Photo © Jerry Rogue Jets
by Crai S. Bower
On Oregon’s south coast, climb a 150-foot dune, watch the sun descend beside a sea stack or slip a paddle into an inland slough and you realize that Oregon’s southern coast provides as much accessible geographical diversity as nearly anywhere in the Northwest.
In September and October, warm temperatures and clear skies usually linger after the tourist season has ended. Come Labor Day, Seasonal vendors rarely shutter their shops and cafés, knowing that fall travelers will arrive. As autumn comes and goes, a magical light settles upon surf, dune and forest, making no better time to visit this 150-mile stretch of spectacular coastal scenery.
Dozens of state parks, recreation and scenic areas fill the Oregon coast, allowing unfettered access that blows away any other state in the Union. The Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area occupies nearly 20 percent of the entire coastline, which is a 40-mile swath of sandy mounds that rolls from the southern Oregon coast’s Siuslaw River to Coos River, the largest coastal formation of its kind in North America. Well known for off-road vehicle use, this enormous sandbox also provides plenty of room for beachside horseback riding, tide pooling and even sand surfing (mentioned in Northwest Travel’s July/August 2014 issue).
The Dunes Overlook, 11-miles north of Reedsport, provides an impressive vista, but visiting this area without tucking a little sand between my toes feels wrong. I travel 1.7 miles south along the frothy break to a checkpoint that directs me inward toward the bend of Tahkenitch Creek, across a willow wetland and around the edge of three “tree islands” for 1.7 miles back to my starting point. The Tahkenitch Creek Trail is just one of several dunes trails that leads into this fragile habitat.
Looking inland, brackish estuaries, wildlife-rich wetlands and interior lakes have benefited magnificently from Oregon’s coastal conservation efforts. Clear, Eel, North Tenmile and Tenmile Lakes stretch south of Reedsport. Slipping into Eel Lake from the William M. Tugman State Park boat launch, I paddle past beaver lodges, a heronry, songbird migrants and, for a brief minute, a pair of playful river otters.
Several lakes also fall within Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, the largest being Horsfall Lake, a favorite fishing hole that sits a couple of dunes away from Haynes Inlet, at the head of Coos Bay, which is littered with estuaries, inlets and lakes. South Coast Tours leads guided fresh water and ocean kayaking trips (from a few hours to overnight) from several launch sites stretching all along the south coast, including the nation’s first National Estuarine Research Reserve in Coos Bay’s South Slough.
Coos Bay remains a coastal dining, lodging and, with the development of The Mill Casino Hotel & RV Park, entertainment hub. They’re known for the annual Mill-Luck Salmon Celebration—this year on September 13 and 14—an open-pit salmon bake that’s a Coquille tradition celebrating the return of the salmon. The event includes tribal canoe races, entertainment and more, with the salmon bake prepared by Donald Ivy (who also leads private salmon bakes for 30 or more). The casino features musical acts or comedians, five restaurants and a full gaming center. The Northwest-inspired rooms command views of the bay and several feature large sitting areas with en-suite spas.
The Oregon Coast Highway continues south between Coos Bay and Bandon-by-the-Sea, where Bandon Dunes Golf Resort draws duffers from around the world to its four renowned courses. Near the Bandon Dunes complex, I always explore the coastal environs, including the lovely Coquille Lighthouse. Named for the Coquille natives who inhabited this region prior to the European settlement in the mid-1800s, the lighthouse continues to shine a solar-powered beacon, the centerpiece of Bullards Beach State Park.
The Beach Loop here leads to Tony’s Port O’ Call & Crab Shack, where diners discover fresh Dungeness crab and other daily catches. Some prefer to look for the fishing scoop in the local paper by fishing reporter Tony Roszkowski; then grab tackle and fishing license for their own adventure. If you prefer fishing for great buys, you’ll find that Bandon features some of the best boutique shopping on the south coast. (Sweet tip: An amazing chocolate boutique, Coastal Mist, located at 210 2nd St. SE in Old Town Bandon, sells beautifully crafted chocolates and desserts to satisfy your sweet cravings; check out their offerings or order online at coastalmist.com/our-retail-store.)
Also, Bandon is home to the Washed Ashore Project, a community-driven effort to create eco-art out of marine trash and raise public awareness of marine debris and plastic pollution. The sculptures are on view at Harbortown Event Center at 325 2nd St. SE in Bandon, Wed. through Sat. from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., with workshops where you can help create the art from 1:00 to 3:00.
South of Bandon, a trio of state parks invites exploration of the subtle changes in this dynamic coastal environment. The forest meets the trees in Floras Lake State Park, where the eponymous lake is one of the closest fresh water bodies to the ocean on the continent. One good storm and the beach and lake seem as though they would wash away. The headlands rise above the black sand beaches of Cape Blanco State Park just a few minutes southward. Humbug Mountain rises like a fjord above the sea just south of Battle Rock and Port Orford.
Port Orford is home to WildSpring Guest Habitat, considered by many return guests to be the region’s finest accommodations. Guests relax in individual cabins, join Tai Chi classes or take to the walking labyrinth. This eco-friendly lodge also serves an excellent breakfast and, when it’s time to settle down from the day’s activities, the innkeepers pour fine Oregon wines to help guests unwind and relax.
The coast continues southward, calling me to take another break to explore the Samuel H. Boardman State Park with its 12-mile Scenic Corridor. From Reedsport in the north to Brookings in the south, I can’t think of a better route to embrace the wild freedom of the Pacific.
When You Go
To plan your South Oregon Coast travels, go online at visittheoregoncoast.com. Other helpful resources are Southern Oregon Tourism at southernoregon.org; Coos Bay, North Bend and Charleston at oregonsadventurecoast.com; Bandon at bandon.com; Port Orford at enjoyportorford.com; Gold Beach at goldbeach.org; and Brookings-Harbor at brookingsharborchamber.com.
For lodging reservations, go to The Mill Casino, themillcasino.com, and WildSpring Guest Habitat, wildspring.com.
To learn more about Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, go to bandondunesgolf.com. To learn more about trails and activities in the Siuslaw National Forest, including the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, visit fs.usda.gov/main/siuslaw/home. For state parks, go to oregon.gov/oprd/parks. To book a fully equipped, guided kayak tour with South Coast Tours, go to southcoasttours.net.