The Central Coast

Thursday, Aug 2 - Sunday, August 5, 2007
Florence, Oregon

Usually Travel Days are simply a means of getting the camper from point A to point B. During our New England trip last fall, we took scenic routes a few times with the camper under tow, and lived to regret it. The additional cost in gas, and the sheer hassle of pulling a 30 foot trailer through a bunch of small towns and bad roads rapidly outweighed the scenic value of such trips. So for the most part, we’ve opted for the easiest route when we’re pulling the camper, and look for our scenic opportunities when the truck is untethered.

Every once in a while ‘the easiest route’ and ‘the scenic route’ are one and the same. This happy state of affairs occurred on our move up the Oregon Coast. The southern Oregon coastline is nothing short of spectacular, and US Hwy 101 makes the best of it. We pulled out of Brookings with no real plan – for once, we figured we would just completely wing it and see where we wound up. As the day stretched into late afternoon, we pulled into a likely looking State Park hoping to find a campsite. Alas, it was full, but we were pointed towards a series of National Forest Campgrounds that we had passed a few miles south.

We’re rapidly becoming big fans of National Forest campgrounds, at least those here out west. The campground we found, Alder Dunes outside of Florence, Oregon, was simply wonderful. The campsites are wooded, spaced far apart for privacy (a welcome change from private campgrounds), have nice fire rings that aren’t within feet of your camper and are well maintained.

It was a welcome respite from the ¼ mile off the interstate KOA’s that we’ve stayed in many times on this trip. For whatever reason, when we are in a National Park or National Forest campground, Vance doesn’t bemoan the lack of amenities (store, playground, etc….) that he will when camped at a private campground that doesn’t meet his exacting standards! We’ve found that if we are conservative with our use of electricity and water when ‘boondocking’ (i.e. camping without hookups), we can stretch things out 4-5 days. After that, we have full tanks and dead batteries, and it’s time to move to the next campground.

Driving back into Florence to ‘check things out’ the first evening, what we found was another town like Brookings – a series of strip malls lining Hwy 101. Discouraged a bit in our search for a likely looking dinner option, Denise spotted a sign pointing to ‘Old Town’. There, our perception of Florence changed immediately, as we found ourselves in a charming little waterfront village, facing a dock full of fishing vessels and seafood restaurants. It’s going to be hard to go back to frozen seafood after eating all of this wonderful freshly caught stuff for the past couple of months.

Honeyman State Park

The coastline takes on a different character around Florence, as the town is surrounded by the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. The dunes stretch for 40 miles from Florence to Coos Bay in the south. It’s a big area for ATVs, and also for our new favorite sport, Sandboarding!

Yes, sandboarding – think snowboarding, but with sand. Honeyman State Park had received glowing reviews from several sources we had read, so with it just south of Florence, we decided to check it out. The park is centered around a lake, with a series of large dunes on one side. Vance wanted to try one of the paddle boats – one of those contraptions that you pedal. After a tiring hour peddling seemingly against the wind regardless of what direction we turned, we drove around the lake to watch some of the sandboarders in action.

Too cool, we had to try it ourselves. There are multiple locations in Florence to rent the boards, so off I went. I elected to rent what I call a ‘butt board’ – slightly wider than the stand up boards (which look very similar to snowboards). Vance tends to lose confidence rapidly with things that require balancing skills, and I felt like he’d be more accepting of something that you wiped out at ground level, rather than falling down.

Armed with the ‘butt board’, we climbed the big dune and gave it a try. It took a while for us to get the hang of it. First, the board requires waxing prior to each trip down. The shop gave me wax, but I was under the impression it only needed waxing at the beginning. Once I caught on (largely by watching others) that a few quick strokes prior to a slide would do the trick, we immediately started having fun. The other trick was staying on the thing. The board tended to rotate under you (basically, you sit on the back of it when sliding downhill), and at the speeds you were going, it was very difficult to stay on top of the thing. After more than a few spectacular (and sandy) wipeouts, I finally figured out that instead of holding onto the board for dear life, it worked much better to just lightly drag your fingertips in the sand on the sides. This allowed a way to steer the board, although it did make for an exciting ride down the steepest part of the dune as you bounced down without holding on!

