Story and Photos by Cheryl L. Hosman Dieter
am in the Big Foot country of Northern California, heading toward the southern Oregon coast. Like many Americans who are COVID weary and tired of staring at the same four walls, I will spend this summer vacation exploring a bit closer to home.
We chose to head north on U.S. 101, passing the ocean and forests galore, letting the natural beauty of these two states fill our sense-starved souls. As it turns out, one of the best places to experience spiritual renewal is the redwood forests. I discover this as I travel through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, a pristine forest that contains 7 percent of the old-growth trees left in the world.
As I round a bend, out of the corner of my eye, I spot something huge moving in the dense shade of the redwoods. I throw my car in reverse, grab my camera and abandon the car in search of Sasquatch. Heading into the forest on high alert and determined to capture the elusive creature, I am stopped short when just ahead I see a dog cavorting in the sunlight, sending immense shadows projecting up toward the canopy and, like light hitting a diamond, his shadow is magnified as it bounces through the ancient grove. Disappointment floods me as I slowly make my way back to my ride without proof of its existence.
Crossing over the Oregon border, we soon enter the Chetco Valley … ocean on the left, fields of flowers on the right, and the city of Brookings beckoning in the distance. We forgo the city’s port to head to the park in order to stretch our legs. Azalea Park, located at 640 Old County Road, consists of 33 acres of ancient native azaleas that were growing back in 1805 when Lewis and Clark wintered in the area. Beautiful gardens and statues adorn the walkways throughout the park, while sand volleyball courts, exercise trails and a bandshell offer more activities for those who prefer a more active experience. In addition, the park’s “Kidtown” provides younger children a multitude of play areas, which consist of wooden towers and forts. Not to be missed is Capella by the Sea, built by Elmo Williams in memory of his beloved wife. Offering views of the Pacific Ocean and the Chetco River, this light-filled glass and stone chapel is used by both visitors and wedding parties alike.
Back at the port’s boardwalk, we discover quaint small shops (check out my favorite, Pithitude), a pier art gallery and businesses such as Brookings Fishing Charters, which offer sports fishing at its finest. A charter boat was pulling in and when I asked guests if anything had been caught, satisfied fishermen proudly held up many large snapper, lingcod, sea bass and king salmon. In fact, the port of Brookings is regarded as having the highest salmon catch rate on the entire coast. Also at the port, you can visit the Chetco Indian Memorial, an excellent small exhibit dedicated to preserving the history of the original inhabitants of the valley.
For history buffs, a scant 16 miles east of town lies the Mount Emily Bomb Site, the location of the first bombing of the continental U.S. by enemy aircraft.
On Sept. 9, 1942, a Japanese submarine off the coast launched a plane by catapult that dropped bombs on Wheeler Slope in hopes of weakening America’s war resolve. Here you will find a 2-mile interpretive hiking trail through redwoods and other native trees.
We headed back on the 101 on our way to the town of Gold Beach, where we spent the night. We stop at Harris Beach State Park where we find a pristine beach fitted with toe-squishing brown sugar sand and surfers riding the waves. The park offers day use as well as camping sites, with trails that lead to the ocean. Farther up the coast, Whaleshead Beach is named for the sea stack that looks like a whale’s head, which actually “spouts” when the waves break just right. And for hikers, there are numerous opportunities, with my favorite trail offering access to secluded China Beach.
The next day, Jerry’s Rogue Jets calls my name as I contemplate all the area has to offer. I book my tour on this historic mail boat route, which runs 32 miles upriver to deliver mail to the remote town of Agness. Within minutes of leaving the foggy port, we are under the blue skies of the Rogue River, where we saw the butt of a black bear, nesting bald eagles and osprey, seals and a family of river otters. Abundant wildlife, a superb educational history of the area and beautiful scenery were followed by a barbecue lunch, served at Cougar Lane Lodge. I had an absolute blast and highly recommend this boating adventure. Hint: Bring a jacket as you are sure to get wet as the jet boat captain spins the boat, throwing water onto the guests.
Roughly between Gold Beach and Bandon lies Floras Lake, where windsurfers and kiteboarders flock in the summer. Lessons, complete with wetsuits, are available through the school, as is equipment rental for those experienced in the sport. Boice Cope County Park and Campground and a KOA campground are also nearby.
Farther up the coast, we pull over, mesmerized by one of the most beautiful beach vistas in Oregon and then take a slight detour to the Cape Blanco Light Station and nearby Hughes House, both of which were unfortunately still closed because of the pandemic.
From this historic point, we set our sights on the port side town of Bandon … surely one of the cutest small towns along this stretch of coast, with magnificent views of the historic Coquille River Lighthouse and friendly folk who are more than happy to direct you to the best places this quaint town has to offer. Here you will find 10 blocks of shopping, dining and art contained within the city’s historic business district. Wooden sculptures dot the pier, while the Bandon Boardwalk Art Show lines the handrails. Favorite shop stops included Sweet Peas, offering up the cutest home goods to be found in southern Oregon, and Tony’s Crab Shack, home of tender fresh crab, luscious oysters and the best clam chowder around. Cranberry Sweets became a favorite, featuring the most delectable candies and cookies made from cranberries grown in the area. Make it a point to be in town the second weekend of September for the Cranberry Festival and plan on touring local farmers’ bogs during harvest time.
Bandon Marsh also offers several walking trails with small freshwater ponds and meadows. Here I saw up close and personal waterfowl such as wood ducks, the common merganser and the northern shoveler. More elusive critters include bobcat, mink and river otters. The National Wildlife Refuge system offers a trails index that lists hikes of differing degrees of difficulty available throughout the area.
For the die-hard golfer, this area of the coast can’t be beat. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort offers six different courses, most with ocean bluffs, meadows and rolling sand dunes; these wind-swept lands are reminiscent of the most rugged parts of Scotland. Best of all, after a workout on the links. world-class lodging awaits with a variety of options, including single accommodations along with four-bedroom cottages, while six very distinct restaurants are available for dining in or take-out.
If you are one of those seeking a more intense sporting vacation, just another 72 miles north of Bandon lies beaches too numerous to mention, the magnificent Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (ATV sand dune trails galore) and the town of Florence. It is here that you will find Sand Master Park, which contains the world’s first sandboard park located within the city limits. Majestic dunes take center stage as instructors provide expert guidance on how to ride the dunes safely. Groups receive discounts, and classes start at $45 per hour for singles. Also on hand are rentable sleds, surfboards and paddleboards. If it wasn’t for my already fractured knee, this girl would have been hitting the slopes with the best of them.
Our time to explore all that southern Oregon offers came to an end too soon and as we drove back down the coast, stopping at the numerous public beaches along the way, I reflect on all we have experienced and what I discover is this: While we often dream of traveling to exotic lands, often what we are in need of is closer to our hearts and our homes than we ever imagined.
For me, northern California and southern Oregon are the places that warm my heart and beg me to leave my worries behind.