Sandy beaches? Check.
Rugged coastline? Check.
Abundant wildlife? Check.
Rolling, crashing, stupendous waves? Check.
Whatever you are looking for in the way of “ocean-front experiences,” the 101 coastline has it all!
Though we strolled along many sandy beaches on our way up the 101, there were two that were quite spectacular and unique. The first we visited after following the advice of several folks at a church we attended in Redway, California. We were told that Shelter Cove had a beautiful black sand beach and the best fish and chips around. Well, who could pass up that recommendation?
There is only ONE road going into Shelter Cove and that is Briceland Thorn Rd which eventually becomes Shelter Cove Rd. We were warned that it is a challenging drive, not suitable for campers or trailers, but like one person commented, “No guts, no glory, right?” There are several hairpin curves, narrow sections, and wondrous views of the King Range National Conservation Area. It is an exhilarating trip full of stunning vistas, but a word to the wise,….the “driver” needs his/her full attention on the road, so as the passenger, it would be prudent to refrain from exclaiming, “WOW! LOOK AT THAT!” too many times. After an hour’s drive, we arrived at the Shelter Cove RV Campground where we had a delicious lunch of their world famous fish and chips out on the enclosed patio. Since it was January, there were few customers, but when summer is in full swing, this is a happening place. Shelter Cove is a very secluded resort coastal town. There are only 3 ways in—by land (ONE road in), sea, or air (yes, the town has a little airstrip). There are tons of rental vacation houses/rooms, small motels, and a campground. (Though we did wonder how on earth some of those folks got an rv into the campground,….maybe by boat?) There are several eateries, a general store, the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, and lots of activities, such as, boating, fishing, hiking, sea life watching, and beach combing.
Ahhh, yes, the beach, the main reason we made that trek over the mountain to get here. Located at the north end of Shelter Cove is Black Sands Beach, a 3.5-mile stretch of coastline comprised of black volcanic-rock sand. We’ve dug our toes into the sugar white sand of the Emerald Coast in Florida, the tan sand of the Atlantic coast, but never had we seen BLACK sand! It was incredible! Black Sands Beach is a great day use area with lots of coves and miles of coastline for exploring. It is also an access point for the Lost Coast Trail, which takes backpackers to remote camping and wilderness spots in the King Range National Conservation Area. To reach the parking area, turn right onto Beach Rd from Shelter Cove Rd. Follow Beach Rd to the Black Sands Beach parking lot where you will find restrooms, interpretive signs, and the trailhead to the beach. Grab your camera, descend the trail to the beach, and enjoy! Do take note of incoming tides and sneaker waves, especially if you visit during the winter when storms are frequent.
Our second Sandy Beach excursion was to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. This 40-mile stretch of undulating sand dunes reaches from Florence to Coos Bay, Oregon. The Oregon Dunes is a year-round playground for countless activities such as hiking, OHV, bird watching, camping, fishing, horseback riding, bicycling, picnicking, and water sports. There truly IS something for everyone.
We did a little hiking the day we visited, first stopping at the beach to feel the full effects of a January Pacific wind and then we settled on a hike through the dunes. It was amazing how some of the dunes had such soft, shifting sand making it extremely difficult to walk on, while others were so hard-packed, it was as if we were on a cement sidewalk. And then the views! Just absolutely stunning!
There are numerous pull-outs along the 101 that offer spectacular views of the rugged Pacific coastline, but few can compete with Cape Perpetua Scenic Area along the Oregon coast in the Siuslaw National Forest. Located 3 miles south of Yachats and right on the 101, Cape Perpetua is rich with tidepools, crashing surf, thick forests, and towering cliffs. It is an easy exit off the 101 with ample parking and even a few spots past the visitor center for rv parking! There is a $5 per vehicle day use fee or FREE if you have an America the Beautiful pass. The visitor center has a fabulous view of the ocean and coastline plus loads of information including maps, displays, short movies, and a gift shop. Ranger-led programs and hikes occur during the summer months and staff members are available anytime of the year to answer questions and help you plan your day.
A short, easy hike from the visitor center and through a tunnel under the 101 takes you right to the shore where you can witness the power of the sea as it crashes and rolls over the rocky coast. In 2-3 miles of walking you can visit all the main attractions, Spouting Horn, Devil’s Churn, and Thor’s Well. As always when visiting the coast, NEVER turn your back on the ocean. Sneaker waves can catch you off-guard, riptides can carry you away, and incoming tides can leave you stranded. It is a beautifully dangerous and wild place.
Spouting Horn is a natural salt water fountain driven by the incoming waves best viewed during high tide and winter storms. As waves enter the inlet, the water is forced into an underwater cave and up through a hole in the roof creating a spout. If you are patient, it is well worth the wait to see the fountain spray. The way the waters rolled and foamed as they made their way down the inlet reminded us of the scene from Lord of the Rings when Arwen called up the waters to drown the Ringwraiths. (I know, we’re a little geeky). The Devil’s Churn is another area that offers outstanding views of the power and might of the ocean waves as they crash against the rugged shore.
But the attraction I wanted to see most and walked right past 2 or 3 times, then had to double back during a hailstorm was Thor’s Well. Thor’s Well is a collapsed sea cave that forms a 360 degree waterfall when the waves roll in. Besides having a super cool name, Thor’s Well is awesome, spectacular, fabulous, breathtaking, etc., etc., etc. And being able to view it during peak winter storm season made it all the more fantastic. To photograph Thor’s Well is risky, to say the least. According to the park ranger, there have been several people who have been sucked into Thor’s Well and didn’t survive. In spite of all the warnings issued, there are still folks who continue to risk their own lives as well as the lives of search and rescue people as they stand on the precipice of Thor’s Well trying to capture that perfect shot. It is tempting, I admit, but it is best viewed from afar and with a telephoto lens.
Visitors are free to walk over the rocks and look at the tidepools, but caution should be taken as the rocks are very slippery. It was helpful to have our trekking poles to help keep our balance. We could have spent all day exploring the coast, breathing in the salt air, watching the power and might of the crashing waves, or hiking the trails that meander east into the Siuslaw National Forest, but the clock was ticking and we needed to stay on schedule.
Harbor seals, sea lions, elephant seals, whales; a myriad of birds, such as pelicans, seagulls, snowy plover, cormorants, puffins, sandpipers, bald eagles; and tidepool critters like hermit crabs, sea stars, anemones, mussels, and snails—the Pacific coast explodes with wildlife. Practically every beach has abundant viewing of marine life, but there are several protected areas you can visit for optimum photo ops. Some that we enjoyed were: the tidepools at Montana de Oro State Park in California, Cape Perpetua Scenic Area in Oregon, and Ruby Beach in Washington State; sea mammal sights at Morro Bay and Seal Rock in Shelter Cove, California, and Cape Arago State Park, Oregon; and birds EVERYWHERE, but our favorite spots were Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Flattery, Washington State, Fort Stevens State Park, Oregon, and Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, California.
Rolling, crashing, stupendous waves
If it’s a churning, boiling, rolling ocean you want, January is the best time to travel along the Pacific coast. Winter storms provide the catalyst for some magnificent crashing waves and amazing cloud formations. If you want to feel the full brunt of the wind, you better bundle up. Chances are you won’t get caught in a blizzard, but it does get nippy.
The Pacific coastline is an ever-changing canvas on which God displays His awesome power and creativity. Light and shadow, color and texture, tranquility and repose, turbulence and torment,….it is truly a land of contrasts and unparalleled beauty.