Needless to say, we got quite a workout climbing up that dune all afternoon long. Even Denise joined in the fun, and proved to be a natural butt board rider. Vance got comfortable climbing to the top of the dune, and coming down the hill at breakneck speeds. We were a tired but happy bunch when we finally left, coated from head to toe with sand particles. This was a slight problem, as we had no shower at our campground. Fortunately, we were able to shower off at the State Park campground, so a gritty dilemma was avoided!

Cape Perpetua

Denise wanted to see tidepools. Fortunately, nearby Cape Perpetua has tidepools galore. At the base of the Cape, the rocky volcanic shoreline traps enough of the outgoing tide to provide a temporary home for numerous sea creatures. We joined a ranger led walk to the pools (provided by the Forest Service, who runs the Cape Perpetua Nature Center). After a scramble over the rocks, we were rewarded by a vast number of colorful sea stars, sea anemones, sea urchins, barnacles, mussels, etc….. The Sea Stars are particularly interesting, as they will pry apart an unfortunate mussel. Once successful, they will disgorge their stomach around the mussel to digest it, all while hanging on the side of the rocks.

To our surprise, the times of high and low tides shifted about an hour later each day. Fortunately, tide tables are readily available at most of the parks. Low tide of course is the best time to explore tidepools. One rule we learned was to never turn our backs on the ocean – every year several individuals lose their lives on the coast due to sneaker waves. Sneaker waves are large, unexpected waves that rush up on the beach, catching people off guard. You also must exercise care to avoid being trapped against the bluffs by a rising tide.

Just down from the tidepools was a ‘blow hole’ called the Spouting Horn. When the wave action was just right, the water pressure will cause a column of water vapor to shoot upwards, creating an ‘ocean geyser’. They can also be quite noisy. We had a great time trying to guess when the waves would create the right conditions for the spout to occur.

Heceta Head Lighthouse

If you had to pick one section of Hwy 101 as the epitome of the Oregon Coastline, the Heceta Head area would probably be it. After a long inland stretch as Hwy 101 passes through the dunes, the road dramatically returns to the coast with a climb up to Sea Lion Caves. From there a series of overlooks provide an unbelievable view of the Heceta Head Lighthouse. Not content, the road then passes through a tunnel, emerging directly onto a high, narrow bridge. All of this is surrounded by the lush evergreen forests, and plunging cliffs down to the water’s edge. It is quite a sight.

The lighthouse is one of the most photographed landmarks on the entire Oregon Coast. We stopped in hoping to take one of the tours of the historic lighthouse. When we reached the trailhead to the lighthouse, I was discouraged to see that tours were limited to 4 people at a time. Standing next to a large parking lot full of cars, I was expecting a wait of hours. However, the steep ½ mile walk up to the lighthouse was to our advantage. Like most places, if folks have to venture too far past their cars, they won’t do it. We reached the lighthouse, and after a short 15 min wait we were in.

The tour was interesting – first, the tour size is limited because of structural weaknesses in the lighthouse staircase. The guide discussed what life was like for the lighthouse keepers and their families. We also got to see up close the 1st order Fresnel lens used to cast the light 21 miles out to sea (limited by the curvature of the earth). An interesting fact we learned was that the lights weren’t only used for indicating navigational dangers. Each lighthouse on the coast has a distinct pattern of flashes. For example, one lighthouse might be white, white, red, while another is red, white, red. By determining the angle between flashes of multiple lighthouses, a ship at sea could determine its location using simple trigonometry.

Back at the campground, we settled in around a nice fire, and Vance happily roasted marshmallows for S’mores. We enjoyed our central coast visit so much that we extended our stay in the area for an extra day.

Sea Lion Cave

Sea Lion Cave is the largest sea cave in the world. It is also home to a large herd of Stellar Sea Lions. Although most of the sea lions had migrated elsewhere at the time of our visit, there were still several in the cave. The attraction offers an elevator ride down into the cave, where you can watch the sea lions and birds up close. Outside of the cave, there were more sea lions on a rock below one of the roadside vista points, and you didn’t have to pay to see them! Never-the-less, the sea cave is fun to visit, and I wanted Vance to see it, even though it can get rather crowded with tourists.

Vance: I enjoyed central Oregon a lot. I had the most fun at Honeyman SP. One neat activity was the paddleboat. It turned with a lever, but you peddled like a bicycle to move it. Dad and I paddled from one end of the lake to the other. It was fun, though hard.

Next we enjoyed the sport of sand boarding. Some of the boards are like snow boards and the others you sit on. Dad rented a sit down board. Even though we got sandy, we still had a huge amount of fun.


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