The light shot out from the side of the cliff and slid over the ocean’s face, pulling ragged wave peaks out of the darkness and illuminating the jaws of the rocks around Heceta Head.
At first I thought I was looking at headlights, someone parked close to the edge of the cliff at a pullout somewhere up ahead in the early morning, rainstorm black. Then as I drove around another corner, I could see how the beams swept out and far away.
I have visited nearly all of Oregon's 11 historic lighthouses, but this early morning drive back to Astoria from Coos Bay was the first time I had ever seen one at work.
Walk into any boutique or gift shop on the Oregon Coast and chances are high you'll see a lighthouse — pastel-hued and benign, on a keychain, formed into a ceramic miniature, printed on a welcome mat, embroidered on a pillow, stamped on a coffee cup. Along with shells and sandcastles, a lighthouse is visual shorthand, a sort of hieroglyphic, for all things beach.
Seeing the real thing at work in a vast, ocean-loud darkness was different. A mortal stumbling upon a watchful giant crouched between wave-warped rock and wind-twisted forests.
Most of Oregon's lighthouses were built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-to-late 19th century, all that stood between ships and sailors and the state's rugged coastline. Many are open to the public and some are still operational.
The Heceta Head Lighthouse is a bit of a trek from Astoria, but if you are lucky enough to live on the North Coast, or if you are visiting the area, a handful of Oregon's lighthouses — and two in Washington state — are an easy day trip away. Do yourself a favor and go see them.
Cape Disappointment — named, perhaps, in a fit of pique, after Capt. John Meares' first failed attempt to find the Columbia River — in Washington state is about a 30-minute drive from Astoria and home to two historic lighthouses.
Depending on how you enter the park, North Head Lighthouse can be one of your first stops. Follow state park signs out of Ilwaco, turning onto either North Head Road or Robert Gray Drive/Washington State Route 100. It is located at the end of North Head Lighthouse Road off North Head Road. A multi-use trail winds through the woods parallel to the road.
North Head, which is more than 120 years old, is one of the few lighthouses on the West Coast where these facilities remain intact. It served as a primary navigation aid at the mouth of the Columbia River, a companion to the even older Cape Disappointment Lighthouse after ships continued to run aground, according to park staff.
The historic Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is accessible by a trail of easy to moderate difficulty (depending on your hiking experience) from the Lewis and Clark Visitors Center, located above the U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment. Coast Guard watchmen still keep an eye on boats coming and going across the Columbia River Bar from a facility near the lighthouse. You might see them at work during a visit.
Back in Oregon, Cannon Beach residents get daily views of the historic Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, "Terrible Tilly," a structure built in the late 1800s on a sheer outcropping of rock and ocean tunnels where natives believe spirits lived.
Construction of the lighthouse got off to a tragic start. The mason brought out to survey the rock prior to construction slipped and fell into the ocean. His body was never recovered. Locals refused to work on the project. Once built, it gained a reputation as a terrible place to work, with conditions taking a physical and mental toll on the keepers.
Still, Terrible Tilly functioned as a lighthouse for around 77 years before it was decommissioned in 1957. It was sold several times and then used as a columbarium until around 2005, a final resting place for your ashes if you had several thousand dollars to spare.
To get the best view of the lighthouse, hike the Tillamook Head Trail, a steep, sometimes strenuous trek that takes you through forests of Sitka spruce and Western red cedar. The trailhead begins at the Elmer Feldenheimer Forest Preserve on the south side of Seaside. The view arrives four miles in. Hop down a short spur trail just past the 4-mile mark and you'll see Tillamook Rock and the lighthouse perched precariously on top of it about one mile offshore.
Or, just drive to Indian Beach in Ecola State Park and walk down onto the beach south of the parking lot with some binoculars.
The Cape Meares Lighthouse, located about two hours from Astoria outside of Tillamook, is a squatty little structure that looks more like a cartoon character than a beacon of life and safety.
It has the distinction of being Oregon's shortest lighthouse — its tower stands a mere 38 feet high. It is open to visitors from May through September at the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint.
This site also includes the "Big Spruce," which is an estimated 750 to 800 years old, and the Octopus Tree, a massive Sitka spruce whose branches tangle outward like tentacles.
Built in 1889 and no longer operative today, the Cape Meares Lighthouse features its original red Fresnel lens made in Paris, France. The lens was shipped, hauled and lifted to the site with great effort. When in operation, the light could be seen 21 nautical miles at sea, according to the Friends of the Cape Meares Lighthouse. Access is easy — simply park and walk down a short, broad path.
The Yaquina Bay-area lighthouses make for a longer trip, but are worth the effort. There are two to see in the Newport area, about four hours from Astoria: Yaquina Bay and Yaquina Head.
While the Cape Meares Lighthouse is Oregon's shortest, Yaquina Head is the tallest. The tower soars to a staggering 93 feet — that's 370,000 bricks, in case you were wondering. It was first built in 1973 and is located in the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, which boasts tide pools and birdwatching opportunities.
Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, just a bit farther south, was built in 1871 and decommissioned only a few years later in 1874. It is believed to be the oldest structure in Newport and functions now as a privately maintained navigational aid. Paved trails lead to the structure, which is open to the public every day except on certain holidays. There is no entrance fee, but donations are accepted.