A Wilder Northwestern Oregon Coast

The Many Moods of Oregon Beaches Reveal a Rugged Winter Beauty.

The Oregon Coast Highway is a collection of short stories — each chapter, each bend in the road, different than the next. From lush fir rain forests and towering sand dunes to quaint lighthouses and whale watching, adventure awaits.

When winter rains descend upon British Columbia, Marion and John Mitchell follow their instincts. Firing up their motorhome, they head south.

Not toward the balmy waters of Baja or dry Arizona heat, rather the wild, scenic beauty of the Oregon Coast. They grab their Gore-Tex and hit the road.

“We actually prefer to come off-season because it’s less busy,” said John, fiddling with a new generator as the couple sat at a picnic table in South Beach State Park, near Newport, Ore., enjoying a mild December breeze. “In fact, anyone coming to the Oregon Coast should really look at all the seasons,” he added.

Oregon coastEach season has it’s own personality. Summer brings sunshine, but also wind, fog and hoards of tourists, making traffic a challenge along the winding contours of U.S. 101 — which parallels Oregon’s 400-mile coastline the entire length of the state.

Crowds thin sharply in the winter, with fickle weather and cooler days. But the season also has its charms. Spectacular wave action appeals to storm watchers. Migrating gray whales lure curious observers. Crabbing, clamming and fishing continue, as always.

But the promise of the Oregon Coast in winter is this: Every day seems to provide at least one miraculous break in the weather. Winter is a moody season. When it’s foggy and rainy inland, you may find a stunning blue-sky day at the coast. One minute you’re drenched in soft drizzle (yes, pack rain gear); the next you’re in shirt sleeves, peering off an 800-foot outcropping at Cape Perpetua to watch wet-suited surfers navigate waves and sea lions.

Huddle around a campfire to warm yourself one afternoon; fly a kite on the beach at Lincoln City the next. Patience will be rewarded.

For the Mitchells, simple pleasures and natural beauty bring them back to the coast. “We like it because we can get out here, ride our bikes and breathe the air,” explained Marion, a self-employed tax accountant when she’s not on the road. “We’ll go fly a kite, walk on the beach, maybe ride an ATV on the Oregon Dunes,” she added. “Really, it’s all about the joy of doing nothing.”

The Oregon Coast isn’t about beach blankets, body builders and bikinis. This is a wilder coast, rocky, boisterous and untamed. And it can be explored from almost any angle. Since Oregon law makes all beaches open to the public, the choice is yours. To absorb the full sweep of dramatic geographic changes, try starting north and working your way south.

The North Coast

You can’t miss the sound — part honk, part baritone bleat, it carries throughout the seaport town of Astoria. “That’s the sea lions,” a local resident assures, nodding toward docks along the Columbia River.

There they lay, a dozen hefty sea lions that appear to be holding a dock hostage. Fat and satisfied, they have the right of way. End of story. In some ways, they’re the perfect sentinels for this colorful sea-faring community, reminiscent of an old-fashioned New England fishing village. Sea lions are a reminder that the Pacific Ocean is a neighbor, the place where many residents here still head to work each day.

Billed as the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains, Astoria is also the perfect starting point for our trip.

Follow signs up Coxcomb Hill for a visual orientation. There, you can walk up the Astoria Column for a panoramic view of the town, the coastline and Astoria Bridge, which spans the gaping mouth of the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

In town, grab a burger at the Wet Dog Café and check out the Columbia River Maritime Museum, both located downtown. Load up on provisions at the Safeway Superstore, where you’ll find everything from fresh sushi and an olive bar to Panini sandwiches and hot Chinese food with ample RV parking.

The Old Riverfront Trolley doesn’t run in the winter, but on a clear day you can stroll the same path to view some of the 250 to 300 ships that pass through Astoria each month.

Continue south on U.S 101 to find coastal camping options, including the Astoria/Warrenton/Seaside KOA campground, one mile from the beach, and lushly wooded Fort Stevens State Park, with 174 full hookup RV sites and 302 electrical campsites. Some sites are pull-through and all are enveloped by dense, mature trees, which lend privacy.

