Where Land Meets Water: Oregon Coast Highway

Route Details Length: About 360 miles. When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer (because of water activities) and

Route Details

Length: About 360 miles.

When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer (because of water activities) and during fall (when less crowded).

Lodging: Reservations recommended during June, July, and August.

Words to the wise:
In peak seasons allow plenty of time, since traffic is heavy and the road is narrow and winding.

Nearby attractions: Tillamook County Creamery (Oregon’s largest cheese-making plant), Tillamook Naval Air Museum, and Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, Tillamook. Columbia River Maritime Museum, Astoria. Latimer Quilt & Textile Center, Latimer.

Further information:
Oregon Tourism Commission, 775 Summer St. NE, Salem, OR 97301, tel. 800-547-7842, www.traveloregon.com.

Oregon Coast Visitor’s Ass’n., P.O. Box 74, Newport, OR, 97365, 888-628-2101, www.visittheoregoncoast.com

Star Route

Rogue River Loop
For a look at inland scenery, turn east at Gold Beach (29 miles north of Brookings) and follow the 140-mile loop along the Rogue and Coquille rivers. Take Rtes. 595, 33, and 219 north, then continue on Rte. 42 from Myrtle Point to Coos Bay. The drive, which passes through a forest containing rare myrtlewood trees, treats travelers to splendid views of cliffs, canyons, and the deep blue waters of the rivers themselves. Now and then, boats carrying mail or sightseers whiz by on the Rogue and then vanish into the wilderness.

Think of Oregon and you probably think of trees, for the state is America’s leading source of timber. But Oregon is notable for its coastline as well. This 360-mile fringe, paralleled by Rte. 101, is dotted with lagoons, lakes, and lighthouses; coves and canyons; sand dunes and seaports. What makes it truly special, however, is a landmark law that designates all beaches free and open to the public.

1. Brookings
Fish and flowers are the hallmarks of this town near the southern end of the Oregon Coast Highway. The fish in question are such favorites as salmon and steelhead, which are taken from the Chetco River. The flowers—azaleas—flourish at Azalea Park. Featuring 25 acres of the shrubs, some of them 20 feet tall and over 400 years old, the park delivers amply on the promise of its name. (Brookings also supplies a large share of America’s commercially grown lilies.)

At the north end of town, Rte. 101 passes Harris Beach State Park and, farther to the north, Samuel H. Boardman State Park, where a 10-mile trail affords panoramic clifftop views. The next few miles leading to Cape Sebastian are particularly beautiful, with unobstructed views of offshore rocks.

2. Cape Sebastian State Park
About 22 miles north of Brookings, a steep road off the Coast Highway leads to the Cape Sebastian headland, which offers stunning views of craggy cliffs and rocky coves. At 1,100-acre Cape Sebastian State Park, tall evergreens form a verdant backdrop for the colorful azaleas and rhododendrons that carpet the cape.

3. Port Orford
This major fishing center is one of the oldest settlements on the Oregon coast. Among its attractions are the Sixes and Elk rivers, the Thousand Island Coast (a series of offshore rocks that are favored by harbor seals and sea lions), and Battle Rock City Park, where you can survey the coastline from atop an oceanfront monolith.

4. Cape Blanco State Park
Perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, the park occupies 1,900 acres of windswept land that once served as a pasture. The scenic views here encompass offshore rocks and reefs, as well as the Cape Blanco Lighthouse, the state’s westernmost beacon. A three-mile trail leads down to a black sand beach (not uncommon along the Oregon coast).

5. Bandon-by-the-Sea

The drive from Cape Blanco to the coastal village of Bandon passes through a kaleidoscope of splendid scenery—dense fir forests and wide-open plains, lush green farmland and barren beige shores. At the waterfront begins a five-mile scenic drive that heads south past large sea stacks. These fantastic rock formations are especially impressive when silhouetted against blazing sunsets, as they often are at Face Rock Wayside, located along the loop. The town’s biggest annual event is the Cranberry Festival, held in late September, when Bandon celebrates its status as the Cranberry Capital of Oregon.

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.

