There’s no playground quite like the Oregon Coast, and I love to explore its wild bounds with my friends — epic days hiking or surfing, usually followed by a rowdy group meal at a brewpub. So how to explain the quiet explosion of joy I feel on a winter weekend when everyone else has decided to stay home? Sometimes, when you’re in need of solitude, the best way to enjoy the beauty of the Coast is all on your own.
I first noticed it on a sharp bend in Highway 101 just south of the brimming little town of Manzanita, where Nehalem Bay stretches out and the Nehalem River winds inland. What I felt was the call to slow down, and luckily, I was in just the right place. Flanked on either side by the shaggy forests of the Coast Range and fronted by the placid waters of Nehalem Bay, the town of Wheeler (pop. 414) is a quiet place any time of year. Winter in particular offers great seasonal birding, small town browsing and the chance to recharge on a solo trip.
First incorporated in 1913, Wheeler began as a lumber town. Today the town is divided by a line of railroad tracks that previously took that timber to Portland. On the east side stands the commercial core, measuring about two blocks and dominated by the Tuscan yellow walls of the Old Wheeler Hotel. To the west sits a small marina and community park. The rail stop here is part of the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad, which offers seasonal trips up the river.
I parked and picked my way down to the the dock for a broad view of the Nehalem River, Nehalem Bay and the headland of Neahkahnie Mountain holding back the coastal fog. From this vantage, I would eventually see blue herons, gulls and osprey passing the winter on this sheltered river bend. To explore the river up close, you can rent a kayak from the nearby Wheeler Marina, which is also a great local resource for fishing and crabbing.
While Away the Day
I checked into the Old Wheeler Hotel, and owner Katie Brown offered me a tour of the historic boutique property. Brown said the hotel started life in the 1920s as a speakeasy and pool hall and, in the 1930s, became the now famous Rinehart Clinic (still operating today up the hill in Wheeler’s heights). The beautifully restored building has nine, antique-furnished rooms, each with its own bath and a distinct ambience. And since the hotel doesn’t allow pets or children under the age of 13, the property has a restful atmosphere.
Small in size, Wheeler packs a punch for antique and curio shopping. I walked along the living sidewalk in front of the hotel — a well-tended collection of hydrangeas, rosemary, thyme, cosmos and dahlias, and browsed through a variety of storefronts; there’s The Roost tea and coffee spot, next to Trillium, selling jewelry, pottery and art from Pacific Northwest artists, and Creative Fabrics, offering a beautiful stock of quilting and sewing fabrics. The Wheeler Station Antiques presented a well-organized stash of vintage merchandise and antiques.
Up the block, in the unassuming storefront of Old Wheeler Antiques, I hit the mother lode of serious collectibles. The store has the largest collection of art deco lighting for sale in the U.S. — that means room after room of gleaming lamps and chandeliers, as well as chrome cocktail sets, colorful Czech wine glasses and decorative bookends.
I wrapped up the day with a walk along the waterfront and watched the sun set over the Nehalem Bay Spit as the silhouette of a fisherman darkened and disappeared. Then, I indulged in what must be the best dinner in town at the Rising Star Cafe, (reservations recommended, cash and check only), a squat blue building up the street from the hotel. Usually open in the off-season Wednesday through Saturday for dinner and Sunday for brunch, the small, friendly café offers a fresh and seasonal menu with dishes like an Oregon albacore and shrimp salad, cioppino and leg of lamb.
Winter Birding and Steamy Chowder
The next morning after coffee and a simple breakfast, I headed north along Highway 101 toward the town of Nehalem (pop. 267) for some solitary winter birding.
I stopped first at the Nehalem Bay Water Treatment ponds on Tideland Road, just off the highway. A sign read “Birders Welcome Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.” This spot is not only an official stop on the Oregon Coast Birding Trail, it’s also recommended by the authors of “Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest,” so I wasn’t deterred by the location. I’d asked two shop keepers for directions and they’d never heard of the place, which made it feel like some sort of secret discovery as I strolled the ponds alone, looking for wood ducks, white-tailed kites, northern harriers and bald eagles.
Just north of Nehalem and another stop on the Oregon Coast Birding Trail is Alder Creek Farm. This former dairy farm turned community garden is home to a saltwater marsh and wooded upland area that wintering birds love. Volunteers were setting up for the weekly farmers market outside the barn as I trooped out back to look for red phalarope, eagles, American kestrels and purple martins. A third stop — the Nehalem Fish Hatchery — is just 11 miles up nearby Highway 53, offers more winter birding action along the river and is ADA accessible.
After this quiet morning spent with my newfound, feathered friends, I had a hankering for hot and steamy chowder. I happened upon Buttercup Ice Creams and Chowders. Their impressive menu surprised me with a host of fresh, delicious and gluten-free chowders (options include South Indian, Italian Sausage, Caribbean Seafood Curry and Northwest Clam on this day). I couldn’t help but finish off with something sweet. And as their name suggests, they serve to-die for ice creams and sorbets — Spiced Apple Cider Caramel and Smoked Pecans along with Sweet Potato Pie in a gingersnap cone, just to name a few.
I stretched out the afternoon with a walk on the spit at nearby Nehalem Bay State Park, hiking part of the 5-mile loop trail that leaves from the parking lot. I found a driftwood fort and sat in the shelter of a dune watching the fog pile up over Neahkahnie Mountain to the north. As the wind rose and brought a chill, I turned back to the Old Wheeler, where the protective arm of the sandy spit blocked the river town from the incoming fog bank, and a hot soak in the claw foot tub beckoned.
Photography by Justin Bailie