Oregon State Parks Essay: South, Central and North Coasts

A lighthouse set on a rocky hillside. Evergreen trees line the hill behind the lighthouse.
​Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint showcases the rugged beauty of the Oregon coast. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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Oregon’s 363-mile coast is dotted with lighthouses, shipwrecks and maritime history. In 1913, Oregon Governor Oswald West and the Oregon legislature designated all of the coast’s “wet sand” areas a state highway, which means they belonged to the public, not individuals. In 1967, Governor Tom McCall and the legislature expanded public ownership of the coast to include areas from the low tide mark to 16 vertical feet above it.

The coast lighthouses represent a past when most goods, explorers, and soldiers – including, in 1852, young army captain, and future United States president, Ulysses S. Grant – came to Oregon by ships – or were destroyed trying. The oldest lighthouse, at Cape Blanco State Park, stands in tribute to working mothers everywhere. Mabel Bretherton, widowed mother of three children under the age of 10, became Oregon’s first female lighthouse keeper there in 1903. Head up the coast to Umpqua Lighthouse State Park and check out its lighthouse; head north again to Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint and watch out for a sense of déjà vu. The U.S. Lighthouse Board built Heceta Head in 1892, and then to save money, used the same architectural plans to build the Umpqua River Lighthouse two years later.

The name Cobra Lily comes from the resemblance of this plant's tubular leaves to a rearing cobra
Carnivorous cobra lily plants grow at the Darlingtonia State Natural Site north of Florence. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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Just north of Florence sits Oregon’s most macabre picnic spot, Darlingtonia State Natural Site. The only Oregon state park property dedicated to preserving a single plant species, the bog is filled with Darlingtonia californica, also known as “the cobra lily.” The carnivorous beauty uses its sweet nectar to lure insects into its bright yellow flowers … then eats them. A wooden boardwalk winds its way through thickets of the three-foot tall plants. United States botanist John Torrey named the plant for his botany professor William Darlington, who died before he saw his namesake plant.

At Oregon’s northern tip, Fort Stevens State Park preserves 84 years of military history. When built at the end of the Civil War, the fort had a moat and drawbridge to protect it from attackers. Fort Stevens was an active military installation until 1947; during World War II, 2,500 men were stationed there. On June 21, 1942, a Japanese submarine fired 17 shells at the coastal fort, making Fort Stevens the only military base in the lower 48 states to be attacked during World War II. The Japanese bombs didn’t kill anyone and caused very little damage. Today, visitors can check out the park’s military history museum, walk on its concrete gun batteries and take a guided underground tour of its bunkers.

Remains of a sailing vessel rusted bow and masts jutting out of the sand on a beach.
The shipwreck of the Peter Iredale on the beach at Fort Stevens State Park.​ (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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October 25, 1906, was a blustery day when the British cargo ship Peter Iredale approached the mouth of the Columbia River, just south of Fort Stevens. The four-masted British ship was coming in empty to Portland from Acapulco through a dark, thick mist, a rising tide and strong westerly winds. It ran aground on the Clatsop Spit and got stuck in the sand. Captain H. Lawrence ordered the crew to abandon ship. A lifeboat rescued all 27 sailors and two stowaways, but the ship was well and truly stuck, and all attempts to haul it back out to sea failed. The Peter Iredale remains mired on the beach, where visitors can climb on what is left of the wreck.

A century after Sarah Helmick donated land for a state park, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s role has expanded. Rangers at Thompson’s Mills show children how to turn grain into flour. River rangers patrol waterways by boat, while at Wallowa Lake State Park near Joseph, rangers lead tours on snowshoes. The Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center broadcasts live video streams of migrating gray whales, so Oregonians anywhere in the state can watch whales’ seasonal travels. At the Rough and Ready Botanical Wayside in the Siskiyou Mountains, protected rare, delicate plants thrive in delicate soil. And at Smith Rock State Park near Redmond, rock climbers from around the world gather to scale its pinnacles and spires. As it provides and protects the state’s natural, scenic, cultural, historic and recreational sites, Oregon state parks enters its second century involved in every aspect of Oregon.

End of Essay