The Oregon Coast

Experiences from a bucket list shoot – The Oregon Coast

Haceta Head Lighthouse
Haceta Head Lighthouse


Walking through the rolling surf coming in and walking on top of the jagged lava rock was difficult enough, but carrying a tripod with a camera attached in the process made the task even more difficult…


Photographing the Oregon Coast has been on my “wish list” ever since I saw the captivating images of the beautiful seascapes with those ominous sea stacks in sharp silhouette to a dusky sky.  When I happened upon a posting from Jim Harmer from Improve Photography  about a photo tour of the area I jumped at the chance. In anticipation of the trip I wondered how I would photograph these iconic features in a unique way when so many before me had made so many stunning images of them.  Sometimes you have to just go with the flow and see what presents itself to your eye.

As the day approached I was both excited and nervous.  The nervous part surprised me.  I travel extensively for work, often alone.  And when traveling for pleasure I almost always travel with my wife.  This time I was traveling alone, for pleasure, to meet 50 or more other photographers, none of whom I knew.  We would be photographing in a natural shoreline setting mostly.  An area to which I had never traveled and about which I knew little.  Would there be walking paths or would we be traversing treacherous terrain?  Honestly I think the nervousness only added to the excitement. Then I realized, I would be much more nervous if I attempted this trip solo without the support of a group.  My wife had no interest in joining me on a photo excursion, and I don’t know what kind of success I would have had convincing any photo buddies to make the trip.  Here I would have the security of many like-minded artists in my company.  This occurred to me on the flight out, and removed any lingering concerns I may have had. I flew into Portland the night before and had dinner with friends I had not seen in years.

The next morning I headed south toward our meeting place in Gold Beach but planned on stopping at Cape Perpetua south of Yachats on the way down to hopefully capture Thor’s Well. As it turned out several of the photographers in our group planned on doing the same.

Searching for Thor’s Well

Ever since seeing my first image of Thor’s Well it was on my dream shoot list. So of course it was a top priority for this trip even though I was not exactly sure where it was or how I would find it.   After driving back and forth around the area where my map app said it would be (in the Cape Perpetua area) I was having no luck spotting it, and it is not identified on the official park map.  As I drove around I noticed a park ground’s keeper in one of the parking lots and stopped to ask if he knew where I could find it.  Sometimes the universe provides what you seek.  He was very pleasant and helpful, and provided key information.  He told me to park in the parking lot for Cook’s Chasm, follow the fairly short and easy hike down to the water and walk out about 50 yards.   He also explained that the best time to see the water flowing into the “well” was about one hour before high tide.  Normal high tide is about 7-8 feet but high tide the day I was there was unusually high at about 10 feet due to the new moon.  High tide was going to be at 11am this day so best viewing would be around 10am, or maybe even earlier due to the super high tide.

I arrived at this area at about 7:30am and decided to scout it out. All the rocks looked the same and I still couldn’t find the well.  It was early so I thought it might be easier to find once the tide started to come in.  I decided to drive around and get familiar with the area for a while, returning to the area about an hour and a half before high tide. When I returned to the area I changed into my wader boots, threw my gear pack on, grabbed my tripod and headed down the trail.  As I walked down the trail, basking in the excitement of the great images I anticipated making, I realized how long it had been since I had spent any real time out in nature, time more than a few hours.

I have always been amazed by the smells of nature and how the air has a distinct smell in different parts of the country and different climatic environments, and the Oregon coast is no exception.  The smell was of forest floor and the sea and crisp air.  The bird cries in the background just added to the moment. As I got down to the water I was overwhelmed by the beauty, and the multitude of scenes to photograph.  You know how when you are completely absorbed in an activity time seems to fly by.  Well I had been photographing all the beautiful scenery and realized it was almost high tide. I needed to get out to Thor’s Well!  Some of the other photographers in the group had located it.

