storm waves lighthouse

Photo: Courtesy Justin Larson

Terrible Tilly The Tillamook Head lighthouse bears the brunt of Oregon’s storm waves.

“IT IS GOING TO RAIN BUCKETS AND BLOW to 60 miles per hour.” How’s that for a vacation forecast? Perfect, actually, when you’re going storm watching.

One day later, I’m getting sandblasted on a deserted stretch of the Oregon beach, with nothing but dunes, waves, and a single pickup truck in sight. The wind whips my hair into a ropey mess, the rain falls in sheets from every possible direction. That forecast, from a local weather buff, was right on the money.

Storm-watching vacations begin online, but not on Orbitz. The National Weather Service in Portland is the authority on the coastline, updating a color-coded map with conditions from Florence, halfway down the Oregon coast, to Washington’s Long Beach peninsula. Today it sports the hot pink of a Gale Warning, the dusty rose of a Small Craft Advisory, and the burnt orange of a High Wind Watch.

I’m 25 miles south of where the Columbia River dumps into the Pacific, in Cannon Beach. Once a struggling logging town sitting under picturesque Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach has adopted the art-colony feel of California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea. Its well-appointed beach houses would be at home on Cape Cod, and the flashiest spot is the tony Coaster Theatre Playhouse, which puts on crowd-pleasers year-round like Annie Get Your Gun and Boeing-Boeing. Eight miles north, Seaside bustles with all the trappings of a shore retreat—saltwater taffy purveyors, a boardwalk, fast food.

From May to September, the sands fill with the usual summer crowds, but in the wet winter months the towns settle into seasonal hibernation. To popularize winter travel on the stormy coast, local businessman David Posalski opened a guide business in 2010 called Oregon Storm Tours. He is optimistic that Cannon Beach and Seaside can become two-season towns, and he hopes to convince hoteliers to give away winter rooms to avid weather nuts. “All the news outlets head down here to report on just how bad the weather is,” he says, pointing out a news van setting up on the streets of Seaside. “If we can change the paradigm to just how good it is, we can really make this the center for storm watching.”

With gale warnings and a high-wind watch in effect, I scramble onto the leather seats of Posalski’s F150—an extended-cab behemoth of a truck—and he drives straight onto the abandoned beach. Oregon’s coastline is 350-plus miles of flat sand and imposing headlands (remember The Goonies?), and it’s all public land. What’s more, it’s a public road. In 1913, the state legislature declared the oceanfront a state highway. Now it’s technically a state recreation area, but it’s still perfectly legal to motor down the beach.

From inside the car, it’s hard to appreciate just how hard it’s blowing outside. The shore’s stout trees and shrubs are built for the wind, and they barely shiver in strong gusts. Exiting the truck, I have to hold the pickup’s door to keep from being blown over. “Don’t smile,” Posalski instructs as we wander over dunes to a shipwreck—an open mouth means a grill full of sand. But it’s hard not to light up at the sight of the Peter Iredale, the metal rib cage of a ship that grounded here more than a century ago.

This corner of Oregon is crowded, historywise; just inland is Fort Clatsop, the end point to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Best for storm seekers is the jetty at Fort Stevens, which emerges like a fingernail at the mouth of the Columbia River. On a viewing platform above the jetty, you’re almost a mile closer to the breaking waves than you would be on the beach. There’s a good reason this is the final stop on Posalski’s tours; it feels like being inside a hurricane. Spray reaches two stories into the air, and seals play in the surf.