Wind howls. Breakers roar and crash. Rain drops fly sideways like little wet daggers. Though we are mere weeks from the start of meteorological spring, with the official vernal equinox not far behind, winter takes its time relinquishing hold of the Washington Coast, with stormy weather often persisting into April. But at a time when visiting the ocean beaches is far from the front of most people’s minds, those who do venture out find a coastal trove of fun and enjoyment, minus all the crowds of summer.
Believe it or not, the Washington Coast does experience far more moments of sunshine than you might imagine, making it worth it to hunker down for a day or two of Pacific fury during the offseason. Read on for a local’s guide to winter on the beach.
Washington's Original Beach Resort
In the Grays Harbor County portion of the Washington Coast, perhaps the most well-known beach town is Ocean Shores. With a long history of being Washington’s coastal playground, Ocean Shores was once a draw for celebrities and well-off families to build second homes or post up at a resort for a weekend.
In the late 1960s, it was considered to be one of the richest towns per capita in not only the state, but the whole country, and was, according to some accounts, the second most popular vacation spot in the Pacific Northwest behind only Seattle.
Commemorative plates even list the tagline “Washington’s Foremost Resort Community.” But as Father Time works his magic, change is inevitable. The boom times and posh celebrity digs faded away, and now Ocean Shores is a community of about 7,000 residents, many of which are retirees.
Another significant portion of the homes are family vacation properties, with a smattering of beachfront hotels for visitors. Traffic swells in the summer, as hot weather farther inland, along with popular festivals and holidays such as 4th of July, drive families to the beach in droves.
There is No Such Thing as Bad Weather
Winter is the forgotten season, as hotel parking lots dwindle to just a few cars, traffic on city streets is light and beachgoers have the entire stretch of sand to themselves. But winter has so much to offer, especially in outdoor recreation. One of the biggest winter draws is surfing, with the expansive beaches at Damon Point, on the far south of the peninsula, featuring a great succession of rollers. Even on a rainy day, you are likely to see at least a couple surfers out trying to catch a wave. In town, North Coast Surf Shop has everything you need to get set up for an afternoon on the water. Whether rainy or sunny, Ocean Shores has six miles of beach, some of which can be driven on.
The Chance A La Mer beach approach right in town is always popular, but the North Jetty is one of the best spots for storm watching, while I believe Damon Point has the best beachcombing, especially if you are a fan of agates. Another great rain-or-shine option to stretch your legs is the Weatherwax Nature Preserve, with loop trails that wind through some beautiful untouched native forest. If golf is more your pace, hit the links at Ocean Shores Golf Course, where rates are reasonable, especially midweek, and where you may be more likely to share a fairway with an overwintering flock of White-Fronted Geese than other golfers.
Kids Just Want to Have Fun
If the young ones just aren’t up for the beach, Ocean Shores has several options for family fun. One of the top draws year-round is Pacific Paradise, with 36 holes of miniature golf for the sunbreaks, and a large arcade with fan favorites such as skeeball, air hockey, racing games and much more. A quick hop across the main boulevard takes you to Playtime Family Fun where go-karts will bring out your inner Dale Earnhardt or Mario Andretti.
For the stormiest of days, it is hard to beat bowling, and Shores Bowl is ready to show off recent updates to flooring and lanes, while also offering billiards and some bowling alley grub. Take a few steps south, and Ocean Shores Cinema also proudly displays new upgrades, with all-new flooring and luxurious seating. They show both new Hollywood releases and some old favorites on three screens, at prices far lower than the megaplex at your local mall.
Ocean Shores might not scream “shopping” to many people, but the main commercial district offers a generous variety of shops to browse. Crafting, thrifting and antiquing are popular draws, while little ones will love all the tourist-oriented souvenir shops, especially the iconic Sharky's, where every kid wants their photo taken in the enormous Great White jaws over the front door. I also am quite partial to Ocean Shores Soapworks, with numerous varieties of handcrafted soaps, plus clothing and great gift options.
