On an ocean cliff high above a tiny bay you can find one of Oregon's finest Christmas light displays. When lumber baron Louis Simpson built his lavish estate here in the early 1900s, he could never have envisioned the holiday spectacle we enjoy today. Hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights illuminate the grounds, which include a Japanese pond garden, formal plantings, and venerable specimen trees. The high point where the mansion once stood now features an enclosed viewing kiosk, perfect for wave watching.
This place is truly a destination worthy of at least one whole day, not only because it is just outside of Coos Bay (which is, truthfully, not very near anything else), but because it should be visited in the daylight, as well. Sunset Bay is a small and beautiful basin with its own campground nearby. This is one of our favored retreats, especially if we can score a night in one of the highly popular yurts. We love the sheltered little beach, which has a parking area with unobstructed views of the water. A trail originates near the restrooms and leads over dramatic bluffs, along the gardens, and down to a secluded beach. Small, informal trails wind through the brush; we like to explore the cliff top, trying to guess where the tennis court and barns once were.
In nearby Charleston (which is pretty much a part of Coos Bay), the yearly Miniature Train Village is usually up and running. This is no ordinary model train exhibit, but railroad upon railroad stacked in a fully-lighted display. The exhibit has become so popular they have had to move it to the old Charleston Schoolhouse . This is good news for those who have previously stood in line in the rain, waiting to get in. (Note: for 2017, the schoolhouse is unavailable, so the trains will not be on display.)
Visiting the Area
The light display is open from 4:00 to 9:30 Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve. There is a $5.00 parking fee which works in all of the day use areas if you do not have a State Parks parking pass. Parking is free if you are camping. Please note that pets are not allowed in the gardens.
Come during daylight hours for great photos of waves and sandstone cliffs, then return in the evening for the light display. There is an excellent gift shop where you can buy flower-shaped LED lights and
take a little piece of Shore Acres home with you. Free cookies are served in the garden cottage.
Best of all, most of the gardens are fully wheelchair
Sunset Bay State Park features year-round camping beside a calm little bay. More camping is available to the north at Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, which offers cozy cabins as well as regular and deluxe yurts.
Click here for an excellent hiking trail guide. Be especially careful on rocks and beaches during times of high surf, such as just after a winter storm. Large, powerful
waves can form quickly and suddenly.
Charleston's miniature train display has long been an area tradition; sadly, this year (2017), the display is temporarily on hold. Watch for it in future years.
Thursday, December 18, 2014
Thursday, December 11, 2014
When hiking in the dark, it is wise to bring a light source.
This bit of outdoor wisdom had somehow escaped us the first time we went to Heceta Head for the Christmas Open House. We had warm clothes, rain gear, and a picnic dinner, but after combing through the car the only light we could find was a tiny keyring pen light. This feeble beam was meant to help find a keyhole, not light a forest pathway.
Of course, there was the shuttle from the parking lot. Wisdom would have suggested that a shuttle ride might be safer than wandering the woods in the dark. It might have even been fun. Our family was planning on a Christmas hike, though, and hike we would. Very slowly. Not always on the trail. Then we emerged from the woods into the yard of the lightkeeper's house, lit all around by white Christmas lights, and we promptly forgot our perilous journey.
The door opened to bright warmth and holiday cheer. A fire flickered in the hearth. Every possible surface was decorated for Christmas. Someone was at the piano; someone is always at the piano. Cookies and hot cider awaited us in the next room. Santa handed us candy canes. We knew then that we had found a new family tradition. But there was more.
Braving the damp cold once again, we started up yet another dark pathway, this one leading to the lighthouse itself. The lights of crab boats lined the horizon like another string of Christmas lights. At last we stood beneath the lighthouse. Its beams circled silently above us, reaching into the darkness to touch cliffs and trees as the sea sighed far below.
For a moment, we almost forgot about trying to find our car in the dark.
About the Heceta Head Victorian Christmas
This event only happens four days each year. This year (20167 it is December 9th, 10th, 16th, and 17th from 4-7:00. The lightkeeper's house, now a bed-and-breakfast, opens its lower floor to the public, and it is often possible to tour the lighthouse. There is a $5 day-use fee at the parking area. The open house is free, but donations are accepted.
Dress for cold, wet weather. The hike is beautiful and only about a half mile each way, but the shuttle is tempting when the rain is pounding down. Bring a camera. Bring a light source.
More Activities in the Area
Come early in the day to enjoy the cozy little beach just in front of the parking lot. This area is somewhat protected from coastal winds and we usually bring a picnic, whatever the time of year.
Carl Washburne State Park is just north of Heceta head. This beautiful park offers year-round camping, including two yurts. The China Creek Trail can be accessed here, or from a pullout on the east side of highway 101 just south of the park entrance. Cross the highway from the same pullout to find the Hobbit Trail, a winding tunnel-like path through dense trees and brush to a lovely beach. There is also a trail here that climbs over the north side of Heceta Head.
If you are a fair-weather camper, the town of Florence is about eleven miles to the south. Here you will find a number of beachy motels, plus a harborside Old Town filled with small shops. This coastal community is a good plan B if the weather turns just plain mean. If you can't hike, you can always go Christmas shopping.
|The cozy little beach near Heceta Head Lighthouse|