December 5-7, 2014
We spent several days in the area around Coos Bay. The main area of the town is aligned along one side of Hwy 101 with the bay on the other side. We wandered through Mingus Park which is a beautiful park right in town with a lake, landscaped gardens and walking trails. They also have ball fields, playgrounds, a swimming pool, and an arboretum. Some lucky homeowners have houses that face onto the park so they can sit on their decks and see the beautiful plants, flowers, stream, bridges and lake.
What a great back yard. Not bad for townies. There were lots of empty store fronts when you get back away from the main streets. One park host told us Coos Bay had a much larger population until the lumber mills got all the wood they could out of the area and pulled out.
It is a beautiful area with the large bay and rocky coast. We stayed just south of Coos Bay along Cape Arago Highway. There is a string of three state parks there and we thoroughly enjoyed each one.
Sunset Bay State Park
The park includes a beautiful little cove with a long, shallow, sand beach (which we apparently didn’t take any pictures of). We read it is warmer to swim there (the Pacific is cold up here) and the arms of the cove shelter it from rough surf and ocean winds.
The campground is on the other side of the road and is tucked back in the woods with a little stream running through it. We read reviews before we went and found that Loop D has some nice long sites and a newer, nicer bathhouse so we found a “high and dry” campsite and stayed there.
The ranger and hosts were very helpful and it was a pretty little park.
We walked from the campground to the beach on the bay. This is the rainy season in Oregon and they are having “record” rainfall so we weren’t surprised that the under-the-road tunnel to the beach area was under water. We were not up for wading through cold, knee deep water and decided hoofing it down the road was better.
We wandered down through a beautiful picnic area sheltered in the pines and checked out the flooded volley ball courts on our way by. They were covered with inches of water and John commented that you would drown if you dove for the ball.
We walked a bit of the Pacific Coast Trail that runs all along the coast here and has awesome views of the ocean and shoreline. In fact, you can walk south on this trail for three miles and hit all the parks listed here. We wimped out and drove.
Shore Acres State Park
Next down the road is what used to be part of the estate of lumberman and ship builder, Louis J. Simpson. He had visited this area and fell in love with it. Over time, he purchased all the land along this section of the coast.
According to the signs at the park, he founded the town of North Bend. He gave a piece of waterfront land to any company that came in and supplied at least 50 jobs. Not a bad plan. He brought in the businesses. The businesses brought in the people. And a town was born.
Guess who they elected as Mayor?
The depression took the family’s wealth and the family’s private lands were either donated or sold to the state and turned into the parks written about here.
The three story mansion sitting on a rocky bluff on the ocean was destroyed years ago but the state built an enclosed observation building on the home site that has glass walls on three sides and is an awesome place to watch winter storms.
Looking north from this spot you can see the geology of the area. Great slabs of sandstone jut up out of the ocean where the tectonic plate was pushed up then eroded by the surf.
Going south, the trail passes Simpson Beach, a pretty little sand beach in a sheltered cove with two gurgling streams rolling down into it. You can picture the Simpson children (not Bart and Lisa) spending warm summer days playing on this perfect beach. What a great place to grow up.
While the views of the coast and coves are awesome, the main jewel at this park are the gardens. The state restored and replanted the formal gardens that were part of the Simpson estate. Not a lot was blooming when we were there but we were lucky enough to hit the park during the Holiday Lights event.
WOW. They have over 300,000 lights strung around the gardens.
We arrived late in the afternoon so we wandered the trails and checked out the beach, observation building and gift shop (good stuff), bought some hot cider and cookies and waited for the sun to go down. The night was warm and soft, the stars were out, and the garden glowed in a rainbow of colors. It was beautiful!
We especially loved the less formal Japanese garden. I could have settled onto a bench and gazed at the lights and people-watched for hours.
We bought little cardboard 3D glasses at the gift shop that make the lights look like reindeer, Santa, snowflakes etc. They are really cool and, even though I can’t figure out how they do it, I enjoyed looking through different ones as we wandered the gardens.
I think this shows how much John loves me. I’m wandering around looking through silly little cardboard glasses laughing and saying things like “Cool reindeer,” and he stayed right with me. Not once did he pretend he didn’t know me. That’s got to be love.
Anyway, we bought several pair of these things and plan to gift them to our granddaughter when we hit Maryland. We’ll have to go to a Holiday Lights event with her so we can get goofy and make people wonder what the heck is wrong with these people, wearing weird glasses and laughing about things only we can see.
I can hear it now – “Pssst. Henry, those people see reindeer. I don’t see no reindeer. I think they’re on drugs or something, having them there hallucinations cause there sure ain’t no reindeer here”.
