After spending three months nomading around Sonoma, we headed back to the Seattle area for a couple months to do some more hiking around the Cascades. The drive from NorCal to Seattle was an easy one – a straight, twelve-hour shot up I-5. However, instead of taking the direct route up the interstate, we thought we’d instead swing west and spend a few days exploring the Oregon Coast. Neither of us had been to Oregon yet, and we thought it sounded like a scenic alternative to a single-day slog. We were totally unprepared for just how beautiful this voyage would be. The drive ended up massively exceeding our expectations and has unquestionably earned a spot as one of our all-time favorite road trips.
We made the drive up Oregon during the third week in May. Because it was the spring shoulder season, we were able to take advantage of lower prices on accommodations as well as fewer crowds. Our trip encompassed Oregon’s entire 363-mile length of Highway 101, from the California border, north to Astoria, a small port town at the mouth of the Columbia River.
The Oregon Coast has got to be a contender for one of the best road trips in the country. The state’s 363 miles of coastline boasts an array of amazing landscapes – from rugged bluffs, azure waters peppered with sea stacks and flourishing tidepools, to lush forests and even vast dune fields. With more than 100 beaches, 38 state parks, 11 lighthouses, one national forest, and dozens of scenic viewpoints, wildlife refuges and historic sites, there’s undoubtedly something for everyone.
When we planned our mini road trip, we gave ourselves three days to spend exploring the coast. Ultimately, we wished we’d had more time. We managed to do pretty well for having just three days, squeezing in three lighthouses, three beaches, two tidepool excursions, one brewery and twenty miles of hiking across six trails. And while we limited our driving to around four hours a day, it was still a pretty aggressive itinerary. If we were doing it again, we’d spend at least five days driving point-to-point (from Brookings to Astoria or vice versa).
While we certainly didn’t explore everything this striking coastline has to offer, we hope this serves as a decent jumping-off point for planning an amazing Oregon road trip. Whether you’re driving the full length of this Pacific Northwest seaboard or just a smaller section, you’re sure to find something incredible around every corner.
Oregon Pacific Coast Passport
With so much to see and do along the coast, one of the first considerations that springs to mind is probably cost. Having just spent three months in California, where even the piddly regional parks charge a $7 day use fee, we kind of wondered just how much we’d have to spend to see everything we wanted. Enter the Oregon Pacific Coast Passport.
Costing just $10 for a five-day vehicle pass, the Oregon Pacific Coast Passport is an amazing value and your ticket to exploring the state’s stunning 363 miles of coastline. The pass covers more than a dozen state parks, recreation areas, national forests, natural areas, and historic sites (including must-sees Heceta Head and Yaquina Head Lighthouses). Passes can be purchased in person at locations up and down the coast. For a list of locations that both sell and honor the passport, click here.
One notable location that’s missing from the passport’s list of sites is Southern Oregon’s Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a highlight of the region. That’s because this entire twelve-mile stretch of coastline is free to visit (no pass required). Additionally, thanks to a landmark bill passed by Governor Tom McCall in 1967, all of Oregon’s beaches are free and public. There is just so much to do here on budget. Additionally, most of Oregon’s beaches, trails, and parks are dog-friendly – another major departure from our time in California.
While it is rare to run into parking or day use fees, a handful of state parks do charge a fee that’s not covered by the Oregon Pacific Coast Passport. One such example is the Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area, which now costs $10 to visit. Other activities outside of beaches and coastal trails, such as the Sea Lion Caves or Oregon Coast Aquarium, will also have some type of associated cost, so expect to spend some money for the more touristy experiences. That said, you don’t need to spend extra money for a memorable adventure. We did our entire trip using just the $10 passport and had the most amazing time.
Southern Oregon: Remote and rugged
Much more rugged and less developed than areas further north, Oregon’s southern coast definitely has that more isolated and less touristy feel. With craggy cliffs tumbling to the roiling waters of the Pacific, this scenic stretch of seaboard is totally unique from the central and northern reaches.
Southern Oregon is also home to the state’s most amazing collection of sea stacks and rocky islets, many of which are visible from scenic viewpoints or short walking trails. Nearly 2,000 of these small islands dot the length of the Oregon Coast, and all are protected by the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge as critical breeding grounds for a host of seabirds and marine mammals.
Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor
Stretching for twelve miles from Brookings to Gold Beach, the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor is the gem of southern Oregon. With dozens of arched rocks and sea stacks to admire, this is the place to find a quiet spot, grab a picnic, and just sit and soak it all in. There are about a half dozen trailheads to choose from here, including Indian Sands, Secret Beach, Natural Bridges and Arch Rock. While I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite spot along Oregon’s coast, this stretch was exceptionally striking.
Mary D. Hume
About twenty minutes north of the Samuel H. Boardman Corridor, outside of Gold Beach, you’ll find the wreck of the Mary D. Hume. A remarkable vessel with a storied past, this is a great stop for those with an interest in maritime history. With 97 years of active commercial sea service, the Mary D. Hume hold the record as longest-serving commercial vessel on the Pacific Coast.
Named in honor of his wife, local businessman and cannery owner Robert D. Hume first launched this small supply steamer in 1881. During her first decade of service, the Mary D. Hume hauled wood and canned salmon from Oregon to San Francisco. Following her years as a supply ship, she spent the next decade on the unforgiving Bering Sea as an Arctic whaling vessel for the Pacific Whaling Co.
After a record-setting six-year whaling voyage, the Mary D. Hume was relegated to towing in an area off the Alaskan Peninsula. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, the ship was purchased by The American Tug Boat Company. After being outfitted as an ocean tugboat, the ship served in that capacity for 60 years until her final retirement in 1978.
After nearly a century of wide-ranging service, the Mary D. Hume was destined for a museum. However, during the process of moving the timeworn steamer, she slid off the rigging and onto a sandbar at the mouth of the Rogue River. Various litigations regarding ownership as well as setbacks in funding stalled restoration and recovery efforts. Today, the ramshackle ‘wreck’ remains abandoned in those fateful shallows, forty-five years after her formal retirement. Although she’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it seems like such an inglorious ending to an otherwise illustrious career.
Pro tip: A greater portion of the ship’s hull is visible at low tide. If you’re interested in seeing or photographing more of the wreck, check the tide table for Gold Beach before visiting.
Central Coast: Lighthouses and dunes
As you make your way up the coast, you’ll notice a fairly abrupt change in the landscape. The wild ruggedness of the south quickly gives way to more expansive beaches and quaint coastal towns such as Yachats, Newport, Depoe Bay and Lincoln City. Between Winchester Bay and Florence, you’ll also find expansive dune fields that make you feel as if you’ve suddenly been teleported to a vast desert. And for those keen to explore some of the state’s charming light stations, six of Oregon’s eleven lighthouses can be found along the Central Coast.
Image courtesy of © Lantern Press, www.lanternpress.com, Oregon Coast Lighthouses, Image #19642.
John Dellenback Dunes Trail
As we made our way north through Central Oregon, we stopped for a short hike within Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. With more than 50 miles of sand dunes, this preserve is the longest stretch of coastal dunes in North America and one of the largest in the world. Here, you’ll find opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, OHV riding, and sandboarding. With the dunes housing delicate ecosystems, the Siuslaw National Forest has worked to develop a sustainable trail system for OHV use. By designating specific areas for motorized vehicles, the park hopes to limit the impact on Oregon’s fragile dune system.
With a such huge area to explore here – including numerous beaches and more than a dozen hiking trails – we settled on the John Dellenback Dunes Trail (#1339). This six-mile return winds through an expanse of dune fields that makes you feel as though you’ve been set adrift in the middle of a limitless desert, rather than strolling mere steps from the Pacific Ocean.
The John Dellenback Trail begins in the forest beside the Eel Creek Campground. After a short, half-mile walk, the trail suddenly pops out at the edge of a massive dune field. The landscape transforms so suddenly it’s as if you’ve opened the door to another world. The dunes here are nothing short of spectacular – some towering, some adorned with wave-like patterns, and some crowned with small tree islands. The geology is fascinating, and the photo opportunities endless.
