Oregon's Coast: 363 Miles of Unspoiled Scenery

Saturday, August 17, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

With its reputation for scenic beauty and its moderate summer temperatures, the Oregon Coast popped to the top of our list when we decided to make a brief escape from Georgia's summer oven.  Flying into Portland, we breezed past the tangle of travelers at the car rental counters, walked straight to our rented Ford Edge, packed it up and sped west.  (Thanks to Hertz Gold, we had received an email as we landed letting us know what car we'd be driving and where it was parked.)

Day 1:  HOME to Astoria

Astoria Column
Perched within sight of Washington on the banks of the Columbia River, Astoria was our first stop.   It seemed only fitting that our trip should begin in the place where John Jacob Astor's fur trading company established the first permanent American settlement on the Pacific Northwest coast in 1811.  To get an overview of this picturesque and historic town, we followed the signs up Coxcomb Hill to the 125-ft. Astoria Column, decorated with a mural of the town's history scrolling around the tower.  Our climb to the top was rewarded with a panoramic vista of the town below, mountains to the south and Washington to the north.  Following tradition, we launched a balsa wood glider from the viewing platform and watched it join dozens of others trapped in the branches of nearby Douglas-fir trees.  

Back at sea level, we strolled Astoria's historic waterfront and found a few letterboxes there, including a couple of very clever HIPS (hidden in plain sight) boxes by X Marks the Spot.  Too late to visit the acclaimed Columbia River Maritime Museum and its extensive collection of nautical artifacts, we wandered over to the Wet Dog Cafe, a congenial riverfront tavern, where we enjoyed a tasty meal and sampled some of their handcrafted ales.

Day 2:  Astoria to Pacific City

Leaving Astoria, we headed out the Skipanon Peninsula to Fort Stevens State Park, site of a fortress charged with guarding the mouth of the Columbia River from the Civil War to World War II.  Pausing just long enough to track down a few letterboxes hidden amongst its decaying ruins, we soon moved on south to Fort Clatsop set in a forest of lofty, moss-draped Sitka spruce in the very location where Lewis and Clark spent three miserable months in the winter of 1805.  An authentic reconstruction of their encampment is the centerpiece of this national historical park, which also encompasses an exhibit-rich visitor center and several well-signed trails.  At the fort we met Brian, a Portland-area history teacher, who summers as an interpreter in period costume.  When we told him we had recently visited Grinder's Stand in Tennessee, he was more than glad to share his theories about the nature of Meriwether Lewis's death.  (Brian made a compelling argument for the suicide theory based on Lewis' depression.)  Before leaving Fort Clatsop, we relished finding a vintage letterbox dating back almost ten years.  Though it was a bit soggy, we were delighted to be its first finders in almost seven years.

Continuing south on US-101, we breezed through the tony coastal village of Gearhart before arriving in Seaside, Oregon's earliest seashore resort town.  As the 1900s began, Portland's wealthy residents traveled by steamer to Astoria, where they boarded a stagecoach to Seaside.  Tourism gained a foothold and has yet to release its grip.  As we drove through town today, Seaside was hosting its annual beach volleyball tournament with upwards of 1,300 teams at all skill levels participating.  Streets were busy with tourists taking time from the games to enjoy the plethora of specialty shops, art galleries and restaurants.

Broadway Street in Seaside leads from US-101 to the beach.
Leaving Highway 101, we ventured west on Tillamook Head to Ecola State Park.  In a landmark 1913 law, the Oregon legislature claimed public ownership of beaches on the state's entire coast from Washington to California.  Subsequently land was acquired for 36 state parks along the shore, about one every ten miles.  Extending almost ten miles between Seaside and Cannon Beach, Ecola has been hailed as one of the most scenic spots on the Oregon strand. Even with the fog, that would become our frequent companion, the views of the Pacific were inspiring.

Cannon Beach from Ecola State Park
Named for a cannon that washed ashore in 1846, the town of Cannon Beach has earned a reputation as a center of cultural activity with numerous arts and crafts galleries, music and arts festivals, and a population of resident artists.  Haystack Rock, the 235-foot sea stack that serves as unofficial symbol of the town, lies just offshore and attracts shorebirds and photographers.

