Sunday, January 8, 2017

Newport's Lighthouse, and the Other Newport Lighthouse

Yaquina Head Lighthouse stands proudly on its bluff high above the sea, an iconic symbol of the town of Newport, Oregon. Visitors to the central coast sometimes seek out the "Newport lighthouse" only to find themselves confronted with a small, homelike building tucked into a grove of trees, facing southward over Yaquina Bay and miles of sand. While it is a lovely little facility, it likely doesn't resemble the lighthouse depicted on the "Newport, Oregon"
T-shirt they just bought on the bayfront.

The fact is, Newport boasts not one lighthouse, but two. The modest Yaquina Bay Lighthouse was first lit on November 3, 1871. At the time, it stood 161 feet above the mouth of Yaquina Bay, shining its steady white light as far as ten miles out to sea. While it was an important aid to navigation, its shortcomings quickly became apparent. Due to its location on the south side of the hill, ships coming from the north could not see its fourth-order Fresnel lens. Its light shone only until November of 1874, replaced by the new Yaquina Head Lighthouse a few miles north. Years passed and the old building fell into decay; meanwhile, the construction of jetties at the mouth of the bay created ever-widening swaths of sand on either side of the channel. Now the lighthouse watches over the broad, rolling sands of South Beach State Park on the other side of the channel. Long past are its few short years of government service.

But today the steady white light again shines in the tower, and every afternoon the old girl's shutters are opened as visitors ascend the uneven walkway to her welcoming front porch. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, she is a link to Newport's history and a privately-maintained aid to navigation for boats using the bay. The charming wooden cottage that you enter is also the lighthouse, and a narrow twist of stairs leads to the base of the tower (the tower itself is closed to the public). The carefully restored rooms are furnished as they would have been when the light keeper's family called this lighthouse their home. The brick-floored basement offers a gift shop and a video on the area's history. Parking and admission are free, but donations are accepted and are used to maintain the building.

The Bay Lighthouse is located in a bluffside State Park at the north end of Newport's Yaquina Bay Bridge. This park offers excellent views of the bridge and jetties, as well as picnic tables, restrooms, and a long trail to the now-wide beach. Driving through the park, watch for the lighthouse on the north side of the road; it stands next to a tall metal Coast Guard observation tower. Unfortunately, the historic building is not wheelchair accessible, but the park's views may be enjoyed by everyone.

To the north, the Yaquina Head Lighthouse remains an official beacon for shipping, her first-order Fresnel lens outshining her humble older sister's since August 20, 1873. Motorists heading south on Highway 101 know they're getting close to Newport when they spot its beam on a point of land that extends nearly a mile out to sea. At 93 feet in height, Yaquina Head is the tallest lighthouse in Oregon. The keepers' houses and outbuildings which once stood beside it were demolished many years ago, leaving this pristine white column standing alone high above the Pacific.

The grounds surrounding the lighthouse are now a natural area overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The rugged headland offers observation decks with views of offshore "islands," rocks where seabirds nest and harbor seals lie near the waterline. Hiking trails provide excellent photo opportunities, and a former quarry now holds a cozy interpretive center with displays explaining the site's history. Tours of the lighthouse are limited, but well worth the effort. For those able to descend the wooden stairway, a visit to the unique cobble beach is a must; each wave at high tide rolls and clatters the rounded black stones, and low tide offers excellent tidepooling (please leave the sea creatures where you find them).

To find THIS Newport lighthouse, head north out of town to the Agate Beach area. Turn at the stoplight below Izzy's restaurant and drive about a mile on a well-paved road to the lighthouse. Please note that motorists are charged a fee ($7 at this writing), but the visit is well worth it. It is also possible to leave your car at a beach access parking lot near Highway 101 and walk or cycle to the lighthouse; in fact, this is a good hike when winds are out of the north, as it is somewhat sheltered. Be careful of auto traffic, though, and stay off of the roadway where possible.

While this historic lighthouse is not accessible, the observation decks and interpretive center are available to everyone. All visitors should be prepared for coastal rains, as well as some of the strongest wind gusts on the central coast.

Beverly Beach State Park
Year-round camping is available at Beverly Beach State Park just north of Yaquina Head, or South Beach State Park just over the bridge and a little south of Yaquina Bay. Beverly Beach is known for its proximity to the beach, its fossil hunting, and its excellent hiker/biker camp. South Beach is off of Highway 101 and has somewhat longer trails through the dunes to the beach and jetty, as well as hiker/biker facilities. Both campgrounds offer the usual state park amenities, such as RV sites, yurts, firewood, and real restrooms.

So if you'd like to check out a lighthouse on your next visit to the coast, head to Newport. They've got a two-for-one deal!

Yaquina Bay Lighthouse

Staircase up to the tower at Yaquina Bay Lighthouse
Compass at the State Park near the Bay Lighthouse
View of the beach and both jetties near the Bay Lighthouse

Yaquina Head Lighthouse
Inside the Yaquina Head tower
Cobblestone Beach
Rugged coastline to the North of Yaquina Head
Looking South from Yaquina Head

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