The coast region of Oregon stretches for 363 stunning miles, and can be split into three sections: The North Coast, Central Coast, and the South Coast. The North stretches from the Columbia River to Cascade Head; The Central from Cascade Head to Reedsport; the South Coast covers the stretch from Reedsport to the state’s southern terminus at the California state line. Each of these sections features curious coastal villages, wide-open sandy beaches, lonely lighthouses, rocky shorelines with dark and moody sea stacks, and a seemingly endless amount of compositions for avid landscape photographers.
Coastal Oregon is a unique place, and for more than its aesthetics. Every beach in the state is open, and free to access, and can not be taken for private use. Following statehood in 1859, railroad lines across the Coast Range mountains led land developers to the ocean shores. By 1911 and a fair amount of coastal land development, Oswald West was elected governor on a promise that he’d reclaim Oregon’s beaches as public land. Because the legislature favored privatization, West had to get clever, so he declared a need for infrastructure and made the entire length of ocean shore from Washington to California a state highway. You’ll know this today as Highway 101. At the same time the Parks and Recreation department bought land for state parks, an average of one every 10 miles, ensuring access. Move forward to 1966 when once again Oregon’s public lands claim was challenged when a motel owner attempted to fence off beach near his accommodations for private use. The hubbub that followed led to the Oregon Beach Bill of 1967 which declared “free and uninterrupted use of the beaches” for the public. This remains today, with the beautiful Highway 101 leading the way to it all.
This incredible access along the Oregon Coast is a large part of what makes this region special. It provides visitors and photographers, such as ourselves, opportunity to size up scenes and views from numerous spots be it from roadside cliffs, or sandy beaches.
Backcountry Journeys’ took advantage of much of this opportunity during the inaugural Backcountry Journeys’ Coastal Oregon & California’s Redwoods photography tour, completed late last month.
Ten BCJ photographers along with Matt Meisenheimer, Trevor LaClair, and myself as guides, set off with intention to explore the South Coast stretch between Coos Bay and Redwood National Park, which sits just across the border of California. This fun, productive, and glorious tour climaxed on a red dirt trail deep inside the forest, with 13 photogs staring straight up, in amazement with cricked necks, through towering Redwoods as beams of celestial light cut through a thicket of signature coastal fog as if the heavens had opened just for us.
Along the way, our experiences would include Roosevelt Elk sightings, majestic views of the Coastal Range mountains to the east, to west across the vast Pacific all the way to the horizon, as well as walks along moody beaches with intimate looks at life inside tide pools. Sunrise and sunset scenes from perches high above the rocky coastal cliffs were the norm, and when we were lucky we were able to combine those scenes with beds of wildflowers. We even made it to the westernmost point in Oregon, Cape Blanco, which extends further west than any point of land in the contiguous United States with the exception of Cape Alava, in Washington.
Orientation & Dinner
What a fun group of folks! Starting this trip, between myself and Matt we had previously traveled with nine of the ten folks on the trip. We needed only a few moments during introductions to know that the tenth would fit in with this group like a glove. Many of our group knew each other already, as well, which is not all that unusual at Backcountry Journeys. We like to say that our trips offer so much in the way of photography, but also in creating new friendships with like-minded people. Seeing folks who’ve previously travelled together doing so again, planned or not, is always rewarding for us.
This group was ready to go, so following an orientation presentation and a lovely first meal together, we turned in so folks could organize gear, charge those batteries and clear those memory cards.
Eugene to the coast
We begin our tour in Eugene so as to provide a landing spot where we can gather and from which to leave as a group. We’ll return here in six days. The drive between Eugene and the coast is an excellent one, and should not be missed when gathering highlights of this trip.
Highway 38 rolls through historic timber towns and across wine country and fishing hot spots as it twists through the Coast Range towards the coast. Along with generations of Native Americans who lived along its banks, the riches of the Umpqua River have long nurtured fur traders, loggers, fishermen and farmers who’ve called this spot home for generations. We took time to stop for photographs of the river, as well as of a herd of Roosevelt Elk spotted on the roadside.
There are seven cities on the south coast: Reedsport, North Bend, Coos Bay, Bandon, Port Orford, Gold Beach, and Brookings. While we did pass each, making stops in some, wonderful Bandon would be ‘home’ for our first night on the coast. We’d stay two nights in Brookings, and then one final night in Crescent City, California.
Bandon Beach is located essentially right on the edge of town, and features an assortment of sea stacks, perfect for beach photography in our estimation. Face Rock, the more famous of this collection, has a native story to go with it (look for this story in a future BCJ article coming soon).
Before we made it to the beach for sunset, we had dinner – the first of several utterly fantastic meals on the coast. At BCJ we love food. We feel that dining well (when possible) helps to create a more complete experience. During meals we can get to know one another better. We can break bread and discuss things we have in common and even broach subjects like where we should go together next. Well, Lord Bennett’s came through in a big way! The food was incredible, maybe even a tad too fancy. But, the views from this oceanfront second-level restaurant with enormous westerly-facing windows was remarkable, and reason enough to bring up dinner in this article to begin with.
The weather on this night, however, was the worst of the trip. Did I say “worst?” I meant “most challenging.” Jokes aside, the spitting rain, thick marine layer and flat light certainly challenged those in the group willing (see crazy) enough to go for it anyway. We had fun! We sized up compositions, discussed what to look for and how to use the waves in your composition, and more. We got to put on our waders and get wet, and we certainly got to wipe our lenses continuously. I thought we were rewarded when at the very end of the sunset we were treated to a bit of magenta and pink in the sky, if only for just a few seconds. We’d try again in the morning.
Sunrise brought with it similar conditions, with less precipitation falling and thus fewer lens wipes. We did our best, once again, and the tide was low opening up the beach for exploration.
