Photo by Corinne Kupish
Photo by Sterling Lanier/Unsplash
Keep an eye out for sea lions at Gold Beach.
From crabbing to kayaking and gem-hunting on the beach, Oregon’s stretch of 101 has nature, scenic beauty, and adventure in spades.
It’s not just Oregon’s myriad rivers, Crater Lake National Park, and towering evergreens that make for an outdoor paradise. More than 350 miles of coastline with riverheads, surf, and sandy beaches have made the Oregon coast an essential retreat for wealthy Portland residents for decades. Now protected by a landmark 1967 law that makes it all public, “the people’s coast” is a wealth of pristine nature open to all. In spring, you’ll see hills awash in yellow scotch broom and the riotous pinks of native rhododendron bushes that grow so big they resemble trees, while summer and fall are the warmest months, and winter is the prime season for whale watching.
The setting is great for spotting wildlife like birds and seals, and opportunities for hiking, kayaking, fishing, (wind) surfing, crabbing, clamming, and more abound. Today the destination is an idyllic road trip for those coming from Portland or Seattle, whether for an extended weekend or longer. It also makes a fitting finale to a cross-country journey.
There’s no wrong way to do a road trip here. Just developed enough with a selection of boutique lodging, state parks for camping, and many coastal towns near each other, the Oregon coast’s scale means that with some ingenuity, in the off season, you can easily be spontaneous or hop from beach town to beach town if you want to survey it all. This six-day, road trip itinerary follows the Oregon portion of Highway 101 starting in the South Coast to the North Coast before looping back to Portland.
Oregon’s Bay Area and the largest city on the coast (with a population of about 16,000), Coos Bay is the commercial hub of the South Coast. It's the biggest port between San Francisco and Seattle, and experiences like the Coos History Museum shed light on its shipbuilding and lumber milling history, providing context for the many outdoor adventures to be had in a landscape that spans long, sandy beaches and forests.
Bay Point Landing takes glamping to new heights with RV sites, Airstreams, or cabins that immerse you in nature, style, and comfort, as well as amenities including a saltwater pool and fitness center.
For golfers, about 20 minutes further south in Bandon, Bandon Dunes Golf Resort has some of the country’s premier golf links. All five of its courses (more than any other club or resort) consistently top lists of the best in the world.
Or go just north of Brookings to camp or stay in one of three log cabins at Alfred A. Loeb State Park, a small, forested campground that’s slightly inland and, when foggy, warmer than the nearby Harris Beach State Park or Sunset Bay State Park on the coast, which both have yurts.
Gold Beach, the gateway to the Rogue River, particularly Otter Point headland for a day of walking among the sandstone and spotting sea lions. You can also see one of Oregon’s only two pockets of old-growth redwoods by heading less than a mile upriver from the campground at Loeb (as locals call it) to the 1.2-mile loop Redwood Nature Trail.
The 7 Devils Brewing Company, a spot with a patio that channels the region’s bohemian spirit with handmade furniture and paintings that accompany the hand-crafted ales and tapas using local ingredients. Another locally oriented casual spot is Front Street Provisioners, a woman-owned business that offers up wood-fired pizzas. For self-catering, try the Coos Head Food Co-op and its selection of natural, organic products.
Dinner destinations include Restaurant O serving French and Italian creations, such as crispy pork belly and fettuccine alfredo. Or check out caterer Black Market Gourmet (which sources from other local purveyors like Empire Bakery) for prepared food such as tandoori chicken with curried cucumber salad and smoked salmon chowder—and if you’re lucky, you can catch them at their pop-up supper club on Fridays.
About three hours inland from Coos Bay, Ashland has all the relaxed vibes of a small town but with big culture thanks to a thriving arts scene, including a world-famous Shakespeare festival whose annual eight-month season runs through October. (It’s currently open with COVID protocols in place.) Bonus: surrounding local hot springs mean you can get your dose of nature here too.
At the mouth of the Siuslaw River about an hour north of Coos Bay, Florence’s Old Town makes a charming home base for exploring the famed dunes just south of here by sandboard or dune buggy, along with other adventures such as the Sea Lion Caves and whale watching.
