By: Gary Gray
My wife Trudy and I have talked about making this trip for many years, a drive along the coast of the United States Pacific Northwest to photograph the lighthouses. For some reason, we put it off. Instead, we made trips to the Hawaiian Islands, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Caribbean. Seemingly all more suitable travel destinations with a more exotic feel to them. Somehow, the coast of Oregon never felt exotic, but it always came up in our discussions about where to go next.
In the Spring of 2013, we finally made the journey along the coast of the Pacific Northwest and it became an epic road trip.
We flew to San Francisco where we picked up a rental car and then drove the coast North to Seattle, Washington. We allotted 11 days from beginning to end, with the first and last day being designated flight days. The total distance, as calculated by Google Maps, would be between about 1200 miles, depending on side trips along the way. Less than 150 miles per day on average. A sauntering pace by automobile.
My wife Trudy took care of the logistics of finding us a rental car. I took on the task of exploring the route by map before we got there so we'd have a rough idea of what we would be doing, where we'd be doing it and when we'd be there.
The first task was to figure out exactly where the lighthouses were along the coast from San Francisco to Seattle. A quick visit to Amazon.com and two purchases procured me the “Illustrated Map & Guide to all United States Lighthouses” by Bella Terra Publishing, LLC, and the “FYDDEYE Guide to American Lighthouses” ISBN 0984905405 / ISBN-13 9780984905409.
In addition to the two printed references, I also used my internet connected PC to plot the positions of every lighthouse along the Pacific Coast on Google Earth. I ended up with a “kmz” waypoint file which contains the latitude & longitude of every lighthouse, which I loaded into Google Earth to give an exact location when viewed on the laptop computer I'd be bringing with me. Lastly, I also loaded this “kmz” file into my Garmin Nuvi GPS which would be used to navigate when we were actually on the road. It took a few days to get everything marked and loaded into the GPS but it was well worth the effort.
I knew there would be many lighthouses along the coast, but I was surprised when I added the total lighthouse counts in California, Oregon and Washington. California alone has over 40 lighthouses, not all of which would be visited as many were further South along the coast than we'd be traveling. Oregon has 11 coastal lighthouses and Washington has over 25. I had pinpointed 85-90 lighthouses and it quickly became obvious that seeing them all simply would not be possible. I whittled this list down to a number of “must see” lighthouses, which wasn't all that difficult. Some lighthouses are not on the route, some are simple light stations and not really photogenic enough to wast time on. Several are also in locations you simply can't get to, such as on Islands or privately owned property not accessible to the public.
Beginning the trip at San Francisco, the first lighthouse you'll want to visit is the Pigeon Point Lighthouse which is about 30 miles South of San Francisco along the coast on Highway 1. You'll end up back-tracking but this lighthouse is a must see and one of the most photographic on the entire Pacific Coast, so I've included it in this article.
You'll find multiple good angles to photograph this lighthouse and you can get very close to it. There is also a hostel at this lighthouse, so if you are so inclined it is possible to spend the night here. For a sunrise shot, you'll find a great view looking west directly from the road leading in and on the actual grounds of the lighthouse. For sunset photography, there is a wonderful south-easterly coastal view from the North, less than a half mile or so away that shows the rocky shore along with the lighthouse.
Our next stop was about 50 miles North of San Francisco at the Point Reyes Lighthouse. A very scenic location, we found a lot of wildflowers blooming in late April along the walk to the lighthouse. You'll have to park about a half mile from the lighthouse and walk the rest of the way, and I'll caution you now, that final bit is along a very steep walkway that is the equivalent of walking up and down a 30 story flight of stairs. If you're health and heart are weak, you may not want to attempt this trek. If you do make the walk, you'll find the journey to be worth hit. A beautifully preserved lighthouse with a gift shot and spectacular view of the Pacific from the tip of Point Reyes is there for the taking. Photographically, you will be limited with the angles. I recommend you get there early in the day for sunlight behind your back with a westward view or perhaps late in the day shooting into the sunset. You won't find any accessible views up or down the shore line.
Another 100 miles or so north along the coast and you'll find the Point Arena Lighthouse. One of the most photogenic along the California coast, you have views available from just about every angle along the immediate shoreline, from the North , East and South. The compound is fenced in so if you arrive after hours, you won't be able to get inside and near the structure. We spent the night in the Lighthouse Keepers Apartment, which was a little pricey but give a a ground zero look at the lighthouse at both sunset and sunrise. The gate was closed when we arrived at 5:30 PM and it opened at 10 AM the next morning. You can still get pretty close to it even if the gate isn't unlocked.
