Cover image of Shore Acres State Park copyright Steven Holt/soaringseal.com. Above image of Sunset Bay State Park copyright Brenda Moseley/soaringseal.com.
Head away from Highway 101 and toward the small fishing community of Charleston, and you'll discover the gateway to three of Oregon's most beautiful state parks and a national estuarine reserve. Charleston is also home to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology and the site of the Audubon Society's annual Shorebird Festival in September.
Before exploring the parks and reserve, visit Charleston's docks. Califonia sea lions and harbor seals frequently swim between fishing boats, and you may also see Thayer's, Herring, Western and Glaucous gulls, ospreys, grebes and pelagic cormorants. In winter, common loons are often present. If you like seafood, stop at one of Charleston's local fish markets and check for salmon, tuna or Dungeness crabs.
After leaving Charleston, continue driving on Cape Arago highway until you reach Sunset Bay State Park. If you have a wetsuit or are willing to brave cold water, you can stop to swim or kayak in the bay's relatively protected waters. You can also hike the Oregon Coast Trail from Sunset Bay to the tip of Cape Arago.
If you continue by car, be sure to stop at Shore Acres State Park. Once owned by a timber baron, this park has well-kept gardens loved by hummingbirds and some of the most beautiful coastline in the state. Keep an eye out for pelagics: common murres, pigeon guillemots and endangered marbled murrelets may be seen. Black oystercatchers also frequent the rocky cliffs below the visitor's lookout, and ancient murrelets may be present during the winter. From Shore Acres, continue down Cape Arago highway until you see a lookout sporting a high-powered scope. Here you'll have the opportunity to hear and watch seals and California and Stellar's sea lions congregating on off-shore islands. Northern elephant seals are now often present as well.
Northern Elephant Seal, Copyright Steven Holt/soaringseal.com. Elephant seals can sometimes be seen on rocky islands near Cape Arago.
Cape Arago State Park is at the end of the road - offering a spectacular view of the Pacific. To see intertidal marine life, follow a trail to the Cape's beach (closed to protect marine mammals between March 1 and June 30). The Cape is also an excellent location to watch for migrating gray whales.
Choose a different route back to Highway 101, and you can visit the beautiful South Slough National Estuarine Reserve. Turn left on Seven Devils Road shortly before the town of Charleston. The turnoff to the reserve's visitor center is approximately five miles from the turnoff. One of the best ways to see birds and other wildlife in the reserve is by kayak or canoe, but be sure to check the tide tables before beginning your trip.
DIRECTIONS TO CHARLESTON
From Highway 101, turn west on Commercial Street in downtown Coos Bay. Commercial Street turns into Ocean Blvd. Stay on Ocean until you reach a T intersection. At the T, turn left onto Newmark Avenue and drive through the small business district known as Empire. When the road turns 90 degrees to the left at a flashing light, turn left on Cape Arago Highway. Continue on Cape Arago until you reach Charleston. Continue on Cape Arago beyond Charleston to reach the three state parks..