My wife, Lydia, and I spent the first few years of our courtship road tripping around Oregon. As we’d drive around the state, she would wield the map and give me turn-by-turn directions. We were searching for that perfect campsite. You know, those sites smack in the middle of Oregon’s untamed scenery — the ones that feel undiscovered, like you’re in on a secret. It was on one of these road trips, at one of those perfect campsites, that I proposed to Lydia. That was many years ago.
After our daughters were born, we did our best to continue our camping adventures. Our girls, Aubrey and Tucker, have grown up exploring tide pools on the Coast, chasing waterfalls in the Gorge, hiking in Central Oregon and dipping their toes in remote mountain lakes in Eastern Oregon. But as they’ve grown older and their lives have filled with their own interests, it’s been a challenge to find time for family road trips. So when I pitched the idea of RV-ing for spring break, I was a little surprised when everyone enthusiastically agreed.
Lydia broke out her map collection, and we began perusing the state for a spot we hadn’t explored. We quickly realized we’d never ventured to Oregon’s South Coast together, which is surprising, since it has all the trappings of a classic family road trip. We cobbled together an itinerary, rented an RV and we were off — embracing our inner Griswolds, all in search of an adventure.
To Sunset Bay
After spending the morning packing up the RV, we departed Portland at noon with Bella, our Goldendoodle. Arriving in Coos Bay late afternoon with stomachs growling, we opted for an early dinner at SharkBites Café, known for their locally sourced seafood, and then made our way out to our reserved campsite at Sunset Bay State Park, one of three state parks in the Coos Bay area that are connected by a series of hiking trails. After a quick and easy setup, we made our way down to the beach and quickly learned how this place got its name.
My personal favorite thing about camping is hanging out by the fire. It’s a road-trip ritual we’ve practiced since the girls were just babies. Aubrey brought out her ukulele, and she and Tucker — both girls are accomplished singers — took turns serenading us as Lydia and I stoked the fire, sipped a drink and let life’s many stresses dissolve away.
From the south headland at Sunset Bay, a relatively easy trail follows the cliffs along the Coast and provides incredible views of the rocky shore. We planned to walk all the way to Shore Acres State Park, but a midday squall turned us back. But even in the short mile we walked, we discovered small rocky beaches and breathtaking views of rough seas crashing on the shore.
The formal gardens at Shore Acres State Park were a delightful surprise to find on this rugged stretch of coastline. The lush gardens, perched high on sandstone cliffs overlooking the ocean, feature plants from around the world, meaning something is in bloom almost year-round. Originally built more than 100 years ago by timber baron Louis Simpson, the land was purchased by the state of Oregon in 1942 and was fully restored in the mid-1970s.
Tucker, home from attending her freshman year in college on the East Coast, was reconnecting with the beauty and wildness of her home state. When we climbed down to this beach on the south cove of Cape Arago, we had it all to ourselves. The tide was out and tide pools were rich with sea life. This is why we explore. (When observing the world of marine life, be sure to practice tide pool etiquette and consult Oregon State Parks’ online tips for tide pooling in Oregon.)
A secret beach
We’d been told of a secret beach, one marked on few maps that held incredible beauty. Directions were vague. About 10 miles north of Brookings, a few clicks from Natural Bridges Cove, was supposedly an unmarked pull-off. We tried a few pull-offs, coming up empty and almost ready to give up — then I saw it and quickly turned in. Following a trail a half mile down a steep slope, there it was: Secret Beach. And it was breathtaking. The tide was in, and storm-roiled seas crashed over the rocks. Being an overprotective dad, I cautioned Tucker and Aubrey as they ventured closer to the edge: “Please stay back!” (Can you keep the secret? Find the trailhead about .3 miles south of milepost 345 on U.S. Route 101 in the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. There you’ll encounter a small gravel parking area, which leads to the short trail down to the beach.)
“Just one more”
The daughters of this professional photographer have had to learn patience as their dad is prone to having them stand still when they want to keep moving. I’m sure they’ve grown tired of the phrase, “Wait, just one more picture!” Aubrey rebels by making faces, but even her tongue can’t spoil the view at Harris Beach State Park.
The undiscovered coast
I haven’t traveled everywhere in the world, but from all I can tell, there is no coastline anywhere that can compare with the wild, rugged beauty of the South Coast. Even as people increasingly travel from all over the world to experience Oregon’s great outdoors, this stretch of coastline still feels undiscovered. Making it all the more special is how accessible it is to any family with a spirit of adventure — whether you travel by RV or not.