Beach walking and kite flying are popular at Cannon Beach
Continuing south, 101 began to climb high above the Pacific, offering only an occasional glimpse of the beach below until we reached Tillamook Bay.  Not realizing it is one of Oregon's top ten tourist attractions, we intended to visit the famous Tillamook Cheese Factory.  Our plans were thwarted by the plant's jam-packed parking lot and the long line of tourists waiting to enter.  Looking to escape the crowds, we detoured west off 101 to the Three Capes Scenic Loop, tracking the ocean past Cape Meares, Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda, gazing at each through the ever-present fog.  Near the end of the loop we arrived at Pacific City and the painstakingly restored Craftsman B&B, where we spent the night.

Day 3:  Pacific City to Yachats

The day dawned cool and foggy, foiling our plans to jag back north to see the 'other' Haystack Rock at Cape Kiwanda.  Knowing it would be shrouded in mist, we checked out a Pacific City letterbox and headed south, reconnecting with US-101 near Oretown.  Still socked in with fog that hid any opportunities for scenic vistas, we continued down 101, stopping to letterbox a bit in Lincoln City, whose strip malls and fast food franchises stretch 20 miles down the coast, the product of a 1960s amalgamation of five small towns between the Salmon River and Siletz Bay. 

Rocky Creek Bridge on Otter Crest Loop
Just below Depoe Bay, we took what promised to be an especially scenic side trip on the Otter Crest Loop Road, which parallels 101 but meanders closer to the coast, climbing up to Cape Foulweather and winding past the Devil's Punchbowl before meeting back up with 101 just north of Newport.  Named by Captain James Cook when he arrived at the promontory during a storm in 1778, Cape Foulweather lived up to its name, with fog so thick we couldn't see the lighthouse sixty yards away.

As we arrived about noon, the picturesque port of Newport was teeming with summer tourists on this Saturday.  Our hopes to have lunch at the bayfront Rogue Ales Public House were dashed by the complete lack of available parking, but La Maison bakery a bit inland made us forget about the pub with delicious grilled zucchini paninis and friendly, attentive service.  Since we would be staying just down the road in Yachats for a couple of nights, we decided to ditch Newport and try it again the following morning, hoping that it would be a bit quieter early on a Sunday.

Seal Rock
Before reaching Yachats (YAH-hahts), we paused at Seal Rock State Park, an area with high-density offshore rocks covered with shorebirds, to search for a letterbox.  There we chanced to encounter a charming local gentleman who regaled us with the story of his proposal to his wife at this very spot more than 50 years earlier.  By the time we rolled into the Overleaf Lodge parking lot, the mist had turned to rain, and we gladly holed up in our seaside room for the night.
 

Day 4:  Yachats to Newport and back

As we had come to expect, the morning opened with fog and misty rain, but we headed back 23 miles north to Newport, hoping to see its two lighthouses, the bayfront fishing area, and the Rogue Ales pub.  Arriving at the bayfront area around 9:45, we were delighted to find we had our pick of parking places.  While we strolled around the port area, checking out the sea lions and observing the fishing crews processing their catches, tourists trickled into the waterfront at a steady pace.  To avoid losing our parking place, we opted to walk the mile over to Yaquina Bay State Park to check out the lighthouse and find a couple of letterboxes there.
 
Newport port area
By the time we returned to the bayfront, the Rogue Ales pub was open and we were ready for lunch.  Our pub grub expectation was exceeded with some excellent black bean and quinoa salads, and we sampled some of the 30-odd handcrafted ales on tap with a bit of guidance from the friendly barkeep, Richard.  After lunch, we visited the Yaquina Head Natural Area to see the 'other' Newport lighthouse and went on a tour of the Rogue Ales Brewery before calling it a day and returning to Yachats for the night.
 

