HECETA HEAD —
There are hundreds of places to stay along the 363-mile stretch of the Oregon Coast. From the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria, extending down U.S. Highway 101 and scores of side roads to the redwood forests at the California border, luxurious oceanview resorts vie for guest nights with ma-and-pa motels, rustic state-park yurts and elegant homes that offer bed-and-breakfast lodging.
But I’m going to suggest that you stay at a lighthouse.
The Heceta Lighthouse B&B is as charming and as centrally located a coastal inn as you might find. Situated on a headland midway between Florence and Yachats, its six upstairs bedrooms, reached via narrow, circular wooden staircases, feature stunning views of crashing Pacific surf or coastal forest. Its main floor is a stylish gathering place for guests, who each morning enjoy a seven-course breakfast and every evening engage in fireside conversation, reading and musical diversions; a piano and guitar are provided.
This nest is just downhill from the lighthouse itself, in an 1893 house that once was the duplex residence of the assistant lighthouse keepers and their families. You’re near enough to the light to see its beacon piercing the marine darkness every 10 seconds by night, and to stroll easily to its perch by day.
The strongest light on the Oregon Coast (it radiates 21 miles to sea), the Heceta Head Lighthouse has been serving marine traffic since 1894. The 56-foot tower, which rises 205 feet above the Pacific on the western flank of 1,000-foot-high Heceta Head, is one of the most photographed sights anywhere on this coast.
Looming over a beach at the mouth of Cape Creek, this headland — the most significant marine hazard between Newport and Winchester Bay — was named for Spanish captain Don Bruno de Heceta, who charted it in 1775. It remained a remote outpost until 1932, when U.S. Highway 101 was completed down the length of the Oregon Coast.
It’s not isolated any longer. To the south, just over a mile, are the Sea Lion Caves, North America’s largest sea cave and one of Oregon’s leading tourist attractions. Florence and the northernmost section of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area are about 10 miles away.
Barely a mile north is Carl G. Washburne State Park and its popular Hobbit Beach Trail. The stunning Cape Perpetua Natural Area is another 12 miles or so, just outside of Yachats, among the most charming resort communities on the central coast.
Arriving at the inn
The perfect hub for exploring this stretch is Heceta Head. I arrived with photographer Barb Gonzalez one recent evening, after an early dinner stop in Florence. The low tide accented the dramatic height of the headland as we perceived it from a Highway 101 viewing area on Devil’s Elbow, the next promontory to the south.
Motorists visiting the inn and lighthouse may park below Cape Creek Bridge, in a public parking area beside the rocky beach at Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint. As guests at the inn, we saved ourselves an uphill walk with our luggage by approaching the inn from a discreet driveway halfway up the hill.
The inn stands on level ground, surrounded by an acre of lovely gardens and a white picket fence. There once were two structures side by side, but the head light keeper’s house was sold and dismantled in the 1930s. The remaining house was turned over to the U.S. Forest Service in 1963. For 25 years, it served as a satellite facility for Lane Community College classes.
After the house was chosen for the National Register of Historic Places, its government landlords began to consider ways to make it more accessible to the public. They achieved that goal in 1995, when a decision was made to convert it to a bed-and-breakfast.
Today, the Heceta Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast remains in the administrative hands of the same family of innkeepers who helped to create it. When Mike and Carol Korgan retired from everyday responsibilities, they turned the B&B over to their daughter, Michelle, who continues to operate it today.
So gourmet are breakfasts, they take 90 minutes to devour, starting at 8:30 a.m. and including dessert. Mother and daughter have also co-authored the 192-page “Lighthouse Breakfast Cookbook,” featuring most elements of their eight rotating morning menus. And Michelle is the executive chef of her own restaurant, ONA, in Yachats.
Guest rooms are simple but lovely. Two of them, the Mariners rooms, have views directly to sea. There’s no television, but with this panorama, none is needed. Queen beds have carved headboards, and the entire house is wired for internet.
The front door to the keeper’s house is locked except in summer, when state-park guests are invited to tour the historic home. (Tours are offered noon to 5 p.m. Thursday to Monday, Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day.) Year-round B&B arrivals enter the home through the back door to the guest kitchen, where newcomers are greeted and made to feel immediately welcome.
But even as guests flock to the inn, strange things happen. Doors may open and close of their own accord. Workmen’s tools have gone missing, to be found in other rooms. In particular, an elderly woman in a long dress has been seen vanishing through doors in a gray mist.
Historical research revealed that in the 1890s, the young daughter of an assistant light keeper had drowned in the estuary, where Cape Creek flows into the Pacific below the lighthouse. The victim’s mother, whose name was Rue, never recovered from the tragedy. She blamed herself for the girl’s death and flung herself from an upper room, taking her own life.
Some say she continues to search for her daughter to this day. Whether they call her Rue or the “Lady in Gray,” modern bed-and-breakfast guests have shared many stories about meetings with this benign spirit. Many of them have recorded their experiences in guest books placed in the common room for shared reading.
Rehabbing the light
With the arrival of electricity in 1934, the Heceta Head Lighthouse switched to an automatic bulb, thus relaxing the demands on lighthouse keepers. In 1963, as the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department assumed management, a kerosene lamp with a 1,000-watt bulb brought to an end the era of the true light keeper.
