spectacular .
Not long after that I found a brochure describing all nine of the Oregon lighthouses. Then it became a game. I knew we were going down the entire Oregon coast, so why not stop at every one?
The northernmost lighthouse on the Oregon coast was next on the list: Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, nicknamed Terrible Tilly. It is on a rock over a mile off the coastline and inaccessible – partly because it’s privately owned. To get the best view we had to hike to a lookout point in Ecola State Park. The hike was strenuous but gorgeous. Again there were no tours and only minimal information along the hike. But I checked the second of the nine off my list! Although the pictures aren’t much. You can barely see it on top of the “tiny” rock.
Here is a picture I found online:
When we got down to the Newport area, there were two lighthouses: Yaquina Head and Yaquina Bay.
Yaquina Head is the tallest tower at ninety-three feet. This was the first lighthouse where we were actually allowed to walk up the stairs and poke our heads into the glass area. It’s amazing how those prisms work and how powerful they are.
The tour was really good and we learned all about the life of a light-keeper.
Yaquina Bay is the second oldest standing lighthouse in Oregon and was only operated for three years – while they were waiting for Yaquina Head Lighthouse to be built. It is a self guided tour and the only one that has the light-keepers house available to tour (because the tower is IN the house!). Again, we were not permitted in the tower. Below are front and back pictures – the tower on the right is a Coast Guard look-out station.
Heceta Head Lighthouse is north of Florence and can be seen from the Sea Lion Caves. The fifty-six foot tower sits two-hundred-five feet above the ocean, giving it the strongest light out to sea (twenty-one miles!). The assistant light-keepers house is still intact (unlike most) but is used as a bed and breakfast.
It underwent renovations in 2012 and was the prettiest to date. There were performing maintenance on the light so we were unable to go up the stairs.
We have been by the Umpqua River Lighthouse a few times in the past (while riding in the Oregon Dues out of Winchester Bay) but I never paid it any attention. But now I’m on a quest! This was by far the easiest to get to – no hiking at all. But it is now in the middle of Coast Guard housing – not the greatest scenery. However the tour was great and we were able to climb up and stick our heads inside the glass. This tower is a twin to the Heceta Head tower, but the lamp has red glass prisms (made by adding ground gold while making the glass).
They also had a Coast Guard museum there which was quite interesting.
Cape Arago Lighthouse was another one we were not able to get too close to. Although we had a great time trying! It is owned by native tribes and on an island that is off limits. There is no directional signage to get to a viewing area. According to the brochure, there is an “overlook a quarter mile south of the Sunset Bay campground” (west of Coos Bay). That didn’t give us a very good view, so we poked around some unmarked trails and found a view from a beach, but it was high tide and we couldn’t walk close enough. We took another unmarked trail up from Sunset Beach and walked the trail to the top, although it was hardly a trail – very overgrown. We were climbing over downed trees and wading through bushes. Thankfully, nothing too scratchy! We came out of the thicket at an old road that had a locked gate to the right. We went left. And it took us to a great view of the abandoned building.
There was absolutely NO info on this one other than the brochure stating it is a forty-four foot tower that is one-hundred feet above the ocean and first illuminated in 1934. Apparently it is the third one built on the site: the ones built in 1866 and 1908 succumbed to weather and erosion. Sadly, this one probably will too.
We took a little filed trip while staying in Charleston to see the next one near Bandon: the Coquille River Lighthouse. This one was a bit of a disappointment. The sign said it was restored in 1978, but it looked pretty deteriorated and you couldn’t even get into the base of the tower. Although it was another easy one to get to (we could drive right up).
There was signage, and volunteers in the gift shop, but no tours.The glass was missing – they said they think the Coast Guard tossed it into the ocean. I can’t even imagine! I’m glad this wasn’t our first or we probably wouldn’t have made the effort to see any more.
We finished our list on a good note though! The Cape Blanco Lighthouse is the only one where we could go all the way up the tower and on the outside of the glass.
Very easy to get to as well (Although we were in the RV and had to unhitch the Jeep to drive the last mile in.) Again, there were no housing or outbuildings remaining. This one is oldest of the nine, commissioned in 1870. I didn’t find out how tall it was, but there were fifty-two steps up the ladder and the light is two-hundred-fifty-six feet above sea level.
They had tour guides stationed at different areas, but by this point we knew all about the lenses and light-keepers duties and the difficulties faced building in such remote (in their time) areas.
So we made it! We “captured” all nine of Oregon’s standing lighthouses. It was very interesting to see the similarities and the differences – especially in how they’re being taken care of now. Some are managed by the BLM, some by state parks, and some still owned by the Coast Guard.
We did find it interesting that every one had a different take on what was needed to preserve and maintain, and that many of our “modern” fixes actually hurt the structure of the towers as described in this signage from the Heceta Head lighthouse where they say spraying gunite on the corbels actually caused more damage.
We learned all about the glass making (in France) of the Fresnel lenses, and the difference between a first order light and a fourth. (First is the largest). We saw how they moved from using lard oil, to kerosene and then to electricity. I could go on and on here but I won’t.
Let me just finish by saying our big takeaway was that we’re glad they are now protected by the National Register of Historic Places. The lighthouses really are a cool piece of history and some are definitely worth checking out!
Peace & Love, Joy
PS: For those paying attention, the lighthouse in the cover shot is NOT in Oregon! It is Cape Disappointment, one of twelve lighthouses in this article.