The ultimate guide to Oregon lighthouses
written by Kimberly Bowker
The ocean heaves against the cliffs as the wind shifts, the sky darkens and the fog rolls in. Weather can change quickly on the Oregon Coast, where the vast Pacific Ocean meets the unmovable earth, and where lighthouses dot the edge of time and eternity.
Most Oregon lighthouses were built in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, as trade necessitated a place of safety and guidance for ships in all weather. Many Oregon lighthouses are open to the public, some still operational, for visitors to catch a glimpse of steady solace.
To visit the lighthouses that each harbor distinct characteristics, begin a trip on either the north or south end of the state, and drive along U.S. Highway 101 through coastal towns. Some lighthouses are built on ocean rocks, some on the edge of jetties, and others on forested hilltops, yet they all share the same purpose—to offer an unwavering source of light.
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From the south, drive to the far reaches of the westernmost lighthouse in Oregon—Cape Blanco. Stop in the gift shop to pick up a lighthouse-themed souvenir and purchase a tour ticket. Friendly and knowledgeable volunteers greet guests at different stages to share some of the history of the oldest operating lighthouse in Oregon, built in 1870, which aided shipping for the lumber and gold mining industries.
About 200,000 bricks surround visitors walking into the workroom and up the chasm of more than sixty spiral steps. The walls and floors are hollow, as in many lighthouses, which reduces weight and helps with ventilation. At the top, stand next to the lens weighing 1 ton and watch the world reflected upside down as the glass rotates within the expansive horizon.
Lights from the towers can extend 21 miles in every direction, making a trip up the coast perfect to stop at the lighthouses positioned about 30 to 60 miles apart. Drive through Port Orford along the coast to the next stop: Coquille River Lighthouse.
Located on a jetty, the 40-foot-tall octagonal lighthouse feels the spray of the ocean as waves hit the rocks just feet below. The lighthouse, built in 1896, helped to navigate the historically dangerous entrance to the Coquille River. The area was named after the native Coquille tribe, with Hudson Bay Company trappers here in the 1800s and the first settlers arriving in 1853.
Navigating up Highway 101, take a detour to view Cape Arago Lighthouse. Standing on an islet off Gregory Point, the structure is not accessible to the public, but if you drive a quarter-mile south of Sunset Bay Campground entrance and pull off the highway, you can walk the short path to a bench overlooking a grand view of the lighthouse. Stationed on a flat piece of land, it was first lit in 1934, after two lighthouses in that location buckled under time and weather.
Highway 101 swings through the fishing boats waiting in harbor and past the discarded piles of white oysters in Charleston. Tall vintage buildings across from the water in nearby Coos Bay reveal some history of this old coastal town, as the road winds to the next landmark.
Umpqua River Lighthouse is stationed high above the ocean and is still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The museum, housed in the former Coast Guard station quarters, recollects history of lighthouses and the life-saving agency. In 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service combined with the Coast Guard, resulting in lighthouse jurisdiction falling to the Guard.
Take a thirty-minute tour of the lighthouse, and have the rare chance to see a light from the inside. Guests can pop their heads into the middle of the rotating light and catch a new glimpse of the world as rainbows reflect onto the floor.
If time permits, stop at the storybook Heceta Head Lighthouse, just south of Yachats, or make time for it the following morning. An uphill winding path hugs the cliff as it cuts through a coastal forest to the top. Built in 1894, it is now the brightest lighthouse in Oregon, illuminating a 1,000-watt bulb through one of three English-crafted lens in the United States (with most lighthouse lenses being first-order Fresnel shipped from Paris).
Experience an intimate lighthouse getaway, and stay the night at Heceta Lighthouse B&B. Located near the lighthouse, the idyllic accommodations are housed in the old assistant light keeper’s house finished in 1894. Or continue to Yachats and relax with local beer and food at Yachats Brewing, the neighborhood watering hole filled with sustainable delicacies. Enjoy a night at the Overleaf Lodge & Spa, or reserve an ocean-side campsite at Tillicum Campground. Let the waves lull you to sleep and be comforted as the lights remain turning.
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Breathe the fresh ocean air in the morning on the way to Newport, where two lighthouses are open to visitors year-round. Yaquina Bay Lighthouse is the oldest building in Newport, constructed in 1871, and operated as a lighthouse until 1874. Today it serves as a museum, where visitors explore what life was like more than a century ago. Tread with care, though, as stories of the haunted lighthouse have circulated since the late 1890s.
Tours of Yaquina Head Lighthouse take visitors back in time, as interpretative guides in period costume walk guests over the original marble floors and up the 114 steps to the lens. The tallest light on the Oregon Coast, at 93 feet, was lit in 1873. Many keepers kept the lighthouse wicks going with lard oil or kerosene until electricity came on the scene in the 1930s.
Sign up for the tour at Yaquina Head Interpretive Center and Interpretive Store, and carve out some time to view the natural and historical exhibits in the building. See the lighthouse keepers’ logs that meticulously documented weather and activity, learn the workings of the intricate lens, or watch an informational film.
To get to Cape Meares Lighthouse, take a path for about a quarter-mile through moss-laden trees to the charming 38-foot-tall lighthouse. Unlike other lighthouses, visitors approach eye-level to the lens for a new perspective, then drop down to the base.
Continue the journey to the final and unforgettable stop, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Nicknamed “Terrible Tilly,” the lighthouse was built on a basalt rock more than a mile from land, surrounded by crashing sea and exposed to the precarious weather. Its dangers were real—a mason drowned in the ocean on the way to the island to conduct survey work—and the expensive construction took more than 500 days to complete.
The lighthouse is one of the most exposed lighthouses in the United States, and housed four lighthouse keepers at one time with provisions lasting six months. The lighthouse was operational between 1881 and 1957, and can now be viewed safely from land. It is also a columbarium, acting as a resting place for ashes of loved ones in the midst of the sea.
The history of these exquisite and graceful Oregon lighthouses, each different and vital to maritime survival, remains an integral part of coastal communities. Cameron La Follette, author of articles about lighthouses for Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Encyclopedia, reminds us the importance of preserving lighthouses. They served as beacons in a place of great danger, and need help to stay alive.
“They are highly valuable to the communities,” La Follette said. “As part of history and beauty—and they are extremely symbolic to everyone.”