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Shore Acres holiday lights return after 2-year absence

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Illuminated wildlife sculptures were designed by local artist Don McMichael for Holiday Lights at Shore Acres. [Photo courtesy of Travel Oregon]
An “undersea garden” shines near the entrance of Holiday Lights at Shore Acres. [Photo by The Oregonian]
Although it no longer hosts musical groups, the covered pavilion is a popular spot to shelter from the rain at Holiday Lights at Shore Acres. [Photo by The Oregonian]
Approximately 325,000 lights in fanciful arrays make up Holiday Lights at Shore Acres. [Photo by The Oregonian]

One of Oregon’s showiest holiday events is sparkling again on the South Coast.

The Nov. 24 kickoff of Holiday Lights at Shore Acres State Park marked the attraction’s return after its pandemic-prompted cancellation in 2020 and 2021. The lights shine daily through Dec. 31.

But viewing them is no longer as simple as driving from Coos Bay along Cape Arago Highway to the 7-acre English gardens formerly cultivated by early 20th-century timber baron Louis J. Simpson. Holiday Lights had become so popular by 2019 — drawing nearly 60,000 visitors — that Oregon State Parks decided to regulate attendance through its online and phone reservation systems.

While the event still costs just $5 per car — the park’s regular parking fee — visitors must now reserve their spots in advance according to a timed-entry system. With reservations officially opened over the summer, prime viewing times were the first to sell out.

Saturday, Dec. 31, is the sole weekend day in December with ticket availability, according to the state park system’s website. Other weekends in December, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, are closed for ticket purchases. Some weekday slots, beginning at 4 p.m., still can be reserved online at oregonstateparks.reserveamerica.com or by calling 800-452-5687.

Tickets are not sold on site. Visitors must show up at their designated time and present their tickets at the park entrance.

“They’re really happy, first of all, to have the lights back, but second of all, not to have the back-up with the traffic,” said David Bridgham, founding board member and co-founder of the Holiday Lights.

“You can just drive up and get in,” he said. “It’s a good system.”

Just a short jaunt from the parking area to the garden entrance, sounds of sea and surf give way to exclamations of delight. Trees, hedges, shrubs and flower beds have been transformed into a twinkling fairyland.

The show runs 4-9:30 p.m. — rain or shine. And given a serviceable jacket, the sight is almost more enjoyable in a drizzle, when a carpet of puddles creates an additional canvas for more than 325,000 lights.

Fashioned from sparkling strands, a breaching orca whale, spouting gray whale and playful sea lions are sure to enchant. These along with pelican and puffin sculptures were designed by local artist Don McMichael, known for his oil paintings of sea creatures.

The “undersea garden” shining near the park’s entrance gives visitors a close encounter with a jellyfish, octopus, Dungeness crab, starfish, seahorse, urchin and anemone. Inside the actual garden, light sculptures of frogs, butterflies, mushrooms, tulips, roses and dahlias accent live fauna and flora.

“We try to mimic the formal gardens in lights like it grows,” said Bridgham’s wife and Holiday Lights co-founder, Shirley Bridgham.

Surrounded by light-festooned trees, the garden’s lily pond becomes a watery wonderland. A circuit around the pond's path and over the half-moon bridge shouldn't be passed up.

The shimmering spectacle is the work of more than 1,500 volunteers — Friends of Shore Acres — who have carried on the beloved coastal tradition since 1987. Visitors from nearly every U.S. state and dozens of countries have made the trek for Holiday Lights, according to the nonprofit Friends.

Attendance varies based on the weather. But guests can warm up in the circa-1907 Garden House, where volunteers serve hot cider, punch, coffee and cookies. There is no longer live music presented by local bands and choirs to ease traffic, said Bridgham.

Alleviating traffic congestion is the main goal of the event’s new permits, said state parks officials. The two-lane, largely unlit road that also leads to neighboring Sunset Bay and Cape Arago state parks had been overrun in previous years by Holiday Lights visitors, creating hazards and hindering emergency access, officials said.

“We got too popular,” said Bridgham, explaining that if they couldn’t make the event work with the new online reservation system this would be the last year for Holiday Lights.

“We’re gonna make it work.”

More reservation spots are released in seven-day “rolling windows” when tickets become available one week in advance. That means visitors can purchase Dec. 11 tickets beginning Dec. 4. Next year, the reservation system with gain an additional time slot, said Bridgham, adding that although it’s been a learning curve for some visitors, responses at the event have been very positive.

“We had really glowing comments.”

Bustling in summer months, Shore Acres is all that remains of Simpson’s once-grand estate, which burned in 1921. The state in 1942 purchased the site for use as a park, and volunteers have maintained the grounds since the 1970s. Donations to Friends of Shore acres are accepted to help keep Holiday Lights going.

The park in wintertime also is known as one of the best storm-watching destinations on the Oregon coast and hosts whale-watching talks. The grounds are handicapped-accessible.

Reach features editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4494 or slemon@rosebudmedia.com