Water spritzed my face, like a houseplant being misted. I stirred from my sleeping bag, stretched up in the darkness to close a vent that was letting in rain, then sank back into slumber, lulled by the drumming on our rented RV's roof.
It was a vague memory when I awoke to sunshine streaming through the motorhome's windows. Outside, lingering water droplets sparkled on the shore pines and pussy willows around our campsite at Beachside park, south of Waldport, Ore.
This was our second April day in a row like this on the Oregon coast: soaking rain overnight, followed by morning sunshine and blue sky.
"It's like Camelot!" beamed my wife, Barbara, looking over a steaming coffee mug as she perched in the RV's dinette. Usually, our camping is in a tent, and this parallel moment would have involved spreading a plastic tarp over a soggy picnic bench.
If there was magic, it came from this stunning coast of mammoth sea stacks and churning punch bowls of surf more than from the RV we'd picked up in Portland a few days earlier.
But for this camping trip in the offseason, when "Northwest" and "rain" tend to be synonymous, the RV made all the difference. Rather than moan about packing up a sodden tent, we could look out from our home on wheels and scoff smugly at the rain.
And for RV camping on the Oregon coast, it's hard to beat spring or fall, when campgrounds open up, reservations aren't needed and you're not lumbering along in an endless parade of traffic on Highway 101.
"I like this because you sit so high off the road and get a good view," Barbara announced from the RV's passenger seat as we rounded a bend and caught another peek of sun-dappled ocean through wind-sculpted spruces.
This was our first significant experience in a motorhome. For us and our two cats, we rented the smallest (19-foot) unit from Cruise America, the nation's largest RV-rental company.
We devoted seven days in April to a round-trip excursion down the Oregon coast from Washington to California. It's a coastline made for a camping road trip: Along this roughly 340 miles of Pacific shoreline, we counted at least 64 state parks and recreation sites — 18 with campgrounds (not to mention numerous private RV parks).
The first leg of our route took us from the winter camp of 19th-century explorers Lewis and Clark, at Fort Clatsop, south through the saltwater-taffy town of Seaside, past beachfront cottages with neon-colored fishing floats hanging off the eaves in Rockaway Beach, and through the lush green pastures of Tillamook County.
We weren't the only ones in a motorhome plastered with the supergraphics and 800 numbers of Cruise America. In the parking lot by the Peter Iredale shipwreck at Fort Stevens State Park, we said hello to Barbara Langford, from Tampa, Fla., who had rented a 30-footer.
"Don't you just love it?" Langford beamed when I told her we were fellow "Cruisers."
She and her partner were on the Oregon coast for a first-time visit and were driving from Portland to Coos Bay.
"And we said, hey, this doesn't cost much more than renting an SUV! And back home we have a 32-foot travel trailer, so we're RVers, let's get this thing," Langford said.
We tried to give ourselves time to poke along, which RVs do well.
In Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, south of Yachats, we couldn't resist a turnoff for the colorfully named Devil's Churn, where the ocean has scoured a narrow notch in coastal rock.
Down a trail we met California retirees Stevette and Jerry Malcolm, listening to earthshaking bass-drum "WHOOMPS" as the surf ricocheted off rock. Could their famously scenic home state match this?
"This is tough to beat!" said Jerry, who with his wife was staying at a B&B in the nearby Heceta Head Lighthouse keeper's quarters.
"We read about (the B&B) in the L.A. Times a few weeks ago and here we are!" Stevette said. "It's wonderful!" Including the seven-course breakfast, which means you don't need lunch, Jerry said.
We walked about a mile along a network of easy trails freshened by the green smell of ferns and brightened by blue lupine and the dainty white bell flowers of salal. The trails brought us to a pocket beach, to tide pools with anemones and midget crabs, and finally to Spouting Horn blowhole at tide-carved Cook's Chasm, named for 18th-century British explorer Capt. James Cook.
"Thar she blows!" I shouted as incoming rollers filled an underwater cave and sent seawater pluming from the blowhole.
Cook named the 800-foot-high headland above us Cape Perpetua in March 1778 after spending five days trying to sail northward against stormy seas and never getting past it. (As an RV driver who had encountered steep hills, I could sympathize.)
The headland is now the center of the 2,700-acre scenic area, part of Siuslaw National Forest, offering a visitor center and 26 miles of hiking trails. It was well worth the $5-per-vehicle parking fee.
Oregon's southern coast, from Florence down, is about sand dunes, sand dunes and more sand dunes; wood products, around Coos Bay; sheep farms, wool shops and cranberry bogs around Bandon; and, finally, at Brookings, some of the most dramatic scenery on this coast.
