With its low hotel rates, secluded beaches, and sublime autumnal atmosphere, the locals call this time of year "Magic Season" in Cannon Beach.
It’s late afternoon at Cannon Beach, and Oregon’s windswept coast is at once moody and cozy. The gathering clouds over Haystack Rock—that iconic sea stack featured in such cult films as The Goonies—towers ahead as I warm my feet by the beach bonfire. I’m miles away from the bustling streets of New York, where the mounting summer heat has made the city feel like a sizzling frying pan. Amidst hot garbage smells and sweat-soaked subway rides, I’ve longed for the chilly weather of the Northwest, often losing myself to thoughts of knit sweaters and wine-fueled nights spent watching the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean.
“Another log?” I’m pulled from my reverie by a boyish teen smiling kindly and gesturing towards the waning fire. He is a staffer of the Surfsand Resort, a beachfront hotel that recalls the nostalgic days of family resort vacations. Since checking in, I’ve been lulled into a sort of dream-like state marked by cotton-candy skies, the sing-song of seabirds, and the crescendo of thunderstorms heading out to sea.
My partner and I arrived at Surfsand a mere two days prior and instantly realized this would be no ordinary stay. Sure, we expected beachfront views and impossibly fresh seafood, but I did not anticipate swooning at a list of resort activities ranging from nightly beach bonfires to weekend ice cream socials. Being two somewhat jaded New Yorkers, there’s something disarmingly sweet about Surfsand and its daily fresh cookie hour.
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The Surfsand Resort is located in Cannon Beach, a small coastal city in Northwest Oregon named one of the 100 Most Beautiful Places in the World. While the walkable town of Cannon Beach is host to a slew of art galleries and locally-owned shops, their biggest draw is the 235-foot-high Haystack Rock. More than a land formation, Haystack is home to dozens of nesting puffins, seabirds, and star-fish studded pools that become a tourist draw when tides are low. Staying at Surfsand puts you steps away from Haystack Rock, which means early-risers can peer at anemones and enjoy empty beaches before the crowds arrive.
We’ve come to Cannon Beach after spending two days at the historic Heathman Hotel in downtown Portland. For 48 hours, we roamed the dizzying stacks of Powell’s City of Books (the largest independent bookstore in the world), inhaled the intoxicating aroma of flowers at the city’s International Rose Test Garden, and sipped on craft beers at one of Portland’s many breweries. Of the many attractions that Portland boasts, I’m the most envious of the city’s proximity to Cannon Beach, which is only a short 90-minute drive away. New York may have the Hamptons and Finger Lakes, but neither come close to the awe-inspiring rugged coastline of Oregon.
With the bonfire now blazing, I awkwardly balance my wine in one hand and a marshmallow roasting stick in the other. Surfsand offers free nightly bonfires for guests, but for an additional $50, the staff will build you a private one complete with a s’mores kit. I think of the many times I’ve seemingly tossed $50 to the wind back in New York—having wasted money on subpar take-out or overpriced cocktails—and instantly rationalize that now is not the time to be stingy. With a wine bottled ordered from The Wayfarer (Surfsand’s on-site restaurant), we watch the sunset with sticky marshmallow fingers and wine-soaked lips.
A quick note on The Wayfarer: I’m not one to religiously commit to room service when staying at a hotel. Instead, I prefer to scour a destination in search of gleaming examples of its local cuisine. This changes when I check into Surfsand and surprise myself by ordering (and continue ordering) from The Wayfarer. With our room’s balcony in full view of Haystack Rock, my favorite pastime quickly becomes eating fresh seafood while donning a fluffy robe in the comfort of our room.
Sitting cross-legged near our in-room fireplace, I order the Wayfarer Clam Bake, which comes brimming with Dungeness crab legs, local manila clams, wild white prawns, andouille sausage, red potatoes, and corn tossed in an Old Bay butter. Without other restaurant patrons in view, I let crab shells go flying like shrapnel as I tear into the buttery legs and wash them down with white wine.
Between slow mornings and even slower evenings at Surfsand, it is during the day that we embrace the natural beauty that Cannon Beach offers. Nearby Ecola State Park stretches across nine miles of coastline, offering a veritable bounty of hiking, tide pooling, surfing, and wildlife spotting activities. Even closer is the Arcadia Beach State Recreation Site, which rests just a mile south of town. Anchored by Humbug point to the north and Hug Point to the south, this stretch of beach is home to ocean-carved caves and sandstone bluffs.
At low tide, you can walk along the rocky ledges at each end to cross over to the beach on the other side. On the day we decide to do this, we hug the slick wall of Humbug point until the ground beneath us shifts from rock to sand. We walk along the water’s edge, stumbling across shimmering beached moon jellyfish, which decorate the gray-black sand-like holiday ornaments. It’s not a tropical beach with verdant palm trees and cerulean waters, but to me, it’s better. Every cliché and beloved fall trope seems to apply to the moody theme of Oregon’s beaches. The only thing missing? Pumpkin spice and a true-crime podcast.
This being the final days of summer, the weather in Cannon Beach is teetering on fall with gloomy clouds and chilly temperatures. A light rain threatens to derail our bonfire but quickly evolves into a refreshing mist carrying the scent of saltwater with it. For some, this melancholy weather might be a deterrent, but for us, it is exactly the reason we have flown across the country. During our stay, the weather in Cannon Beach remains a perfect blend of warm and cool, making it ideal for daytime hiking and evening bonfires. By midday, it’s balmy enough to peel off our sweaters and walk along the beach in a t-shirt. By evening, it’s cool enough to snuggle under blankets in the glow of a bonfire.
The dog days of summer at Cannon Beach are amongst the busiest, especially in July when tourists flock to Oregon’s coast for warm-weather activities. During the high season, congested restaurants, crowded beaches, and high-rate hotel rooms can make a visit both loud and expensive. According to the Cannon Beach tourism site, the best time to visit is in the fall and winter during what they refer to locally as “the magic season.”
During this low season, room rates drop, and the sprawling beaches suddenly become more secluded. While the summer months belong to the ice-cream-covered children and their doting parents, it seems the off-season is one for the artists and dreamers looking for nothing more but to bask in the quiet power of the Pacific Ocean.
Our fire now distilled down to glowing embers; I already miss the feeling of being at Cannon Beach. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up before daybreak to make the 90-minute drive back to Portland to return our rental car and fly to New York. By this time tomorrow, I’ll be in Queens, falling asleep to the harsh cacophony of city sounds rather than to the tranquil tempo of ocean waves.
Leaning back into my beach chair, I reach for my partner’s hand as I bring my wine glass to my lips. The sun is now gone, Haystack Rock stands like a ghostly silhouette against a darkening sky. The Pacific Ocean is at once beautiful and intimidating in its vastness, while all along the beach glowing bonfires dot the sand like stars in a night sky. It’s the perfect ending to our trip and the ideal beginning to what is truly a magical season.