by Allen Cox
The Oregon Coast has long welcomed visitors from its northern point in Astoria south to the California border. Travelers to the coast find everything from beach hotels and casino resorts to outlet malls and artist enclaves. But only a handful of towns along the 363-mile stretch of U.S. 101 have retained their authenticity as a working coastal community. Winchester Bay on the Southern Oregon Coast is one of them.
Most travelers on Highway 101 speed right past Winchester Bay. It’s no exaggeration to say in a blink of an eye, you’d miss it. But if you slow down and make the turn into the bayside community, you are in for some pleasant discoveries, whether you are staying a while or just taking a break on the drive.
The town’s compact harbor has earned a reputation for some of the best crabbing and fishing along the Oregon Coast. You can rent gear and try your luck on the crab dock that juts out into the harbor. Or hire a sport fishing charter for a day of adventure on the high seas. If you prefer that others do the fishing or crabbing for you, you might be able to buy the catch of the day right from the fishing boats in the harbor while the supply lasts. Or stop by the fish market at Sportsman’s Cannery (taste tip: if they have smoked tuna in stock, give yourself a treat.)
Another local seafood source is Umpqua Triangle Oysters, where you can buy oysters that were cultivated in a coastal pool protected by jetties and washed by the tide. Mild, clean tasting with a slight brine, the Umpqua Triangle oysters are some of the best on the coast. You won’t find them in fish markets or restaurants, so buy a dozen in-shell or shucked along with your pick from the wide selection of condiments stocked in the shop.
Winchester Bay sits in the heart of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. In either direction on Highway 101, there is nearby access to 31,500-acres of dunes. OHVers, hikers and people just wanting to view and learn about the dune ecosystem flock to this stretch of coastline. A short drive through town and past the bay on the Umpqua Access Road will deposit you in the dunes that line the beach. Even if you are not there to ride the dunes, pause to appreciate the natural, ever-shifting mountains of sand held on place by forests and other vegetation.
Perched above the dunes, the Umpqua River Lighthouse has spread its unique red and white beacon far out to sea since 1857, as the first lighthouse along the Oregon Coast. Today, the lighthouse is the centerpiece of Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, complete with a well-curated museum, a fun-to-browse gift shop and café (taste tip: the clam chowder is exceptional, and they sell handmade chocolates). Be sure to take a guided tour of the lighthouse, where you will learn what the life of a lighthouse keeper was like on this wild coast, back then only accessible by ship; on the tour you will climb the spiral stairs all the way to the top to poke your head inside the Fresnel lens as it rotates.
Come back to the lighthouse parking lot at night for a free mesmerizing lightshow. Forested hillsides border the back of the lighthouse and, as the light rotates, red and white beacons shine out to sea and along the bordering forest.
The RV crowd has discovered Winchester Bay. In summer, the numerous RV spaces fill up fast. For the rest of us, basic yet comfortable lodging is available in the form of vacation rentals, a motel, and even cabin and yurt lodging. There are a few restaurants in Winchester Bay, and excellent dining is in Reedsport, only 10 minutes up the road (tip: try Harbor Light). Find lodging, campgrounds, dining, summer events and all the activities to make a memorable Winchester Bay getaway at winchesterbay.org.