Bill Krause, a longtime schoolteacher in Skagit County, fell in love with this rugged shoreline, retiring to Brookings a year ago.
"I really believe that section from Brookings north to Port Orford is as good as it gets!" Krause told us as we visited with him at Cape Blanco Lighthouse, where he is a volunteer interpreter. "It's beautiful, it's less developed, and because it's about halfway between Portland and San Francisco, it gets fewer visitors."
We can vouch for the fewer visitors, especially in April. Traffic diminished dramatically south of Florence. There were milelong uphill grades with a passing lane when not a single car overtook us — the RV driver's acid test of light traffic.
At Brookings' Harris Beach State Park, six miles north of the California line, we nabbed one of the ocean-view campsites (on "A" loop, to the right as you enter).
To reach the water, we strolled the Rock Beach Trail, zigzagging downhill, awed by the expansive view of sea stacks and massive rock islands, including one pierced with a notch through which azure surf surges. A fun final clamber, threading between rocks the size of small beach cabins, deposited us on the sand among madly jutting stones — a beach like Norse gods might have created for their summer holidays (with Valhalla just up the road).
This place alone was worth the trip.
That evening, dinner was homemade tacos with fresh crab bought at a dock, consumed in our own little dinette with a sunset view over the Pacific.
Tomorrow, it might be sunny. Tomorrow, it might pour rain. We'd be meandering back up 101 — with no worries.
PROS AND CONS
Should I rent an RV for the Oregon coast?
Pro: Campgrounds put you close to nature — beaches outside your door, mossy trees, burbling brooks — while an RV makes weather a nonissue. Because it was the offseason, not August, we encountered few crowds and made the trip without reserving a single campsite.
Con: The expense and carbon footprint. Our RV-rental bill for six nights ($79 per night base rate) and 896 miles (32 cents per mile) $761. Add 17 percent Oregon rental tax, gasoline (11 mpg), and campground fees for a grand total of $1,252 for transportation and six nights "lodging." Not exactly a cheap week's vacation.
Pro: Because we carried our kitchen with us, we saved lots compared to dining out for every meal. We stayed within our grocery budget of $30 per day and ate like King Neptune, cooking fresh local seafood and produce.
Con: With a rental, you never know for sure what will work well. We discovered (too late) that (A) only one burner on our two-burner propane stove would stay lit; (B) the microwave blew its circuit breaker every 55 seconds; (C) the convection oven required a doctorate to operate. (Otherwise the RV had no problems.) Tip: Test everything before you leave the rental lot. Especially be sure you understand how to empty the sewage holding tank, one of the gritty realities of RV fun (bring rubber gloves).
Pro: We could bring our pets in the RV, with no extra charge from Cruise America. The only restriction: When returning, clean up so there's no sign of Fido or Fluffy having been there.
Con: If you're allergic to animals, you might not want to rent an RV that's had pets aboard.
Pro: Not only is RV camping easier than setting up and taking down a tent every night, it enables people of different ages, abilities and tastes to enjoy the camping experience. And you can travel farther in limited time because you don't have to spend an hour or more setting up and breaking camp every day.
Con: Because we could move faster, we committed to covering too much ground. While traversing the whole Oregon coast in one trip was a fun adventure with lots of variety, six nights wasn't enough to go from the Columbia River to California and back without hurrying. Take a dozen nights, if you can.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE: We rented a 19-foot motorhome through Cruise America's Portland agent, followed Highway 30 down the Columbia River to Astoria, stayed on Highway 101 to the California border, then returned to Portland.
RV RENTAL: RVs are available for rent through local dealers (search online for "RV rentals"); online through private parties; and through national rental outlets such as Cruise America, www.cruiseamerica.com or 800-671-8042. In our experience, Cruise America's customer service was helpful and responsive. Equipment flaws were few (see "Pros and cons").
CAMPING: We chose to camp in Oregon State Parks, which operates 18 coastal campgrounds: www.oregon.gov/OPRD/PARKS/index.shtml or 800-551-6949. Offseason rates for full-hookup RV spaces (water, power and sewage) ranged from $17 to $19 per night.
We found these especially useful:
—"Oregon Coastal Access Guide, A Mile-by-Mile Guide to Scenic and Recreational Attractions," by Kenn Oberrecht (Oregon State University Press, 2008). Includes milepost references to attractions, including "Must Stop" choices.
—"Oregon Camping" by Tom Stienstra (Moon Outdoors, 2010).
Oregon Coast Visitors Association: visittheoregoncoast.com or 888-628-2101. Cape Perpetua Scenic Area: www.fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw/recreation/tripplanning/capeperpetua.