Oregon’s whale watching season peaks twice a year: during winter (mid-December–mid-January) and spring (late February–May). That’s when as many as 20,000 gray whales migrate between the icy seas of Alaska and their breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico. (A couple hundred of these mammoth swimmers also stick around the Oregon Coast all year-round.)
Gray whales stretch between 40–50 feet (12–15 m) and weigh in around 30 tons (27 metric tons). The best approach is to scan the horizon with the naked eye for spouts, which can reach up to 12 feet (3.7 m). Once you’ve spied one, zero in on an active area with binoculars.
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Whale Watching Spoken Here program stations volunteers at 24 sites during peak migration times. The two annual Whale Watching Weeks are held the week after Christmas and the last week of March.
Whether you visit during those weeks or any time in winter or spring, grab some binoculars and head to one of these spectacular viewpoints.
Ecola State Park
Oregon’s top whale watching territory begins just north of Cannon Beach at jaw-dropping Ecola State Park. Spanning 9 miles (14.5 km) of prime coastal territory, this park offers unparalleled views of the Pacific’s cobalt blue gradient. Spotting whales is easiest in the morning light with the sun at your back, so get an early start. (From Portland, it’s a 90-minute drive on Highway 26 West.) Don’t forget your wallet: The park charges a year-round $5 day use fee. Built up an appetite staring out at the sea all day? Swing by Tom’s Fish & Chips in Cannon Beach for a hot seafood snack to complete the adventure.
Neahkahnie Mountain Viewpoint
Thirteen miles (20.9 km) south of Cannon Beach on Highway 101 you’ll reach the turnoff for this coastal peak. (It’s between mile markers 41 and 42, just north of Manzanita.) Neahkahnie Mountain is renowned for its remarkable views, legends of long-buried Spanish treasure and numerous whale sightings. If you’re hungry, fuel up with a couple of sandwiches from Manzanita’s Bread and Ocean Bakery.
Cape Meares Lighthouse
Pinpoint those blowholes from 200 feet (61 m) above the ocean at Cape Meares Lighthouse, erected in 1889. Admire Oregon’s largest Sitka spruce at the entrance to the park before enjoying a brisk walk to the lighthouse. If the whales don’t appear, the area offers conciliatory wildlife spotting. Check out the largest colony of nesting common murres (a penguin-like bird), as well as sea lions and seals. Since you’re in Tillamook, hit the famous Tillamook Cheese Factory and embark on a self-guided tour, complete with tasty samples.
Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center
If you’re up for a slightly longer trip, consider the 100-mile (160 km) drive to the Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center. Whale watching newbies will feel right at home as dedicated staff provide a wealth of tips and knowledge (along with plenty of binoculars). There’s even a heated indoor viewing area along the seawall to keep cold and stormy weather at bay. Bone up on your whale vocabulary as you observe these majestic beings blow, dive, spy hop and breach. Humpback, orca and blue whales have also been observed here, so arrive ready to nerd out on all things whale. Stave off a chill at Gracie’s Sea Hag with a hot buttered rum alongside a bowl of velvety clam chowder.