A trip down the Oregon Coast’s Highway 101 isn’t complete without stopping to view its historic lighthouses.
Lighthouses served as the beacons and navigation aids for mariners of all types — big commercial cargo ships to small fishing boats — marking dangerous coastlines, shoals and boat-crunching reefs. Before the days of GPS navigation, captains near the shores relied on lighthouses to know where they were geographically.
Most of Oregon’s lighthouses were designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1870 and 1896. They were erected on prominent headlands or near major estuaries to support commercial fishing and shipping along the Oregon coast. The lighthouses were originally managed by the former U.S. Lighthouse Board, with the U.S. Coast Guard taking over stewardship duties in 1939.
After installing automated beacons in the 1960s, the Coast Guard began transferring its lighthouse holdings to other government agencies. All nine of Oregon’s surviving lighthouse stations have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. They are visited by more than 2.5 million people each year.
You can see most of these iconic structures from the highway, but consider a slight detour to visit the sites and learn a little history about lighthouse keepers and their families, men and women who lived and worked in some of the most remote locations and under harsh conditions. But, man, what a view!
The film A History of Aiding Maritime Navigation tells the story of Oregon’s lighthouses.
Tillamook Rock Lighthouse
The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse sits abandoned on a rock about a mile off the Coast at Ecola State Park, just south of Seaside. It earned the moniker “Terrible Tilly” due to the challenges in construction and operations during its tenure. The lighthouse sits 133 feet above sea level and is 62 feet tall.
Commissioned to guide ships entering the Columbia River, Tilly operated from 1881 to 1957. Since it was decommissioned, it has changed hands several times, and was most notably used as a columbarium (a storage place for the ashes of the deceased). It is currently privately owned and has no public access.
The best views of Tilly are found from the Oregon Coast Trail on Tillamook Head, between Ecola State Park and Seaside. It’s also visible from the parking lot in Ecola’s Indian Beach. You’ll need a day-use parking pass.
Cape Meares Lighthouse
At just 38 feet tall, Cape Meares is the shortest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. It is located 10 miles west of Tillamook, in Cape Lookout State Park. Sitting 217 feet above sea level, Cape Meares was built in 1890 and decommissioned in 1963. The lighthouse still houses its original first-order Fresnel lens.
The area has some beautiful viewpoints for whale watching, sea lions and seabirds. Take a short walk to see the famous Octopus Tree, a Sitka Spruce shaped like an upside down octopus.
It is open daily from April through October.
Yaquina Head Lighthouse
Pronounced yah-KWIH-nah, this lighthouse tower hails as the tallest on the Oregon Coast, and still serves as a navigational aid. Located three miles north of Newport, Yaquina Head Lighthouse sits 162 feet above sea level and is 93 feet tall. It replaced the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse in 1873.
It is said the lighthouse is haunted and that if a ship passes close by, the compasses go haywire. (The stories behind the hauntings have been disproven; the land where the lighthouse sits houses magnetized iron, known to throw off readings.)
The lighthouse is located in the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. For a close view, stop by the BLM Interpretive Center to pay the entrance fee. It can also be seen from various pullouts along the highway.
Yaquina Bay Lighthouse
The Yaquina Bay Lighthouse is the only existing structure in Oregon where the light and the living quarters are part of the same structure. Built in 1871, Yaquina Bay only operated for three years, replaced by the much taller Yaquina Head Lighthouse. It sat empty for several years. In 1906, the U.S. Lifesaving Service (a forerunner to the U.S. Coast Guard) placed a crew in the house and an observation tower was constructed.
The lighthouse was abandoned again in the 1930s. In 1996, the light was re-lit and it is now an official Coast Guard privately maintained aid to navigation. The lighthouse is owned by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and open to the public. Self-guided tours are free.
Cleft of the Rock Lighthouse
Located about two miles south of Yachats, Cleft of the Rock is privately owned and not open to the public. It was built in 1976 by James Gibbs, a former keeper of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. If Cleft of the Rock looks familiar, it’s because the structure is a replica of the Fiddle Reef Lighthouse of Vancouver Island.
Cleft of the Rock can be viewed from a pullout at mile 166 of Highway 101, on the northwest corner of the Cape Perpetua National Scenic Area.
Heceta Head Lighthouse
Well worth the stop for the glorious views, Heceta Head Lighthouse is located on the 1,000-foot-high Heceta Head. Built in 1893, this 56-foot tower sits 205 feet above sea level. Its light — now an automated beacon — is seen 21 miles from land and is the strongest light on the Oregon Coast.
A few yards away from the Heceta Head Lighthouse is the former home of the assistant light keeper. The building now serves as a bed and breakfast — it’s also touted as one of the most haunted houses in the United States.
Find Heceta Head Lighthouse just 12 miles north of Florence. Limited daily tours are offered. A state parks day-use parking permit is required.
Umpqua River Lighthouse
This lighthouse is worth visiting twice: once during the day to tour the tower, and again after dark to see the spectacular light show. The Umpqua River Lighthouse emits unique red and white flashes that circle around onto the nearby trees and out into the horizon.
The original lighthouse was erected in 1857 — it was the first built in Oregon — but erosion caused it to fall into the river in 1861. The current lighthouse was constructed in 1894 and sits 165 feet above sea level at 65 feet tall.
The lighthouse and museum are open seasonally. Admission to the museum is free, however, there is a fee for guided tours May through October.
Cape Arago Lighthouse
Located 12 miles southwest of North Bend, the Cape Arago Lighthouse can only be viewed from afar. It sits 100 feet above sea level on an islet off Gregory Point. This is the state’s newest facility, built in 1934. The first two versions of the Cape Arago Lighthouse, built in 1866 and 1908, succumbed to weather and erosion. The lighthouse was officially deactivated in 2006. The Fresnel lens, removed in 1993, is now on display in a full-size, one quarter model lantern at the Coos History Museum.
In 2008, Congress approved a bill to transfer the site to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.
While the Cape Arago Lighthouse is not accessible to the public, viewpoints can be found about a quarter mile south of the Sunset Bay campground entrance or from Bastendorff Beach.
Coquille River Lighthouse
Located in Bullards Beach State Park, two miles north of Bandon, the Coquille River Lighthouse was built in 1896 to guide mariners across treacherous sandbars as they navigated into the Coquille River. It was decommissioned in 1939 after the U.S. Coast Guard took over the facility and decided it was no longer needed. Improvements to the river channel were made, and today an automated light on the south jetty serves as a navigation aid. For 24 years, the lighthouse was abandoned, left to the elements and vandals until Bullards Beach State Park was created and the lighthouse was restored.
Cape Blanco Lighthouse
The Cape Blanco Lighthouse sits 256 feet above sea level, making it an ideal spot for beautiful ocean views and whale watching. Located nine miles north of Port Orford, the lighthouse was built in 1870, making it the oldest standing lighthouse in the state.
James Langlois and James Hughes were both stationed at Cape Blanco Lighthouse for their entire careers. Take the time to tour the Hughes Home, a Victorian-style house built in 1898, to learn more about the life of the lighthouse keepers and their families, as well as the ranch they operated. The ranch is now Cape Blanco State Park. The community of Langlois, about 13 miles north of Port Orford, was named after James and his family.
Guided tours April through October.
Pelican Bay Lighthouse
The Port of Brookings Lighthouse, also known as the Pelican Bay Lighthouse, is located in Brookings at the mouth of the Chetco River. It is attached to a residence owned by the Cady family. Standing 141 feet above sea level, the Brookings lighthouse was first lit in 1999, commissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard as a private aid to navigation. View it from the beach by the jetty.