Originally published in the Post Register.
The Lewis and Clark expedition spent a cold, wet and generally unpleasant winter on the Oregon coast in 1804-05, but even profound misery occasionally gave way to moments of shear joy when the clouds lifted and the scenery opened to view.
“The niches and points of high land which forms this course for a long ways, added to the innumerable rocks of immense size out at a great distance from the shore – and against which the seas break with great force – give this coast a most romantic appearance,” William Clark wrote in January, 1805.
Romantic, indeed. Not even Thomas Kinkade, the self-described painter of light himself, can improve on coastal Oregon. From Astoria to Brookings, Oregon’s coastal villages and stretches of unspoiled beach and coastline are worthy of many return visits.
U.S. Highway 101 links the coast, running 350 miles along the water’s edge. Along the way are 11 lighthouses, dozens of public beaches and a handful of national wildlife refuges.
If you’re looking for a quick dose of the coast, your best bet is a plane ride to Portland and a two-hour drive by rental car to Cannon Beach. There, you can browse a surprising selection of galleries, enjoy some great seafood and walk one of the coast’s most spectacular beaches. Just north of town is Ecola State Park, from which you’ll be able to look back toward Cannon Beach at one of Oregon’s most photographed scenes. It’s also a perfect place from which to watch the sunset, keep an eye on storms rolling in or watch for migrating whales.
Option two is a golf pilgrimage to Bandon, home to Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dune golf courses. The Bandon Dunes Resort north of the village of Bandon is the closest thing to golfing in Scotland one can get without leaving North America. While it’s cheaper than a transatlantic flight, be prepared for world class green fees to go with your world class round of golf – $140 in the summer for resort guests. Fees are less if you’re willing to risk the off-season weather.
Down the road, the town of Bandon has a quaint downtown and one of Oregon’s best beaches, with seastacks dotting the shallow water. The restaurant and lodging selection is reasonable but limited.
For the road warrior, the best option is a top-to-bottom tour of the coast. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day this requires very careful planning to ensure you’ve got a place to stay at the end of each day. During the off-season, lodging prices fall by as much as 40 percent and reservations are generally not required, except for some holiday weekends.
If you choose an Oregon coast road trip, here are a few ideas of what to look for on your way, from north to south:
• Astoria: At the mouth of the Columbia River, Astoria is a nice place to kick off your drive. Check out the Astoria Column at the top of a hill in town.
• Fort Clatslop: The site of Lewis and Clark’s winter stay, this is now a national monument worth a short stop.
• Seaside: A little on the tacky side, the town of Seaside does boast a nearly two-mile-long beachside promenade that makes for nice, sand-free walking.
• Cannon Beach: Arguably the most romantic place on the Oregon coast, you can’t go wrong spending a night or two here.
• Tillamook: Yes, this is where the cheese comes from. Tillamook is inland and feels more like a Midwestern dairy community than a coastal town. Tours of the cheese factory are available. A 30-minute drive outside of town is the Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, worth a half-day of beachcombing.
• Lincoln City: A popular tourist destination, Lincoln City has terrific beaches but feels over-commercialized, with everything from national fast-food chains to a factory outlet mall. Worth a stop but there are better places to spend the night.
• Depoe Bay: Perhaps the best of the small villages along the coast, Depoe Bay has a generous selection of lodging, including a growing timeshare community.
• Newport: Known for its famous Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport is the most pleasant of the larger towns along the Oregon coast, an excellent place for a break from the road. There’s a lighthouse, more great beaches, some historic buildings and a good selection of shopping, dining and lodging.
• Yachats: The drive from Newport to Florence is among the most scenic stretches of Oregon coast, with the tiny village of Yachats smack dab in the middle. Just down the road is the gorgeous Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, followed by the Heceta Head Lighthouse, which can be viewed nicely from a spot known as the Sea Lion Caves. The latter is a commercial development over caves frequented by, you guessed it, sea lions.
• Florence: Another mid-sized town full of antiques, chowder houses and places to stay. Better than Lincoln City, not as good as Newport.
• Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area: Beginning near Florence and continuing some 40 miles down the coast, this federally protected region can be virtually empty of people except for the busiest times of the year. If a quick look is all you want, pull over at the scenic overlook about 10 miles south of Florence.
• North Bend/Coos Bay: This area has a funky, blue collar feel, in keeping with its history in logging (despite the closure more than a decade ago of a large Weyerhaeuser mill, now home to a Native American casino).
• Bandon: The golf resort has brought a whole new class of tourist to this region. If you stay at the resort and don’t make your way a few miles south to the picturesque beaches adjacent to Bandon itself, it’s your loss.
• Rogue River: After going inland south of Bandon, U.S. 101 meets the coast again at Port Orford and stays alongside the ocean all the way to Brookings. At Wedderburn, the Rogue River empties into the Pacific. A federally designated wild and scenic river, the Rogue is known for its whitewater, and several tour operators offer jetboat trips up the river.
• Brookings: North America’s largest producer of lily bulbs, Brookings enjoys the coast’s mildest climate (though with rainfall averaging 90 inches a year, it’s hardly the sunbelt). Not far from Brookings about a half an hour inland is the Redwood Nature Trail, the northernmost region of redwood forests.