Thor’s Well

Walking through the rolling surf coming in and walking on top of the jagged lava rock was difficult enough, but carrying a tripod with a camera attached in the process made it even more difficult.  As I walked over to the area I realized that in order to get the angle I needed, I needed to get close, and the closer I got the more treacherous the waves became.  I tried my best to time my advance to the shoot spot with the rolling wave sets.  Finally I decided to make my move.  I had decided on and set my exposure before venturing out.  I got into position, found a stable footing for my tripod on the jagged rocks, framed my composition and got off 3-4 frames within about 15-20 seconds just before getting slammed by a very unassuming rogue wave.  It rolled up breaching my 18 inch wading boots as I grabbed my tripod with the camera attached and lifted it over my head to try to protect it.  The wave still splashed my body and camera in salt spray.  As the wave receded I struggled to maintain my balance.  I saw my life (and my camera’s life) flash before my eyes. Finally I recovered my senses and decided it was time to move the heck out of there. I high-tailed it to shore, up the trail to the parking area and to my car.  I wiped my camera and lens with a cloth dampened with fresh water and then with a dry cloth.  I was happy I came prepared.  Then I just prayed that I had not ruined my equipment before the excursion had even started.  Fortunately everything worked fine.  First disaster averted, and a decent image created to boot!

Thor's Well, Oregon Coast
Thor’s Well, Oregon Coast

Before leaving the area I stopped the get some images of the Heceta Head Lighthouse but due to the time of day the lighting was unappealing. Just down the road from the lighthouse is a pull off overlook.  There I found a colony of sea lions on the rocks and several clusters of sea lions in the water all floating together on their sides with their one flipper up in the air which seemed like a very unusual formation.  I struck up a conversation with one of the locals who was there observing the seals and he said he had never seen them do that before.  It did look kind of interesting.

As I continued the drive south on the beautiful winding Pacific Coast Scenic Byway (101) I encountered a lone bicyclist in the middle of the road on a blind curve in a 55 mph speed zone!  Yikes! I fortunately managed to avoid hitting him but I thought “not a smart move”, especially since there was about a 1000 foot drop off at the edge of the road. Whew!

The trip was full of learning opportunities, not the least of which is the fact that it is illegal to pump your own gas in Oregon ( and also New Jersey apparently).  After pulling up to the pump I got out of the car, swiped the card and started pumping away.  There wasn’t anyone else around.  After a few minutes a young woman walked out of the building and over to me and informed me that pumping my own gas is illegal.  I had no idea.  Fortunately she didn’t turn me in.  You learn something new every day.

From our base camp at Gold Beach over the next few days we photographed several spectacular locations in the area.  The first evening we drove just south to Cape Sebastian State Park (Boardman) where there were several really great areas to explore and photograph.  Unfortunately due to my knees already acting up from the up and down of the trail at Thor’s Well, I was not able to make it down to the area known as Secret Beach via a rather treacherous trail one of our photographers found.  It wasn’t until much later I found out there was a much safer trail that would have brought me to the same area with a little longer hike.  Instead I shot from a cliff overlooking Thunder Cove.

Thunder Cove - Oregon Coast
Thunder Cove – Oregon Coast

The Elusive Green Flash…

For years I have heard about “The Green Flash”.  If you haven’t heard of it, it is a phenomenon that occurs under just the right circumstances when the sun sets over the ocean, or a nice unobstructed horizon, and as the sun disappears into the horizon, at the very last moment of light, the light turns a bright green just for a nanosecond before it disappears completely.  It has always been part myth and part fantasy in my mind, but I have always been on the lookout for it when the opportunity presented itself.  Well that evening on the cliff overlooking Thunder Cove as I watched the sun set I peered intently through the 200mm lens on my camera and BAM!  There is was, at the last moment of life for the day, just before the last vestiges of the sun disappeared into the ocean, I saw it.  For a split second I stared in disbelief as what I had just witnessed sunk in.  I love that feeling of excitement you get when you experience something special and it doesn’t get much more special than that moment. And no, I did not capture it with my camera.  It happens so fast I don’t know how you could.  And I wasn’t going to risk missing the moment.  I just stopped and set my attention on the moment.

Geological “Roots” of the Sea Stacks.

Based on a little research it appears the history of the sea stacks is not clear but it’s widely believed that they stem from a lava flow somewhere between 5 million and 25 million years ago, made from Columbia River Basalts.  Apparently the same material that makes up many of the sea stacks and most of the mountains south of the Columbia River.  Sea stacks along the southern coast of Oregon may be made up of sandstone or other materials.  Of course over the eons these rock formations wave been eroded by wind and sea to the magnificent formations we see today.

No climbing required…

Along the coast south of Gold Beach is an area called Myers Beach.  Unfortunately I noticed this beach as I was leaving the area and did not get a chance to shoot there.  What caught my attention is that this beach is at road level and did not require hiking down the side of a cliff to get to.  There were several large sea stacks just off shore that made a striking silhouette against the fading dusk sky.  Definitely an area I have marked in my memory to return to next time.  I wish I had noticed this area earlier, my knees would have been very grateful.


