Yaquina Head Lighthouse

Lighthouses on the Oregon Coast Reveal the State’s Maritime Past

Lighthouses stand sentinel on rugged coasts, helping ships navigate the dangerous cliffs, reefs, and rocks. They served as a beacon for navigation, marking dangers close to shore. They each had their own signature flash, acting as a GPS, helping sailors understand their location.

View of Heceta Head with the lighthouse
In the fog, the lighthouse, on the side of Heceta Head would’ve helped sailors.

Imagine being a traveler in the 1800s. To reach faraway lands, you couldn’t just hop on a plane and get there in a few hours. You most likely would’ve taken a ship. The captain and crew would have to navigate the ocean and make sure you didn’t sink close to shores, where the ship would encounter rocky terrain, shallow areas, or dark cliffs invisible in the dark.

Just like pilots rely on the towers to help them land, the ship captains relied on lighthouses to guide them. Often, lighthouses and their keepers held the lives of travelers, ship crews in their hands. Without them, fewer ships would’ve made it safely to shore.

To make sure their light is visible from far away, lighthouses used Fresnel lenses, allowing the same light to travel farther, magnifying it. These lenses are some of the most spectacular pieces of equipment in the lighthouses we visited.

What Is a Fresnel Lens?

Developed by the French physicist and engineer, Jean August Fresnel in 1822, the lens improved lighthouse technology all over the world. Resembling a huge glass beehive, comprised of a series of prisms on a frame, it looks like a work of art. But that’s just a side effect. Its real value lies in the way it works.

Prisms, also used in telescopes, take the light rays that scatter all over the place and focus them in one beam. Combining hundreds of glass prisms into one huge unit enhances the brightness of the light. By varying the size and movement of its panels, it also offers the possibility of adding patterns to it.

Before using this lens, the light from a lighthouse was visible for only about 8 miles, 12 the most on a clear night. The Fresnel lens added to this distance, making the light visible to around 20 miles. The individual light patterns a Fresnel lens generates help ship captains understand their location, acting like a GPS.

The working Fresnel lens at Heceta Head
The working Fresnel lens at Heceta Head

Before the use of this lens, lighthouses each had the same white light. This helped to understand that shore was close, but not the location. The signature patterns helped mariners know where they were, by locating a specific lighthouse.

Light inside a Fresnel lens inside the Yaquina Head Lighthouse
The Fresnel lens inside the Yaquina Head Lighthouse

Though the Fresnel lens revolutionized the way lighthouses operate and saved many lives, its inventor didn’t get to enjoy the fame and fortune he deserved. He died of tuberculosis just five years after he invented the lens, in 1837, at the age of 39. His legacy still stands though, as lighthouses around the world still use the Fresnel lens and others are in museums around the world.

The Lighthouses of the Oregon Coast

The coast of Oregon has 11 lighthouses, two of which privately owned, constructed much later. Some are still working, though I’m not sure how much they are needed. A few of them are open for visits. The following is the list of all the lighthouses on the Oregon Coast, from the northernmost to the southernmost locations.

Here is a list of all the lighthouses on the Oregon Coast:

  • Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Built in 1881, and located 1 mile off the coast of Tillamook, the lighthouse stands on a rock 133 feet above the ocean.
Decommissioned in 1957, this lighthouse is not longer working, and it is not open to the public either. You can see it in the distance from the shore though.

  • Cape Meares Lighthouse

Built in 1890, it is the shortest lighthouse on the coast, it is in Cape Meares, Tillamook.
No longer working (decommissioned in 1963), the lighthouse is open to visitors from April 1st to October 31st, with free admission.

  • Yaquina Head Lighthouse

Built in 1873, it is the tallest lighthouse on the coast, standing in the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport.
It is a working lighthouse, also open to the public through guided tours.

  • Yaquina Bay Lighthouse

Built in 1871, it is a smaller, river lighthouse standing at the mouth of the Yaquina River in Newport.
A working lighthouse, it is also open to the public as a museum and gift shop.

  • Heceta Lighthouse

Built in 1894, this is a working lighthouse in Heceta Head, Florence. It is open to the public for tours and as a bed and breakfast.

  • Umpqua River Lighthouse

Built in 1894, this is a working lighthouse, in the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, south of Reedsport. It is open to visitors.

  • Cape Arago Lighthouse

Built in 1866 on a narrow island off the entrance to Coos Bay, Charleston, this is a working lighthouse, not open to visitors.

  • Coquille River Lighthouse

Built in 1896, this river lighthouse is near Bandon. No longer working, is not open to visitors, either.

  • Cape Blanco Lighthouse

Built in 1870 near Cape Blanco State Park, North of Port Orford, it is a working lighthouse. It is open to the public, with restricted access between April 1st and October 31st.

