The twilight was deepening to periwinkle and a mist thickening off the Pacific Ocean as I pulled onto the one-block waterfront in Bandon, Ore. Lonely Planet had recommended a budget guesthouse across the street from the beach in the town.
It was late January, the offseason, and I hadn’t bothered to call ahead, sure there would be an available room. But the Sea Star was locked and silent.
My trip up the Oregon coast had been improvised. When a friend in Oakland, Calif., suggested a visit to the redwoods, and a cousin in Portland offered a place to stay, I leaped at the chance for a solo trip up the coast between the two.
I’d spent the day driving the hairpin turns up the California-Oregon coast, hustling through cathedral spires of old-growth redwoods, barely stopping to take in the breaks of brilliant, silvery Pacific surf.
The sun had faded to misty blues north of the Oregon border. Now I was beginning to panic. Bandon, in the fading light, looked almost deserted. A few tourists wandered the one-block boardwalk. Teens huddled at a nearby jetty.
My backup option was a mile away, but Google Maps kept routing me up a cliff-hugging road into the now-thick bank of fog.
Retracing my steps, I was drawn to Tony’s Crab Shack, a beacon of neon and Christmas lights with a bustling dinner crowd.
“There’s an easier way to get there,” the man at the register said. He sketched a map that took me back to the highway and through a dark neighborhood.
Ten minutes later, I pulled up at the giant, brightly lit lobby of the Sunset Oceanfront hotel. The clerk appeared unfazed to see a lone visitor turn up on a Sunday night, and bustled me to my $65 room.
I fell asleep to the rumble of the ocean and briny gusts of saltwater through my transom window. When I woke, dawn was just lifting, the mist receding into a purplish-pink band behind the electric blue of the retreating tide.
A long wooden staircase took me down the cliff to the beach, where I spent an hour exploring the sand-colored sea stacks — and aside from a lone jogger, I had the spot entirely to myself.
A rugged coast
There is a palpable difference between the Northern California and Oregon coasts, and it’s not just the signs that say, “Last chance to stock up on cheap cigarettes,” just across the Oregon border.
If the sun-dappled redwood forests of Northern California were a rollback to late summer, Oregon tipped into early fall. California was small-town co-ops, bikeshares and ganja sellers, and a farmers market that drew a diverse crowd of tatted and pierced students, young Latinos, silver-haired hippies and Asian elders.
Oregon felt closer to the rural West, more rugged and inward, the businesses along Highway 101 selling antiques and homemade jam, books and videos, a CBD dispensary in every town.
As I drove farther north, the coast turned rocky, conifers edging up to red-brown rock where the surf swirled and crashed, leaving pocked flats perfect for tidepooling.
My friend Jacquie, who grew up near Bandon, had recommended the town as a locals’ spot and artists’ colony, more laid-back and less touristy than Cannon Beach. “It feels like a magical place to me,” she said after a late-summer trip, when she saw seals off the jetty and surfers emerging from the morning fog.
On my midwinter visit, the Washed Ashore gallery, which features art made from plastic sea trash, was closed for renovation, but I found a giant flotsam fish on display at a park next door.
I gravitated toward the Bandon Coffee Cafe, which serves up homemade soups, sandwiches and sweets. Morning and afternoon, it was full of locals reading the newspaper, catching up on community news and using the free Wi-Fi.
As I explored nearby Bullards Beach State Park and walked the local coastline, I fell into conversation with birders and beachcombers, locals and weekenders from Portland, all drawn by the offseason quiet.
Here be giants
The mist was just lifting as I walked down the South Cove Trail at Cape Arago State Park. Sun sifted through tall spruce and fir, the needles tangled with sage green filaments of old man’s beard.
I passed hikers panting up the steep path from the beach. Below, the ocean crashed and swelled, a cobalt-silver skin beneath the mist-shrouded folds of the coast.
Each morning of my trip up the coast brought another heart-stopping view. This leg, from Bandon to Yachats, was one of the most memorable.
Down at the beach, I picked my way past giant driftwood logs to a perch at the edge of the surf. A lone man, deep in his sun salutations, and a perfectly balanced rock cairn were the only other human signs.
Cape Arago is known for its nearby reef, home to a giant colony of seals and sea lions. At high tide, I couldn’t hear the seals at Shell Island or reach the nearby tide pools, so after an hour, I pulled myself away.
I drove north along the cliff-hugging highway, through pockets of fog in steep valleys and stretches of sun, with the ocean curling far below the road.
Just south of Yachats, I stopped at Cape Perpetua Scenic Area to see the Devil’s Churn. The trail took me through a stand of mottled, old-growth Sitka spruce, trees that squatted on the hillside like massive wrestlers as the path plunged to sea level.
At the Cape Perpetua visitor center, I found friendly rangers and a display that identified the lichens and the conifers that marked my passage up the coast.
On a return visit the next day, I hiked the 2-mile Giant Spruce Trail through a dripping forest of lush ferns, massive fallen trunks and patches of flowers and fungi. The spruce was a 600-year-old, 185-foot-tall giant that climbed, like an impossible treehouse, into the gray mist.
At the recommendation of my cousin Martha, I planned to stay for one night in Yachats, one of her favorite getaways — just far enough from Portland to escape the weekend crowds.
Yachats turned out to be a tiny, polished jewel of a town, nestled between the ocean and steep hills. It had hillside condos, but also a tiny post office and grocery, and remnants of the area’s fishing industry.
My first stop was the Green Salmon, a locally run cafe serving up hand-blended coffees and teas, including hemp-oil infused decaf, super shroom cocoa and dandelion and chicory blends.
At the nearby Yachats Brewing and Farmstore, the menu was all about fermentation, with kombucha and microbrews, a fermentation flight and pickled vegetable plate, and probiotic dressing on the house salad.
This time, I had planned ahead with my lodging and booked a room at Ocean Haven, a Wi-Fi-free spot that draws nature lovers, artists and writers looking for a quiet place to get away from distractions.
Owners Tracy McGreevy and Gary Giarretto bought the five-room lodging in 2017. They were living in California, ready to escape the rat race for a place where they could host family gatherings, when Ocean Haven came up for sale.
“I wasn’t sure he’d go for it,” McGreevy says of Giarretto. “But he’s an old hippie. He recognized the vibe.”
As I checked in, McGreevy told me I’d had an unusual run of sunny weather, that it’s more common for storms to lash the coast for weeks at a time.
“And I don’t mind when they do,” she said.
The pair have kept the rooms stocked with nature guides and locally made art. In my cabin, which overlooked a steep path to the beach, I found collections by Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder and other poets of the coast, including Olga Broumas, a favorite.
The wild coast
I picked my way down the rickety staircase and tidepooled till dusk, watching the light puddle around translucent green anemones, pink sea fans and gooseneck barnacles.
The dark, when it fell, was thick and complete. Back in the cabin, I heard the ocean slamming the cliff below me with ferocious suck and velocity, the mournful bellow of a foghorn.
Below the cabin was a tiny patio, and before bed, I grabbed a pair of binoculars and navigated by touch down the path. Lying on my back, cold mist on my skin, the hollow roar of the ocean below me, I felt the fragility of my tiny, mammalian heart, my pinprick of warmth against the dark void of the universe.
It was a spinning, terrifying feeling. And I knew, in that moment, I would need to find my way back to this rugged coast.