As I mentioned, I was in the company of a large group of photographers on this trip.  We typically split into small groups and targeted different areas to shoot so that no one area was overrun by 50+ photographers.  Most nights there was a particular restaurant identified for those in the group who wanted to eat together.  It was mostly pizza and local family run restaurants. We usually fended for ourselves for lunch.  One day I went to lunch with a photographer I had met and with whom I had shot at some of the locations.  We went to a restaurant in Port Oxford called the Crazy Norwegian.  A small place but the food was fantastic and the staff were great!   I had the Fried Oyster PoGirl.  It was amazing!  So good in fact I went back the next day and had it again.  The owner, Dianne, was warm and friendly.  If you are ever in that area I highly recommend stopping in to sample their great food.


We were relatively close to an area with some Redwoods called Jedadiah Smith State Park.  The group planned to meet there early Saturday morning but I had been up late the night before and not being a morning person to begin with, headed out a little later than the rest of the group and unfortunately missed them by the time I got down there.  I wished I had made the effort to get to the location earlier because I had missed the best of the light by the time I arrived.  It was still an exhilarating experience seeing those magnificent sentinels for the first time.  I have added a return to the Redwoods on my next trip to this area.


Parting Shot

On the last evening, before visiting the Redwoods Saturday morning, I had what I can only describe as a magical moment.  I had been shooting the Haceta Head Lighthouse at sunset with some success.  I got word that some of the photographers earlier had gone farther up the trail to a higher vantage point to shoot the lighthouse but with my knees in the condition they were I didn’t want to chance pushing any higher on a much steeper trail.  Knowing that for every step I took going up I would have a step coming down and the hiking down was more painful, I decided to stay where I was. After the sun had set and the light was going out of the sky I decided to head down the trail and back to the parking area.  At the bottom of the trail it was a short walk to the parking lot across the beach.  As I walked across the beach in the falling light I looked out over the sea and the scene in from of me, and it took my breath away.  A beautiful silhouette of sea stacks, cliffs and trees against a Technicolor sky. I stopped, set up my tripod and shot there for the next 30 minutes, waiting until it was dark enough to see some stars. By that time the place was deserted. It was a magical feeling standing there in the dark, alone with this spectacular site. This is the last frame I took. I didn’t even notice the shooting star until I viewed the image on my computer screen when I got home. This image for me seemed to sum up the whole experience of that week…spectacular!

Magical Twilight on the Oregon Coast
Magical Twilight

A fitting end to an indescribable week.  How could it get any better than this, and then…

Surprise Ending

As I was driving back to Portland I had stopped at an overlook to absorb as much of this beautiful coastline as I could, knowing I would soon be on a plane back home.  Before driving off I checked my phone for emails and read an email stating that I was the winner of a drawing for a Death Valley photo workshop.  I remembered filling out the form for the drawing some time back but as I read it I thought “this must be some kind of computer glitch”, thinking their email program had mistakenly sent this email to everyone who entered and sure I would get a follow up “Oops” email.  Then I did get a follow up email, but it was another “congratulations” with instructions to respond if I could accept my prize or they would have to go to the alternate winner next on the drawn names.  I think I went into a brief period of shock. I could not believe what I was reading.  I knew I had some critical trip scheduled for work around that time so I checked my work calendar quickly and was very relieved to find I was open for the workshop days!   I remember my fingers shaking as I typed the response, yes, yes, yes, I will absolutely be there!   It seemed almost impossible that I was going to get to check off two big bucket list items in the span of about 6 weeks, after waiting a lifetime.  Surely this was a sign, a sign telling me to pursue my dreams.

Don’t forget to check out the post about my Death Valley adventure. If this post appeals to your sense of adventure, love of travel, joy of photography or you just liked reading it, please take a moment to subscribe to my blog.  You’ll get notified whenever I have a new post or information about upcoming events!

Joe Vargas

I am an established, award winning photographer based in Tampa, Florida with a love of travel, stunning landscapes, fine art, food and wine, among other things. My photography career spans over 40 years and included weddings, portraiture and family photography early in my career. In the last five years I have focused more on fine art, travel and landscape photography, and photography workshops covering a broad range of topics. My latest endeavors include fine art travel and landscape photography. This is an exciting time in photography with a constantly changing landscape of technology, equipment and software that has expanded the artistic possibilities for those photographers willing to put in the time and effort to launch their creative passions.
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