YACHATS, Ore. — The Oregon coast’s most ardent admirers divide their time into two categories: the days they spend on the coast, and the days they spend wishing they were there.
Those enthusiasts know that, to have the coast’s beaches, wildlife and rocky promontories all to themselves, the best time to go is in winter. And some say the most immersive way to experience it is by camping.
Almost all of Oregon’s coastal state parks are open throughout the year, and while their offerings are scaled back in the winter months, they try to continue providing the mix of recreation and amenities that make them some of the best in the Northwest.
In the state’s most popular campgrounds, spots can be hard to find in summer, and some are booked months in advance. In winter? Not so much, especially on weekdays. Even better: Campgrounds offer “Discovery Season” discounts Oct. 1-April 30, with $4 off nightly campsite rentals and steeper discounts for yurts and cabins.
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Tent, or something drier?
If you want nothing more than a thin nylon sheet between you and winter’s pounding rains, fierce winds and freezing nights, many state-park campgrounds keep tent sites available all year. But there are also weatherproof yurts and cabins, and campgrounds usually have indoor restrooms with hot showers.
Or, in many ways, winter belongs to the RV camper.
In winter, lighter traffic along historic Highway 101 means contending with fewer angry car drivers behind a slower rig. Rather than the squeals of children, campgrounds are filled with the sound of wind rustling in the tree leaves or waves pounding on a nearby beach.
This winter, Judy and George Buckingham are splitting their time between aiding campers as volunteer hosts at Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park and giving tours at nearby Heceta Head Lighthouse, one of the central coast’s landmarks. He recently retired from the National Park Service, where he last worked at Crater Lake National Park.
The couple has always spent days on the coast whenever they could. Now they can be here for weeks at a time. “We love being here in the winter. The waves are spectacular, and the campgrounds are almost deserted,” Judy Buckingham said, chatting outside the cozy trailer a friend lent them for the winter. “We used to come every single winter because I wanted to see the whales and the waves and get away from the snow.”
In winter, low clouds often lie over the landscape like a soft gray blanket. Waves, larger than in summer, pound black volcanic rocks and broad beaches. Storms lash the coastline. Every few days, the sun breaks through, clearing through the clouds and warming the sand.
The coast is not entirely empty of human life, and towns do their best to lure visitors during the slow season. The Seaside Jazz Festival, for example, is Feb. 20-22. Brookings has the Art and Chocolate Festival on Valentine’s Day weekend, and the next weekend, Newport hosts its annual Seafood & Wine Festival. Tourist-oriented towns such as Astoria, Cannon Beach and Lincoln City have something special going on almost every winter weekend.
And then there are the whales: Winter whale-watching season is at its height from mid-December through January. Migrating whales will be headed back to Alaska by mid-March, and some parks, towns and other areas have special activities for spring Whale Watching Week, March 21-28 this year.
Seattle-based freelancer Christy Karras regularly visits family on Oregon’s coast.