Here, Mandy and Ralph Noble have nestled their travel trailer and van into a cozy nook, drawn each winter by the quiet serenity they find at the Oregon Coast.

“It’s the water — I just like to be near the ocean — and Ralph comes with me,” laughed Mandy Noble, of Washington State, who has biked the entire length of the coastal highway, from Canada to Mexico.

“We make this trip once a year. It’s only four hours from home, but it feels like we’re really getting away,”

From his silver-blue RV, Dave Vierk insists that this is the best time of year for a coastal visit: “We never do it in the summer — too many people. We’ll see some of our nicest weather here in the fall and beyond.”

Glancing about the verdant park — perfumed with damp, spicy cedar — Vierk said he typically sticks with state and national campgrounds, and is rarely disappointed. “We’ve been here probably 50 times, maybe more,” he said. “My best advice is to just take your time and enjoy it.”

Fort Stevens State Park is open year-round with no reservations required and offers discounts October through April, dubbed “discovery season.”

The park boasts 14 miles of bicycle/hiking trails and a nearby historic military site. On the beach, explore remains of the Peter Iredale shipwreck. And for a taste of local history, be sure to stop at the Fort Clatsop National Memorial.

“When you step off this path, you are entering the world of 1805,” cautioned our guide, nodding through mist-shrouded fir trees toward a squat log structure populated with characters from America’s past.

When Lewis and Clark journeyed west to the Pacific Ocean, they wintered in a crude stockade. Today, Fort Clatsop National Memorial recreates that shelter, with costumed interpreters who describe the deprivation and hardship of that long, wet winter.

Located east of Warrenton off U.S. 101, the center is affordable, informative and well worth the trek, with spacious RV parking.

Rolling south, you’ll pass through Seaside — Oregon’s answer to Coney Island. One of the state’s first seashore resorts, the town still projects that frivolous flavor. Explore shops and restaurants on foot along “The Promenade,” which ends at the town’s famed “turnaround,” but resist the urge to thread your rig through those narrow, congested streets.

Next up, Cannon Beach — one of Oregon’s most accessible and picturesque sites, featuring sand, tide pools and 235-foot-tall Haystack Rock. Be sure to slip into Mo’s for a steaming bowl of clam chowder and a spectacular oceanfront view. (Tip: At Cannon Beach, RVs must park in designated areas, but they’re clearly marked.)

U.S. 101 continues through windy, steep and hilly terrain, often set inland, away from the coast. Seasoned RVers recommend staying off the roads at night, but by day the bays and lush, fern-laden rain forests are quite scenic.

Oregon shipsTillamook is Oregon’s famed dairy country, so be sure and try some cheese and ice cream samples at the Tillamook Cheese Factory as you enter town, or visit the Tillamook Air Museum on your way out.

For John and Shirley Soper, just parking their motorhome at a mostly vacant Nehalem State Park — within earshot of the ocean — is all the entertainment they need.

“They keep the park so clean,” explained Shirley Soper, who drives a school bus when not touring in her Winnebago. “And we like the quiet.”

Lincoln City marks the unofficial end of the North Coast, a flourish to the trip, with seven miles of beach, a huge factory outlet shopping center and Chinook Winds Casino. But the community may be best known for perfect kite-flying winds. Annual spring and fall kite-flying festivals are a major attraction.

Central Coast

“Yep, they’re moving in full from eating up in the Bering Sea,” muttered John Rose, fixing his binoculars on the rolling, liquid horizon.

Despite the early hour, Ross and his wife, Karen, of nearby Depoe Bay, were already attracting a crowd, as vehicles peeled off U.S. 101 to follow “Whale Watching Spoken Here” signs that pepper the highway in late December.

Soon, the cry goes up. Whales! A small pod swims by, blowing greetings on their annual migration toward warmer Mexican waters.

Winter is whale-watching season at the Oregon Coast, an invitation for travelers to pull over, whip out binoculars and hunt for lacy plumes of water vapor — telltale signs of whale breath.

Many coastal communities sponsor ocean whale-watching cruises, but it’s also fun to join the gawkers and volunteer guides, who can help you. Well-marked scenic turnouts provide ample opportunity to try your luck.