  • Cleft of the Rock Lighthouse

A privately owned, working lighthouse south of Yachats, it was built in 1976. It is not opened to visitors.

  • Port of Brookings Lighthouse

A privately owned, working lighthouse, it was built in 1997. It is not open to visitors.

Visiting the Lighthouses

Our trips to the Oregon coast usually include a few stops to historic lighthouses, and this last one was no exception. Although we didn’t visit all the lighthouses open to the public, we enjoyed exploring a few of them.

The ones we saw were interesting, touring them gave us a great history lesson about travel in the old days and the Oregon coast.

Cape Meares Lighthouse

The shortest of all lighthouses on the Oregon Coast, Cape Meares Lighthouse is only 38 feet high. However, it sits on a cliff, 217 feet above the ocean, so it is still visible from far away.

Cape Meares Lighthouse, Oregon
Cape Meares Lighthouse, the shortest one on the Oregon Coast

The Cape and lighthouse were named after John Meares, the first known captain to sail the Tillamook Bay. Building on it started in August 1888 but wasn’t finished until December 1889.

The Fresnel lens used was brought by ship from France. It weighed one ton, even without the rest of its parts. With no roads from inland, they used a hand-operated crane made of spruce trees cut on the cape to pull it to the top of the cape from below.

History of the lighthouse

The lighthouse in Cape Meares lit up for the first time on January 1st, 1890, with its signature light, a two-second red flash, followed by a 60-second white flash.

The keeper used a kerosene lamp inside the lens, later replaced by an oil vapor lamp that burned more efficiently.

The light on top of the Cape Meares Lighthouse
The light on top of the Cape Meares

The lighthouse was so isolated; they didn’t even have a wagon road leading to it. As I learned on the tour, it was always an adventure bringing the oil for the lamp and the supplies. Things got easier when they finally finished a road to Netarts Bay, and even better, when in 1934 they replaced the oil-burning light with an electric one.

On April 1st, 1963 the Coast Guard decommissioned the lighthouse. Until 2014 they used a DCB aero-beacon, mounted on a concrete structure near it. You can read a more in-depth history of this lighthouse,here.

View from Cape Meares, Oregon
View from Cape Meares

How To Visit The Lighthouse

Today, the lighthouse is part of the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint and National Wildlife Refuge. Though two roads leading up to it, only one is open, from Oceanside. The road itself is scenic, and the area around the lighthouse is home to the famous Octopus Tree and large Sitka spruce trees.

The famous Octopus Tree on Cape Meares
The famous Octopus Tree on Cape Meares

Yaquina Head Lighthouse

Standing 93 feet tall, 162 feet above sea level, the lighthouse at Yaquina Head is the tallest on the Oregon Coast.

Yaquina Head Lighthouse Tower
The tower of the Yaquina Head lighthouse

It took a year to build it, on the edge of this narrow strip of land.

Yaquina Head Lighthouse
Yaquina Head Lighthouse

The first keeper turned on the lard oil-burning fixed white light at sunset on August 20th, 1873. The light was sitting in a black lantern on top of the tower, inside a Fresnel lens, sending out a steady white light visible for 19 miles.

It not only helped mariners as a point of reference, but it also helped guide them into the Yaquina Bay harbor, replacing the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse.

View from inside the Yaquina Head Lighthouse
Looking out into the ocean, I see why the lighthouse was needed.

The very high winds frequent on Yaquina Head took their toll on the lighthouse and on the keeper’s dwelling. They had to rebuild the structures many times over the years, but in 1938, when the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse, they demolished the original keeper’s house.

This lighthouse became automated in 1966. It still operates today, flashing its unique pattern of 2 seconds on, 2 seconds off, 2 seconds on, 14 seconds off all day long. The light now comes from a 1000-watt light bulb.

Read the full history of the lighthousehere.

Touring the Yaquina Head Lighthouse

We visited this lighthouse and climbed its 114 steps (they told us the number, but my kids counted the steps, too).

Inside the Yaquina Head Lighthouse
The stairway to the top of the lighthouse in Yaquina Head is gorgeous, and fun to climb.
Going up to the top of Yaquina Head lighthouse
Counting the steps to the top.

The close-up look at a working Fresnel lens and the view from the top made the long climb worthwhile.

The Fresnel-lens in the Yaquina Head lighthouse
We got to have a close look at the Fresnel lens on top.
On top, inside the Yaquina Head Lighthouse
The view of the ocean from the top.
Inside, on top of the Yaquina Head Lighthouse
The sun created a rainbow through the Fresnel lens

The Protected Area Around the Lighthouse

Today, the lighthouse at Yaquina Head is part of the federally owned Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. Cobble Beach, just steps away from the lighthouse, is a great place for tide pooling. When we spend time there, we always spot seals on the rocks, thousands of seabirds and when we visited in May we noticed a few migrating whales.

