Location: 13 miles south of the intersection of Highway 101 and the Cape Arago Highway in Coos Bay / North Bend.
Sunset Bay Park Office (541) 888-2472.
Cape Arago State Park Office (541) 888-3778
Shore Acres State Park Office (541) 888-3732
The stretch of coastline along the Cape Arago Highway south of Charleston is one of those amazing places on the Oregon coast where Nature, Science, Culture and History all come together in one beautiful place. Oh, yes. And fun, too.
The day I visited, I was dropped off by my father at Cape Arago on a grassy meadow overlooking South Cove, where there is a plaque dedicated to Sir Francis Drake, who is supposed to have first sighted land in North America sailing the Golden Hind. He wrote that he took shelter from Gale winds in a “bad bay,” and that he had to peer through “vile thicke and stinking fogges” in order to see the shore.
That afternoon, Cape Arago was also shrouded in fog, and there was enough wind off shore to make the sea churn and break. Though the sea and sky were grey it was somber and beautiful still in that greyness.
I’d been told by an old fisherman once that if the tide was low enough, you could walk all the way from South Cove to Whiskey Run, five miles due south over the Seven Devils ridges.
South Cove is the best place after Sunset Bay for exploring tide pools, but it is recommended to not touch or otherwise bother the intertidal plants and animals. Tide pools are protected by the Oregon department of fish and wildlife here.
The Park recommends that visitors always keep one eye on the ocean, bring their binoculars, expect to get wet (so wear appropriate clothing) and stay on marked trials. Many bluffs and headlands are unstable.
As I read the plaque to Sir Francis, I could hear the barking of sea lions borne shoreward on the wind, which I had at first mistaken for a crowd of noisy tourists.
I walked to the other side of the parking lot through the day-use area and went north along the bluffs. Five miles of trials meander through the forest and along sand stone bluffs between Cape Arago and Sunset Bay. Sea Lions and seals are just about as numerous as tourists, and though you won’t find them on the trail, you may hear them barking from the rocks and beaches of Simpson Reef, and you’ll see them swimming and laying in the sand of Shell Island. You’ll often see Osprey, cormorants, Pelicans and Seagulls wings spread upon the wind.
Hikers can either keep to the main arterial trail that runs through the forest north from Cape Arago to Sunset Beach, or they can chose one of the many paths that lead out to the high bluffs overlooking the sea. These trails are flat, easy hikes. I chose the high bluffs, and the wind was whipping over the cliffs and in through the trees. I had to turn my hat around so the wind would not catch the brim and take it away. You could feel the power of the Pacific thundering beneath you. There were benches for resting all along the trail, some dedicated to loved ones long gone, and others just dedicated to resting. On a headland that curved south west from the overlook at Shore Acres, I took several grey, windy photographs hanging onto my hat. When the wind became bothersome, I followed the trial into the still of the woods and came out on the back side of Shore Acres, which opened into a parkland and a beautiful garden that gave an impression of calm, geometrically proportioned harmony in contrast to the wild chaos of sandstone bluffs and woods.
Share Acres began as the private estate of pioneer timber baron, Lois J. Simpson, who sold it to the state of Oregon in 1942 after a spate of bad economic times.
The park now consists of two main parts; the botanical gardens and the overlook on the bluffs above the sea.
Shore Acres / Gardens
The botanical part of Shore Acres consists of rose gardens, an Oriental garden and a formal garden where Spring bulbs and daffodils bloom from late February through March – Rhododendrons and Azaleas from April through May – Annuals / Perennials from May through September, Rose bushes from June through September and Dahlias from August through Oct.
From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, an excellent Christmas lights display rivalling anything else in the state lights up the forest and gardens with LED lighted depictions of plants and animals native to the Oregon coast. It’s an amazing sight to see.
Shore Acres / Overlook
It’s only a short walk from the gardens to a stone wall enclosure at the overlook, where you can watch waves swell and break apart on sandstone bulkheads below. This is where the Simpson Mansion once stood. On stormy days waves explode on the rocks in massive detonations that you can feel in your feet. There are many tables for picnics and a large open space back of the overlook.
The park is open every day from 8 a.m. to dusk. A daily vehicle parking fee is charged. Annual day-use permits are available for purchase. An Oregon Pacific Coast Passport or a camping receipt from Sunset Bay State Park or any other Oregon state park campground are accepted as a daily permit. No animals are permitted outside of vehicles, with the exception of service animals.
I left the overlook, and a little ways through the trees to the north, I came upon an old tennis court Simpson had once built. It seemed kind of odd and funny, and yet admirable. Tennis out here in the wind and mist.
I took the trail back north until I came to a highland overlooking Sunset Bay, which appeared like a quarter moon around green water below my feet. Following the trail down the bluff, I came to the footbridge over Big Creek. Lush lawns and volleyball nets stood in the open near the camp ground. Sunset Bay state park is a good choice for a base camp for those who are in the area. It has every amenity, biking trails through the camp grounds, firewood, garbage cans, phones, showers, fish cleaning stations, and 100 spots for camping.
The tide pooling here is probably the best and safest of all three locations on the cape.
As I waited for my father to pick me up, I tried to think of a way to describe the beauty of this part of the coast, without using words used by so many others so often, words like spectacular, magnificent, grand, and so on. None of those words seem to really capture what it is like. The sky and ocean are always changing. The bluffs are slowly dissolving away. You just have to go there and see it.