Happier Than a Seagull With a French Fry
When your belly starts rumbling after a day of beachcombing, surfing or family activities, Ocean Shores serves up a tasty menu of local restaurants. My favorite spot is Fat Marty's, with some of the best tacos in Washington State. On Taco Tuesday, you can score carne asada, pollo and, if you’re lucky, al pastor tacos for only $2 a pop. If the salty air has you craving seafood, Bennett's is the place to be, with all the coastal staples such as battered cod and halibut, clam strips and prawns, crab and cheddar melt or a steaming bowl of clam chowder.
To get your brisket on, Double Barrel BBQ features pit favorites on a limited winter menu from Friday through Sunday. Drop by for pulled pork, brisket and burgers with all the sides, plus ribs and chicken on Saturdays. For a fun evening out, Galway Bay has classic Irish fare, plus the best live music on the peninsula. Check out the connecting Celtic gift shop before or after your meal. If the kids give a simple one-word answer when you ask what they want (pizza!), my go-to is Red Genie Pizza, with large pie offerings and all the toppings you can hope for.
If you are vacationing without the kids, however, your evening is not complete without stops at Elk Head Brewing and Ocean Pours Taproom for great local lagers, IPAs and winter warmers. Once you’re up the next morning, swing by Ocean Beach Roasters for a rich cup of joe, delectable pastry, or a full breakfast. Be warned the pastry case empties quickly, especially on the weekend!
If you are having trouble nailing down when to visit, Ocean Shores does offer a few popular winter events that may pique your interest. March comes in like a lion with the Beachcombers & Glass Float Expo, where beachcombing enthusiasts of all ages come together to showcase some of their best sandy finds.
Expect some attendees to feature large selections of authentic glass floats, many available for sale or trade. Later in the month, the Razor Clam & Seafood Festival rings in St. Patrick’s Day weekend with all the seafood you can dream of. Weekend events include a fresh Dungeness Crab dinner, chowder tasting passport and an eggs benedict and mimosa brunch, along with multiple food vendors, music and wine/beer.
Go East to Go West
Another popular Grays Harbor locale is Westport, known for a large resident fishing fleet and some high-class surfing. Though only separated from Ocean Shores by the narrow mouth of Grays Harbor, the drive will take you back east to Aberdeen and then west to the coast, with a total trip time of about an hour.
Multiple surf shops dot the town, and Half Moon Bay near downtown is a huge draw for surfers from across the region. Westport also offers other popular outdoor recreation opportunities, with trails and beaches at three state parks. Westport Light State Park features the historic Grays Harbor Lighthouse, while Grayland Beach State Park has a handful of yurts if beach camping is in your wheelhouse.
*Note: the campground at Grayland Beach is close to beach level, and flooding is possible during King Tides or heavy rain events. A trip down several years ago saw our campsite inaccessible, with most of the parking areas for the yurts also underwater. We roughed it in a regular tent site, enduring a wild night of high wind and heavy rain! Numerous captains also offer fishing charters out of Westport for those who want a shot at catching their dinner.
Small but Mighty
Westport may be a town of only about 2,000 people, but it offers big time fun and food for the family. Stroll the boardwalk over the marina and marvel at the fishing fleet, then climb the jetty-side viewing tower for one of the best places to take in the huge winter breakers. The Westport Maritime Museum offers a unique rotation of exhibits where sailors-at-heart can learn about shipwrecks, the fishing and whaling industry, the Coast Guard and both natural history and ecology.
Numerous shops offer gift and souvenir choices, while multiple seafood markets distribute fresh local catch options. A few minutes drive south of town will take you to Pomegranate in Grayland, with an eclectic selection of gifts and home goods, while The Painted Pelican is one of the best coastal stops for antiques hunting. If you don’t want to wait for your food to thaw, Westport is home to several top-notch eatery options.