View of the lighthouse from the tide pools on Yaquina Head
Tidepools on Cobble Beach and a view of the lighthouse

Heceta Head Lighthouse

Part of an Oregon State Park, Heceta Head Lighthouse is the most visited and photographed lighthouse on the coast. Its automated beacon is the strongest on the coast, seen as far as 21 miles from land.

The Heceta Head lighthouse
The Heceta Head lighthouse

Built in England, its Fresnel lens comprises 640 prisms in eight panels, which made it difficult to install. While construction on this lighthouse started in 1892, it only turned on in March 1894.

The station was so remote, it had trouble getting its keepers to stay. Each one only stayed a year or two, until Olaf Hansen, a Native Norwegian came back in 1904, a year after leaving. He stayed till 1920, raised a family there, and became an influential member of the surrounding community.

View of the Heceta Head Lighthouse
View of the Heceta Head Lighthouse

In 1931, construction workers moved into the area. It was the time when they built the Cape Creek Bridge, a tunnel, and the highway. In 1934 they brought electricity to the lighthouse, making life easier for the keepers.

The Lighthouse Becomes a Military Installation

As the US was moving closer to WWII, the government turned the Heceta Lighthouse into a military installation. In 1942, they assigned additional Coast Guard personnel to it.

By late 1943, over 75 men lived there, members of stationed troops. They built barracks and a mess hall where the original keeper’s house was, and they added a lookout tower in the vicinity.

After the war, they used the lighthouse as before, and in 1963 it became automated. With no keeper on the grounds, they placed a sensor in the tower that alerted the Coast Guard in Florence if the light was out.

A Haunted Lighthouse?

Heceta Head Lighthouse has another claim to fame as one of the haunted lighthouses in the US. Whether the rumor started because someone believed it, or as a means to attract more visitors, the ghost from the keeper’s duplex got Heceta Head Lighthouse featured in the documentary “Haunted Lighthouses of America”.

This ghost was supposed to be a woman from the 1890s, wife of one of the keepers, named Rue, also known as the “Gray Lady”. Some of the keepers claimed to have experienced unexplained things around the property after the ghost stories started circulating. Or maybe it was the other way around and their experiences triggered the ghost stories.

Either way, after being featured in the documentary of the ghost stories, the lighthouse got more visitors, searching for interesting tidbits about this ghost. Some of the keepers denied its existence, but others had some fun with the stories. Real ghosts or not, the lighthouse is listed as #8 as America’s most haunted lighthouses in Coastal Living Magazine.

The Lighthouse Today Is Part of the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint

With or without the ghost, after the war, the Coast Guard no longer needed the lighthouse. So, the lighthouse became public domain and eventually turned over to the State of Oregon and incorporated into the Devil’s Elbow State Park, later renamed the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint.

Heceta Head Lighthouse. View from the trail
Heceta Head Lighthouse. View from the trail

You can find it in a cove at Cape Creek. You can park there, and take the short trail to the lighthouse and the keeper’s house. We couldn’t visit the inside of this lighthouse since it was closed for renovations, but the grounds are worth the hike.

In addition to visiting the lighthouse, we experienced wildlife on these trails. Common murres, cormorants, and gulls have nesting areas close by visible from some of the trails. Brown pelicans fly by often, and sea lions are always close by. In late April and early May grey whales are migrating, traveling between Alaska and Baja California. They come close to the shore, so they are visible from the cape.

The beach area offers opportunities for tide-pooling, exploring small natural caves, and playing in the sand.

Tidepool on the beach by Heceta Head
Tidepool on the beach by Heceta Head

To reach the Heceta Head Lighthouse and the natural area around it, take the turn-off from the Coast Highway I-101 towards Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint. Since it is a State Park, the daily use fee is $5, which you can buy at the automated machine in the parking lot.

Umpqua River Lighthouse

Oregon’s first lighthouse was built on the Umpqua River in 1857, but it only lasted four years before it collapsed. Built in 1894, the new lighthouse still stands and signals the entrance to the Umpqua River.

Part of the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, the lighthouse is surrounded by a protected natural area, by the Oregon Sand Dunes. A day-use area and campground surround Lake Marie. Since we were there on a weekend, we didn’t stop. The area was teeming with people, we didn’t even find a parking spot. Next time we’ll plan on going back during a weekday, to visit the area.

Oregon Lighthouses - Cape Meares
Oregon Lighthouses - Yaquina Head

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