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Put Yaquina Head on must-do list

Jun 17, 2013


By Elaine Rohse
News-Register Contributor


At one of Oregon’s more recent tourist attractions, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, there are so many things to do, it’s a veritable Disneyland. But whereas your billfold may be flattened after a Disneyland visit, Yaquina Head, established by Congress in 1980, is an unbelievable bargain.

Pile everyone you can into your vehicle — grandkids, neighbors, their kids. The entry fee is $7 per vehicle, regardless of the number of passengers. That pass is good for three days. Unless you visit the gift shop, that $7 may be your only Yaquina Head expense. Put it on your must-do list, along with the News-Register’s list of 25 things to do in Yamhill County this summer.

True, Yaquina Head is not in Yamhill County. But it’s not far — three miles north of Newport — about 75 miles in all. Watch for the turn-off to the right from Highway 101. And some fine summer day, load into your car — binoculars, camera, warm jacket and perhaps a lunch.

This natural area has no restaurants, but nearby Newport has many.

Yaquina Head is open daily. Times may vary with the season. For information, call Yaquina Head at 541-574-3100. A word of caution: Don’t confuse this Yaquina Head with the Yaquina Bay and Yaquina River area south of Newport.

Now, you’re on your way, purring along Highway 18.

I am already there — staying with son, Mitch, and his wife Louann, who have a beach place within walking distance of this natural area. After breakfast on our first day, we plan our itinerary. Our first stop will be at the interpretive center. Last week when the kids were here, they spotted a peregrine falcon nest on a high cliff overlooking the parking area. Now, binoculars in focus — we again find the nest with a parent on duty. As we watch, the parent shifts to the side — and we see eggs in the nest.

We quickly forget peregrine falcons when an attendant from the interpretive center comes to the parking lot and announces that whales have been sighted close to shore at Colony Rock. We rush down the road and, sure enough, see the spouts of three. Yaquina Head is said to be one of the best places hereabouts to see whales. Tourists crowd the railing to see the next spout. When the whales tire of entertaining us, we, too, move on to the next attraction: the colonies of nesting common murres. As per a count given us that day by a spokesman at the center, some 30,000 to 50,000 murres are clustered, mostly atop three big rocks jutting 35 feet out of the Pacific. That, indeed, makes for crowded housing. Murres fight to get enough room to stand upright — and assure space for an egg.

And what an egg this is: very long, and of an exaggerated pear shape When jostled or hit, instead of rolling off the edge of a sheer cliff, the egg rolls around and around in a tight semi-circle. When the parents tire of their duties, they usher the chick to the cliff’s edge and give him a boost. Apparently, nature has this planned well. These murres learn how to swim before learning how to fly. Once in the water, they swim around, submissively following the parents, and flying lessons come later.

Mitch and Louann, on their frequent visits here, often see the murre parents push the chicks over the edge of the cliffs. Apparently, the survival rate is good.

But the young birds have additional challenges: bald eagles who know well what a great food source are nesting sick, dead, or injured birds, and the vulnerable chicks. If an eagle flies over the nesting colonies, the murres take off en masse, simultaneously and instantly, like a flight of swifts — and head for the surf. The ocean is safer than an exposed rock top.

Look for eagles, waiting nearby in dead trees.

And while you’re here, see how many birds you can identify. You’d better know your birds well. This is a regular birdland: Pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants, western and glaucous-winged gulls and black oystercatchers. During the summer, you might see brown pelicans, surf scoters, pigeon guillemots, rhinoceros auklets. Look for red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, western grebes, black scoters and those colorful clowns, harlequin ducks.

But the darling of all attractions here at Yaquina Head is probably the lighthouse — the tallest in Oregon and the state’s second active major coastal beacon. The first-order Fresnel lens was installed in the brick tower, about 160 feet above the Pacific. Inside the lens, a four-wick lard-oil fueled lamp produced a steady white light visible 20 miles out to sea. Its first light was lit on Aug. 20, 1873. A crew of three maintained the lighthouse, polished, cleaned, repaired, and tended gardens and livestock. In 1966, the lighthouse was automated.

If you’re fit, climb 111 of its cast-iron steps. The last three steps — with entry to lantern and onto the gallery — are not open to the public.

Or, save your strength for one of Yaquina Head’s five fine hiking trails. Free excellent brochures about the trails as well as the rest of this natural area are at the interpretive center.

And here at Yaquina Head, you’ll learn more about the perils of the sea.

Within view are the sites of 28 shipwrecks that claimed at least 53 lives.

In 1910, the J. Marhoffer, a 608-ton steam schooner with a fire in its engine room, drifted into what is now known as Boiler Bay. That vessel’s boiler is still visible at low tide.

In 1864, the Cornelia Terry, an oyster schooner, wrecked on Yaquina bar. Its captain, Richard Hillyer, was said to be an “oyster pirate.” He stole from oyster beds that belonged to Native Americans.

The Blue Magpie, a 350-foot freighter, during a storm in 1983 struck the north Yaquina Bay jetty while seeking refuge in the bay. A Coast Guard helicopter rescued 19 crew members. At very low tide, a portion of that ship still can be seen.

And there’s much of interest in the interpretive center — slide shows, exhibits, a re-created rocky island. And the day we were there, there was a living-history lighthouse service keeper, in attire patterned after a Civil War Uniform.

But of our family group, perhaps the happiest when we start for Yaquina Head is Mitch and Louann’s Tibetan terrier, Zoe. She, early on, discovered that if the attendant at the entrance fee site knows a dog is in the car, a doggie treat is offered. No attendant has ever failed to notice Zoe. She paws at the window, wiggles, salivates. If a dog is in your car, be sure it is noticed — because, surely, according to Zoe, these are the best doggie treats in the entire doggie world.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at rohse5257@comcast.net.

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