: Manuela Durson

Top Tips for Storm Watching on Oregon’s Southern Coast

January 5, 2021

Editor’s note: Call destinations before you visit to make sure they’re open. Stay posted on what Oregon’s new COVID-19 guidelines mean for you, and follow these steps for social distancing outdoors. Also, remember to bring your face covering, required for all of Oregon’s public indoor spaces and outdoors when keeping 6 feet of distance isn’t possible. Here’s what to know about Oregon’s outdoors right now.

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, Charleston and North Bend in particular, a rainy 40-degree day means high swells, waves thundering into sandstone, ocean spray and days of storm watching.

This rugged stretch of coastline — affectionately nicknamed Oregon’s Adventure Coast — draws thousands of visitors a year by concentrating the most powerful elements of Oregon Coast storm watching into one unique, all-encompassing experience. Here’s what you need to know about what makes a great storm and how to watch it safely. 

When swells hit the 80-foot sandstone cliffs at Shore Acres State Park, they create a spray high enough to soak those watching from the trails above. (Photo by Steven Michael)

Mother Nature on Full Display

Adan Jones, 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. His 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 those swells hit the 80-foot sandstone cliffs near Shore Acres, they 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 tides send waves crashing into 40- to 45-degree sandstone with a force that storm watchers can feel from yards away. Those tides, known as king tides, occur when the Earth and moon are at their closest point and gravity has its way with sea levels.

They can also be a multiday affair. Jones notes that when storms hit, and especially during king tides, the day before and after the storm offer impressive ocean displays at high tide. However, if you want to come out in full rain gear on the day of a storm to safely watch the spectacle while the gales bluster and the rains fall horizontally, Jones says it 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.”

While watching high tides, always keep your eyes peeled on the ocean and beware of dangerous sneaker waves, which can come up unexpectedly. (Photo by Manuela Durson)

5 Tips for the Best Experience

If you’re thinking about bundling up, slapping on the rain gear and heading to Oregon’s Adventure Coast for some storm 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 for storm watching 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. 

Rangers advise safely taking a few photos if you like but saving the Insta posts for the warm comfort of your hotel room. Be mindful in the moment and appreciate the connection with nature. (Photo by Manuela Durso)

2. Keep it positive.

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, as +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.

 

After exploring the sights, like these tidepools at Shore Acres, warm up with a bowl of fresh chowder nearby in Coos Bay, North Bend or Charleston and feel good supporting local businesses. (Photo by Allison Richards)

If You Go:

This year options for camping along the Coast are limited due to park closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some Oregon State Parks are open for RV and tent campers — check in 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, and many offer fantastic views. Look for discounts at hotels including Coos Bay’s Edgewater Inn and Best Western Holiday Hotel and North Bend’s Itty Bitty Inn and The Mill Casino. With a nice, warm base of operations, you can sample some of the best chowder along the Oregon Coast 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. 

About The
Author

Jason Notte
Jason Notte is a longtime journalist based in unincorporated Washington County. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Entrepreneur Magazine, Oregon Business, Portland Monthly and the Portland Business Journal.

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