Book at the award-winning River House Inn on the Siuslaw River waterfront in Old Town; it’s within walking distance of the area’s better restaurants, such as the Waterfront Depot and Bridgewater Fish House, as well as galleries, shops, and cafés. Or go about five miles north to catch sunrises and sunsets at the oceanfront resort Driftwood Shores.
Or you could immerse yourself in the 47 miles of dunes stretching between Florence and Coos Bay by camping (or snagging one of 10 yurts) at Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park. Or go to Florence’s northern neighbor 20 minutes away, Yachats (translated from Chinook as “dark water at the foot of the mountain” and pronounced “ya-hats”), for a stay at the Overleaf Lodge; every room has an ocean view and you can enjoy access to hikes including the Ya’Xaik and 804 trails.
There’s also the option to unplug an hour up the coast from Florence at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, a historic building with author-themed rooms, like the popular Mark Twain room; it has no TVs, Wi-Fi, or telephones. Located in a Newport cove, the Ocean House has coastal views from every room.
The dunes, which draw visitors for the otherworldly experience of vast tracts of undulating, rippled sand that inspired the sci-fi classic Dune. Hiking affords chances to spot wildlife like elk or hunt for wild mushrooms, while exploring by buggy is a popular way to rev up your adrenaline, and you can head to Cleawox Lake just south of Florence for swimming and water sports.
A hiker’s dream, Yachats’s 804 Trail is a 1.7-mile in-and-out hike with plenty of opportunities for delving into the area’s natural beauty, including tidepooling and bird watching. It connects directly to several trails: the 3.7-mile Amanda Trail, which leads to the Cape Perpetua Stone Shelter; the small and beautiful Smelt Sands State Recreation Site; and the Ya’Xaik Trail–Gerdemann Preserve Loop Hike, a 2.1-mile loop trail established in 2013 by several committed locals; it passes through the private Gerdemann Botanic Preserve to get to the Siuslaw National Forest.
Yachats also has its share of small businesses with artsy coastal vibes, offering something distinct to take home, such as gem and mineral store Planet Yachats, and galleries Dancing Dogs, Earthworks, Touchstone, and Wave.
Locally roasted coffee and breakfast burritos on the riverfront patio at River Roasters—it has a view of the landmark art deco drawbridge that spans the river.
Worthwhile coffee shops in Yachats include Bread & Roses and Green Salmon. If you’re up for a meal, try Ona for fine dining with global influences and local ingredients, the lesser-known brewery Yachats Brewing, and the restaurant at Drift Inn where artist-made umbrellas hang from the ceiling.
An abundance of dining options await in Newport, including Local Ocean, a dockside seafood grill, and Sorella, an eatery that serves pizza, homemade pasta, and more.
Situated on Yaquina Bay, about an hour north of Florence, Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium is a scenic site in and of itself, and Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area is home to the state’s westernmost point, tallest lighthouse, and whale-watching sites.
Heading north about two hours up the coast brings you to Pacific City, an off-the-beaten-path town set among state-protected natural areas along the Nestucca River. With a dramatic 200-foot dune adjacent to its own offshore Haystack Rock (taller yet not as well-known as the one in Cannon Beach, OR), and the Three Capes Scenic Loop with opportunities to check out the lighthouse at Cape Meares and picnic on the beach, the scenery is only rivaled by ways to enjoy it. You can go fishing and crabbing or kayaking and hiking, or simply while away the day on the beach’s soft sand.
Located on the beach at the edge of Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area, the Headlands Lodge boasts a sublime location next to the massive dune that’s prime for climbing and sunset views. It’s easy to go tidepooling among the abundant mussel beds (the resort’s Adventure Team can set you up) and watch the surfers with your feet on the beach. Pro tip: Book one of the two-bedroom apartments on the lower level for incredible ocean views and a private patio. Enjoying seasonal, made-from-scratch fare from the Meridian Restaurant, like local shrimp served on pillow-like bread, takes room service to another level. You could also stay across the street at the Inn at Cape Kiwanda or glamp in Airstreams at Hart’s Camp.
Another option is Depoe Bay, which is on the way to Pacific City and a fine spot for whale watching. Try Channel House, where every room has a private hot tub, and Whale Cove Inn, home to the lauded Restaurant Beck.
Keep going north, 30 minutes beyond Pacific City, for family-friendly options in Tillamook that include camping or one of the yurts or cabins at Cape Lookout State Park, Sheltered Nook’s tiny houses, and a covered wagon or primitive campsite at Twins Ranch.
