YAQUINA HEAD — Most outdoor sites at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area are open to pedestrian traffic — a barricade bars tourists’ vehicles from driving past the Interpretive Center parking lot — but the deck and grounds immediately surrounding the lighthouse are closed to the public as the Bureau of Land Management completes a near-million-dollar improvement project.
Visitors to the site of Oregon’s tallest lighthouse can still hike to the top of Communications Hill for a sweeping ocean view from north Moolack to Nye Beach, and you can still walk down the stairs to stand on the smooth blue stones at Cobble Beach for an up-close look at waves crashing against basalt and harbor seals playing in the surf.
A chainlink fence currently blocks access to the landmark structure itself at the entrance to Lighthouse Trail from the Northwest Lighthouse Drive loop, and the tower is flanked by excavators and other construction equipment. Access was first restricted late last summer when a bright white mineral coating was applied to the lighthouse brick, followed by exterior trim painting and a full structural investigation.
The wooden observation deck, three conjoined octagons on the northwest corner of the building, was built in 1994, and two and a half decades of exposure to the headland elements took its toll. Workers with Conway Construction, of Vancouver, Wash., removed it at the beginning of December to replace it with a larger concrete patio.
Yaquina Head Site Manager Matt Betenson said, “The wood was becoming problematic. I don’t know if we could have put another screw in it. And the wood itself was failing in places where people really like to stand.”
In addition to providing a wider platform for sea and wildlife watchers, the new, impermeable structure will also help divert water from the historic building. “There’s also an issue with the grading around the lighthouse itself causing water to pool at the base, which is not great for its foundation,” Paul Tigan, field manager at the BLM’s Marys Peak Field Office, said. The Marys Peak Field Office oversees bureau operations in Lincoln, Polk and Benton counties.
The new patio will have a general outline similar to the old deck and feature a wall of varying heights facing the ocean, with intermittent iron railings to offer younger children a view (there are no current plans to add telescopes as were on the former deck).
The 36-to-42-inch high wall was designed to blend into its surroundings. “The core is going to be concrete, but then we’re going to put some angular, rustic basalt facing on those walls to tie them in with the natural environment,” Betenson said.
The overall price tag for the project will be $900,000 to $1 million, including new access to the patio and grading work around the lighthouse. Tigan said, “Also what’s captured in that amount is a lot of cultural resource work, having archaeologists on site during the excavation, surveying the site ahead of time to make sure we wouldn’t damage any cultural resources, and also having active monitoring during construction.”
BLM hopes to complete the project by the end of February, but that timeline could be delayed by inhospitable winter weather.
Upcoming projects include removal of the last of the lead paint from one room in the lighthouse interior and any repairs found to be needed after the bureau gets the results of its structural investigation, which it expects to receive next spring. A project to replace the Cobble Beach staircase, built at the same time as the lighthouse observation deck, could be underway within the next 12 months.
“Managing a listed historic structure like this on the Oregon coast is a love labor, and you can’t let it go,” Betenson said. “The way everyone needs to clean their gutters to get ready for the rainy season, we’ve got a responsibility to make sure the lighthouse is in the best condition it can be to make good on our commitment to future generations.”
While the Interpretive Center and interior of the lighthouse have been closed to the public since the outstanding natural area reopened in July (access at the main gatehouse was restricted for a few months at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic), it’s continued to see steady traffic. “I think there’s a feeling in the public in general to get outside, and there’s been a lot of information from the state of Oregon about getting outside in a safe manner,” Betenson said. “We have been trying to provide really safe access to the public, whether that means identifying trails as one way or limiting access at certain times if we feel like we have too many people on site.”