Our next stop north along the coast was Crescent City, California to photograph the Battery Point Lighthouse. This particular lighthouse was one of my favorites. It sits on a stoney island that can be walked to at low tide. There is also a jetty that runs into the harbor to the East, with an accessible parking area just a few hundred feet away. Sunrise photographs from that jetty can be made with ease as the lighthouse has a curious orientation that allows for well let sunrise and sunset photographs. You can also get great afternoon shots from town to the North by hitting the back streets of Crescent City to the immediate North. You'll want to plan a couple of days here if possible, there are just too many angles and photographic opportunities to explore. I heard that this is the most expensive lighthouse on the Pacific coast to operate.
It's worth noting that Crescent City is also a great place to explore the Redwood Parks of Northern California. We spent the better part of a day doing just that while here, so take a little extra time and see the tallest and some of the oldest trees in the world while you are in the area.
From Crescent City, it's an easy drive to the Oregon coast and the first lighthouse you'll come is at Cape Blanco. In a very accessible location, you'll have to walk a quarter of a mile from the parking lot to the actual lighthouse. The lighthouse is staffed by volunteers and you'll find a nice gift shop and some friendly people. You'll also be able to take a tour of the inside of the lighthouse as well. The Cape Blanco Lighthouse is a must see on the Southern Oregon coast.
Travel North from the Cape Blanco Lighthouse for another 25 miles along highway 101 and you'll come to the town of Bandon, Oregon. In the town of Bandon, you'll find the Coquille River Lighthouse. Situated on the North shoreline near the mouth of the river, this lighthouse is no longer used, however, the building is still there and it is in a very photographable location. During our visit, the blooming Spring Gorse bushes were covering the area around the lighthouse with a beautiful yellow blanket. The town of Bandon was one of our favorite stops and we spent two nights in this location exploring the area and photographing the abandoned lighthouse on the river.
To get to the lighthouse , you'll want to drive North out of town on highway 101, crossing the river and enter Bullard's Beach State Park at Park Road (on the left.) The lighthouse will be about 3 miles away at the end of the park road. There's a parking area and a beautiful view just waiting to be explored either at sunrise or sunset.
Another 15 miles North of Bandon, Oregon you'll find the Cape Arago Lighthouse. Situated on Chiefs Island, access is difficult; however, there are many views available from the North shore of Cape Arago beach and from the South along the cliffs near Sunset Bay. Our stop here was brief and we made a quick walk to a rocky point overlooking Sunset Bay.
Our next stop, some 25 miles to the North was the Umpqua River Lighthouse. Very easy to find and get close to, this lighthouse is situated in a Costal History Museum on a historic Coast Guard compound. Situated on a bluff, the best photographs are found either from the parking area directly in front of the lighthouse or if one is more adventurous, from the road running through the sand dunes below the bluff about a quarter of a mile directly West. A wide angle lens will be necessary if you are in the parking lot as you'll be right up on it.
Thirty-five more miles North of the Umpqua River Lighthouse, you'll find yourself mid-point along the Oregon Coast and you'll also find what is considered to be the most popular and photographed lighthouse in Oregon. The Heceta Head Lighthouse. During our visit in late April of 2013, Heceta Head lighthouse was still under renovation and scheduled to be ready for public access in June of 2013. Driving North along Highway 101, you'll notice the lighthouse on the cliffs in the distance across Devil's Elbow Beach near Sea Lion Cave. There are a couple of pull-offs along the road where you can photograph this lighthouse from the road, but you'll want to pull into the beach parking lot and walk the quarter mile up to the lighthouse and get more photographs. There is a great shot of the lighthouse from the trail on hill behind the lighthouse as well.
Another thirty-five miles North on Hwy 101 and you'll arrive in the City of Newport, OR. Newport is a lighthouse paradise, with two different lighthouses located within a few miles of one another. On the North side of Yaquina Bay, the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse was built shortly after the city of Newport was founded. Today it's a museum and open for tours. With easy access and parking, you'll want to take a good look at this historic building.
On the North end of the city of Newport, you'll find the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. Originally called the Cape Foulweather Lighthouse, this may be the most photographic lighthouse on the Oregon coast. It is maintained by the US Parks service and open to the public. You can visit the grounds during daylight hours. Below the lighthouse to the South is a cobblestone beach that offers a fantastic view of the lighthouse looking north from the beach at low tide. There are also photographical points in residential areas along the shore to the immediate North. We spent two days in Newport photographing this lighthouse.
Highway 101 will take you away from the coast as you travel north from Newport towards Tillamook, Oregon. About 7 miles to the North-west of Tillamook is the Cape Meares Lighthouse. Situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean 200 feet below, the Cape Meares Lighthouse is easily accessed by walking a quarter of mile of scenic paved pathway from a public parking area. You'll also find a lot of bird activity combined with scenic views to the South along the Oregon Coast.