Day 5:  Yachats to Coos Bay

Just two miles south of Yachats, we made our first stop of the day at Devil's Churn, a split in the rocky shore that creates a frothing effect on the surf at high tide.  The tide was out at the time of our visit (a fact that would serve us well just a bit later), but we enjoyed the hike down to the beach and the views.  Less than a half mile down the road, our next destination was Cape Perpetua, a place of natural, scenic and historic significance. 
 
Tidepool treasures
From the visitors center, a trail led under the highway, past wind-blown trees and piles of seashells to tidepools teeming with colorful sea stars, barnacles, sea urchins, clams, crabs, anemones, and innumerable other forms of sea life.  Thousands of creatures covered every inch of the rocky surface.  It was then we realized how lucky we were to be there at low tide.  After getting the close-up view of this amazing array of marine fauna, we drove the winding road upward to the top of the 800-foot high viewpoint, where we were treated to a spectacular overlook of 101 winding along the coast below us.
 
US 101 from the Cape Perpetua viewpoint
Just an hour after enjoying the views at Perpetua, we rolled into fog again as we crossed Bob Creek, unfortunate timing since our next stop—only eight miles further—was the Heceta Head Lighthouse, said to be one of the most picturesque beacons in the U.S.  Though our view of the light was impeded by the fog, we enjoyed a picnic lunch there before moving on.  Rolling on south, we decided to pass on the smell and racket of the popular ("World's Largest!!") Sea Lion Caves.  After continuing briefly down the winding 101 as it clung to the side of a coastal cliff, we found ourselves moving abruptly inland.  By the time we stopped to find some letterboxes around Florence, the highway was more than two miles from the ocean.
 
Darllingtonia Californica - Insects go in but they don't come out.
North of Florence, we stopped at a small state park, just moments from the highway to explore a bog where a stand of Darlingtonia Californica grows.  Also known as a cobra lily, the rare carnivorous species is a member of the pitcher plant family.  Insects lured into the plant by its nectar cannot find their way out and become processed as food.
 
For more than 40 miles south of Florence, US-101 traverses Oregon's dune country.  Formed by the forces of wind and water over eons, the largest coastal sand dunes in North America offer many opportunities for adventure.  Dune surfing and ATV riding are widely available, as well as tamer activities like hiking. Though the massive mounds of cream-colored sand are often obscured from roadside view by forests, numerous waysides provide access to these popular recreation spots. 
 
A woman and her child are dwarfed by the Oregon dunes at the South Jetty Recreation Area.
Our journey continued southward until we reached Winchester Bay and dropped in at the Umpqua lighthouse State Park to search for a letterbox.  In addition to the box, we found a whale watching station—a mile from the ocean and even farther from where the behemoths are expected to be seen.  These Oregonians must have some incredible eyesight.
 
With the Oregon Dunes behind us, we had completed two-thirds of our trip down Oregon's coast and stopped at the industrial town of Coos Bay for the night.  Our hotel was abysmal but the highest rated in town.  After dinner at a mediocre Mediterranean spot in adjacent North Bend, we drove around looking unsuccessfully for something interesting and finally returned to the hotel.
 

Day 6:  Coos Bay to Brookings

From Coos Bay, we headed west on the Cape Arago Highway (OR-540), the scenic route from Coos Bay to Bandon.  First stop of the day was the commercial docks in the quaint fishing village of Charleston, where we arrived before 9 a.m.  Unlike most, the dock was open to the public, so we rambled around chatting with various crews working on their boats.
 
Chris was working dockside on a boat called Restless, which caught our attention because it sported fresh paint and appeared to be in much better condition than the other rusted, weathered boats in the vicinity.  We stopped and chatted with him, leading to a conversation with him and the boat's captain and owner, Guthrie, who also owns a 47-foot fishing boat in Alaska and divides his time between Ketchikan and Charleston.  With no knowledge of commercial fishing whatsoever, we were astounded to learn that nets are typically taken down 600 feet and sometimes as deep as 3,000 feet.

Armed with some insider advice from a volunteer at the Charleston visitor center, we returned to the scenic route and stopped at Bastendorff Beach, an uninterrupted strand that is a favorite among locals and reputedly never crowded.  With its rugged sandstone headland topped with fir trees, the beach offers a scenic spot for letterboxing, dog walking and other recreation.