But sea spray and storm winds take a toll, and the lighthouse was closed for public visits between 2011 and 2013, when it underwent a major restoration. According to an interpretive sign, Parks and Rec employed restoration experts who “agreed that to give this building a future, they had to take it back to the past. They had to restore the 19th-century materials that were part of its earliest days.”
This meant replacing its stucco and brick work to allow it to “breathe”; restoring cast-iron metal work, including its circular stairs and landings; repairing its roof and windows; cleaning and reglazing the lantern; replacing the electrical system, and more. But it’s still not completely ready for prime time. Maintenance is continuing so that visitors may someday, once again, be permitted to climb to the tower with its antique Fresnel lens.
In the meantime, volunteer docents offer free tours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily through October, beginning in the oil house at the base of the stairs. Talks describe the light’s history and function, with some focus on that French-designed lens. (In fact, the Heceta lens was crafted in England; it is the largest of its type in the United States.)
The lighthouse is reached by a quarter-mile uphill trail from the inn, a half-mile from the parking area. At the northeast corner of the inn’s grounds, a gift shop and interpretive center offers a selection of books, souvenirs and other items of interest.
Sea lions and dunes
If you look directly south along the coast from the lighthouse, you might spy a building at the edge of Devil’s Elbow’s furthest extent. This is the public entrance to the world-famous Sea Lion Caves — the planet’s largest network of marine grottoes. The interlocking system is climaxed by a massive cavern, as tall as a 12-story building and as long as a football field, typically inhabited by 200 Steller sea lions.
This is the only known location in the world where sea lions make their homes on a continental mainland rather than on a rocky offshore island. Discovered in 1880 by a local seaman who purchased the land from the state seven years later, it remained family-owned for four decades (at a time when the state of Oregon paid a bounty for slaughtered sea lions) and was preserved in its natural state until new owners developed a public trail and stairway into the caves in 1932.
The 1961 completion of an elevator, dropping 200 feet, greatly increased the cavern’s accessibility for handicapped and elderly visitors. Today, visitors pay admission at a large gift shop, then take a short walk outdoors to an observation deck overlooking a rocky shelf, where the pinnipeds gather during spring mating. A gradual downhill walkway leads to the elevator, which descends to an arm of the cave above the main 2-acre, tide-washed floor.
Inevitably, one’s first reaction upon disembarking the elevator is of the potent smell of the sea lion colony, and of the sounds of the mammals’ roars and sea birds’ shrieks that echo within the walls of the grotto. A strong wire screen separates viewers from the main portion of the cave, where the sea lions swim in the crashing surf, clamber up the rocks and roar at one another when they reach the tops.
Within the visitors’ portion of the cave, a six-minute video and other exhibits introduce the sea lions and other denizens, including bats, gulls, guillemots and cormorants. Off the coast, gray and humpback whales, orcas, harbor seals and California sea lions are often seen, although they rarely venture into the lair of the Stellers. Colorful striation on the cavern walls gives clues to its volcanic origins, some 25 million years ago.
A dozen miles south of here, Florence is located at the junction of state Highway 126 to Eugene and Redmond. Its Old Town, a historic fishing community near the mouth of the Siuslaw River, is a district of several square blocks featuring colorful shops and several fine restaurants, including the outstanding Waterfront Depot. South of the Siuslaw, 50-mile-long Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area begins, with its first best access at Honeyman State Park.
South to Yachats
About a mile north of Heceta Head, at the edge of Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park, is the popular Hobbit Trail. Subtly marked near the edge of Highway 101, it descends a half mile through a snarl of twisted madronas and salal, rhododendrons and sword ferns, to an isolated sandy beach. The enchanting trail through a temperate rainforest earned its name from arbor-like overhangs that force hikers to shrink themselves to the size of little people. Scores of exposed tree roots can trip unwitting hikers.
Washburne Park has numerous other trails, as well as campgrounds with overnight yurts. It’s the largest of several beachside state parks along this stretch of highway.
Worth at least a couple of hours’ exploration is the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, located about 10 miles north of Heceta Head and two miles south of Yachats. Contained within Siuslaw National Forest, Cape Perpetua is different things to different people. On the one hand, it is a mushroom hunter’s delight, chanterelles and boletes sprouting from the slopes of a dense hemlock-and-spruce forest.
On the other, it is a rugged coastal landscape, with such ominous features as Cook’s Chasm and Devil’s Churn particularly threatening to those who visit at high tides. Thor’s Well sucks water in and flushes it out like an angry toilet, while the Spouting Horn blowhole is at its most spectacular during storms. A hillside visitor center highlights the best of both Cape Perpetua worlds.
Yachats (pronounced YAH-hots) calls itself the “Gem of the Coast.” A bustling arts community, it sprawls along a low, rocky promontory with a smattering of restaurants, galleries and vacation homes. On the town’s north side, a cluster of four galleries display photography, contemporary arts, cooperative crafts and home design.
There are several excellent lodging options in Yachats and a handful of good restaurants. A local favorite is the Drift Inn, a casual and modestly priced cafe that also has 14 bed-and-breakfast rooms, some priced as low as $40 depending upon season.
But I prefer the ONA Restaurant & Lounge, on the south side of town overlooking the mouth of the Yachats River. The European-influenced menu emphasizes seafood (a halibut entrée was outstanding) but doesn’t exclude steak, chicken, pasta and salad dishes.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.