If you plan to hike through the dunes, be sure you have a GPS map downloaded offline and are comfortable with route-finding. Because the sands are constantly shifting, the route through the dunes is largely unmarked. Visual waypoints are helpful, including the wooden stakes planted atop a handful of the sandy highpoints, but it can still be easy to lose your bearings amongst the barren dunes.
The trail meanders through the dunes for about 1.5 miles before transitioning back to a narrow ribbon of coastal forest and deflation plain – an area of wet, marshy vegetation between the dunes and beach. After another mile of rambling through this scrubby vegetation, you’re greeted by the tranquil, pastel-hues of the shoreline.
Know before you go: Many of the beaches along this stretch of coastline (including the one at the terminus of this trail) are critical nesting sites for the Western snowy plover. The shorebirds are listed federally as threatened, and management areas have been set up by the national forest to give these birds the best chance at success. On plover nesting beaches, certain activities are restricted from March 15 through September 15 each year. Dogs are also prohibited during nesting season (on-leash or otherwise). A list of beaches with restrictions can be found here. Please help these vulnerable birds and follow all regulations.
Heceta Head Lighthouse
For those that love lighthouses, Oregon sure has some beautiful ones. There are 11 historic light stations dotting the coastline, and you could certainly tailor your road trip to visit them all. Wanting to fit in a little bit of everything on our drive, however, we managed to check off three. One of those was Heceta Head Lighthouse.
Perched atop a rocky headland 200 feet above the Pacific, and about twelve miles north of Florence, Heceta Head Lighthouse claims the title of Oregon’s strongest beacon. First lit in 1894, Heceta Head’s beam can be seen from more than 20 miles offshore.
There are a couple of different vantage points from which to admire Heceta Head Light: (1) via a short half-mile trail that leads directly up to the light station, or (2) from a viewpoint about a mile south on Highway 101. Both offer a gorgeous look at the landmark, and it’s easy to see why this is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the U.S.
As soon as I laid eyes on Heceta Head, I was reminded of my great-grandmother. She absolutely adored the Nubble Lighthouse in York, Maine, and it was a frequent subject in her oil paintings. Heceta Head’s simple elegance was reminiscent of the Nubble, and I think Ma would have been equally captivated with the historic charm and dramatic backdrop of this light.
Pro tip: For a unique getaway, you can book a stay in one of six rooms at the historic lightkeeper’s cottage – one of the last remaining on the Pacific Coast.
Yaquina Head Lighthouse
Standing 93 feet tall, Yaquina Head Lighthouse is Oregon’s tallest. Perched atop a basaltic headland, this light station has been guiding ships since 1873. The light is just one part of the greater Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, a protected expanse that extends one mile from the shoreline into the Pacific. This 95-acre ecosystem is rife with harbor seals and whales and, in spring and summer, the rocky shore is prime habitat for nesting seabirds.
What makes this lighthouse unique is not the structure itself, but rather its access to some incredible tide pools that sit just below the craggy bluffs. If you’re keen to explore the rocky pools, make sure to plan your visit during low tide. Cobble Beach is home to hundreds upon hundreds of anemone, mussels, gooseneck barnacles, and purple sea urchins, and is considered one of the richest intertidal zones on the Oregon Coast.
If you’re interested in birding, this is also a great location to set up your telephoto or spotting scope. The sea stacks just offshore are littered with birds including cormorants, common murre, guillemots, and gulls. When we visited in May, we spotted both pelagic cormorants as well as Brandt’s (easily recognizable by their bright blue throat patch).
North Coast: Beaches and tourist towns
With its proximity to Oregon’s three largest city centers along the I-5 corridor – Portland, Salem and Eugene – the northernmost stretch of Oregon’s coastline is also the busiest. The shoreline here is flecked with bustling tourist towns that border sprawling beaches. It’s a far cry from the barren isolation you’ll find further south, but the area is still beautiful in its own right.
The Knoll (God’s Thumb)
Wanting to get out a bit and explore on foot during our Oregon road trip, we stopped just outside of Lincoln City to hike out to The Knoll (God’s Thumb). The 5-mile out-and-back trail gains about 1,000 vertical feet as it climbs through the forest, ultimately popping out atop a grassy hillside. From here, you get a great look at ‘God’s Thumb,’ a finger-like projection that juts out toward the Pacific.
