6. Cape Arago For a short side trip that loops past a wildlife preserve and three coastal parks, go 12 miles north of Bandon and take the Beaver Hill–Seven Devils Road to the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Covering some 5,200 acres of coastal wetlands, South Slough is home to black bears, black-tailed deer, salmon, and more than 150 kinds of birds.
Driving west on Cape Arago Highway, visitors next encounter a trio of state parks, each one offering something special. The first stop, Sunset Bay State Park—true to its name—is dazzling at day’s end. The park’s calm, warm bay, hemmed in by high cliffs and Douglas firs, is one of the safest swimming spots on the coast, as well as a good place to cast for rockfish and sea trout.
Shore Acres State Park—once the estate of Louis J. Simpson, a timber baron—is truly a feast for the eyes, with some seven acres of award-winning English and Japanese gardens that explode with a riot of color. Irises, azaleas, rhododendrons, dahlias, and roses seem to spring from every corner of this 743-acre park, which features plants from around the world. At Christmastime, Shore Acres takes on an extra-special glow, with more than 100,000 miniature lights sparkling on its trees, bushes, and buildings.
Cape Arago State Park, the last one on the loop drive, is a good place to stop for a quiet picnic. Set on a rugged headland, the secluded park overlooks the Pacific, offering fine views of passing whales. During low tide, wander down to the coastal coves and look for sea urchins, sea stars, hermit crabs, and other animals that thrive in the tidepools.
7. Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area The Coast Highway reaches one of its highlights just north of Coos Bay, where some 32,000 acres of sand dunes begin their 41-mile northward stretch. These massive mounds of fine, cream-colored sand were formed in a process that began millions of years ago, when sedimentary rock from nearby mountains started to erode into particles that rivers carried to the ocean. Over time, countless grains of sand were moved inland by tides, waves, and currents, and then sculpted by the wind. Some of the best views of these ever-shifting, ever-undulating dunes are available at the Eel Creek Campground (about 13 miles north of Coos Bay), where a short trail from the parking lot leads to dunes that extend both north and south for as far as the eye can see. A film about the dunes is featured at the visitor center in nearby Reedsport.
8. Umpqua Lighthouse State Park The dunes that are visible from this park are as much as 500 feet tall—the highest of any coastal dunes in the United States. Bordering Winchester Bay, the park occupies 450 acres dominated by Sitka spruce, shore pine, and western hemlock. Lake Marie, framed by trees, is a good spot for swimming and rowboating.
The nearby Umpqua River Lighthouse, on a bluff overlooking the bay, was built in 1892 to replace the first lighthouse in the Oregon Territory (the original was destroyed by a storm some 30 years earlier). At the whale-watching station across the road, visitors can get a panoramic view of the shore and dunes. Just a few miles north of the lighthouse, the Oregon Dunes Overlook provides equally impressive views. 9. Jessie Honeyman State Park Seeing dunes from a car window is nice, but for a real thrill, try crisscrossing them in a motorized dune buggy. Rides of varying lengths are available both north and south of Jessie Honeyman State Park, which also features dense evergreen forests, a splendid array of wildflowers, two freshwater lakes, and 241 campsites (all equipped with fireplaces and picnic tables). 10. Florence As the drive continues north on Rte. 101, acres of sand give way to lush greenery. At the northern boundary of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, you’ll come to Florence, billed as the City of Rhododendrons. In late May the whole town is festooned with blossoms in purple, pink, and white. Located at the mouth of the Siuslaw River, Florence has a recently restored historic district, a small artists colony, a park overlooking the waterfront, and 17 lakes filled with bass, crappies, perch, and bluegills. 11. Sea Lion Caves Eleven miles north of Florence the drive reaches Sea Lion Caves, a popular attraction on the coast. Discovered in 1880 by a local ship captain, the grotto is one of the world’s largest sea caves (despite its name, it has a single cavern). It is also one of the few places where wild sea lions live year-round on the U.S. mainland.
From the top of a cliff, a high-speed elevator transports visitors down 208 feet to an observation window that looks in on a vast, vaulted chamber at sea level. Inside this multihued cavern—12 stories high and a hundred yards long—hundreds of sea lions, some as heavy as 1,200 pounds, delight spectators with their playful antics. On warm, sunny days they often move outdoors to bask on rocks. Two species can be seen here: the golden brown Steller sea lion and the darker California sea lion.
Framed by the cave’s natural window is Heceta Head Lighthouse, Oregon’s most powerful beacon, which sits on a bluff across the water. Just south of the lighthouse, Devils Elbow State Park offers fabulous views of the coast.