Although we usually associate summer with lingering sunsets over the ocean, winter just might be the best time of year to see them on the Oregon Coast. When the king tides recede and seasonal storms come and go, the conditions are often just right for a spectacular display at dusk. Here’s where you can enjoy them, and the lowdown on the science behind winter sunsets.
The Science of Winter Sunsets
Colby Neuman, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Portland weather forecast office, says a few factors explain epic sunsets along the Oregon Coast. For starters, wind tends to originate onshore in winter and blow outward to sea; it’s the other way around in summer. This wind pattern — particularly notable on the North Coast — carries the ocean spray and pushes cold air higher into the atmosphere in winter, making it harder for clouds to form in the evening. Clearer skies on the horizon means better sunsets.
When storms are brooding on the horizon, they signal their impending arrival by creating thin, wispy clouds high in the sky — clouds that turn brilliant shades of pink, purple and orange when the sun shines on them while setting. Those clouds enable particularly “nice sunsets when it’s clear on the horizon, because they tend to light up,” Neuman says.
Compare those weather patterns to those in summer, when winds blow in instead of out from the ocean, and sea spray and aerosols create a thin layer of haze just above the horizon. In addition, routine ridges of high pressure push clouds toward the earth’s surface, usually within a couple thousand feet of the ocean, breaking up what would be an otherwise sweeping view.
Watch the Show on the North and Central Coast
The good news is you can watch the sun set in winter just about anywhere with a beach view — just remember to keep in mind beach safety. Beach goers and frequent visitors love these special spots.
The wintertime crowds in Cannon Beach are far smaller than in summer, so you’ll have plenty of room to stretch out at Tolovana Beach State Recreation Site and watch the sunset behind the silhouette of Haystack Rock. Because you’re so close to the shore here, one special sunset effect is especially pronounced. When the sun is just above the surface, right before it officially sets, towering ocean waves can blot out the sun entirely for the briefest of moments — almost like a flashlight turning off and on again. This effect darkens the entire coastline for a split second and creates an eerie kind of dusk before the real thing kicks in minutes later.
Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site — sandwiched between Pacific City and Lincoln City on the Central Coast — offers a dose of solitude in winter, so it’ll feel as if you’ll have that night’s sunset all to yourself. And if you time your visit to low tide, you may enjoy the view while walking among roughly 100 partially submerged Sitka spruce stumps collectively known as the Neskowin Ghost Forest.
At the rugged outcropping of Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint, north of Florence, take in the nightly light show from the sands at Cape Cove, a quick mile-long out-and-back hike ringed by forested bluffs. Or take a short hike up to Heceta Head Lighthouse, where you can watch the sun bathe the ocean in hues of pink, purple, orange and yellow from more than 100 feet above the water.
Enjoy Sea Stack Sunsets on the South Coast
On the South Coast, there’s a park that’s actually named after sunsets. Framed by tall conifer-lined cliffs, the horizon at Sunset Bay State Park creates the perfect backdrop for dazzling displays. Farther along the Cape Arago Beach Loop, Shore Acres State Park and the Simpson Reef Overlook sit high above the waves crashing below and offer unimpeded views. Notice the way the ancient cliffs in these places jut out on a diagonal from the sea’s surface — this creates even more dramatic wave action for the perfect sunset action shot.
Watch the sun set behind sea stacks in Bandon at Coquille Point, part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Here, you have two options after spending the afternoon tide pooling or spotting puffins on the rocks: Either watch from high above or take the staircase down to the shore for another perspective. Just to the south, the massive offshore rock formations at Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint add even more beauty to the breathtaking light at sunset.