When I was a teenager, I frequently heard my father utter the phrase, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” At the time, those words seemed like complete nonsense and carried no weight. Age and experience would eventually reveal their intended meaning, and a recent stay at The Mill Casino on Coos Bay, Oregon brought them back to me.
The Mill serves as my home base for adventure in the area at least twice a year—more when I am able. It’s centrally located, I love the dining and live entertainment options, and no place has softer bath towels. No place! It’s always easy to strike up a casual conversation over drinks at Whitecaps lounge, as is my routine after getting settled into my room. Recently, a friendly local who shares a love for coastal exploration became my happy hour compatriot. I mentioned how I love the area’s ruggedly beautiful, pristine and dramatic coastline. Pleasant discourse quickly transitioned into an open-floodgate conversation. I was excited but also a bit embarrassed to realize, as this friendly stranger painted a vivid picture, how many of my favorite places possessed still-unfamiliar attributes. How had I missed all this? I took notes and with great pleasure set out to see all of it for myself.
I had driven right through Sunset Bay State Park countless times on my way to Shore Acres and Cape Arago. It certainly looked scenic from the car window, and given its name, I assumed it was a wonderful place to take in the close of day. All true, but here’s what I missed in my haste: While the pair of aforementioned parks to the south are known for their epic oceanic tumult, Sunset Bay, a stone’s throw away, is an entirely different world. A set of opposing, tree-topped cliffs extend out in a protective, purposeful-looking coastal embrace. The result is a bay filled with still, tranquil Pacific waters that welcome paddling, fishing and swimming or lying out on the Bay’s inviting sandy beach. It’s a popular camping destination thanks to its variety of accommodations—dozens of full-hookup or electrical sites, dozens more sites for tent camping, group tent camping areas, even pet-friendly yurts. Yurts! There’s even a trail connecting with Shore Acres, directly to the south.
This is where I always go for nature’s big show. Even if Shore Acres weren’t home to the Northwest’s most captivating and awe-inspiring display of wave-crashing power, the timeless beauty of the eroding sandstone cliffs would still entice visitors from afar. The park itself was once the estate of timber baron Louis Simpson and features a formal garden, a Japanese-style garden—including a lily pond—and two rose gardens. Word has it that there’s something in bloom every single day, no matter the time of year. A short, winding trail leads down to a peaceful cove at Simpson Beach. The timber baron’s mansion isn’t there anymore, but on the same site is a fully enclosed observation building where visitors can watch the ocean and read about the history of the Simpson estate. Mother Nature managed to somehow bookend the thunder with tranquility.
Literally at the end of the road out of Coos Bay, I’ve always enjoyed going to Cape Arago to take in panoramic views and enjoy a picnic. But there is so much more. A short hike leads to the exquisite, lightly visited beach and tide pools of the South Cove. Another trail leads to the North Cove, teeming with sea lions. It’s an actual, designated National Wildlife Refuge. I had only a couple hours, but I could have watched the sea lions all day. And yet another path, the Pack Trail, ascends high into the park before dropping down to a World War II bunker site—no kidding—and connecting with the trail system that explores all three state parks.
I knew where it was. I always noticed the signage as I entered the homestretch of my drive to The Mill. But I always stayed the course, paying no mind to the rising dunes in the distance. Yet again, to my own folly, because on the other side of those dunes beckons a beautiful beach, perfect for walking. In fact, Sunset Magazine named Horsfall one of its top 10 walking beaches, and running legend Steve Prefontaine—you might know of him as “Pre”—used to train there. Perhaps somewhat alarmingly named, Horsfall is, in fact, a vast, uninterrupted stretch of unspoiled coast that is heaven for dogs as well as their owners. The rolling inland dunes are also perfect for anyone who enjoys an exhilarating off-highway vehicle ride. My happy-hour acquaintance said if I visit after a winter storm, I just might see a newly revealed old shipwreck. The weather has ways of turning up these things at Horsfall—the steamship Sujameco, which ran aground in heavy fog back in 1929, is spotted most often.
I had no idea this place existed. But I’m thrilled to know about it now, and here’s why: The Cape Arago Lighthouse has always taunted me. Try as I might, I could never really line up a good shot of it without the risk of traipsing across private property. Imagine my delight to learn that the most perfectly framed view of the lighthouse could be gained from a long stretch of beach coveted by locals and surfers. The aptly named Lighthouse Beach is just enough of a secret that if you pick the right day you can have it to yourself. However, it is frequented by those in the know to the extent that a well-worn path exists, skirting private property and arriving at a divine parcel of coast worthy of its own resort.
I’ve stayed at The Mill and explored the Coos Bay area probably 10 times or more over the last handful of years. And while I might not have considered myself an expert on the place, I thought I had a pretty good lay of the land. As it turns out, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Digging deeper into the phrase, I realized even after you possess a familiarity or understanding of something, there’s always more to it. Always. More to explore, more to understand, more to appreciate. Which reminds me of another adage: The older I get, the more right my father becomes.