For many travelers, following the coastal highway U.S. 101 along the rugged Oregon coast is the trip of a lifetime. Although the coast route counts just 360 miles, don’t try to rush this trip or squeeze it into anything less than three days. Twisting roads, slow-moving traffic, and jaw-dropping vistas are sure to slow you down, so start out by planning flexibility into your schedule.
If you’re not lucky enough to have time for a trip spanning the entire coast and need to sample just a section of the coast, it’s easy to use the I-5 freeway corridor (roughly 60-80 miles inland) as a quick north or south arterial, cutting over to the coast near your destination.
So feel free to tinker with this strict north-south itinerary. If you are flying in and out of Portland, it may make sense to leapfrog your way down the coast, catching the intervening towns on your way back north.
From Portland, drive northwest to Astoria, a city full of history and spunky do-it-yourself charm. Visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum to learn about the area’s maritime past, and check out the city’s many art galleries to sense its more contemporary currents. Walk the hilly streets behind downtown to view resplendent Victorian homes. Spend the night at the Cannery Pier Hotel beneath the more than four-mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge, which spans the mighty Columbia.
Drive south, stopping at Fort Clatsop National Memorial, which features a replica of the winter home Lewis and Clark used in 1805 and 1806. If the day is fair, drive to Fort Stevens State Park to stroll along the shore and watch the Columbia River roll into the Pacific, or simply continue to Cannon Beach, with its dramatic shoreline dominated by sea stacks. Stroll through the town’s attractive and mazelike downtown shopping district, and spend the night at the Stephanie Inn.
From Cannon Beach, drop through the lush temperate rainforest in Oswald West State Park, stopping on the flanks of Neahkahnie Mountain, atop 700-foot cliffs, to admire the views of the Pacific and the Nehalem River Bay. Stop for lunch in the commercial fishing village of Garibaldi, with some of the freshest and tastiest fish-and-chips you’re likely to eat. In Tillamook, it’s almost mandatory for visitors to stop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, both for the cheese (now made off site) and the tasty ice cream cones. Continue south to Lincoln City via U.S. 101, staying at the Starfish Manor Hotel.
From Lincoln City continue south to Depoe Bay, worth a stop to admire the pocket harbor and scan for spouting whales, then take the Otter Crest scenic loop, cresting at the Cape Foulweather vista. You’ll reach Newport before lunch, which is lucky because you’ll want to have two meals’ worth of eating to explore the good food here. Spend the afternoon at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the night at the Elizabeth Street Inn.
This is a short day of driving, because you’ll want to save time to hike. Proceed south to Yachats, one of the coast’s most charming towns and gateway to Cape Perpetua, a wonderful natural area where mountains meet the sea and acres of tidepools rise above the surf. Check in at the very comfortable Overleaf Lodge, and reward yourself for hiking along Cape Perpetua with dinner at one of Yachats’s excellent restaurants.
Florence is set alongside the Siuslaw River, and its riverside Old Town will briefly steal your attention away from the ocean. It’s a good base for exploring the Oregon Dunes, which start just south of town and rise up to 500 feet tall. Hike through this striking habitat, or go for the thrills of sandboarding or a dune buggy ride. Spend the night in Florence.
Although Coos Bay doesn’t beckon the average traveler, it is the gateway to some astoundingly beautiful headlands and beaches just west. Don’t miss blustery Cape Arago and the gardens of Shore Acres State Park. Head south along Seven Devils Road and spend the night in Bandon. With its Old Town, beaches, and golfing at the internationally acclaimed Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, this town demands attention. Bandon is laid-back and easy to explore on foot, with more good restaurants than you’d expect.
It’s tempting to shrug off Gold Beach’s jetboat tours up the mighty Rogue River as hokey tourist schlock, but these rides are actually pretty great, with good commentary and the chance to see bald eagles and other wildlife.
Between Gold Beach and Brookings, the coastline is at its finest, with many pullouts offering paths down to secluded rocky beaches. Come prepared with a sweatshirt and a windbreaker and spend an afternoon exploring this stretch. In Brookings, it’s important to stop for a walk and some bird-watching at Harris Beach State Park, but it’s also worthwhile to get off the coastal strip and explore the Chetco River. Alfred A. Loeb State Park has good river access and a path through myrtle and redwood trees.
If you’re heading back to the I-5 corridor after your tour of the coast, consider dropping down to Crescent City in California, and heading inland on U.S. 199. This highway, which you pick up 22 miles south of the state border, passes through the northern edge of the California redwoods on its way to I-5 at Grants Pass, Oregon.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Coastal Oregon.