Along the coast, Oregon’s lighthouses can provide exciting history lessons worth exploring.
YAQUINA, Ore — This week, we step into one of Oregon’s most treasured “whitewashed wonders” that’s also a park and natural area full of surprises at Yaquina Head Lighthouse.
As the seasons change, surf and sand often seem to merge into a golden, sunny moment along the Oregon coast and where lighthouses can provide exciting history lessons worth exploring.
The rocky promontory called “Yaquina” (pronounced “Yuh-Quinn-uh”), marked for miles by a towering white sentinel on the central Oregon coast, is a wonder.
An imposing white light called “Yaquina” captured the heart of Mark Bistranin more than twenty years ago.
He has returned today to give new life to the memory; one stroke at a time!
“It’s my favorite I’ve ever seen and it’s just the feeling of a light on a late summer day,” said the longtime artist. “This view of the lighthouse is remarkable. I just love it.”
It’s not hard to love a light that’s been standing since 1873 and where people still line up to get in.
Once a lonely outpost atop rocky cliffs, Yaquina Headland and Lighthouse are anything but lonely on clear days as schoolchildren scamper and tourists wander through some of the area’s most accessible tide pools.
Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area is home to many seabirds and other marine life. Harbor seals rest on a nearby series of low-lying rocky islands, the mass migration of gray whales can be easily observed, and low tide reveals kelp, starfish, hermit crabs, purple urchins, and anemones in nearby “sea gardens.”
Cabo Yaquina: a whitewashed marvel
Yaquina Headland has endured for eons, and according to BLM’s Jay Moeller, the site’s geology is why it was chosen as a lighthouse station in 1871:
“Yaquina Headland is really an ancient lava flow that originated fourteen million years ago in eastern Washington and then spread three hundred miles west before reaching the ocean. Despite the pounding of ocean waves, relentless winds and seasonal rains, the basalt rock refuses to wear down as quickly as the surrounding beaches.”
The prominent and enduring face of the promontory made it a natural choice for the lighthouse. Moeller pointed out some of the finer details of the massive, conical tower of white light, starting with the 114 steps on the circular stairway to the top:
“The Yaquina Lighthouse is the tallest and second oldest lighthouse still in operation,” added Moeller. “It provides the promontory with its most distinctive feature. But it’s what you can’t see that’s also amazing, as it’s actually built with double-walled bricks, over 370,000 of them, for insulation and moisture protection.”
The light was equipped with a Fresnel lens that was made in Paris in 1868. It was shipped from France to Panama, transported across the isthmus, and then shipped to Oregon. What trip!
With a smile, Moeller said Yaquina Head has always been a popular tourist attraction. “When it was built in 1873, the ninety-two-foot tower was a skyscraper, and there were so many tourists coming to see it that the managers had to ask local officials to declare visiting hours. It was the only way they could get their work done and get some sleep.”
Cabo Yaquina: a whitewashed marvel
Several miles of nearby trails connect visitors to various interpretive sites throughout the promontory, as well as an abundance of information kiosks, waysides, and viewing platforms.
You may want to spend time at the Yaquina Head Interpretive Center to learn more fascinating natural and cultural history.
Exhibits teach about the area’s abundant wildlife and introduce people who endured the hardships to provide the service.
BLM volunteer and historian Chris Burns explained that a hundred years ago this Central Coast region was so isolated, especially in winter, that the keepers of the light and their families had to be very dedicated:
“The men had a variety of responsibilities, but the main thing was always to make sure the light worked. That service was critical especially since there were so many shipwrecks off our rugged coastline in those days. The light had to stay on at all costs. It was more important than anything else here.”
A trail leads from the interpretive center to a viewing platform, passing under the main entrance road through a tunnel to a spectacular view of the ocean and Newport, just three miles away.
It is an amazing place where Mother Nature has created something beautiful: a natural place where sea creatures can live and humans can easily observe them.
Be sure to catch Grant’s Getaways weekly half-hour show. The show airs every Saturday and Sunday at 4 pm on KGW.
For something different, you can follow my adventures in Oregon via the Grant’s Getaways Podcast: each segment is a storytelling session where I tell behind-the-scenes stories from four decades of travel and television reporting.
You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon trips and adventures in Grant’s Getaways series of books, including:
“Grants Getaways I”, photography by Steve Terrill
“Grant’s Getaways II,” photography by Steve Terrill
“Grant’s Getaways: 101 Oregon Adventures,” photography by Jeff Kastner
“Grant’s Getaways: Guide to Wildlife Watching in Oregon,” Photograph by Jeff Kastner
“Grant’s Getaways: Oregon Adventures with the Kids,” photography by Jeff Kastner
The book collection offers hundreds of outdoor activities in Oregon and promises to engage children of any age.