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McPhillips Beach in Pacific City’s Cape Kiwanda State Park, a mile of sand with the geometric basalt structures formed by former lava flows and crumbling sandstone that define much of the coast here. Look for gems such as agates, jasper, and other semi-precious stones that have been known to wash ashore.
The Nestucca River, Bob Straub State Park, and Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge all draw kayakers to their pristine waterways. Nestucca Adventures will set you up with kayak rentals (or gear for crabbing, among other maritime activities). Stop before or after for a meal at the riverside picnic tables of the neighboring River House. Or you could try a fishing trip from Cape Kiwanda in front of the Headlands Resort. Try Pacific City Dory Fishing Charters.
About 30 minutes away from Pacific City, scenic Netarts Bay has opportunities for shell fishing at low tide. Stop for dinner at the Schooner for fresh, local seafood and foraged ingredients in a dining room next to the boat launch.
The Chef’s Tasting Menu at Restaurant Beck in Depoe Bay, the brainchild of James Beard Award–finalist Justin Wills, which uses the finest foraged and local farm ingredients.
While several attractions in Tillamook nod to the area’s dairyland past and present, including the eponymous national cheesemaker, Degarde Brewing’s tasting room is a chance to sample suds based on historic traditions and experimentation, like Chamomile Ivy, which uses Oregon chamomile flowers and is aged in oak barrels for two years.
As you wind your way up the North Coast, be sure to take the 101 for stunning coastal views and tucked-away beaches. Manzanita, an hour north of Pacific City, inspired Oregon governor Oswald West to make the state’s beaches free and open to all. The town’s rural vibe belies some of the coast’s best culinary experiences, and nearby Cannon Beach is a larger, more well-known destination with restaurants, shops, and services.
Coast Cabins offers a range of tasteful accommodation options in Manzanita, from private homes with midcentury-modern architecture and decor to vacation rental apartments, with amenities such as a spa and gym. Arch Cape Lofts is 10 minutes north of Manzanita in Arch Cape and a stylish and affordable vacation rental choice, designed more for the traveler who's out on adventures from morning to night.
Hotel fans will want to head to the McMenamins Gearhart Hotel, built in 1890 and part of the region’s history as a vacation destination, or the Cannon Beach Hotel for rooms (many of them with fireplaces) in a New England–style building near downtown Cannon Beach.
Slightly south of Manzanita, campers can go crabbing on the four-mile beach when they stay at Nehalem Bay State Park’s campground, which also has yurts.
The Sand Dune Pub in Manzanita is a classic roadhouse that’s been serving dishes like burgers and chili-cheese fries since 1935. Enjoy your meal on the patio with an Oregon craft beer or cocktail and, on Saturdays, live music. Another old-school spot with a laid-back vibe, Driftwood serves up seafood and steak from local purveyors in Cannon Beach. Or try Ecola Seafoods to sample the freshest of the ocean’s bounty in a casual atmosphere.
Short Sand Beach, in a protected cove in Oswald West State Park, is worth the brief hike through the forest. You’ll find campfires and surfers on a shore awash with massive trunks of driftwood. Look for the plaque at a lookout point dedicated to Matt Kramer, a journalist whose coverage helped pass the 1967 bill that made Oregon’s beaches public land.
Just under an hour north on the 101 brings you to Astoria, the northernmost town on the coast and a bohemian enclave. Also known as the setting for films (including The Goonies and Kindergarten Cop), it’s on a stretch of coast known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific”—famous for some of the roughest waters in the world at the delta where the Columbia River meets the ocean.
Located at the end of a historic pier that extends 600 feet into the Columbia River, the boutique Cannery Pier Hotel has river views from each of its 46 rooms where you can watch the ships as they pass by. Book one of the rooms on the north side for a view of the Astoria-Megler bridge, the longest truss bridge in North America.
The remains of the 1906 shipwreck Peter Iredale on the beach at Fort Stevens State Park (which also has camping) bring to life how treacherous crossings are here.
For more enlightenment on this place where the mighty Pacific and Columbia River meet and how it’s shaped Astoria, from dugout canoes to the science of storms, go to the Maritime Museum.
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