Oregon’s Spectacular Coast
by Lee Foster
The 363-mile Oregon coast is one of the world’s spectacular parks because it is all public land, owned by the people of Oregon.
Legislative action in 1913 and in 1967 set aside the coastline for “free and uninterrupted use” of the people. Billboards are controlled, making the appearance entirely unlike the Southern California coast, for example. Oswald West, the governor who defended the public coastline early in the century, tapped a progressive strain in Oregonians that remains alive today. In the past, when Oregon assumed a somewhat smug “Visit But Don’t Stay” attitude of provincial isolationism toward outsiders, the Oregon coast was one of the state amenities that citizens meant to protect. In 1973 the state’s landmark returnable-bottle bill insured that the coast, as well as the rest of Oregon, would remain relatively litter-free.
This rugged coast offers unusual diversity to the traveler. If forced to select one superlative element that distinguishes it, a good choice would be the huge dunes in the 32,000-acre Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, located about two-thirds of the way down the coast. Mile after mile of monumental, shifting sand dunes remind one of Death Valley in California.
Aside from the dunes, the Oregon coast offers forests, seashore, beach combing, camping, tide pools, and fishing. There are 74 state parks and recreation areas along the roadway, including some that preserve virgin vestiges of some of the greatest coniferous forest in North America. The parks beckon the traveler to leave the car and actively enjoy the beach, the trails, and the hillsides with a walk. Along the coast you can breathe some of the cleanest air on the planet.
Behind the coast rise the cliffs and headlands of the Coast Range of mountains, which increase in elevation as they stretch south, gradually blending with the Cascades.
If you have some liberty in determining the month for a trip, September and October are choice times. The coast climate remains mild year-around. Summer is warm and sunny, but the weather of October includes an Indian summer of exceptional color. In winter, bracing storms attack the coast. Appreciators of storms watch these dynamics from snug coastal houses, warmed by wood-stove fires. Beachcombers rise early the following day to inspect what treasures have been deposited.
The Pacific Coast Highway 101 (which is also a Scenic Byway) runs from California to Washington the length of the Oregon coast. From the major cities of the Willamette Valley there are arteries leading west to the coast. If you are flying to Oregon, you can start in Portland, although there are some other regional airports, such as Eugene. One appealing vacation strategy would be to rent a car at the Portland airport and spend a week traveling the coast. Travelers come west from Portland, south from Washington, or north from California. Highway 30 links Portland with Astoria. The Sunset Highway, U.S. 26, connects Portland with Seaside and Cannon Beach.
Fishing and logging have been the livelihoods that traditionally supported settlers along the Oregon coast. Tourism now edges out the fishing industry.
Start at Fort Stevens
As an orientation to the coast, start at Fort Stevens State Park and work your way south. Fort Stevens, originally a Civil War fort, becomes a moderate-sized town in summer when its many campsites are filled. If this is your introduction to Oregon’s state parks, you will learn that they are managed to be manicured, well-groomed, an image of nature fully under control. There is a substantial biking and walking trail network at Fort Stevens. Four miles of shoreline at the park offer surf fishing, clam digging, and the material for sand castling. Fort Stevens, which guarded the mouth of the Columbia River, had the distinction of being the only U.S. military installation on the mainland fired on by the Japanese in World War II. A Japanese submarine did little damage, but caused a stir by shelling Battery Russell. An interpretive center tells the story of the fort going back to the Civil War.
Out along the water’s edge at Fort Stevens you can look at the forlorn wreck of the four-masted, iron-hulled British schooner, Peter Iredale, which ran aground in 1906. The wreck forcefully emphasizes the importance of lighthouses along this treacherous coast. A parade of ships met an unfortunate fate along here. For example, the Alaskan wrecked off Cape Blanco in 1889, losing 30 lives. In 1881 the Lupatia, a British vessel, foundered at Tillamook, losing the entire crew. Between 1857 and 1895 lighthouse building proceeded. Today there are nine extant lighthouses, with six still serving as navigation aids. (You’ll find lighthouses at Tillamook Rock, Cape Meares, Yaquina Head, Yaquina Bay, Heceta Head, Umpqua River, Cape Arago, Coquille River, and Cape Blanco.)
