The Oregon Coast’s slate-gray skies, ethereal cloak of mist, and foggy, rocky landscape make it a boon for particularly hardy winter travelers. Around the cities of Coos Bay, North Bend and Charleston in particular, a cold winter day could mean high swells: waves thundering into sandstone with ocean spray.
This rugged stretch of coastline — affectionately known as Oregon’s Adventure Coast — draws thousands of visitors a year by concentrating the most powerful elements of Oregon Coast winter wave watching into one unique, all-encompassing experience. Here’s what you need to know about what make great swells and how to watch them safely.
Mother Nature on Full Display
Swells can happen any time the surf is high, and can be dramatic on a wintery, stormy day. Adan Jones, former park manager for Oregon State Parks’ Sunset Bay region, notes that winter swells in the area average about 30 feet, but record swells have been several times that height. The Sunset Bay region includes Shore Acres and Cape Arago state parks, two of the Oregon Coast’s top spots for storm watching, both in the Adventure Coast area.
When swells created out in the ocean hit the 80-foot sandstone cliffs near Shore Acres, they can create a spray high enough to soak those watching from the trails above. They also create a booming cacophony that Jones compares to the sound of artillery fire. “I love summertime, but storm season in this park is one of my favorite seasons to be here,” Jones says. “There’s really nothing in the world that’s quite like it: It’s intense, it’s majestic, it’s violent … it’s Mother Nature on full display.”
Jones says his parks typically get belted by storms from November through March. And November through January, unusually high tidal swings called king tides can send waves crashing into the uniquely situated sandstone cliffs with a force that observers can feel from many yards away.
They can also be a multiday affair. Jones notes that often, when storms hit, and especially during king tides, the day before and after the storm offer impressive ocean displays at high tide — even on a sunny day. However, if you want to come out in full rain gear during a storm to safely watch the spectacle while the gales bluster and the rains fall horizontally, Jones says the wild ocean doesn’t disappoint. “It’s a special place and I can’t say it enough,” he says. “I get to work here and look out the window and see the ocean, and I’m still enamored by it.”
5 Tips for the Best Experience
If you’re thinking about bundling up and heading to Oregon’s Adventure Coast for some winter wave watching this year, do so with the following tips from Jones in mind:
1. Stick to the pavement.
In Jones’ view, one of the best spots to watch swells is just beyond the parking lot at Shore Acres State Park. Take the paved trail from the right-hand side of the parking lot, go past the old tennis courts and walk all the way out to the overlook point. It makes for some great photos, but be warned: The spray gets everywhere. “When we have ideal high tides that create some of those really great waves, you’re going to get wet,” Jones says, but isn’t that part of the fun?
Other great nearby spots include the overlook at Bastendorff Beach County Park (not on the beach or the beach parking area), Cape Arago State Park (from the observation area and south cove overlook) and Simpson Reef/Shell Island overlook. Never turn your back to the ocean and beware of dangerous sneaker waves, which can come up unexpectedly.
2. Keep it positive.
For insider tips, follow the Oregon’s Adventure Coast Facebook page for high surf warnings and good storm watching info. You’ll want to check a tide table before you head out, but you don’t have to be a boater or surfer to know when the most tasty waves will roll in. Tide tables will have a minus sign (-) in front of one number and a plus sign (+) in front of the other. Any time of day that falls into the plus side will help you; a +8 on the tide table means that ocean levels are 8 feet above normal. Add 20 to 30 feet of storm swells to that, and you’re looking at an impressive wall of water. Finally, watch those tables for small-craft advisories — if it’s too rough for the boats, it’s just right for storm watching.
3. Forget the phones.
Jones warns that there’s no cell-phone coverage at the parks, so unless you’re using your phone as your go-to camera, it won’t do you much good. Do all your research ahead of time, wait to Insta post from the warm comfort of your hotel room and, if all else fails, ask the rangers: They have your back. “As rangers, we protect the people from the park, the park from the people and the people from the people,” Jones says.
4. Watch the rocks, too.
Yes, you’re there for the booming waves, frothy seas and explosive spray, but it’s worth checking out those cliffs the waves are pummeling (from afar). The sandstone cliffs are teeming with concretions — hard, round masses of sedimentary rock carried by groundwater. They stick out of the cliff faces and look like dinosaur fossils or eggs, turtle eggs or shells. “It makes the landscape look kind of alien in a way,” Jones says.
5. Stick around.
Once the storms subside, there’s still plenty to see along this stretch of coastline. Bald eagles are plentiful; elephant seals and California harbor seals bask on Simpson Reef between Shore Acres and Cape Arago; and the vast tide pools host crabs, sea stars, anemone and other creatures. That’s before you even get to the whales: Resident gray whales regularly surface between the reef and Cape Arago, while 22,000 whales migrate to Mexico during the winter.
If You Go:
Always call ahead to check for park closures or restrictions. Oregon State Parks is open for RV and tent campers — check the Lodging page for the latest openings and to make reservations.
If you’d rather weather the storm from the cozy indoors, the hotels and restaurants of Oregon’s Adventure Coast are open for business. Look for great rooms near Shore Acres at hotels including Coos Bay’s Edgewater Inn and Best Western Holiday Hotel and North Bend’s Itty Bitty Inn and The Mill Casino • Hotel & RV Park.
With a nice, warm base of operations, you can sample some of the best chowder in the area at spots like Captain’s Choice Fish House in North Bend, Fisherman’s Grotto in Charleston and Blue Heron Bistro in Coos Bay. While Jones admits he doesn’t stray from his post on the Coast all that often, he highly recommends the calamari and fish tacos at Shark Bites Cafe in Coos Bay.
Find lots more lodging and dining options in the area, or visit the Coos Bay Visitor Information Center downtown to meet the friendly and knowledgeable staff and make your visit complete.