This town is one part of the coast where the action is definitely away from the ocean. To lure people from Oregon’s superlative ocean shores, the Rogue estuary has been bestowed with many blessings. First, the gold-laden black sands were mined in the 1850s and 1860s. While this short-lived boom era gave Gold Beach its name, the arrival of Robert Hume, later known as the Salmon King of the Rogue, had greater historical significance. By the turn of the 20th century, Hume’s canneries were shipping out some 16,000 cases of salmon per year and established the river’s image as a leading salmon and steelhead stream. This reputation was later enhanced by outdoorsman and novelist Zane Grey in his Rogue River Feud and other writings. Over the years, Herbert Hoover, Winston Churchill, Ginger Rogers (who had a home on the Rogue), Clark Gable, Jack London, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter, among other notables, have come here to try their luck. During the last several decades, boat tours focusing on the abundant wildlife, scenic beauty, and fascinating lore of the region have hooked other sectors of the traveling public.
Today, Gold Beach is a town of about 2,000 and the Curry County seat. Gold Beach serves as the south coast tourism hub, but a pulp mill and commercial ocean fishing industry round out the local economy. The seasonal nature of many local businesses creates serious wintertime unemployment. This fact, combined with torrential rains, drastically reduces the population of Gold Beach from Thanksgiving until spring. Thereafter, the wildflowers and warm weather transform this town into a vacation mecca.
At the north end of town, just before the road gives way to Conde McCullough’s elegant Patterson Bridge, the harbor comes into view on the left, full of salmon trawlers, jet boats, pelicans, and seals bobbing up and down. Across the bridge is Wedderburn, a baby sister to Gold Beach named for the Scottish birthplace of Robert Hume.
The driftwood-strewn strand of South Beach, just south of Gold Beach’s harbor, is convenient but only so-so. You’ll find more exciting stretches both north and south of town. Tidepoolers might want to stop at the visitors center before heading out to ask for the Tide Pools Are Alive brochure, with tips and species descriptions. Two miles south, there’s easy access to a nice beach and some tidepooling at tiny Buena Vista State Park, at the mouth of Hunter Creek. Seven miles south of Gold Beach, there’s more tidepooling amid the camera-friendly basalt sea stacks at beautiful Myers Creek Beach, part of Pistol River State Park south of Cape Sebastian. The south side of Cape Sebastian and Pistol River State Park, a couple of miles farther south, are the best places on the Oregon coast for windsurfers to enjoy wave sailing. The beaches around Pistol River are also great places to find razor clams.
Bailey Beach, north of town between the Rogue River jetty and Otter Point, is another popular spot for razor clamming, and Nesika Beach, seven miles north of Gold Beach, is another good tidepooling destination.
Seven miles south of Gold Beach is Cape Sebastian. This spectacular windswept headland was named by Sebastián Vizcaíno, who plied offshore waters here for Spain in 1602 along with Manuel d’Alguilar. At 720 feet above the sea, Cape Sebastian is the highest south coast overlook reachable by a paved public road. On a clear day, visibility extends 43 miles north to Humbug Mountain and 50 miles south to California. This is one of the best perches along the south coast for whale-watching. A trail zigzags through beautiful springtime wildflowers down the south side of the cape for about two miles until it reaches the sea. In April and May, Pacific paintbrushes, Douglas irises, orchids, and snow queens usher you along. In addition, Cape Sebastian supports a population of large-headed goldfields, a summer-blooming yellow daisy-like flower found only in coastal Curry County.
In 1942, a caretaker heard Japanese voices drifting across the water through the fog. When the mist lifted, he looked down from Cape Sebastian trail to see a surfaced submarine. This sighting, together with the Japanese bombing at Brookings and the incendiary balloon spotted over Cape Blanco, sent shock waves up the south coast. But the potential threat remained just that, and local anxiety eventually subsided.
At the Curry County Historical Museum (29419 S. Ellensburg Ave., 541/247-9396, 10am-4pm Tues.-Sat., closed Jan., $2), the local historical society has assembled a small collection of exhibits on Indian and pioneer life, mining in the region’s golden age, logging, fishing, and agriculture. It’s located at the county fairgrounds at the south edge of town. Particularly interesting are a realistic reconstruction of a miner’s cabin, vintage photos, and Indian petroglyphs.
In the harbor area on the west side of U.S. 101, Jerry’s Jetboats has assembled the best regional museum on the south coast, the Rogue River Museum (29980 Harbor Way, 541/247-4571, 8am-9pm summer, 8am-6pm fall-spring, free). Centuries of natural and human history are depicted. In addition to geologic history, the museum contains photos of pioneer families, arrowheads and other native artifacts, and a taxidermy collage of local critters to round out your introduction to the Rogue Valley. Jerry’s river tour clientele will find that perspectives from the museum on the local salmon industry in the 1920s and on early river travel are expanded upon in their jet-boat guide’s commentary. Museum photos of early river runs-hauling freight, passengers, and mail—can impart a sense of history to your trip upriver or up the road.
From U.S. 101, two miles south of town, you can pick up Hunter’s Creek Road, which loops north through the forest, finally following the course of the Rogue back into Gold Beach along Jerry’s Flat Road. The three-hour drive follows Hunter’s Creek inland for several miles, passing several picnic areas and campgrounds.
Other roads less traveled include the old Coast Highway, which you can pick up near Pistol River and Brookings; the Shasta Costa Road paralleling the Rogue from Gold Beach to Galice; and an unpaved summer-only road into the Rogue Wilderness from Agness (a town upriver on the Rogue) to Powers. Despite most of these routes being paved (except the last one), they are all narrow, winding, and not suitable for trailers or motor homes. Maps and directions to these back roads can be obtained from the Gold Beach Ranger Station (29279 Ellensburg Ave., 541/247-3600, 8am-5pm Mon.-Fri.).
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Coastal Oregon.