Road Trip: Northern & Central Oregon Coast
It has been months since I woke up to birdsong. I unzip the tent’s flap and look out: the morning is oddly foggy for mid-June. We are camping in Fort Stevens State Park at Oregon’s northernmost tip. It is still foggy when we leave an hour later. The dampness clings to the maritime landscape, to the barges slowly plying on the Columbia. The narrow road leading to the marshy beaches is hemmed by windswept trees and shifting dunes on both sides. A series of raised wooden stumps resembling the skeleton of a jetty stretches to our right. Close to the observation platform, two men are collecting their fishing equipment and preparing to return inland. We follow the signs to the wreck of the Peter Iredale, a vessel that ran ashore en route to the Columbia River in 1906 and was abandoned on Clatsop Spit. Its black skeleton appears eerily suspended in the haze. I wonder aloud about the men who were stranded here, on this foggy dune-laden beach with not a community anywhere in sight. They probably starved to death, bodies wrung dry by the brine and stripped by the monstrous winds. We wander awhile on clumps of itchy dune-grass, inhaling the brine-breathing wind, before setting off eastwards. Half an hour later, we reach the first stop on our road trip: Astoria. Before us straddling the Columbia River is Oregon’s most recognized landmarks, the green Megler bridge that connects Oregon and Washington.
Northern Oregon Coast Roadtrip: Astoria
Not so long ago, Astoria– the oldest settlement west of the Rockies– was the weekend haunt of Portlanders who flocked to establishments like Fort George, Buoy, and Rouge Ale to try their craft brews. Like most port towns, Astoria, at first glance, looks chipped and rundown but look closer and you’ll find one of the prettiest towns in this part of the continent. Magnificent Victorian-era mansions find pride of place upon the hillside overlooking the Columbia. Cute cafés, bookstores, galleries, breweries, and boutiques line the main drag. The city also has its fair share of museums where discerning visitors can learn more about the city’s Scandinavian past. Stop for coffee and breakfast at the Astoria Coffee House and Bistro or at Blue Scorcher’s Café known for its bread and baked goods. At Josephson’s Smokehouse, try their much-loved smoked salmon lox-style. For lunch, swing through the doors of Albatross and Co. or Northwest Wild for the freshest local produce. Hop on to the Astoria trolley for a quick trip of the riverfront. If you aren’t crazy about the Goonies, give the Goonies house a miss— the owner has a reputation for disliking visitors— and drive around the 600 ft tall hand-painted Astoria Column before heading south along Highway 101.
Cannon Beach, Ecola State Park, Neahkahnie Mountain
The previous evening, we had watched a magical sunset from Cannon Beach. Everything was lit up with
The Neahkahnie Mountain Trail in the Oswald West State Park is perhaps one of the best hikes along the entire Oregon Coast. The 8-mile loop takes you through an old-growth forest of Sitka spruces and a damp undergrowth of sword fern, salmonberry, and red huckleberry to the Devil’s Cauldron and Cape Falcon. The trail offers breath-taking views of Neahkahnie Beach, Manzanita, and all the way up to the Nehalem Bay Mouth. The year before when we had camped in the Nehalem Bay State Park, a group of my friends had hiked the mountain. The rain had deterred me; I still regret my decision because after they returned they couldn’t stop singing praises of the immaculate views of the Pacific.
Oregon Scenic Railroad at Garibaldi
Garibaldi and Rockaway Beach don’t feature on most itineraries but if old trains spark adrenalin in your brain, park your car and hop on the historic steam or diesel locomotives run by the Oregon Scenic Railroad. There are regular 1.5 hr long coastal excursions to and from Rockaway Beach to Garibaldi. The ride is nostalgia-inducing; find a seat in the open carriage and enjoy the ride as the train chugs through the coastal range. They also run a special train in the fall when the leaves are turning shades of maroon, orange, and caramel, a 4th of July fireworks special, and one called the Candy Cane Express during Christmas.
Soon we are in the dairy county. Cows graze on pastures and farmlands stretch in the shadow of the coastal mountains. On the way to Tillamook, we cross a small bridge spanning a narrow valley. The light illuminating the deep-V of the wooded valley is so magical it appears divine and lights up our hearts. We wonder aloud if we should retire to this magical slice of land adorned with mountains and birds and countless trees but soon we are driving through busy downtown Tillamook where construction work has created a long line of waiting vehicles. There are numerous hiking trails around Tillamook but the Tillamook Creamery is a must-visit especially if you have kids. The last time we were there, renovations were on, but we still had a good time pressing buttons and giggling as the plastic cow exhibits moo-ed and swung their heads side-to-side. Join the long queues in front of the sampling counters— Tillamook makes some of the best cheese in this part of the world— before heading to the ice cream parlour for delicious scoops. I recommend the Coffee Almond Fudge, and the Marionberry, if you like fruity flavours, but they also make small-batch flavours that are only available here.