Bastendorff Beach
The views just kept getting better as we continued south to Shore Acres State Park, once the private estate of timber baron and shipbuilder Louis Simpson.  The original mansion was taken by fire, but the elaborate botanical gardens remain, perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and featuring seasonal specimen collections.  Dahlias had taken center stage, and the varieties were endless, as were the rose gardens that were still going strong.



Leaving Shore Acres, we drove south to the marine mammal lookout at Simpson Reef, a group of rock islands several hundred yards offshore where all types of sea animals hang out.  Shallow angles allow the footless creatures to drag themselves onto the rocks easily, making this a popular spot for sea lions and seals. 

After a picnic lunch at Cape Arago State Park, we pressed on south winding down the scenic route as it twisted away from the shore into hilly forests and farms.  Back on 101, we drove through Bandon where we checked out Face Rock State Park and walked the beach to an intertidal cave.

Face Rock State Park
Cranberry bogs, sheep ranches and Christmas tree farms dominated the roadside south of Bandon until we reached Port Orford, Oregon's answer to California's Big Sur, with its panoramic vistas of the Pacific.  As we approached Battle Rock State Park, home of a huge volcanic plug known as Battle Rock, the fog returned to obscure our view.  By this point, it's not even a disappointment, more like an expectation but we did catch some awesome viewpoints before its arrival.

Scenic vista in Samuel Boardman State Park
Below Port Orford, we passed through Gold Beach and paused from time to time at viewpoint waysides to enjoy the scenery as we passed through Cape Sebastian and Samuel Boardman State Parks, reaching Brookings, the last Oregon coastal town and our destination for the day, around 5:30.
 

Day 7:  Brookings to Medford

With only a handful of miles remaining to complete our drive of the entire Oregon coast, we headed out early and within ten minutes, we were in California.  Since it is fully open only from July to October, we had decided to make a stop at Crater Lake on our way back to Portland.  To do so, we needed to pick up US-199 in northern California to take us back to central Oregon.  Along the way, we again drove through Jedediah Smith State Park, a lush forest of massive coastal redwoods, just as spectacular as they were when we first saw them last fall.
 
Giant trees and huge ferns in Jedediah Smith State Park
Just east of Gasquet, California, we stopped in the Smith River National Recreation Area to hike and search for a letterbox.  On the trail, we encountered a local amateur botanist who pointed out some local plants to us, including poison oak.  Very similar to the poison ivy we're more accustomed to seeing in the east, the three leaf clusters made it easy to recognize and avoid.
 
After reentering Oregon, we made our way to the Out'n'About 'Treesort' near Cave Junction, a B&B with all the rooms perched high in the limbs of various trees.  Quite a few guests were staying at the property, where a variety of recreational activities were offered—zip lining, disc golf, horseback riding, and, of course, tree climbing. 
 
Main lodge and walkways to rooms
Some of the treehouses were accessible only by means of a swinging bridge from the main lodge.  It was certainly a clever idea, but the treehouses were missing one essential feature—plumbing.  Guests have to take care of their basic needs at the "toiletree" (outhouse) and a communal shower room on the grounds.  Nevertheless, we found the letterbox that drew us to the treesort and continued on our way to the Oregon Caves National Monument.
 
Since we had not anticipated going to the marble wall caves, we were unprepared for the visit.  Both of us were shod in hiking boots that violated their ban on shoes which had been worn in any caves east of the Rockies in the last 6 to 8 years.  Between our unwillingness to give up the only footwear we had with us and the two hour wait even if they did decide to accept our contaminated shoes after sanitizing, we decided to move on.
 
As we lost elevation and moved inland, the temperature soared, eventually hitting 95° in Grants Pass, where we found a couple of letterboxes.  Arriving in Medford in late afternoon, we took refuge in our air conditioned room and made plans for a full day tomorrow.
 

