Winter camping on the Oregon and Northern California coast can be a fun experience with the right planning.

Coastal campout

So you don't like camping in snow. Winter doesn't have to force you into a camping hiatus: Head to the coast for your next overnight adventure.

Winter camping offers a unique experience of the natural world that shouldn't be missed. While federal campgrounds are closed for the season, Oregon and California state parks on the coast are open year-round.

If you're willing to drive three to three-and-a-half hours from Medford, two little known gems await, one to the south and one the north.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is my favorite (winter coast camp spot)," says Bryant Helgeland of the Ashland Outdoor Store.

This park is located 25 miles south of Crescent City, Calif., and features trails through an old-growth redwood, hemlock and Douglas fir forest, and a beach for tent camping.

"It's less populated than other parks, and Fern Canyon is one of the most scenic hikes on the coast," says Helgeland.

The Fern Canyon trail is part of a trail system that winds and wends through the coastal rainforest. Fern Canyon is the most spectacular section, with 30-foot-high canyon walls covered in five-finger, deer, lady, sword and chain ferns.

"There's a resident elk herd that's a 10-minute hike from Fern Canyon," Helgeland adds.

The canyon's trailhead is about two miles north of the Gold Bluff Beach campground. The beach sports 11 miles of pristine, driftwood-covered sand, but camping is permitted only at the campground. Car camping costs $35 per night, but a hiker/biker site costs $5 per person for those who park at the visitor center and hike the 4.5 miles to the campground.

This beach campground is exposed during heavy weather, so a more sheltered alternative is the Elk Prairie Campground next to the visitor center.

A three-and-a-half hour drive to the north of Medford takes you to another popular winter beach camping area, the north spit of Coos Bay. The area is managed by the BLM, but it's not an official campground, so you won't find any facilities.

"If you don't need facilities and are self-contained, you can find some great tent spots on the sand tucked in to the trees," says Megan Harper, public information officer at the Coos Bay District. "It's definitely a four-wheel drive, wet-sand road, so don't bring an RV."

The north spit features hundreds of sandy acres suitable for camping and often gets sunny weather between winter storms.

"There's a boat launch there where you can get out and do some winter crabbing," Harper suggests. "The area is also popular for surfing, fishing and also for wildlife viewing and birding because of the mixture of sand dunes, dune lakes, forest — a mixture of environments."

Fishing and crabbing, though, require a current license from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Oregon State Parks on the coast are also open for the winter.

"It's generally much quieter. We get 10 percent of the numbers we get in the summer," says Chris Havel, spokesman for Oregon State Parks & Recreation. "People see more wildlife and catch a glimpse of different weather."

Visiting one of the many lighthouses on the Oregon Coast is a case in point.

"We get a lot of storm watchers who love to watch the ocean batter the coast in winter," says Havel. "To watch a lighthouse being battered by spray is to really see the forces of nature at work."

If you'd rather not experience the weather from a tent — most of the time the mercury is still above freezing on the coast — yurt and cabin rentals are still possible, and are usually not reserved as far in advance as they are in the other three seasons.

"Harris Beach State Park in Brookings is probably your best bet because they have the most yurts to choose from," explains Havel. "A couple weeks in advance you might even get in on a weekend, but weekdays are more likely to have vacancies."

Check the weather before you consider winter coastal camping, especially in a tent. The coast usually gets a few storms every winter with dangerously high winds.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at

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