For a closer look at sea life, check out the Oregon Coast Aquarium — a world-class facility located just south of the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport. Sea otters, elegant jellyfish and feisty puffins offer a fascinating diversion, and children love the tidal “touch” pool.

A few miles down the road, South Beach State Park wins the hearty endorsement of RVers, with 227 electrical sites, playgrounds and meeting halls. Hike the 2 1/4- mile trail to the South Jetty, or the 1 3/4-mile nature trail.

The trek from Newport to Florence is breathtaking, a marriage of rugged coastline, pounding surf and towering forests. Take your rig for a short climb up Cape Perpetua, tour Heceta Head Lighthouse, or visit the Sea Lion Caves — a famed, 12-story sea cavern that is home to hundreds of sea lions, which gather inside in the fall and winter.

Before your descent into Florence, pause at one of many scenic turnouts for a good look south. Here, the landscape begins a dramatic transformation, from mountainous capes to wind-sculpted sand dunes worthy of the Sahara.

South Coast

Chris Hanneson studied the skies. Any break in the morning rain, and he would be back tearing up and down the towering Oregon Dunes on his four-wheeler with his wife and daughter.

“Last year, it snowed on us,” he said, shrugging. “This is just cold and wet. When you’ve got a hot shower, you can cope.”

The weather mattered little to Hanneson, who joins four other families and their toy haulers at Jessie Honeyman State Park each winter for off-road fun. By now, it’s less a tradition than an addiction.

“The scenery is forever changing when you’re out there,” he said, with a grin. “Something different every time.” But there’s something more: “You meet a lot of people quadding — and they’re good people,” he explained.

For New Year’s Eve, the families — five couples, nine kids and their “quads”— bring their RVs to Honeyman Park’s H Loop, which offers direct access to the sand for off-road vehicles during winter months. The dunes, which can climb 500 feet above sea level, stretch for 41 miles between Florence and Coos Bay. About half of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is open to off-road vehicles, including dune buggies and ATVs.

Four-wheeling is so popular, that campground reservations are strongly recommended even during winter months.

Hanneson says he has no problem maneuvering his RV around the campground. “It’s really the perfect setup for a family of three or four.” When weather intervenes, the families gather around the campfire. Many of the kids camp in nearby heated yurts, also available by reservation. Honeyman Park offers 47 full hookup sites, 119 electrical sites and 10 yurts. For information, call (541) 997-3641.

You can glimpse the dunes as you move south on U.S. 101 toward Reedsport. Take a turn east on Route 38 for a few miles to visit the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area, with resident elk and plenty of room for RVs.

Now you’re in fishing country. Winchester Bay, North Bend, Coos Bay, and Charleston — all are renowned for recreational and commercial fishing.

Follow the signs to Charleston and you’re hugging the coastline. It’s also a chance to visit Shore Acres State Park — with lavish botanical gardens — Sunset Bay State Park and Cape Arago State Park, an overlook that offers one of the best viewpoints on the coast. RVs can camp at Sunset Bay State Park, with 29 full hookups, 36 electrical sites, nearby hiking trails and a picturesque bay-sheltered beach.

On a sunny Sunday morning, Randy and Debbie Chizek parked their travel trailer at the beach to soak in the view — white caps frothing in the distance, gulls soaring, ocean reflecting a blue, blue sky. “The Oregon Coast in the winter,” Randy Chizek said, smiling in the sunshine. “Couldn’t get any better.”

No trip to the coast would be complete without a visit to Old Town Bandon, just off U.S. 101. Drive past the shops and art galleries, sticking to Jetty Road, and you’ll find an excellent view of the Coquille River Lighthouse.

Don't ForgetDon’t forget to check out the cranberry bread at The Boatworks, where the food is good and the wave action takes place right outside your window.

Pause for one more panoramic view of the coastline at Cape Blanco State Park. Hunt for agates along the beaches near Port Orford — oldest town site on the coast — or head down to Gold Beach for a jet boat ride up the wild and scenic Rogue River.

Push on to Brookings, the town that bills itself as Oregon’s “banana belt.” And truly, the weather does boast the warmest average temperature on the coast.

So wander down to the harbor, grab some fresh fish for lunch, sit back and soak up some winter sunshine. You’ve earned it.

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