Car camping on the Oregon coast

A dramatic, boulder-studded stretch of the southern Oregon coast is the setting for a family vacation

Enjoying the Oregon coast

My husband Jim's idea of camping is backpacking into the wilds, eating freeze-dried stew, and listening to mountain lions screech. My idea of camping is a Forest Service day-use pass and a chain motel with breakfast buffet. Our sons, ages 13 and 7, thought sleeping bags were mainly for spending the night at a friend's house. It was definitely time for a family camping trip.

Jim and I decided to compromise with three nights of car camping on a dramatic, boulder-studded stretch of the southern Oregon coast, 7 miles north of the Oregon-California border.

Harris Beach State Park, on U.S. 101 just north of Brookings, is one of the few Oregon campgrounds situated close enough to the ocean to afford the occasional sweeping view of the Pacific. Known for great ranger programs and easy beach access, it has creature comforts such as modern bathrooms, self-service laundry, and newspaper vending boxes as well as a nearby supermarket.

Sunny start: What can beat sun, sand, and waves? Day one, after setting up camp, we headed down the South Beach Trail to the beach. The kids scrambled over driftwood logs, flung kelp, played commando among sand craters, and cavorted in the thundering surf. I did yoga stretches on the sun-warmed sand. Vacation!

Kid pleasers: Examining oodles of hermit crabs, sea stars, and sea urchins in crystal-clear tidepools below nearby Cape Ferrelo. Running along spines of dunes at sunset. Stepping into a redwood "bear house," a huge, hollow tree trunk. Spotting a bald eagle. Goofing around in the kids' tent. Eating ice cream at the marina, building sandcastles, and roasting marshmallows over crackling logs.

Jim's bliss: A swim in his wetsuit and coastal bird-watching. He spotted ravens, hawks, buzzards, swallows, falcons, even a diving pelican. "It was spectacular, the combination of the air currents, the birds, and the unobstructed view."

I was in heaven: Hiking. I loved the top-of-the-world panorama on the Oregon Coast Trail. We hiked from the Lone Ranch area in the Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor ― the southernmost leg of the trail that follows segments of the state's 362-mile coastline ― to the top of wind-whipped Cape Ferrelo. We also enjoyed the otherworldliness of the River View Trail, which runs along the Chetco River and through the ancient redwood forest near Loeb State Park.

Coming of age: Thirteen-year-old Douglas, an accomplished stone skipper, taught his little brother a winning sidearm technique. The boys skipped stones at every watery spot we found.

If we only knew: Camping at Harris Beach State Park meant sleeping near U.S. 101. We learned that semis rumble down the highway all night. Earplugs were salvation.

An open society: Our camping area was smack in the middle of a revegetation project. Translation: Campsites were separated by plants only inches high. It was life in a bull pen, with every stick of our neighbors' campsites in view. It made for a sense of drapes-open suburbia rather than wilderness, but, as a greenhorn, I was fascinated by the setups of veteran campers.

A few smart moves: I'm glad we tucked homegrown tomatoes in our cooler; they were perfect with the carryout clam chowder we ate at a gorgeous sunset viewpoint as the fog rolled in. One morning, investigating ring-net rentals for crabbing, Jim came across a fish market with bargain fresh catches. Dinner menu set! We wrapped salmon, tuna, and lemon in foil, popped the packets in the fire, and dined deluxe.

Unexpected pleasures: Picking plump, ripe blackberries. Catching sight of Mars ― a bright spot the size of a split pea last August ― after a barking dog woke us at 3 a.m. Enjoying the friendly vibe of the campground. We borrowed an ax from one family, traded hiking tips with another, and shared maps and firewood. And at 10 p.m. quiet time, the campground did quiet down.

Best of show: Jumping the chilly waves (in summer, the Pacific here ranges from 49° to 61°) on the sheltered beach below the campground. The kids laughed with pure joy as they ran in and out of the water, loving it whenever the ocean won and bowled them over. Wet and sandy from nose to toes, 7-year-old Thomas turned his face up to the fading blue sky and bellowed, "This is the best day of my life! God bless America!"

Travel planner

OUTFIT: We rented two four-person dome tents (kids and their gear in one, adults in the other), sleeping bags, and sleeping pads from REI for $124; borrowed a neighbor's Coleman stove; and packed one flashlight apiece. We cooked in a cast-iron skillet, covered the table with a checkered cloth, and pampered ourselves with French press coffee. Our car is roomy, but not for packing a full-bore campsite. Next time I'll rent a roof carrier and bring a few more handy items, starting with a plastic dishpan, our own ax, and a kite.

COST: State campground fees vary; summer rates (May 1-Sep 30) are $21 per night, plus a $6 reservation fee. The camp hosts sold cords of wood, posted the daily high- and low-tide schedules, stocked a rack of brochures, and answered questions. Some parks rent cabins, yurts, tepees, even covered wagons.

GETTING STARTED: For information on camping in Oregon's coastal parks, contact Oregon State Parks (800/551-6949). You can reserve campsites at 26 of the state's 53 parks online or through Reservations Northwest (800/452-5687).

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