Magazine article Sunset

A Shining Tour of the Coast: Take a Three-Day Tour of Seven Oregon Lighthouses. (Travel)

Magazine article Sunset

A Shining Tour of the Coast: Take a Three-Day Tour of Seven Oregon Lighthouses. (Travel)

Article excerpt

I climbed the last three stairs and slowly poked my head up into the watch room of Hecera Head Lighthouse. Through the windows, I could see for miles up and down the rocky central Oregon coast and far out to sea. Gulls soared above the cliffs, and sea lions hauled themselves out to sun in a nearby cove. In the center of the lantern, towering above me and slowly revolving, was the watchful eye of the lighthouse: an enormous, century-old glass lens, sparkling and flashing like a diamond.

For just a minute or two, I felt connected to the churning mysteries of the sea and to those who had spent their lives watching over it. And I understood why so many people are willing to volunteer time and money to help protect Oregon's lighthouses.

The U.S. Coast Guard is currently in the process of transferring ownership of the state's nine public coastal beacons to federal, state, and nonprofit agencies, now that oceangoing vessels navigate by technologies such as the Global Positioning System (GPS). The new owners will be responsible for the lighthouses' upkeep and will administer them as public landmarks. Jim Gibbs, marine historian, author, and former lighthouse keeper, says the future looks bright. "The transfer of the lighthouses to qualified public or governmental organizations means that these unique structures will remain open and accessible to visitors and will receive the ongoing maintenance they require," he says.

In other words, there's more reason than ever to visit and celebrate these coastal treasures.

Seven beacons of the sea

Oregon's lighthouses were all but inaccessible when they were built in the 19th century, near shoals and sandbars, treacherous offshore rocks and reefs. These days, U.s. 101 links seven of them (the other two are on inaccessible offshore islands) along a gorgeous, approximately 220-mile coastal drive that can easily be tackled in three days.

The grounds are generally open year-round, but because many lighthouses are closed to visitors between November and March, April is one of the best months to visit. The weather along the Oregon coast, though always unpredictable, is warmer, and the highways aren't yet crowded.

The lighthouses that follow are listed from south to north. Look for turnoff signs from U.S. 101 that point to the state parks or scenic areas where the lighthouses are located. All of the lighthouses are within a few miles of towns with motels, B&Bs, and restaurants. Call ahead to confirm hours of operation and tour times.

Cape Blanco

Cape Blanco is one of the windiest spots in Oregon; its lighthouse was built to withstand winter winds of up to 140 mph. The oldest of Oregon's continuously operating lighthouses, it is scheduled to reopen in May after its roof has been replaced and its giant lens cleaned. The lighthouse stands at the end of a gorgeous drive that winds past the Sixes River, the beautifully restored Hughes House (an 1898 Eastlake Victorian open for tours), and a tiny pioneer cemetery with the graves of the area's Irish homesteaders. Wide, curving beaches below the treeless headland are accessible by trail. Tours 10-3:30 Thu-Mon May 1-Oct 31 (Hughes House tours 10-3:30 Apr 3-Oct 31); free. Cape Blanco State Park, 9 miles north of Port Orford; (541) 332-6774.

Coquille River

The small Coquille River Lighthouse, at the mouth of the river in Bandon, once guided passenger and cargo ships into the largest port between San Francisco and the Columbia River. The 1896 lighthouse is one of the few historic relics left in Bandon, a town that almost completely burned down in the 1930s. The first floor is filled with photographs and exhibits detailing the lighthouse's history; from there you can climb up to the compact lantern for a dazzling view of the town, the river, and the adjacent driftwood-strewn white-sand beach. Tours Wed-Sun in Apr, daily May-Oct; free. Bullards Beach State Park Bandon; (541) 347-2209. …

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