12. Cape Perpetua
Finding refuge on this headland during a dangerous storm, Capt. James Cook, the British explorer, christened it Cape Perpetua because he felt as if he had been delayed here forever. But far worse fates could befall a visitor. Towering more than 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean, Cape Perpetua is a place of natural, scenic, and historic wonders. Tidepools teem with sea stars, barnacles, limpets, and hermit crabs. In an ancient rain forest, giant spruces bear witness to the past. Piles of discarded clam shells—some measuring 40 feet in height—provide the only remaining evidence of Indian habitation along the entire Oregon coast.

At Devils Churn far-off whales can be glimpsed through a telescope, while spectacular views can be enjoyed nearer at hand. Three miles north of the cape, the drive passes through Yachats, one of the few places in the world where sardinelike silver smelts come close to the shore to spawn.

13. Oregon Coast Aquarium

About 28 miles north of Yachats, the excitement moves into the Oregon Coast Aquarium. At this state-of-the-art facility, you’ll delight in the antics of sea otters and sea lions as they play along the aquarium’s rocky shores, while tufted puffins frolic in the pools of one of the largest outdoor sea bird aviaries in North America. Encounter sharks and other deep-sea denizens in Passages of the Deep—a 200-foot undersea tunnel snaking its way through three marine habitats. Next door is the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which further explores and explains the mysteries of the sea.

14. Newport
This picturesque port is a good place to get out of the car and take a stroll. Amble along the old bayfront to glimpse fishing fleets and admire fresh fish displayed by some of the best seafood markets on the coast. Saunter along the seashore in search of semiprecious agates washed in by waves. Or wander to the south end of town to the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, the only one remaining in Oregon that combines a tower and keeper’s quarters. Gulls, puffins, and cormorants nest on a nearby island, and whales cruise by offshore.

15. Otter Crest Loop

For a short but especially scenic side trip, take Otter Crest Loop west to Devils Punchbowl State Park, so named because a collapsed cavern here churns with seawater at high tide. The drive continues to Cape Foulweather, where the visitor center—perched nearly 500 feet above the pounding surf—commands marvelous views of the nearby tiny hilltop towns.

16. Depoe Bay

Home of one of the world’s smallest navigable harbors (only six acres), this cozy seaside village is a major port for sightseeing and whale-watching excursions. In stormy weather nature stages a spectacular show here, as seawater spouts skyward through crevices in the rocks along the waterfront. Nearby Lincoln City, a popular shopping and entertainment center, claims another miniature marvel—the world’s shortest river, only 120 feet long.

17. Cascade Head
Like the silverspot butterfly that makes its home here, this 280-acre, privately owned preserve is ever so lovely—but all too fragile. The ecosystems found in this sanctuary are diverse yet delicate, so some areas are off limits and in others visitors must stay on designated trails to prevent damage to the landscape. Some of the trails meander through cathedral-like forests of Sitka spruce and red alder; others lead past wide-open fields rippling with goldenrod, wild rye, and Indian paintbrush; and a few end at a grassy headland with striking views of nearby shores and far-off hills. A variety of wildlife can be seen here, including black-tailed deer, great horned owls, snowshoe hares, Pacific giant salamanders (among the largest in the world), and two rare plants, the Cascade Head catchfly and the hairy checkermallow.

18. Three Capes Scenic Loop
About nine miles north of Neskowin, travel west on the first turn-off in Pacific City to Cape Kiwanda State Park. Photographers love the place for its gorgeous red-and-yellow sandstone cliffs; hang-gliding enthusiasts come to launch from its massive dunes; and surf watchers thrill at the sight of magnificent waves crashing against cliffs and caves. At nearby Pacific City—one of the only places on the coast where dories (flat-bottom fishing boats with high sides) are launched directly into the surf; fishermen sell just-caught seasonal fish all year long.

Cape Lookout, the second stop on the loop, was formed by several ancient lava flows and truly lives up to its name; it juts so far out into the ocean that it affords views of Tillamook Head, 42 miles to the north, and Cape Foulweather, 39 miles to the south. Atop this rocky headland you’ll find Cape Lookout State Park, its 2,000 acres laced with miles of trails that meander through coastal rain forest and along sandy shores. One of the beaches runs along Netarts Spit, a five-mile finger of sand pointing north. A stopover on the Pacific flyway, the cape and adjoining waters attract more than 150 species of birds, including blue herons, murres, and oystercatchers.

