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Up the Oregon Coast

Oceanside Exploration 
Up the Oregon Coast

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

I thought three days would be plenty of time to
leisurely cruise the Oregon coast from Brookings, near the California border, to Astoria, west of Portland. It’s only 340 miles, but scenic and attraction-laden the entire distance. Mile for mile, Highway 101, also known as the Oregon Coast Highway, may be the most scenic stretch of road in America. A week would have been almost enough; two weeks would be better. You could spend a summer here and not experience it all.

Entering Oregon from California, we stopped at Harris Beach State Park, just north of Brookings. Tide pools, huge rock formations and the crashing surf were a wonderful introduction to the Oregon coastline. Although we weren’t ready to stop for the night, the park has a beautiful campground with sheltering trees, just a few yards from the trailheads leading to the beach below.

The first part of our trip north was through dense old-growth forest, with tree canopies occasionally making a
tunnel of the highway. You need a dedicated driver to keep his eyes on the road, as the distractions are many. You no sooner pass one scenic viewpoint than another is vying for your attention. Between Brookings and Gold Beach, 28 miles designated as a state scenic corridor, there is one state park, one wayside and 10 viewpoints. We soon realized we should have started up north, at Astoria, and headed south so the viewpoints would be on our side of the road. Many times we were not comfortable crossing the highway in our motorhome to get to the viewpoints, as we had limited visibility of on-coming traffic.

On our way to our first campground we stopped to drool at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, a first-class destination for golfers worldwide. I say drool because my wife and I love to hit the links but our pocket book favors municipal courses. Bandon Dunes is unique not only in its setting among Oregon’s coastal dunes, but for a walk-only policy requiring a caddy for all golfers. There are five distinct 18-hole courses, some of which we were able to admire during the short pause on our trip north. We later stopped at Sandpines, a municipal golf course in Florence, but were turned away by a cold, windy day. Maybe next time – it looked quite inviting.

State Park Stops

We spent our first night at Sunset Bay State Park, 10 miles west of Coos Bay. Naturally, we followed our GPS, which took us on a winding, two-lane residential road many more miles than necessary. I looked at a real map before we returned to Coos Bay the next day and took the direct route, which was both shorter and more interesting. Sunset Bay is a lovely small cove, surrounded by high rock cliffs, with the campground set in the adjacent forest. It’s the first campground I’ve seen with a fish cleaning station, complete with running water and a cutting board to aid your task.

Hidden away next to Sunset Bay State Park is Shore Acres State Park, a former private estate with completely restored botanical gardens featuring plants and flowers from around the world. Shore Acres was originally developed by a wealthy lumberman and shipbuilder who made his fortune in the late 1800s. He fell on hard times with the start of the Great Depression, and the state of Oregon purchased his land for a public park.

Today, the contrast between the formal gardens with their evergreen shrubs, rhododendron blooms and roses and the surrounding old growth forest and rocky coastline is stunning. Parking near the cliffs, you hear the bleating sea lions offshore as you walk through the forest to the gardens.


wreck of the Peter Iredale in the Fort Stevens State Park

Wreck of the Peter Iredale in the Fort Stevens State Park

Endless Natural Attractions

Heading north from Coos Bay the highway flanks the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where enormous wind-sculpted sand dunes combine with evergreen shrubbery to create a unique shoreline. Dune buggy tours are plentiful, with the most impressive dunes being found in the Umpqua Dunes Area. The dunes continue north past Reedsport to Florence, where the Siuslaw River enters the ocean and the dunes recede.

If you’re ready to head inland, Reedsport provides an excellent opportunity to turn east and follow the Umpqua River 35 miles to Elkton, one of the prettiest pastoral valleys I have ever seen. It’s another 20 miles to Interstate 5 and reality.

If your plans call for an evening stay, the Umpqua Lighthouse State Park in Winchester Bay offers full hookups deep in the forest, within walking distance to the whale watching platform and the historic 65-foot-tall lighthouse. Surprisingly, there is a picturesque freshwater lake, Lake Marie, in the park for summertime swimming and sunbathing, a few yards from the ocean.