If you visit during the holiday lights event, go early! We arrived to an almost empty lot around 2:00 on a Saturday but it got pretty crowded as the sun set. By the time we left, the parking lot was full, cars were stuck all over at the edge of the trees, and a line stretched out of the park as people waited to pay the $5.00 parking fee to get in. That per car fee is the only cost for this event. Since we have an annual pass for Oregon State Parks, we got in free.
The hot cider and cookies were on a donation basis. The really cool 3D glasses are only $2.00 a pair in the gift shop (you have to get some).
Simpson Reef and Shell Island
Just south of Shore Acres is a parking area with views off the coast. The offshore area is part of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Area and is FULL of critters. We saw California Sea Lions, Stellar Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Black Oystercatchers, Pelagic Cormorants and more. (No whales yet, still looking.) The sign says Northern Elephant Seals frequent this area but we didn’t see any of those either… at least not the huge males with the big nose flaps.
We first hit this spot at high tide and there were probably a hundred sea lions hauled up onto and draped over the rocks that showed above the water. We noticed one laid out flat trying to stick to the side of a steep rock. It looked like one of those wall crawler/splat toys. When we enlarged the shot we noticed a couple of little guys hanging out on the same rock, one up high and one down low.
We swung back to camp for our better binoculars and telephoto lens and headed back at lower tide. Another WOW! There were HUNDREDS of them out there. As more rocks were exposed, more seals and sea lions clambered on.
We picked up a brochure at the park and read all the signs at the parking area and learned a bit about the critters.
First, sea lions have ear flaps, seals don’t.
The California Sea Lions are chocolate brown when dry and they bark – a lot. You can hear them over a mile away. The other seals and sea lions pretty much only vocalize during mating season. The California Sea Lions we saw were probably mostly male. They breed down in California during the summer then the males migrate north. Some travel as far north as British Columbia. So the noisy crew we saw was basically a “boys club” barking and posturing and telling tall tales, no doubt.
Stellar Sea Lions (aka Northern Sea Lions) are the largest of the sea lions and are the blondies of the bunch. They are a light sandy brown when dry. They breed in Oregon, just not at this location. They are here to hang out on these great rocks. Male sea lions are 3 to 4 times larger than females. They can get to be over 10′ in length and weigh more than a ton. You do not want to get too close to these bad boys.
The Harbor Seals are easy to pick out. They are light to dark grey and look like inflated toys when they lay on the beaches. They are here year round and breed in this area so in the spring you can come and maybe see seal pups. No little seal babies now but lots of different animals to view and enjoy.
We could see “bands of color” across the beach – The dark California Sea Lions, the blonde Stellar Sea Lions and the grey Harbor Seals. It was pretty neat. We spent a good bit of time watching them swim, climb and maneuver on and around the rocks.
Cape Arago State Park
We moved on down to where the road ends at Cape Arago State Park. They have picnic tables and shelters and views both north and south along the coast. Some of the picnic tables are in little alcoves above the ocean with fantastic views. What a great place to picnic!
We hiked along the path to the north cove where we could see Simpson Reef and Shell Island in the distance. But that’s not the best part. The path ended at a fenced viewing platform with large rocks just below us that were covered in noisy sea lions. (So were you paying attention earlier? If they were noisy, what kind were they? No, I’m not giving the answer – go back and read it again).
On our left were rocks where dozens of Black Oystercatchers called out and “danced” with their bright red beaks bobbing to some nature beat that we couldn’t hear.
When we pulled our eyes away from the animal antics right in front of us, we spotted several “rafts” of sea lions floating along in the water. It looked like a dozen or so sea lions somehow holding together, many with one flipper raised in the air. It begged the question – can sea lions hold flippers under water to keep themselves together? Or to simplify the question – How do they DO that?
And since I’m asking critter questions, how do the Harbor Seals bob in place with the waves pushing and crashing against them? They seem able to stay in one spot while they watch you but they don’t seem to “swim” while they do this. Every time I learn something, I find there is more I want to know. Inquiring minds and all that.
Anyhow, this is a great spot for close up critter viewing. It is not too close, but close enough. It is a great spot for kids to observe the sea lions. Bring binoculars if you have them. If you are into beach walking, you can follow a side trail down to the beach and walk along the cove below the cliffs at low tide.
For those non-RVers out there (or RVers with expected company) – Oregon has yurts in their state parks. They run about $44.00 a night, sleep at least five, have electricity, lights and heat and are really nice. You need your own bedding and have to use the comfort stations but it beats a tent in the rainy season or an expensive hotel. You can reserve them online. There have been yurts at every Oregon State Park we’ve hit so far.