I grew up visiting this dazzling stretch of the Oregon coast, but it wasn’t until I hit adulthood that I fully appreciated the charm that emanates from the cliff side hike that starts at populated Sunset Bay and ends at sweeping Simpson Reef in Cape Arago State Park, with a stopover at Shore Acres State Park.
The first time I brought my husband to Charleston, Oregon — the jumping off point for this hike — we spent the drive there listening to Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce, a fantasy novel about a young girl who can talk to animals. Now, magic and Shore Acres are inextricably intertwined in my brain. Maybe by the end of this write-up, you’ll see what I mean!
To start on your way, park at Sunset Bay State Park. There’s ample parking, but it can get a little crowded on nice days. And the same goes for the beach — when the sun’s out, the sandy cove bustles with kids, dogs, and sunbathers.
Not to worry! You’re soon to leave the crowds behind by hoofing it to an Oregon Coast Trail entry point. The starting point of the hike is subtle and barely marked. You’ll want to walk south along the beach, past the volleyball courts and bathrooms, until you find a small creek with a low bridge. That’s where you’ll find the trailhead.
If you’re the adventurous type, you’ll enjoy what follows. Along the entire journey, you’ll hit junction after junction, almost all of them unmarked. You can’t go too wrong here. The trails will either lead you to Cape Arago Highway, or you’ll find yourself back at the cliff’s edge, looking out at the sea. I recommend turning in the direction of the ocean when your path splits, guaranteeing you the scenic views that appear in the following pictures.
The path at times reminds me of something from Lord of the Rings, bright greenery surrounding you on all sides as sunlight streams through. There’s a certain magic to not knowing exactly where the next path will take you. Each time you hike it, the trail feels a little different.
The first of many glimpses of the ocean bursts into view. Even on a nice day, the path is bewilderingly devoid of other people. You get multiple chances to climb down to what amounts to your own private beach and dip your toes in the shallow water. The abundant coves along the way keep the ocean from reaching its customary roughness. You might even want to (gasp) swim in it!
If getting into the water sound appealing, go for it; otherwise, continue along the path as it takes you through wooded groves to more vistas.
Be on the lookout for wildlife — you never know who might be gazing back at you from the rocks below.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a gate to Fairyland appears.
OK, so it’s really the gate to Shore Acres State Park, a botanical garden that sits on property purchased from lumber baron Louis J. Simpson in 1942. The original property featured a stately mansion, manicured landscaping, and tennis courts, which still remain in the park, albeit a little worse for wear.
The house burned down in the 1920s, but the gardens remain more beautiful than ever. Shore Acres really does turn into a fairyland in December, when the whole park is decorated with lights. In the summer, its fragrant blossoms warrant a quick exploration off the cliffside trail.
Please note that while this hike is dog-friendly, the gardens are not! If you have a doggie companion with you, bypass the gardens and continue on to Simpson Beach, a delightful and rarely crowded cove on the edge of the park.
Did I mention wildlife? You’re sure to find it at Simpson Reef, which is just a mile past Shore Acres. You’ll hear the sea lions barking at you long before you see them. Plow your way through the forested path until you emerge to see a sweeping panorama of the ocean.
And if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of spouting grey whales as they migrate north. All in all, it’s a decidedly magical experience.