If you continue on, take care. The trail skirts the edge of a sheer bluff and can get very slick when wet. The top of the knoll offers a gorgeous look at nearby Cascade Head, and you can even make out where the Salmon River empties into the Pacific. Being an off-season Monday, the trail was nearly devoid of other people when we were there – an unexpected treat for sure.
Pro tip: If possible, try to hike early on a weekday as it can get busy on summer weekends. The trailhead is located in a residential neighborhood, so parking is super limited. Once spots fill up, there’s no parking allowed along the narrow streets. Respect the residents and their driveways and don’t be *that* person.
Neskowin Ghost Forest
If you find yourself in the area at low tide, the Neskowin Ghost Forest is a gorgeous spot about 15 miles north of Lincoln City. Located within the Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site, the ghost forest holds the vestiges of a Sitka spruce woodland whose stumps have been estimated to be roughly 2,000 years old.
When the tide is out, about a hundred stumps are visible. If you visit any time other than low tide, however, you’ll simply see a beach. When we passed through, the tide was unfortunately too high to see the arboreal remnants. While we missed the ‘forest,’ we got a nice look at gargantuan Proposal Rock, and Sanchez got to enjoy a little romp in the sand.
This one was Sanchez’s request. After being such a good little road tripper, she very politely asked if we could stop by Oregon’s most famous creamery for a special ice cream. Since we are completely powerless to the beseeching eyes of a starving street dog, we obviously obliged.
Since 1909, Tillamook Creamery has been producing high-quality ice cream and cheeses. The Tillamook County Creamery Association is a farmer-owned co-op, which means local families directly benefit from the company’s success. The company is dedicated to ethical treatment of their cows and is also environmentally-minded, with a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
We were really pushing it as we hightailed it from Neskowin Beach, but we made it to Tillamook about 15 minutes before closing. Sanchez and I snagged a picnic table on the sprawling outdoor patio while her personal assistant fetched her a bowl of creamy French vanilla. While studying their extensive menu, we actually learned the difference between traditional vanilla and French vanilla. The latter is richer because the custard base is made with egg yolks, whereas standard vanilla is not. Who knew? Luckily, she was so stoked about her ice cream she didn’t notice that we forgot to grab her a thing of cheese curds.
Cannon Beach may be the most well-known spot along the Oregon Coast. Because of its proximity to Portland, about an hour and a half west, it’s also one of the more populated places you’ll find along Highway 101. Not one for crowds, we weren’t sure how we’d feel about Cannon Beach. Surprisingly, we ended up loving it.
We booked a stay at the Inn at Haystack Rock. If you’re looking for a super cute, dog-friendly accommodation, we totally recommend this place. Our bungalow was cozy and well-appointed, and Sanchez was even welcomed with her very own basket of goodies to make her stay more comfortable. With a towel, a sheet to cover the bedspread, food and water bowls, a toy, milk bones and a handful of poop bags, it was such a thoughtful little touch. Better still? The inn was conveniently located just a half mile from its namesake, Haystack Rock.
The beach’s most recognizable feature, Haystack Rock is a 235-foot-tall sea stack that rises above the sprawling stretch of sand. While the rock itself is an impressive sight, the marine life that calls Haystack Rock home is even more special.
If you visit at low tide, the tide pools surrounding the monolith are totally unreal. We did some amazing tide pooling in Northern California, but nothing compared to what we saw here. The caches of ochre stars were spectacular, and the massive colonies of aggregating anemone were kind of mind-blowing. Naturally, being the ginormous science nerd that I am, I had to spend two hours reading about these super cool critters when we arrived at our pad for the night.
Although experts aren’t sure of an exact lifespan, it’s believe that some sea anemone can live upwards of 100 years – kind of surprising for what seems to be such a delicate little invertebrate. Aggregating anemone are particularly interesting. It’s kind of hard to imagine, but they are shockingly territorial. The animals form clear boundaries between colonies and individual anemone will even flash their tentacles during territorial disputes. Because these clonal colonies of turf-warring anemones reproduce by asexual division, the result is large groups of genetically-identical organisms.
With a strong negative tide the day we visited, we spent a good three hours out there marveling at the intertidal world. To say I was obsessed would be the understatement of the century. If tide wasn’t a factor, I probably could have sat there all day.
During our unexpectedly protracted beach excursion, we were also lucky to spot a few tufted puffins atop Haystack Rock. The striking birds nest atop the massive rock from April through July, building burrows within the grassy cliffs. Each year from March through October, naturalists from the Haystack Rock Awareness Program are on site educating the public about the remarkable life surrounding the rock and helping to protect this treasure trove of precious marine fauna.
Ecola State Park
Located just a few miles north of Cannon Beach, this scenic state park offers some seriously gorgeous coastal views. The preserve wraps around Tillamook Head, a basaltic headland that formed when a lava flow from Idaho poured through the Columbia River Gorge to the Pacific some fifteen million years ago.
The park offers a couple of beautiful coves, Indian Beach and Crescent Beach, where you can enjoy picnicking, surfing or even tidepooling. There are also a number of trails here, including those to access either Indian or Crescent Beaches, as well as the Clatsop Loop. For a longer walk, the park is also home to an 8-mile section of the Oregon Coast Trail (Lewis & Clark Discovery Trail).
For those interested in a bit of history, as well as the best view of one of Oregon’s most unique and infamous lighthouses, the 3-mile Clatsop Loop Trail leads to an overlook of Oregon’s only offshore light station, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Part of the trail even follows the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, who visited the park in 1806 with their exploratory Corp of Discovery. While here, Captain William Clark declared that the view from Tillamook Head was “the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed.”
Tillamook Rock Lighthouse
Perched atop a basaltic rock 133 feet above the tempestuous waters of the Pacific, Tillamook Rock may well be the most intriguing lighthouse in Oregon. Undoubtedly, it’s the one with the most notorious history.
Incredibly, this inaccessible light station was completed in 1881, when commuting and construction looked nothing like that of the modern day. Workers were initially shuttled out to the rock on ships – more than a mile offshore – where they were then swung in a hoist above the turbulent sea to gain access to the light. Just months into its construction, a storm hit the area, sending waves and debris crashing into the worksite. The crew ended up stranded on the rock for two weeks while they awaited food and supplies.
Because of the dangerous conditions associated with traveling to and living at the light station, Tillamook Rock earned the nickname ‘Terrible Tilly.’ Keepers and crew assigned to the light station were subjected to extreme conditions and total isolation atop the exposed rock, while violent storms relentlessly compromised the structure and risked the lives of those manning the light.
After 77 years of service, Tilly was ultimately abandoned in 1957. Advances in navigation eventually eclipsed the numerous challenges and risks associated with maintaining a structure that was constantly battered by an unrelenting sea. In the final entry in Tillamook Rock’s log, head keeper Oswald Allik penned his heartfelt farewell to Tilly, who he described as “one of the most notorious and yet fascinating of the sea-swept sentinels in the world.”
Today, Tillamook Rock Lighthouse remains an icon of Oregon’s coastline, though now as a haven for stellar sea lions and seabirds rather than one for wayward sailors. For those interested, this PBS short on Terrible Tilly is captivating and really puts its treacherous history into perspective.
Pro tip #1: The best viewpoint of the lighthouse is from Tillamook Head, and can be reached via the Clatsop Loop Trail. Depending on your abilities, this short trail is easy to moderate, clocking in at just under 3 miles with around 700 feet of vertical gain. The trail is less steep if you hike counterclockwise, and reaches the short spur to the lighthouse viewpoint after just 1.25 miles. While the trail itself is largely wooded and somewhat lackluster, the view of the lighthouse is worth it.
Pro tip #2: If you intend on photographing the lighthouse in any sort of detail, you’ll need a decent telephoto. Our pics were shot with a 500 mm. If you’re not into photography but want a close-up look, bring a pair of binoculars. If you look closely, you’ll likely spot dozens of sea lions relaxing on Tillamook Rock’s rugged shoreline.