The last stop on the loop is Cape Meares State Park, where a lighthouse over 100 years old (surrounded in spring and summer by wild roses) offers clifftop views of a sea lion rookery below and offshore rocks and reefs. But perhaps the most unforgettable sight here is a giant Sitka spruce that is located near the lighthouse parking lot. Nicknamed the Octopus Tree, this odd-looking creation of nature has six candelabra-like limbs (the product of furious coastal winds and abundant rainfall) that reach out horizontally as far as 30 feet before turning skyward.

The Fine Art of Whale Watching
More than 20 species of whales parade past the Oregon coast, but only a few come close enough to shore to be seen. The most common of these, gray whales, migrate 6,000 miles to the nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic between February and June and then return, from November until January, to the warm lagoons off the coast of Mexico to breed. About 400 “resident whales”—gray whales that do not migrate—can be seen offshore year-round. But the best chance of spotting these 40-ton mammals is from mid-December through mid-January, when as many as 30 whales per hour cruise by the coast.

To spot whales from the shore, wait for a calm, overcast day and perch yourself on a tall, outlying cliff during the early-morning hours. Scan the horizon for a “blow” (a white puff of water vapor), then look for periodic spouts. If you’re lucky, you may even see a whale breach—spring above the surface before splash diving—like the humpback shown above.

19. Oswald West State Park

Legend has it that a fortune in Spanish doubloons is buried somewhere in the side of Neahkahnie Mountain, a former volcano that erupted under the ocean over 13 million years ago. But the greatest treasure to be found here lies at the mountain’s base—a 2,500-acre park in a rain forest of soaring spruce and cedar trees. The park offers 12 miles of hiking trails and exhilarating ocean views.

20. Cannon Beach
On the way to Cannon Beach, take time out to enjoy the dazzling ocean views visible from lookout points along the road. One mile east of town you can see a replica of the ship cannon that washed ashore here in 1896 and gave this tiny artists colony its name.

Towering over the beach is 235-foot-tall Haystack Rock, a bullet-shaped monolith that is one of the most-photographed sights on the coast. Nearby are two recreation areas: Ecola State Park, which offers glorious views of the coast through fog-shrouded firs, and less-crowded Indian Beach, one of the state’s few rocky beaches.

As you leave Cannon Beach and continue north on Rte. 101, you’ll pass Seaside, Oregon. It is the oldest coastal destination resort community in Oregon, the Pacific endpoint of the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the site of a 1.8-mile-long oceanfront promenade with outstanding views of the ocean. Visit its historic aquarium.

21. Fort Clatsop National Memorial
“Great joy … we are in view of the ocean … which we [have] been so long anxious to see.” So wrote the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their journal on November 7, 1805—19 months and 4,000 miles after their party of 33 had begun its epic journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean. But before long a taste of winter in the Northwest turned their glee into gloom. “O! How horriable is the day … waves brakeing with great violence against the shore … all wet and confined to our shelters.”

Lewis and Clark built their log cabins and stockade, known as Fort Clatsop, beside a river that now bears their names. In 1955 these structures were faithfully re-created near the original site—a damp, sun-dappled forest of spruce and hemlock. Also re-created here are the daily crafts that were practiced in the early 19th century. On summer days, interpreters dressed in period garb demonstrate such skills as candle making, canoe building, and firing a muzzle-loader musket.

22. Astoria

It seems only fitting that the drive should end at the bustling seaport of Astoria, for it was here, in 1811, that John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading company established a post that became the first permanent American settlement in the Pacific Northwest. There are over 600 historic homes in Astoria. The most famous is Flavel House, a splendid Victorian mansion erected in 1885 by Captain George Flavel, who is believed to have been Astoria’s first millionaire.

On Coxcomb Hill, 12-story-high Astoria Column provides a panoramic view of the town below, Saddle Mountain to the south, and to the north, the graceful span of the Astoria Bridge, which crosses the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest