In his classic travel tale Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon characterized Depoe Bay thusly: “Depoe Bay used to be a picturesque fishing village; now it was just picturesque. The fish houses, but for one seasonal company, were gone, the fleet gone, and in their stead had come sport fishing boats and souvenir ashtray and T-shirt shops.”
To be fair, tourists have come here since the establishment of the town. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the town didn’t really exist until the completion of the Roosevelt Highway (U.S. 101) in 1927, which opened the area up to car travelers. Prior to that time, the area had been occupied mainly by a few members of the Siletz people. One worked at the U.S. Army depot and called himself Charlie Depot. The town was named after him, eventually taking on the current spelling.
Regardless of what you think of the busy commercial strip and the enormous time-share resort along the highway, the scenic appeal of Depoe’s location is impossible to ignore. The rocky outer bay, flanked by headlands to the north and south, is pierced by a narrow channel through the basalt cliffs leading to the inner harbor. It’s home to an active sportfishing fleet as well as the whale-watching charters that have earned Depoe Bay its distinction as the whale-watching capital of the state.
Sights and Recreation
The Bayfront and Harbor Depoe Bay is situated along a truly beautiful coastline that cannot be fully appreciated from the highway. A quarter-mile-long seawall and promenade invite a stroll. For a panorama of the harbor, continue along the sidewalks across the gracefully arching concrete bridge, designed by Conde McCullough and built in 1927. Other nice perspectives are offered from residential streets west of U.S. 101; try Ellingson Street, south of the bridge, and Sunset Street, at the north end of the bay. Two “spouting horns,” natural blowholes in the rocks north of the harbor entrance, can send plumes of spray 60 feet into the air when the tide and waves are right.
East of the bridge is Depoe Bay’s claim to international fame, the world’s smallest navigable natural harbor. This boat basin is also exceptional because it’s a harbor within a harbor. This topography is the result of wave action cutting into the basalt over eons until a 50-foot passageway leading to a six-acre inland lagoon was created. In addition to whale-watching, folks congregate on the bridge between the ocean and the harbor to watch boats maneuver into the enclosure. Depoe Bay’s Harbor was scenic enough to be selected as the site from which Jack Nicholson commandeered a yacht for his mental patient crew in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Whale Watching Center
Stop in at the Whale Watching Center (119 SW U.S. 101, 541/765-3304, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily summer, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Wed.–Sun. winter, free) where Oregon Parks rangers can help you spot whales and answer your questions about them. The center, located right on the seawall, is an ideal viewing spot. Peak viewing times are mid-December–January, when whales are migrating south; late March–early June, when they’re traveling north (mothers and babies generally come later in the season); and mid-July–early November, when resident whales feed off the coast. The least likely times to see whales from the central Oregon coast are mid-November–mid-December and mid-January–mid-March.
Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint
Boiler Bay, half a mile north of Depoe Bay, is so named because of the boiler left from the 1910 wreck of the J. Marhoffer. The ship caught fire three miles offshore and drifted into the bay. The remains of the boiler are visible at low tide. This rock-rimmed bay is a favorite spot for rock fishing, birding, and whale-watching. A trail leads down to some excellent tide pools.
This picturesque bay half a mile south of Depoe Bay has been scooped out of the sandstone bluffs. The tranquility of this calendar photo come to life is deceptive. There’s considerable evidence to suggest that this tiny embayment—and not California’s Marin County—was the site of Francis Drake’s 1579 landing, but the jury is still out. During Prohibition, bootleggers used the protected cove as a clandestine port. Rocky Creek State Scenic Viewpoint (800/551-6949) overlooks Whale Cove. There are picnic tables, and it’s a good spot for whale-watching, but there’s no beach access.
Otter Crest Loop
The rocky bluffs of this coastal stretch take on an even more dramatic aspect as you leave the highway at the Otter Crest Loop, a winding three-mile section of the old Coast Highway, two miles south of Depoe Bay.
From atop Cape Foulweather, the visibility can extend 40 miles on a clear day. The view south to Yaquina Head and its lighthouse is a photographer’s fantasy of headlands, coves, and offshore monoliths. Bronze plaques in the parking lot tell of Captain Cook naming the 500-foot-high headland during a bout with storm-tossed seas on March 7, 1778. Comic relief from the coast’s parade of historical plaques comes with another tablet bearing the inscription, “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.”
The Lookout (541/765-2270, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily), a gift shop on the north side of the promontory, is a good place to buy Japanese fishing floats for a few bucks. The million-dollar view from inside the shop is easily one of the most spectacular windows on the ocean to be found anywhere.
Another mile south, in the hamlet of Otter Rock, you’ll find another of the Oregon coast’s several diabolically named natural features, the Devil’s Punchbowl. The urn-like sandstone formation, filled with swirling water, has been sculpted by centuries of waves flooding into what had been a cave until its roof collapsed. The inexorable process continues today, thanks to the ebb and flow of the Pacific through two openings in the cauldron wall. A state park viewpoint gives you a ringside seat for this frothy confrontation between rock and tide. When the water recedes, you can see purple sea urchins and starfish in the tide pools of the Marine Gardens 100 feet to the north.
To the south of the Punchbowl vantage point are picnic tables and a wooden walkway down to the beach. Close by in tiny Otter Rock you’ll find a small Mo’s restaurant (122 1st St., 541/765-2442, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. daily, $4–16). Next door, the Flying Dutchman Winery (915 1st St., 541/765-2553, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. daily) makes limited batches of handcrafted wines from grapes grown in southern Oregon and the Willamette Valley (grapes won’t ripen on the coast).
Back on U.S. 101, a mile’s drive south brings you to Beverly Beach State Park.
Fishing and Whale-Watching Charters
With the ocean minutes from Depoe Bay’s port, catching a salmon or seeing a whale is possible as soon as you leave the harbor. Most charter operators here offer both fishing and whale-watching excursions. Bottom-fishing trips average $75 for a five-hour run, salmon fishing (available only when salmon season is open) about $130 for a seven- or eight-hour day; whale-watching excursions run $15–25 per person per hour. Dockside Charters (541/765-2545 or 800/733-8915) offers 1.5-hour whale-watching trips aboard its 50-foot excursion boat for $16 per adult and one-hour trips on Zodiacs for $25 per adult. Tradewinds Charters (541/765-2345 or 800/445-8730) hosts one- and two-hour trips December–May. Rates run $18–30 per adult on its fleet of 30–52-foot boats and 18-foot Zodiac.
If you’re itching to actually get into the water and catch a few waves, the beach at Otter Rock, a few miles south of Depoe Bay, is a good place to surf. Park in the lot at Devil’s Punchbowl land walk down to the beach, which is relatively protected and has a large area where beginners tend to hang out. (There’s also a section that gets bigger waves and better surfers.) Stop by Otter Rock Surf Shop (104 NE U.S. 101, 541/765-2776) for rental equipment or lessons.
Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Oregon.