There are few moodier environments than the Oregon Coast. And moody is a photographer’s happy place. From fog cascading down moss-carpeted cliffs to sun slanting through spruce trees, the ever-changing weather attracts professional and amateur photographers to the Coast all year long. The Oregon Coast is home to a whopping 75 sites that are Oregon State Parks or official state recreation areas, scenic viewpoints or natural areas — many of them along the rugged stretch of coastline between Newport and Dunes City, famous for whale watching and crashing waves, towering cedars and tiny anemones. Bring your walking shoes, an extra memory card, an umbrella and set out on your coastal photo tour on your next road trip.
Lighthouses and Tidepools: Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area
Here you’ll find Oregon’s tallest lighthouse, first lit in 1873. It’s the main attraction on this mile-long, cliff-lined finger of coast, less than 5 miles north of Newport. Just a short walk from the lighthouse, down a winding staircase that leads to a world of tide pools at Cobble Beach. Look up from here and get a great shot of the lighthouse. While you’re at it, park rangers will help you identify the colorful sea urchins and sea stars loitering in shallow water at low tide. Bring your camera — an overcast day makes for ideal conditions with even light (without shadows or other distractions). While snapping pics on the beach, always be aware of sneaker waves — a large wave that can appear without warning — which can catch people off guard and pull them into the chilly Pacific. Have a buddy watch the surf if you’re busy looking through your camera. Early birds on clear days should hike the short trail up Salal Hill for the best view of the morning light softly illuminating Yaquina Head and the lighthouse. While you’re here, play with wide angle shots in the 360-degree tunnels at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, a few minutes away, then hit Newport’s Rogue Brewer’s on the Bay for a brewmaster tour — maybe the staff will let you snap a portrait against a shiny beer barrel.
Glowing Lights: Alsea Bay Bridge
Fifteen miles south of Newport, curves and stark lines catch the photographer’s eye on this massive coastal bridge spanning the Alsea River. Originally built in 1936 by iconic Oregon coastal bridge architect Conde McCullough, the bridge was rebuilt in 1991 to span the shallow tidal flats surrounding Waldport. At low tide, walk below the towering buttresses for unique angles of the bridge’s arch silhouetted against the sky. As you wait for the sunset, hike (or bring a Frisbee for the disc golf course) among big ferns and giant trees on Waldport’s mile-long Woodland Trail. But for the most drama, wait until dusk, after a dungeness crab melt just a mile down the road at the Hilltop Cafe and Bistro, and bring your tripod for a shot of the bridge’s lights glowing and the water swirling beneath.
Frenetic Waves: Thor’s Well and Cape Perpetua
At high tide, with each surging swell, the ocean’s raw power erupts through the basalt shoreline at Thor’s Well, a busy visitor attraction 11 miles south of Waldport in Yachats. The chaotic, foaming water floods the tide pools before retreating as if a bathtub drain opened in the Pacific. It’s a photographer’s dream, especially at dusk when a tripod and long shutter can capture the water’s frenetic motion in artistic currents. But always be aware of sneaker waves and slippery footing — keep your distance here, because it’s not uncommon for swells to get dangerously large, unexpectedly. A few miles north, turn east on Road 55 before the Devil’s Churn scenic overlook, grab a hot dog, homemade caramel and a warm drink at the snack shack there, and follow the signs to the top of Cape Perpetua Scenic Area — the highest car-accessible point on the Oregon Coast, at over 800 feet above sea level. Stop into the Visitor Center to get your bearings, then follow the short trail to an overlook for panoramic photo opportunities — wear sturdy footwear and stay on marked trails to keep safe.
Panoramic Coastline: Heceta Head Lighthouse
Ten miles south of Thor’s Well, you can photograph this picturesque lighthouse with a long lens from several roadside vantage points, the best being the one just north of Sea Lions Caves, off Highway 101. Or you can get up close to this historic gem via a worthy mile-long hike. Seven miles of trails weave through the cedars and spruce with openings to scan the ocean for gray whales or seal lions. Take the Heceta Lighthouse Trail for a great shot framing the lighthouse against the ocean with the coastline curving into the distance. Wear hiking shoes and be wary of slick roots and loose slopes on coastal forest trails in winter. Aprés hike at Florence’s historic Waterfront Depot — 13 miles south of Heceta Head — for locally sourced oysters Madrid, steamer clams and Willamette Valley pinot noir.
Sunset on the Sand: Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
Visual contrasts abound on this wild, undeveloped stretch of Oregon Coast: steep, stark dunes slide into dark green forests, fog often blurs the layers of dune hills, and salt spray hover low above the broad stretches of beach. A favorite spot for off-road vehicle enthusiasts and hikers, photographers can find panoramic landscape opportunities (bring a long lens) by scrambling to dune crests and playing with shadows and the sinuous lines of dune ridges. Take care not to trample delicate dune grasses and always keep your camera protected from blowing sand. For the best light, go late when the setting sun illuminates the white dunes in a pink glow. To cover the most ground (and carry more photo gear), rent an ATV at Spinreel ATV. After a cold day on the dunes, warm up with chowder and garlic bread at the no-frills Novelli’s Crab & Seafood restaurant on the dock in Florence.ence.
If You Go:
Be prepared — Winter on the Oregon Coast can be chilly and wet, or mild and crystal-clear — so wear waterproof layers, sturdy shoes and don’t forget your sunglasses. Before setting out, make sure you have purchased any necessary Forest Service recreation passes or have cash on hand for an Oregon State Park pass, required for parking at Heceta Head Lighthouse (which you can also buy at the kiosk). If you’re a frequent visitor, the Oregon Coast Passport may be a great option, with free entry to 17 state and federal sites along the Coast.
Leave No Trace — Whatever your adventure entails, from hiking to sandboarding, follow Leave No Trace principles, including packing in and out, leaving what you find where it’s at, and respecting wildlife and other visitors. It’s a good idea when adventuring to carry plenty of water along with your 10 Essentials and know that cell service may be spotty, so download maps and trail directions. Brush up on rules about dogs on Oregon’s beaches if you plan on bringing Fido.
Coastal safety — While everyone wants to get the ultimate Instagram shot, it’s not worth endangering yourself to get it. Always pay attention to signs and stay on marked trails and behind barriers — restricted areas are marked as such for a reason. Brush up on more beach-safety rules before you head out.
Where to stay — For lodging, find epic sunset and storm-watching views at Ocean Haven or Overleaf Lodge & Spa, both with eco-friendly oceanfront suites in Yachats. Or go full lighthouse keeper and book one of the six rooms at Heceta Head Lighthouse B&B, where you can shoot night stars over the ocean from the historic home’s front porch. Find lots more or more Central Coast lodging options options in every price range.
Transportation — Consider taking a car-free getaway to the Central Coast. If you are traveling by car, be sure to check road and weather conditions before heading out and carry snow chains or traction tires when advised.