Day 8:  Medford to Crater Lake to Eugene

With many miles to go today, we left Medford before 7:30, headed northeast on OR-62, Crater Lake Highway.  Thanks to a helpful agent we met at the Grants Pass visitor center yesterday, our first stop was the Rogue River Gorge overlook, where a half-mile paved interpretive path led to several viewpoints offering inspection points for ancient lava tubes, waterfalls, and other geological formations.
 
Rogue River tumbling through a narrow canyon
Of particular interest was an exhibit called a “living stump.”  According to the caption beside it, trees growing on the surface of the lava flow near the gorge have formed a symbiotic relationship in which their root systems have conjoined, providing each other with nutrients.  This continues to feed the stump, whose cut surface had healed and become covered in bark.
 
 
Entering Crater Lake National Park just after 10 a.m., it was more than half an hour before we caught our first glimpse of the deep, dark blue water at the Phantom Ship overlook.  From the spot where we saw the Phantom Ship formation, made of erosion resistant lava, it looked quite small.  We were quite surprised to learn that it is actually 16 stories tall, 200 feet wide.  Formed more than 400,000 years ago, it is the oldest exposed rock in the caldera.
 
Phantom Ship formation, Crater Lake
On a seven-mile detour from the Rim Drive that encircles the lake, we reached Pinnacles Overlook.  A brief hike from the parking area led around the rim of a canyon in which 100-foot tall fossil fumeroles have formed giant spires as the canyon wall erodes around them.
 
The towering needlelike Pinnacles
Continuing around the 33-mile Rim Drive, we soon reached the overlook for Pumice Castle.  In a landscape dominated by lava gray, fir green, and deep blue, the orange pumice rock stands out, particularly since it has been eroded into the shape of a medieval castle. 

Pumice "Castle"
While searching for a letterbox at Cloudcap overlook, we saw a support vehicle for bicyclists, many of whom we've seen riding the Rim Drive, even though the road is rather narrow.  Often steep inclines drop off from the roadside, and with no guardrails on the circuit drive, avoiding bicyclists and oncoming traffic while managing to stay on the road can be challenging.  In some places on the west rim, there is nothing beyond an 18-inch asphalt shoulder except a 75-degree plunge down the side of the mountain. 

One of the more moderate slopes
Continuing around Rim Drive, we eventually reached Watchman Overlook, which promised the best view of Wizard Island, a cinder cone that erupted out of Crater Lake about 7,000 years ago.  The island stands 755 feet above the lake level (equivalent to a 63-story building) and more than half a mile from the caldera floor.  In the summer, boats operated by the National Park Service tour the lake, and passengers may disembark at Wizard Island to hike and be picked up later.

Wizard Island
Having completed our circumnavigation of Rim Drive, we departed the park north to OR-138, the Rogue Umpqua Scenic Byway.  Thanks to a brochure we received in Grants Pass, we checked out a series of waterfalls along the North Umpqua River, that skirted the highway and learned a bit about different types of falls—segmented, punchbowl, plunge, and more.

After almost 300 miles, we rolled into Eugene about 7 p.m. in light rain, our last night on this trip.  The next day we returned to Portland to fly home.  Though we missed the opportunity to visit with our Oregon cousins on this journey, the cooler weather—mostly ranging from 55° to 65°— was a balm to our parched Georgia spirits.  And the scenery was sublime.
  

More Photos
Launching one of these from the top of Astoria Column definitely qualified as a cheap thrill.
Cannery Pier Hotel in an old fish cannery in Astoria (Cool concept, but at $350/night, we declined it.)
Hundreds of nets set up on the beach for Seaside's volleyball tournament
Owners of this signature cedar-shingled Oregon beach home offered free pick-it-yourself bouquets from their flower garden.
Another view south from Ecola State Park
Depoe Bay Bridge in the fog
Some of the brilliantly colored hydrangeas along the coast
Beach at Seal Rock State Park
Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport
Fishing boats entering Newport, backed by Yaquina Bay Bridge
Rogue Ales Public House, Newport
California sea lions resting on Newport jetty
Tidepool exploration at Cape Perpetua
Typical of the fishing fleet in Charleston, Denny Boy has seen better days.
Fog ahead
Shore Acres State Park