Thursday, May 25, 2017

Winchester Bay and Umpqua Lighthouse

Lying beside Highway 101 between Reedsport and North Bend, Winchester Bay is easily bypassed on the way to somewhere else. It isn't a cute little "beachy" community, and it doesn't try to be. It's a salty, windy place, built around Salmon Harbor's tidy boat basins and offering only a smattering of shops, restaurants, and motels. This is a place for people who like to be outdoors. Launch a boat, take a charter out, go fishing or crabbing. Take your quad or your sand rail and head for the towering sand dunes (click here and here for some staging information). Check out the lighthouse and Lake Marie.

Exploring this little harbor town is easy by foot or by car. Boats at the docks range from big, shiny yachts to scruffy little vessels seemingly held together by a few strips of greying caulk. There are fishing boats of every size and age, as well as charming vintage cruisers and row upon row of sailboats. There is history here, and a bit of mystery; for example, the brave but completely dismasted sailing vessels lying at their moorings, and the remains of an ancient paddlewheeler tucked in the corner of a busy boatyard. But most of all, there is the wind, always the wind. It tears in from the north, rattling and grumbling in the boat rigging and whistling through every crack and hole. Drive out to the end of the marina's parking area and watch whitecaps break in the broad, blue Umpqua. Gulls wheel overhead and cormorants dive in a river that began as snowmelt high in the Cascades.

Rose garden dedicated to those lost at sea
If the kids have been cooped up in the car for too long, look for Ork Rock Park, which has picnic tables and a play structure. A larger playground, complete with a covered picnic area, is located next to the fire station (and why not?). In general, this is an accommodating little village, with easy-to-locate restrooms and fish cleaning stations and plenty of free parking. It also has interesting signage, including "No fireworks allowed on docks" (someone thought this was a good idea?), and my favorite, "ATVs not allowed on this section of sidewalk."

Camping here is easy, with a variety of options. Those whose idea of a perfect camping experience is simply stopping in the middle of a parking lot are in for a rare treat. All joking aside, the wide paved area next to the boat basins hosts long rows of simple RV sites, complete with tiny barbecues. These spots are great if you have your boat moored nearby, or if you want a completely mud-free camping experience with a harbor view. Nearby you will find more plush RV sites, tent sites, and cabins to rent.

Drive towards the ocean to access the dune road. Watch for a left turn up Lighthouse Road to find the Umpqua Lighthouse, a pretty structure with a beautiful red lens. A nearby history museum resides in an old Coast Guard station. We are history geeks and used to while away long, rainy coastal days in this museum. On my last visit, however, I was informed that now one can only see the museum on a guided tour, which costs $8 for adults and $4 for children. That was all I was able to learn from the attendant on duty, who seemed annoyed to have me there. I believe that one can see the lighthouse as part of the tour, but I chose to bypass the whole thing (the photo of the lens is from a previous visit). It is free to view the lighthouse from the outside, though, and the adjacent narrow parking area is one of the best parking lots in the state. Take some time to soak in views of dunes, forest, jetties, the bar, oyster beds, and the great sweep of unobstructed horizon. Bring binoculars to watch boats going in and out between the jaws of the jetties.

Continue on Lighthouse Road to find little Lake Marie. There is a small parking area next to a swimming beach, if perchance you are there on a day that's warm enough to consider swimming. This is a good place to put in a kayak and teach kids how to paddle. I have done a fair amount of fishing here, and every time either the lake seems totally devoid of all life forms, or I can't even get my hook wet without catching a fish. Either way, this is a great place to bring kids for fishing; take the path to the left of the swimming area to find several kid-friendly fishing spots. The mile-long trail around the lake makes a fun short hike, too. Picnic tables and a fish cleaning station are to the left of the parking area.

Lake Marie Trail
Just past Lake Marie, turn right to find Umpqua Lighthouse State Park. This is one of our favorite state campgrounds; it offers tent and RV sites, cabins, and both rustic and deluxe yurts in a peaceful, forested setting. The wind is somewhat buffered by the trees, and the ATVs are off in the dunes. Families gather here to recount the day's adventures next to a campfire or to wander around the lake.

Check out the town's website to learn about area lodging, facilities, and activities. This small community hosts several special events throughout the year, including concerts, a chainsaw carving contest, and a Fiddler's Jamboree. If you've been bypassing this town on your way to somewhere else, maybe it's time to stop and discover Winchester Bay.

The strange, dismantled sailing vessels of Winchester Bay

Lake Marie

Swimming beach
A second look at Umpqua Lighthouse's rare red Fresnel lens


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