The Southern Oregon coast has some of the most beautiful parks in the entire country

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - The rugged coastline of Shore Acres State Park is a favorite location for winter storm chasers to watch large waves. However, in the summer, large waves are a rarity as individuals come to the park to enjoy the rugged beauty as well as the nature trails and the formal gardens.In the summer, the Oregon coast is a popular tourist destination.

However, the coast is a great place to visit any time of year.

Most tourists choose the central and northernmost parts of the Oregon coast, so if you want solitude, then the Southern Oregon coast is the place for you.

The southern coast features both rugged scenery and some unexpected surprises.

We recently returned from a photography trip to the Southern Oregon coast.

We spent four days on the trip, starting in the redwoods of northern California and working our way up the coastline.

Oregon has 195 state parks with 74 of those right on the coast. Of those, 33 are south of Yachats, which is more or less the central point on the Oregon Coast.

With so many parks to choose from, there are literally things to see and do around every corner on the southern coastline.

Not only that, but there are a multitude of other choices on the coast from tourist shops to salmon and steelhead fishing. Bass fishing is also productive in the lakes near the southern coast.

There are also several noteworthy lighthouses on the southern coast as well as the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area just outside of Reedsport.

In addition, there are a number of private tourist attractions in the area.

Perhaps the two best-known private attractions are Prehistoric Gardens and Sea Lion Caves.

Located south of Port Orford near Humbug Mountain State Park Prehistoric Gardens features a series of full-sized dinosaur replicas set in an old-growth forest.

A fountain sits in the middle of the Louis J. Simpson Shore Acres Gardens.
The attraction may seem a little hokey to some, but is a popular destination for families with children.

Just north of Florence, Sea Lion Caves has what is billed as the largest sea cave in the United States. Some claim the cave is the largest sea cave in the world.

Be that as it may, it is a large cave that is accessed through a gift shop via a short hike and an elevator.

The cave, which is dimly lit, has a small collection of sea mammal bones as well as the main attraction, a cave that is often filled with sea lions.

Depending on your personal interests, there are tons of other possible places to spend both your money and your time.

With so much to see and do, no article could possibly do justice to the entire southern stretch of the Oregon coast.

Consequently, I have decided to concentrate on three of my personal favorites, three parks adjacent to each other, just outside of Charleston.

A small fishing community just southwest of Coos Bay, Charleston has a picturesque harbor, an oyster farm, and not much else.

The parks, Sunset Bay, Shore Acres and Cape Arago are some of the most varied and spectacular parks on the entire coast.

Sunset Bay features one of the best campgrounds in Oregon. Sheltered with electrical hookups, warm showers and flush toilets, Sunset Bay has plenty of amenities for campers.

The bay itself is protected from large waves by a series of rocks that are just offshore. The bay is shallow with a narrow entrance and is known for its beautiful sunsets.

An Anna's hummingbird hovers near a tiger lily in the Louis J. Simpson Shore Acres Gardens.Just south of Sunset Bay, Shore Acres State Park has the Louis J. Simpson Gardens. The formal gardens have flowering plants from around the world as well as a small group of sculptures and a fountain.

The gardens include an extensive rose collection as well as a lily pond.

For those who like gardens, it is a can't miss destination.

February and March bring spring bulbs to the park. Rhododendrons and azaleas bloom from April to May, while from June through September, flowering annuals and roses are the featured flowers.

From August to October, the gardens feature an extensive dahlia collection.

Year round, the gardens feature shrubs and trees from around the world as well as a pavilion and greenhouse.

In addition, from Thanksgiving through New Year's, the park has one of the largest decorative light shows you will find. With more than 325,000 lights, mostly LEDs, the holiday light show has become an Oregon favorite.

However, the formal gardens are far from the only reason to visit Shore Acres State Park.

Unlike Sunset Bay, which is less than a mile to the north, Shore Acres in one of the best places in Oregon to storm watch.

In rough weather, the rugged shoreline is pounded by gigantic waves that can reach in excess of 50 feet into the air, sending sea spray even higher into the air.

 Sea Lion Cave just north of Florence is a major private tourist attraction.With calmer weather in the summer, the shoreline is an interesting place to explore as the sandstone cliffs are eroded into wild shapes.

The park is also a must see for bird watchers with more than 100 species of birds making the park home.

Hidden from view just south of the formal gardens is Simpson Cove, a pocket beach that is protected from the weather. Adventurous hikers will often have the beach to themselves.

Continuing south, Cape Arago State Park is known for its wide variety of wildlife.

Cape Arago has a north and south cove.

The north cove has a viewing platform that looks out at Simpson reef. The reef is teeming with life with California sea lions, Steller sea lions, northern elephant seals and harbor seals all frequenting the reef.

In addition, osprey, pelagic cormorants and black oystercatchers are frequent visitors as well as pelicans and other sea birds. In addition, gray whales are often visible between the reef and the viewing platform between March and June as they head north for the summer.

Whales are frequently visible again from December to February as they cruise south to Baja, Mexico.

The park also has a large population of both deer and rabbit.

In addition, there is a steep but short trail that goes down to the south cove, which is one of the best places to view tide pools in Oregon.

If you decide to go to the Southern Oregon coast, especially in the summer, plan your trip well in advance.

Hotel spaces are at a premium, while camp sites will likely be full, especially on weekends.

A group of bull elk lounge in a meadow at Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area outside of Reedsport. The viewing area is a great place to see elk year round. Our trip, which was on the Fourth of July weekend, was during one of the most crowded times at the coast.

Most state campgrounds in the area take reservations, although there are still a few that are first come, first served.

On our trip, which was planned at the last minute, we were unable to find campsites for three of our four nights, and instead we were forced to stay at wide turnouts on Forest Service roads.

Still, it was a beautiful trip with plenty to see and do. And yes, we did visit Sea Lion Caves and Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area. We tried to visit Prehistoric Gardens as well, but it was closed for the night by the time we arrived. Oh well, that just leaves more to see next time.

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