North of Florence the highway once again flanks the beach, with many opportunities to pause and enjoy the view or take a stroll in the sand. We continued to Newport, stopping to admire the bridge at Waldport, a real port city. Newport promotes its Bayside Historic Area and the Oregon Coast Aquarium, which our schedule did not allow us to visit.

Our next overnight stop was Cape Lookout State Park in Tillamook, part of the Three Capes Scenic Route. Like many of the parks, Cape Lookout is a few miles west of Highway 101, so you hear the pounding surf rather than the passing trucks. We turned west at Pacific City and followed the coastline before turning inland on a winding road through farmland to the park.

The park is set just behind a restored dune, with a choice of open sites near the beach or shaded ones in the forest. We chose an open site to be near the beach, and were pleased to find that my dog, Doodles, was allowed to run on the beach off-leash, much to his delight. His puppy exuberance and frolicking in the surf was fun to watch. Cape Lookout also has several miles of nature trails that provide an up-close look at native trees and plants such as Sitka spruce, black twinberry and false lily of the valley.

Leaving Cape Lookout, we circumnavigated Tillamook Bay, a natural harbor and well-managed wetlands. If you like cheese, you probably know about Tillamook Cheese, which helps support the economy of this region. Daily factory tours are offered, but we passed this up as we were bound for Oswald West State Park and Short Sand Beach.

Short Sand Beach is located at Smuggler’s Cove, overlooked by Cape Falcon. Smuggler’s Cove? What an image this conjures. The story goes that British explorer Sir Francis Drake buried the treasure he pirated from the Spanish somewhere within what is now Oswald West State Park. Though we didn’t find any Aztec gold, a short hike through the dense forest brought us to the quiet beach where Doodles had another run and we enjoyed the tranquility of the place.

Our next stop was Cannon Beach, a few miles north and a quintessential upscale beach town. The merchants try to outdo each other with their floral displays. It’s a combination grand garden and quality shopping and dining experience.  

Located at the terminus of Highway 26, the direct line to Portland, Cannon Beach enjoys a special prominence along the coast and flaunts it. It is worthy of a few days stay to enjoy the town and the beach, featuring Haystack Rock, a 235-foot basalt sea stack you can walk out and touch at low tide.

If this isn’t enough, nearby Ecola State Park takes your breath away with its magnificent beach and viewpoint. There is no campground, but it’s a wonderful place for a wedding (which we observed) or a picnic.

RV sites at Cape Lookout State Park’s campground

RV sites at Cape Lookout State Park’s campground

Exploring History

Since reading Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” I’ve been fascinated with the story of Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery. They first saw the Pacific and the Oregon coast in 1805, 208 years ago, after walking, riding and paddling their canoes upstream and downstream more than 4,000 miles, the ultimate road trip, without the road.

They arrived in December and built a simple shelter, called Fort Clatsop, deep in the woods, where they spent 106 nights until their return trip east, in late March. It rained all but 12 nights, according to their journals. A replica of the fort, a few miles from the Columbia River near Astoria, seems not a fort at all, but a small log enclosure with tight quarters for the officers and men. It is easy to imagine being there, with the nearby tripod for rendering their game and the well-worn trail to the river for water. Fort Clatsop is in Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which includes trails to the sea and other attractions. Fittingly, it marked the termination of our Oregon coast tour of discovery as well.

We spent our last night on the coast in Hammond at Fort Stevens State Park, on the site of a former military outpost, which guarded the entrance to the Columbia River from 1860 until 1946. The campground has full and partial hookups and the RV sites can accommodate the largest coaches with dinghies. The nearby coastline has the remains of an English sailing ship, the Peter Iredale, wrecked in a storm in 1906. If you are so inclined, you can drive on the beach, though it is not recommended unless your motorhome is all wheel drive.

The Oregon coast is special for many reasons, among them that it is entirely public. The coastal inhabitants appreciate the contributions visitors make to their livelihood and it is reflected in the quality of the experience they provide. In addition to 34 county, state and federal campgrounds along the coast, there are many private RV parks to accommodate the largest rigs.

Next time I will start up north, at Astoria, and take a few weeks to head south, exploring all the amazing places I only saw in passing on my abbreviated visit. 

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