My absolute favorite is Aloha Alabama, where flavors of the South are fused to the island spirit of aloha, with Hawaiian BBQ Chicken, Kalua Pork Poke Bowl, Crispy Fish Rice Bowl and more. Down the block, Taqueria Los Tres Figgies slings street taco favorites, while Blackbeard's Brewing serves up burgers, wraps and delicious pizza alongside a rotating list of beers.
Check out the Smokin’ Cannon Porter for a winter warm-up, or a Pirates Pale Ale if you are in the buccaneer mood. For morning fare, Green Monster Coffee Co. has the perfect A.M. boost, while King Tide has all-day favorites ranging from cornmeal lemon pancakes and omelets to soups and salads and alder smoked salmon. To satisfy your sweet tooth, hop up to Little Richard's Donuts, where King 5 TV’s “Evening Magazine” insists you must try one of their unique fritter offerings.
Seaside, Florida meet Seabrook, Washington
North of Ocean Shores, an increasingly popular draw on the Grays Harbor coast is the village of Seabrook, one year shy from celebrating their 20th birthday. Strategically designed and built from the ground up, Seabrook was modeled after other well-regarded beach communities across the country, with a desire to weave beach, forest, farm and family together in one fabric of modern urbanism.
Vacation rentals are the biggest draw here, with numerous homes big enough to celebrate a bachelorette weekend, family reunions and more, all within walking distance of the town core. The neighbordhood layout also features multiple hiking trails of varying lengths, as well as a front row seat for winter storms and access to the sprawling beach.
A compact town center provides a little of everything, with shopping and food options. A couple of my favorite stores include Joie Des Livres for books and games, The Salty Dog with great finds for dogs and their humans, Seaworthy Home for casual and whimsical home goods and Brooklets Toys where every kid is sure to find an item they want to take home.
When mealtime rolls around, I like to stop by Vista Bakeshop for a morning pastry, Frontager's Pizza for New York-style pies and Koko's for a local twist on Mexican favorites. Be sure to try the platanitos, chorizo burger or the burrito gordo, plus a great array of margaritas. Unwind later on at The Stowaway with a velvety glass of Januik merlot, tropical-floral chardonnay from Walla Walla or an earthy Dundee Hills pinot noir.
While on the highway between Ocean Shores and Seabrook, take some time for a few extra stops in Ocean City and Copalis. Ocean City Marketplace showcases a roadside display of chain-saw art, from small toadstools and quintessential bears, up to large masterpieces including a rowdy Seahawks fan, eagles and mythical creatures. In Copalis, Griffiths-Priday State Park offers the best of both waterworlds, with 8,316 feet of saltwater shoreline, plus 9,950 feet of freshwater shoreline on the Copalis River.
Back at the main road, be sure to stop in the Green Lantern Pub, featuring a recent remodel and overhaul of both the interior of the building and the menu. Some of the best burgers in the state are found right here in tiny Copalis, with the monthly special always worth a try. Order up a hearty bowl of clam chowder to slurp by the fireplace, and definitely try one of the house drinks, especially the aptly named Green Lantern, which will transport you to the tropical reaches of Key West or Cabo San Lucas in a vibrant green blend.
Just shy of Seabrook, pull off at Roosevelt Beach, for one of the most stunning coastal backdrops in the state. Towering cliffs of orange clay contrast with greens and yellows of conifers and beach grass, while the beach itself features less crowding than nearby favorites, plus a great vantage point for whale watching.
What Are You Waiting For?
So the next time the forecast calls for several days of rain or a Pacific storm lights up the map with wind warnings or advisories, skip the hibernation on your couch and head instead to the coast. With so many exciting options in three premier coastal towns, the whole family can find a winter getaway that will have you craving future storm seasons. From food and shopping, to surfing and hiking, and everything in between, the coastal areas of Grays Harbor County will show you what all the hype is about.
Tip: For a great itinerary to add to your drive out or back from the coast, check out some of the best roadside attractions you will pass along the highway.