Checking out of a yurt recently at Oregon’s Fort Stevens State Park, a man noticed a sign announcing in bold green letters that it was “Discovery Season.”
“What do you mean by that,” he asked.
The ranger smiled then said, “It means it’s probably going to rain.”
They both laughed, because outside that’s exactly what was happening.
In the summer, the parks and seaside towns on Oregon’s northern coast typically bustle with tourists. But by the end of this wet, gray fall day the camper and his son would hike Whalen Island, beaches at Fort Stevens and Ecola state parks without seeing another soul.
“That’s the trick,” said Bonnie Henderson, a Eugene resident and author of several books about the coast. “The coast is accessible all year. It hardly ever snows and there is usually always great hiking if you don’t mind getting a little muddy.”
Richard Walkoski, spokesman for Oregon State Parks, says visitation at coastal recreation sites from fall through the early spring “is a fraction of what we get in the summer. But it’s still a great place to visit this time of year.”
It’s easier to find places to camp, surfing conditions can be outstanding, U.S. Highway 101 is less crowded and the ocean can take on a fierce personality – one best viewed from a safe distance – summer visitors are less likely to see.
Will it rain? Probably. But it’s nothing a good rain jacket can’t handle and if you’re patient, Mother Nature is bound to cut you some slack.
“Even in the worst storms, you’ll catch moments where the weather is good and you can have an hour or so to get out,” Henderson said.
Sometimes those weather windows are spectacular.
“It does rain a lot in November, December and January,” Walkoski said. “But there are still many cold, clear winter days without a drop of rain in sight. Those days are amazing.”
Here are some ideas for an offseason trip to Oregon’s Northern Coast:
1. TRY A YURT
For those without RVs (or those who want to leave the gas guzzler at home), many of Oregon’s coastal state parks offer shelter in the form of 16-foot-diameter yurts. A yurt is a round, tent-like wood-and-canvas structure that sleep five people with a bunk bed and fold-out futon. The park yurts are $35-$41 a night and include heat, electricity, a locking door and a wooden floor. You’ll have to supply your own bedding. There are no discounts on yurt rentals in the winter, but you’re more likely to score a reservation, Walkoski said. These shelters are typically 95 percent booked on summer weekends, he said. That percentage drops to about 70 in the winter.
Henderson hikes Oregon’s coast in all seasons. “My usual routine is if it’s nice I hike on the beach,” she said. “If the weather is crummy I hike in the woods.” She says it can be quite easy to find yourself hiking alone during winter months.
A few of Henderson’s recommendation for the northern coast include Drift Creek Falls (a 3.2-mile hike near Lincoln City), Whalen Island (1.5 miles near Pacific City), the Fort to Sea Trail near Astoria and the Cape Perpetua trails near Yachats. She lists considerably more options in her 2007 book, “Day Hiking: Oregon Coast” (The Mountaineers Books, $18)
3. LEAVE THE BEATEN PATH
With a state park or recreation site every five miles along Oregon’s northern coast, there are plenty of opportunities to try something new. One spot sometimes overlooked by tourists is Oswald West State Park about 10 miles south of Cannon Beach. “It’s one of my favorites,” said Walkoski, who grew up nearby in Manzanita. “It’s not much to look at from the highway. (U.S.) 101 goes through and there’s a little parking area. But if you walk just a third of mile you come to a secluded cove, a beautiful rocky beach. It’s kind of a Mecca for surfers and on stormy days the waves are even better.” oregonstateparks.org/park_195.php
4. STORM WATCHING
Walkoski says in recent years Oregon State Parks has noticed an uptick in visitors during storms. “People are starting to realize it can be fun to visit the coast during bad weather and go storm watching,” he said. The Cape Meares area can be an excellent spot to watch massive waves slam into the shore. Higher viewpoints are safest for watching storms. Walkoski says Fort Stevens State Park is also a good place for storm watching. Oregon Storm Tours offers guided trips for $49-89 per person. oregonstormtours.com
Fall and winter are the best time of year to surf the Oregon coast, said Brittney Rekate of the Seaside Surf Shop. “That’s when we get the bigger swells,” she said. “It’s pretty serious and we sometimes don’t rent if the conditions are right. If you aren’t experienced, it might be better to watch.” Avenue U and nearby Seaside Cove are ideal places to catch a wave or watch the veterans, Rekate said. The Seaside Surf Shop offers wetsuit and board rentals starting at $30. For lessons, Oregon Surf Adventures in Seaside offers a variety of classes starting at $99 per person for three hours of instruction. seasidesurfshop.com, oregonsurfadventures.com
6. WHALE WATCHING
Walkoski says the beaches near Lincoln City can be a good spot to see gray whales swimming off the coast. But he recommends any place on U.S. 101 that has long stretches with ocean views. “Whale watching tends to be better the closer you get to the central coast,” he said. Dec. 26-30 has been designated a Whale Watching Week by Oregon State Parks. According to last December’s Whale Watch Week records, there were 590 gray whale sightings on the Oregon Coast. The Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays during winter months. The center offers a list of best whale watching sites on its website. whalespoken.org
7. TSUNAMI DEBRIS HUNTING
Debris for the 2011 Japan tsunami and other storms “have touched every beach along the Oregon coast,” Walkoski said. He says there are two reasons people head to the beach to look for debris: Treasure hunters and volunteers trying clean up the mess. “Everybody wants to find that souvenir that has Japanese writing on it,” Walkoski said. “But a lot of people are taking bags and picking up debris too.” Cleanup bags are available at state park offices and a hotline (call 211 or 800-723-3638) has been set up to call if you discover hazardous materials or large debris. oregonstateparks.org
Cyclists love riding Oregon’s coast in the summer despite heavy traffic on U.S. 101. There’s less traffic during winter months, but the trade-off is colder and wetter weather. If you don’t mind the elements or waiting for a weather window, you can have an enjoyable ride. The Oregon Tourism Commission has compiled a good database of routes for the coast and beyond. rideoregonride.com
9. LIGHTHOUSE TOUR
Four lighthouses brighten the coast between Seaside and Newport. The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse can be viewed from Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach. The Cape Meares Lighthouse is closed for tours in the winter, but the Yaquina Head and Yaquina Bay lighthouses are open daily. A free lighthouse guide brochure is available from the state parks department. oregonstateparks.org/publications.php
10. EXPLORE INDOORS
If you want to take a break from the rain there are several indoor options. Two must-dos even on sunny days are the Tillamook Cheese Factory and Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium. At the cheese factory, take a self-guided tour, sample cheese, order ice cream and a cheeseburger before shopping for cheddar-inspired jewelry and paper made from cow poop. A highlight of Newport’s aquarium is the Passages of the Deep exhibit, a series of underwater tunnels that allow visitors to observe sea life. tillamook.com, aquarium.orgCraig Hill: 253-597-8497 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure @AdventureGuys