While Heading south to Brookings
While heading southbound towards Brookings we made several valuable stops that provided much flavor for the area in which we were exploring. Notable along the way were Cape Blanco, Battle Rock in Port Orford, as well as Sister’s Rock.
Located at the state’s westernmost tip, and perched over the Pacific Ocean, Cape Blanco features a 19th-century lighthouse perched on the cliff, high above the Pacific, at the end of a short lonely dirt road. What stories that old beacon must have to tell.
Battle Rock is an outcropping extending from the sheltered beach located right smack in the middle of the town of Port Orford, and holds some history. It was here that in 1851 a violent conflict occurred between a group of white settlers, making a move on the land following the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850, and a Quatomah tribe of the Tututni Nation, who already occupied the land, took place. The settlers had been dropped off on the rock with instructions to hang tight until the ship could return with more supplies and men. Those left at Battle Rock were also told the natives in the area would not be a threat. That was incorrect as the natives did not take kindly to the advance on their land. They attacked the following day, pushing the group of settlers off the beach and up onto the rock outcropping where they were lampooned, left to defend themselves with only old muskets and a cannon they managed to procure from their ship, at the last minute.
Moving on from a short stop at Battle Rock, we made sure to spend some time at Meyer’s Beach, as well as at a view overlooking Sister’s Rock. Each provided for time exploring a large sandy beach (Meyers), and for sizing up a beautiful scene from high above on a cliffside complete with wildflower foreground (Sister’s Rock). The weather on this day was spectacular and simply enjoying a nice ocean breeze in the sunshine while walking the sandy beach was quite lovely.
Arriving in Brookings we were able to check in to our hotel accommodations, located on the Brookings Harbor right on the ocean. In fact, each room featured sliding doors with a deck only steps from the sand and crashing waves.
Our evening shot on this day would be from Whaleshead Beach, an awesome wide sandy beach just a few miles north of Brookings. It offers multiple viewpoints overlooking a rock-dotted coastline. There are multiple shallow creeks cutting across the beach here, as well as a large cave with a window framing the view. The beach gets its name from a sea stack where when hit with the right wave, will spray a large stream of misty water – like a whale spout!
Not only did we have a magical evening here photographing the sun dropping on the horizon behind these magnificent sea stacks, we also found a patch of lush calla lilies that were a lot of fun to shoot.
Sunrise & Tide Pools
We were gifted a wonderful wildlife experience unique to the ocean on the following morning at Meyer’s Beach.
The tide was way out, giving access to tide pools and the wildlife who call those pools home. Formed in depressions along the shoreline of rocky coasts, tide pools are filled with seawater that gets trapped as the tide recedes.
While these small basins at the ocean’s edge typically range from mere inches to a few feet deep and a few feet across, they are packed with sturdy sea life. We were able to photograph and explore a number of different tide pools, achieving images of sea stars, anemones, snails, barnacles, and mussels. Honestly, some of my favorite images that I made during this trip came from this morning.
We head to Redwood National Park in search of the great Coastal Redwoods, colorful Rhododendron blooms, and hopefully mist-filled ancient forests.
From a seed no bigger than one from a tomato, California’s Coast Redwood are the tallest trees on the planet, growing as high at 300 + feet tall. And they’ve been around, too! In fact, fossil records have shown that relatives of today’s Coast Redwoods thrived in the Jurassic Era. That’s 160 million years ago!
The weather, however, had different plans for us. While we were able to have a nice morning shooting forest image and walking amongst the great giants, rain moved in and washed us in a different direction for our afternoon.
We dined at a lovely breakfast spot right on the Crescent City Harbor with views from our tables of Sea Lions and Harbor Seals napping only feet away. And, of course, long lenses made appearances. As rain continued to fall, we moved on towards the Battery Point Lighthouse, one of the first lighthouses on the California coast. It is registered as a California Historical Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “Crescent City Lighthouse, but for us it was a nice composition, especially with the ominous conditions.
Due to continuing unfriendly weather in Crescent City, we chose to shoot back up the coast to Brookings where the forecast was much improved. By doing this we’d have a chance at capturing a nice coastal sunset. We stopped by our favorite dinner spot, The Black Trumpet, once again, prior to heading to Arch Rock Viewpoint where we were treated to a glorious sunset from high above the ocean on a cliff with views to the north, south and even west.
Our final morning
When we woke up on our final morning we did so not yet knowing what was in store. Likely a good thing, as not knowing, or expecting, made the events even more special.
As we drove towards the forest the weather seemed ok for what we wanted, the skies were overcast, yet we had out collective fingers crossed for those perfect conditions for photographing this forest. Boy, did we get them! What started off as a “pretty good morning” turned into what every single photographer ever hopes for when the shoot the Redwoods. Seemingly as if someone somewhere knew we were on the cusp of needing to leave, the sun began to cut through the cloud cover and light fog, casting rays across the forest.
Perfection! We reveled in it, firing off shots, running to the next scene, firing off more and so-on. What a remarkable way to finish a remarkable trip. An excellent time was had by all, with a finish that could not have been scripted any better.
The following images were made outside the trip dates:
It was all there, laid out in front of our eyes, and cameras seemingly the entire week together. The grandeur of coastal Oregon crashed figuratively against our ocular, similar to the waves of the great Pacific Ocean crash against the rocky cliffs and singular dark and moody sea stacks. The magic of nature shown as brightly as those beams of light on this final first blush bit.
After wrapping up, we head back towards Eugene, stopping to have a final meal together at a lovely dining spot located directly on the Rogue River, in Grants Pass, Oregon. There locals scurried about getting ready for Memorial Day festivities – summer is right around the corner. In Oregon, on the coast, springtime could never end and that’d even be too soon.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Redwood, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.