Three Capes Scenic Route
The plan was to go searching for agates on Short Beach and Tunnel Beach, both favourites of agate seekers, but swirling storm clouds caused a change in plan. We head higher up the coastal mountains until we are on Cape Meares. The Pacific is a brooding shade of steel blue; clusters of bright yellow flowers pop all over the morose coastline. A weirdly contorted Sitka Spruce, lovingly nicknamed the Octopus Tree, is one of the two major attractions here. We join a guided tour of the other attraction, the restored 1890 lighthouse — the shortest lighthouse on the Oregon coast— to see the gigantic Fresnel lens before driving down to Oceanside. Despite the drizzle, families are enjoying their time on the beach. Kids are swimming in the relatively calm waters and building sand castles in the dirty yellow light that precedes a storm. Cute cafés and houses line the steep hillside overlooking the ocean. As large buttons of rain start hitting our face, we run back to the car and start driving south along the 40-mile long Three Capes Scenic Route.
Through gaps in the tapestry of gigantic conifers, we can see the turbulent ocean. There is not much traffic and we drive leisurely, relishing the wilderness and the abandon with which nature has claimed this part of the world as her own. If you’re into clamming, stop at Netarts, a small fishing community on the Netarts Bay. As you climb towards Cape Lookout, the second of the three capes, keep an eye for the sign: “Wildlife Viewing Area.” It marks the beginning of a 2.5-mile trail through old-growth forests to the cape from where you can see all of the Tillamook coastline. You can also spot passing grey whales from this vantage point in spring and winter! The clouds lift as we drive further south, past the Sandlake dunes, and soon we can see the ultramarine ocean and blue skies once again. Cape Kiwanda, perhaps the Oregon coast’s most famous promontory, offers stellar views of yet another Haystack Rock. After you’ve had your fill of watching surfers navigate the surf as it batters the sandstone headland, drive down to Pacific City and into the Cape Kiwanda Brewery where you can chug your beer with mesmerizing views of the ocean and the Haystack Rock in the background.
Central Oregon Coast Roadtrip: Newport
Enroute to Newport along Highway 101, we stop at the Devil’s Punchbowl which was formed when the roof of two sea caves collapsed. The unforgiving fury of the Pacific further sculpted it giving it the appearance of a massive bowl. During high tide, waves crash into it creating a spectacular visual but during low tide, you can actually explore the caves at the foot of the headland and walk inside the Devil’s Punchbowl. The floor of the caves is dotted with tidal pools and colourful marine creatures. The rocks are slippery, so exert extreme caution on the hike. The shape of the cavern makes for some interesting acoustics! At Depoe Bay, a few miles north of the Devil’s Punchbowl, you can go on whale-watching tours.
Newport is one of the busiest towns on the Oregon coast and hums with tourists year-round. It is known for its quirky boutiques, glass-blowing workshops, and restaurants serving fresh seafood. It is home to two of Oregon’s lighthouses— the Yaquina Head Lighthouse which is the tallest on the coast and its oft forgotten sibling, the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse. Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Centre is located here. Newport Aquarium and the Undersea Gardens are excellent options if you want to see and learn about marine life in this region. We give them a miss and instead we go to say hi to the lazy sea lions sunning at the docks. If you are planning to stay overnight, book a room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel (overlooking Nye Beach) where each room is themed after authors. Take your pick from twenty different authors! Local Oceans Seafood is an excellent place to try the fresh catch of the day. If you are into the craft beer scene, head to Rogue Ales and Spirits. We spend some time strolling on Agate Beach before hitting the road again.
Yachats, Cape Perpetua, Florence
The good thing about summer in these latitudes is it’s still light really late in the day. We head southwards towards Yachats (pronounced: Ya-hots). Seal Rock, perhaps one of my favourite spots on the coast, is alive with gulls. Bundles of neon-green seaweed lay limp along the edge of the beach. The exposed rocks are encrusted with mussels and barnacles. Before the colonizers drove them away, native Americans hunted mussels, sea urchins, crabs, clams, and other seafood in these rich waters.
Two miles south of Yachats is Cape Perpetua, another jewel on the Oregon Coast. In the dusty rose of the evening, the landscape takes on a dreamy look. Colourful cabins and summer homes, spaced far apart from one another, dot the densely wooded hillside. On the way are a series of streets each named after the states on the West Coast. The coastline becomes increasingly dramatic as we head further south; the smooth beaches are replaced by beaches with exposed volcanic rocks, eroded sea caves, and other formations. Thor’s Well, Devil’s Churn, and the Spouting Horn at Cook’s Chasm are well-known features and are most active during high tide. There are multiple hiking trails here; the Whispering Spruce trail offers gorgeous views of the coast to the south. If hiking is your jam, take on the 26 miles of interconnected trails that wind through old-growth forests and goes down to tidal pools swarming with anemones and starfishes. Further south is the picture-postcard pretty Heceta Head Lighthouse and the lovely sand dunes of Florence, the last town on the Central Oregon Coast, where you can end the day with a sumptuous dinner at the Waterfront Depot.
Astoria to Florence via Highway 101 & Oregon Coast Highway: 188 miles
Astoria is 97 miles from Portland and takes around 2 hrs to reach via the Columbia Highway. If you’re taking the South to North route, Eugene is 67 miles from Florence and the drive via OR 126 W takes around 1.5 hrs.
Campsites in State Parks (N to S):
- Fort Steven State Park, Warrenton
- Nehalem Bay State Park
- Cape Lookout State Park
- Beverly Beach State Park, Newport