As you continue north another 35 miles along the Oregon coast from Tillamook and Cape Meares, you'll arrive in the coastal town of Cannon Beach and just north of Cannon Beach is the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. This lighthouse sits on an island that is about 1/25 miles off shore. On clear days, it can be viewed from shore in Ecola State Park. During our trip, it was not viewable, therefore I have no photographs for this article. I'm unaware of any excursion trips by boat to the Island, so you'll probably be lucky to see it from shore. It's worth a pass-by, win-lose or draw.
At the Southwestern point of Washington State, you'll find two lighthouses situated on the northern mouth of the Columbia River in the Cape Disappointment State Park. You'll have to pay a fee to access the park, but it is not much and worth the cost to see the two lighthouses within the park boundaries. The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is quite famous and photogenic. It's about a .5 mile walk up the hill to get to it from the parking area and it is also viewable from the area along the beach and shore directly to the West. Getting a photo of this lighthouse in good light is going to be tricky though. Late day shots are preferable due to the viewing angles.
The second lighthouse in Cape Disappointment State Park is the North Head lighthouse. This lighthouse is viewable from the beach west of the campgrounds and also accessible on foot from a parking area about 1/4 of a mile to the East.
Washington has a number of lighthouses, however, most of them are not situated on the Pacific Coast. From Cape Disappointment, you'll have to journey another 65 miles to the North around Wilapa Bay to see the Gray's Harbor Lighthouse, in the town of Westport. The Gray's Harbor Lighthouse is open to the public, but you won't find a wide variety of photographic views, as it is situated away from the shore in a wooded area. The is a perfectly good view of it from the South from the road though, which is where the below shot was taken.
From the Gray's Harbor Lighthouse, we had to make a decision. Do we explore further north along the coast, heading into the Western Olympic peninsula or should we move inland towards Olympia, WA and work from that direction along the interior routes. The number off coastal lighthouse being limited and the distance between them makes for extended road time that we didn't have, so we elected to move inland to Olympia and explore the best options from that area. Here is a list of additional coastal lighthouses we did not explore but you may want to factor into your visit to the Washington Coast.
Destruction Island Lighthouse. Four miles offshore on Destruction Island, it is due west of Olympic National Park. From the looks of it, getting photos of this lighthouse would be a project to itself.
Caper Flattery Lighthouse. Located on Tatoosh Island at the Northwestern tip of Cape Flattery where the Pacific Ocean meets the mouth of the Salish Sea. This is a fairly remote area and you aren't going to swing by and get quick shots here. Again, I'd plan on a single trip just to do this location justice and for us, that just wasn't practical so we avoided driving to this area for photography.
Working from Olympia, we found it much easier to make a run North along highway 16 through Bremerton and along the shore route to the Point Wilson Lighthouse north of the town of Port Townsend on the Northeast shore of the Olympic peninsula.
The Point Wilson Lighthouse was for me, one of the most enjoyable to photograph during our trip. There are excellent angles at just about any time of day and it can be viewed both at a distance and up close. You'll need a daily parks pass to get to it, but it's inexpensive and worth the price. You can pick that pass up in Fort Worden State Park which you'll pass through to get to the lighthouse. Fort Worden is an old US Army coastal artillery base and also a worthwhile visit so plan some extra time and take in the old Army museum and meet the nice folks working there.
As for equipment, I'd keep it simple to keep the weight down while traveling. I had two Camera Bodies with me on our trip. A Canon 1Ds MKII, full frame sensor body and a Canon 7D, crop sensor body. My lens kit was simple as well. I had a EF 16-35mm f/2,8L, EF 24-105mm L, EF 70-200 mm f/2.8 L and the EF 100-400mm L for potential wildlife shots. Most of my shots were taken with either the 16-35mm or the 24-105mm. I used a carbon fiber travel tripod for the low light and longer exposures. I had a remote shutter release and battery chargers. I also brought along a few graduated neutral density filters for those bright sky low light shots.
When taking on a road trip of this magnitude, you'll have to prepare yourself for the fact that you simply aren't going to get dramatic scenes of every lighthouse. Most of the best shots of lighthouses I've seen are taken in extreme conditions during transitional weather conditions at early morning or late afternoon, and sometimes at night. For most of our trip, the weather was a blessing and a curse. We had clear blue sunny skys for virtually the entire trip, which is actually rare for this part of the country. This made for easy and enjoyable traveling but the dramatic effect of weather on photographs was not to be found for the most part. The fact is on a trip such as mine, you'll be lucky to get a handful of rally good shots. But you'll get a life-time of memories and possibly ideas for future trips. Each of these lighthouses and many of the ones I haven't mentioned can be projects to themselves. Hopefully, I've given you enough information to get you started and help you understand what you'll be dealing with at the most accessible and photogenic of the Pacific Northwest.
I highly recommend you visit the Pacific Northwest of the United States at some point in your life. There is much more to see and do than just exploring the lighthouses along the coast.