Tucked between the hills and sea stacks along Oregon’s Highway 101 lies Depoe Bay, a small town that packs everything quintessentially “Oregon Coast” into an area less than two square miles. Practically a one-road community, Depoe Bay’s main drag is the highway that runs along the seawall overlooking the Pacific Ocean and over the Depoe Bay Bridge, marking the entrance to Depoe Bay Harbor. While not a place most boat owners will cruise to on their own, this is slice of Oregon often talked about and visited, even by the characters of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) during their iconic fishing trip.
The harbor is the salty heart of the place. Billed as the world’s smallest navigable harbor, it is the base for much of the town’s tourism-driven economy. All day long, boats that double as whale watching or fishing charters zip in and out of the challenging bar entrance to the harbor. A row of boutiques and galleries face the Pacific, which provides an unbeatable view of the never-ending horizon. Hotels perch on nearby cliffs, the perfect escape from both cramped boat cabins and greater civilization, flaunt the best views around.
Depoe Bay was once occupied by coastal Native American tribes, who hunted seals and fished there long before recorded history. The town’s namesake was a man from the Joshua tribe named Charlie Depoe, who owned 200 acres around Depoe Bay. Depoe was a community leader among the tribes of the Siletz and earned the title of chief. The land that Charlie and his wife Minnie owned was sold several times before being acquired by an investment company in the 1920s.
Today, Depoe Bay is quieter than the bustling resort town envisioned by the original developers, but that’s what gives the community its charm. A whole day can be spent passing in and out of its shops and eateries, with the only time commitment being your scheduled whale watching charter. The coastal storms are more exciting than anything on TV, and the seafood is as fresh as it gets. The fact that it’s a town that makes its living taking visitors out onto the water and introducing them to the fun that can be had on the ocean is reason enough to fall a little bit in love with this smallest of harbors.
As far as moorage goes, Depoe Bay Harbor does accept transient vessels, but it’s not called the World’s Smallest Harbor for no reason. The entrance is 50 feet wide with a mean depth of 8 feet. The Coast Guard recommends that you study the channel before trying to enter the harbor. Additionally, the Depoe Bay Bridge has a clearance of approximately 42 feet, potentially limiting some adventurous boaters who would want to make a go of it. Of course, the entrance involves a bar crossing that needs to be considered ere risk mortal danger. Moorage and safety information can be found at cityofdepoebay.org.
Wonderful Whale Watching
Depoe Bay is considered by many to be the whale watching capital of Oregon because of the resident population of gray whales and the nearly constant stream of migrating whale species that journey through the area. Keep an eye out for humpbacks, blues, orcas, and gray whales, which will often feed right off the coast and can be viewed from the Whale Watching Center, a free center located along the Depoe Bay seawall. The Center’s staff is ready to answer questions about whales and help you spot them.
If you want to get a little closer to the action, there are many whale watching charter companies that will take you out for the perfect picture. Tradewind Charters has been offering whale watching tours since 1938 and continues today. Whale Research EcoExcursions offers tours led by trained marine biologists, while Whale Tail Charters LLC takes smaller groups of two to six in zodiac boats. Dockside Charters Inc. can accommodate large groups in their 50-foot Delta charter boats. If you’re a whale watching fan, Depoe Bay should be next on your list.
Glimpses of Nature
The Oregon Coast will always be known for its stunning beaches and sea stack rock formations. There are lookout points with incredible views dotting the area around Depoe Bay, and several unique parks and natural areas. A ten-minute drive by taxi or rideshare to the south is the Devil’s Punchbowl, a bowl-shaped rock formation that swirls with water and spray at high tide. When powerful storms hit the bowl, the frothing water resembles a bubbling pot or punchbowl, bestowing the formation its name.
Boiler Bay is a four-minute drive away, and the lookout offers panoramic views of the coast and the occasional glimpse of gray whales. The bay received its name after the J. Marhoffer caught fire and exploded in the bay. The ship’s boiler can still be seen at low tide and approached on foot during extreme lows. Fogarty Creek is a five-minute drive from Depoe Bay, featuring a beautiful beach bisected by a creek running down from the coastal hills. And, don’t forget to stroll along the local Depoe Bay Scenic Park at the water’s edge, ending at a beautiful cove complete with benches where you can sit back and take it all in.
Fishing, Cuckoo’s Nest-Style
The biggest tourist draw to Depoe Bay is the ocean, and anyone who is not whale watching is probably deep-sea fishing. Ling cod, halibut, coho salmon, Chinook salmon, tuna, rockfish, and crab populate the local waters, and charter companies are eager to get you out on the water. Dockside Charters can take large groups or smaller parties and can even do wedding parties and memorials. They offer daily charters if weather permits and have price packages for lingcod, salmon, halibut, rockfish, and albacore tuna fishing.
Once you return from your trip, you can clean and vacuum seal your catch in Dockside’s facility, ensuring long-term freshness. Tradewinds Charters provides similar fishing packages and offer discounts for children under 12. They have a fleet of ten boats and can accommodate everyone from individuals to large groups.
Most of the action in Depoe Bay runs along Highway 101, also called the Oregon Coast Highway. Many galleries, gift shops, and boutiques line the street, fronting display windows to attract customers. It’s hard not to be drawn to Ainslee’s Salt Water Taffy, offering dozens of flavors of taffy made right in front of you in the shop; with over 60 years of history, Ainslee’s has been a staple of Depoe Bay for several generations.
Sparks Gallery displays the wildlife paintings of local artist Justin Sparks. The Waves End store sells shoes, T-shirts, and Oregon Coast souvenirs. Knock Your Socks Off sells, you guessed it, a huge selection of socks. For all your souvenir needs, head to Joan E Gifts, Gray Whale Gifts and LaVoy’s. It’s easy to hop from one shop to the next as you make your way down the oceanfront strip.
Safe Storm Watching
A favorite Depoe Bay pastime is relaxing in oceanfront rooms with a warm drink and taking in a powerful winter storm. The town of Depoe Bay and its infamous harbor are small, but the grand storms that blow in from the Pacific are the opposite and provide a dramatic backdrop that is worth taking in. More adventurous visitors can venture out into the elements to see the storm up close and personal.
Boiler Bay state park and viewpoint, located about a mile from Depoe Bay, provides a fantastic outlook for storm watching. The state-owned Devil’s Punchbowl is also a great viewing spot. The natural bowl shape of the rock formation amplifies the force of the waves and throws them into the air in a spectacular water show. For the best storm watching, plan a visit in the winter months between November and March. Always be sure to follow safe practices by wearing waterproof clothes, staying far away from the reach of the waves, and heading inside if you catch a glimpse of lightning.