The northernmost point on Oregon’s Highway 101, the small port city of Astoria is the last population center you’ll pass through before crossing over the Columbia River and into Washington.
By the time we arrived in Astoria, all we had time for was a quick stroll along the Astoria Riverwalk Trail to admire the Astoria-Megler Bridge. Stretching for 4 miles across the mouth of the Columbia River, the bridge was engineered to withstand the extreme conditions that regularly hammer the area, including powerful floodwaters and winds in excess of 150 mph. At 1,232 feet in length, the bridge’s main span is the longest continuous truss in the country, and its completion in 1966 served as the final link in the Mexico-to-Canada Highway system.
If you’ve got more time in the city, consider visiting the wreck of the Peter Iredale at Fort Stevens State Park in nearby Hammond, the Astoria Column, or one of the city’s craft breweries. For my fellow Xennials who grew up adoring the cheesy movies from the 80s and 90s (raises hand), Kindergarten Cop, Free Willy, and The Goonies were all filmed here.
Other sites of interest
In addition to countless coffee shops, breweries, seafood restaurants and ice cream parlors you’ll find throughout the coastal towns, there are a number of other beautiful spots along the way that we couldn’t cram into a three-day journey. Some other points of interest to consider adding your itinerary:
- Thor’s Well – An ocean blowhole that’s popular with photographers. This one’s best visited at high tide when seawater fills and sprays out of the bowl.
- Hug Point – A beach with a seasonal waterfall and tidepools, best visited at low tide.
- Cascade Head – A scenic headland with a few hiking trails. Be aware, however, that trails are only open from mid-July through December. Trails close annually from January to mid-July to protect critical nesting habitat for seabirds. Dogs are not allowed at Cascade Head any time of the year.
- Cape Kiwanda – A sandstone cape offering beaches, views of a large sea stack, and the opportunity to watch Pacific City’s historic dory boats launch from the beach. Note that there’s a $10 fee to enter the state natural area that’s not covered under the Oregon Pacific Coast Passport.
- Fort Stevens State Park – Just outside of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, this park is home to the wreck of the Peter Iredale. The four-masted ship ran aground here in 1906, and all that remains today is the bow’s rusted skeleton. Known as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific,’ more than 2,000 ships have sunk around the mouth of the Columbia since 1792.
- More lighthouses – If you’re interested in a lighthouse-centered road trip, check out the full list to begin planning your excursion.
- Oregon Coast Trail – This hiking trail stretches nearly 400 miles along the coast from Warrenton in the north to Brookings in the south. The route crosses forests, beaches and headlands and has been divided into ten sections for those interested in day hiking a portion of the trail. Before venturing out, check out the Oregon State Park’s website for current conditions. Some sections are listed as “gap sections,” which present a number of complications including accessibility and/or seasonal closures.
Know before you go
- If you plan to do some tidepooling along your travels, check out Oregon State Parks’ Tips for Visiting a Rocky Intertidal Area. It’s a great resource for ensuring your own safety as well as the animals that inhabit these ecosystems. Tidepools are full of fragile organisms. Watch where you’re walking and look, don’t touch. Prying animals from rocks or relocating them can easily kill them. Tidepool life is protected by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and all coastal rocks, sea stacks and islands are protected as National Wildlife Refuges.
- A number of places of interest along the coast are only accessible, or best visible, during either low or high tide. Make sure you research which sites are dependent on the tide and check the local tide charts online. Choose the sites that are most important to you ahead of time because it can be pretty tough to plan an entire multi-day drive around perfectly-timed tides.
- If you’re traveling with your pup, be sure to check regulations for each park/beach ahead of time. Most of Oregon’s beaches and parks are dog-friendly, provided they are leashed and cleaned up after. However, there are a few areas where dogs are prohibited at all times due to sensitive wildlife (e.g. Cascade Head, Yaquina Head). Additionally, some areas have restrictions during nesting season (e.g. beaches around Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, including the beach at the end of the John Dellenback Trail).
- Remember beach safety on the Oregon Coast. In addition to cold water temperatures, rip currents, rough surf, and unstable cliffs, sneaker waves can be deadly. Always pay attention when you’re on the beach and don’t turn your back to the water.