Just inland from Fort Stevens, along the Columbia River, lies the town of Astoria. Astoria has always been marked by a maritime orientation, so it’s fitting that it hosts the Columbia River Maritime Museum, charting Columbia River and general maritime history. Be sure to visit this museum along the Astoria waterfront to learn of whaling, sealing, and fishing. The exhibits on salmon fishing are instructive, from Indian gill netting to the sturdy little boats that individual fishermen used on the open seas. Besides exhibits on the discovery and development of the Columbia, there are displays about larger patterns of sea-going exploration, trade, and warfare. The museum’s assemblage of model ships, one of the best, includes a replica of the battleship Oregon. The largest artifact at the museum is the lightship Columbia, which served as a visual aid for ships crossing the Columbia bar from 1950-1980. A lightship has been an invaluable resource at the delta of this great river. Over 120 ships have been wrecked here since Captain Robert Gray of Boston was the first to cross the bar, in 1792. He named the river after his vessel, the Columbia.
While exploring in Astoria, the vigorous sport fishing and commercial fishing boat traffic on the river becomes apparent. Fish processing plants flourish here. Large ships leave here with agricultural and forest products from all over the Northwest, bound mainly for Asia. Among the agricultural products shipped out are wheat, apples, pears, peaches, and berries. Pleasure boating and fishing are also prominent, especially during the August Astoria Regatta. Easy passage for large commercial boats became a problem in 1980. Mt. St. Helens, which lies northeast of here, deposited so much debris from its volcanic mudflows into the Columbia that shipping came to a standstill until the river could be dredged. The 4.1-mile Trans Columbia Bridge connects Astoria with Megler, Washington.
For a panoramic view of the area, drive to Coxcomb Hill, a hilltop in Astoria, to see the 123-foot Astoria Column. Climb all 164 stairs to the top. On the exterior of the column a long frieze tells the story of the discovery of the Columbia and the founding of Astoria. The Astoria column was constructed in 1926 to commemorate events connected with the discovery, exploration, and settlement of the Northwest. The observation platform enables you to see the surrounding mountains, river, and ocean. Vincent Astor, a descendant of John Jacob, financed the column’s construction.
The fur-fortune Astors founded this first American settlement west of the Rockies in 1810, when John Jacob sent the ship Tonquin by sea and another party overland to rendezvous at the mouth of the Columbia. John Jacob Astor accompanied the overland party himself, following the Oregon trail, and instructed his men to build Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia in 1811. The plan was to set up a fur-trading post, but the War of 1812 intervened, and the Hudson Bay Company continued to dominate the fur trade. Until the 1840s trappers and missionaries were the main white residents in the region. After 1840 agricultural settlers poured westward.
As you climb the hills of Astoria, you’ll note the well-kept Victorian houses that generations of prosperous seafaring families have built and maintained. For a map listing the choicest Victorians, stop by the local chamber of commerce office, located at 111 West Marine Drive. Most of the prominent homes are on Grand and Franklin Avenues. Queen of these is the Flavel House, known as the “house with the red roof.” Flavel House is now the Clatsop County Historical Museum and contains exhibits on the Indians of the region and the contribution of different ethnic groups, such as the Chinese. The houses give Astoria the flavor of an authentic American place. Local families, many of them Scandinavian, celebrate their ethnicity at a June Scandinavian Festival.
The other major destination at this northern tip of the coast is the Fort Clatsop National Memorial to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The memorial is on the Lewis and Clark River near Astoria. Fort Clatsop is worth visiting to immerse yourself in the rugged, self-sufficient world of the early explorers. Here the party spent the winter of 1805-1806, which they recorded as “wet and disagreeable,” with only 12 days of sunshine. A replica of the original stockade, with pointed logs, has been created, complete with details of daily life from the skinning of a beaver to the forging of a musket ball. The 50-foot-square fort housed 33 people. Among the exhibits is a 32-foot dugout canoe of the type the party used on the rivers. An informative movie also brings alive the expedition. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark provided the first comprehensive report on the region, which fueled the imagination of trappers and settlers. The journals of the journey are a detailed historical record of what was looked for, and what was observed, including the Indian tribes, flora, fauna, and topography.
Moving south, Seaside is a prominent resort and convention area proximate to the Portland population. Seaside presents a lively ambiance with a beach boardwalk. At a salt cairn here, comrades of Lewis and Clark boiled seawater down to salt to season food on the long trip homeward in 1806.
Nearby Cannon Beach received its unusual name from a cannon that washed ashore here in 1846 after the U. S. Navy schooner Shark wrecked while attempting to leave the Columbia River. Cannon Beach is an artistic complement for Seaside. Sculptors and artists fill the galleries and emerge onto the beach each summer for a Sand Castle Building Contest. Cannon Beach has become a coastal cultural milieu. The Coaster Theater is the site for summer dramatic offerings. Among several interesting stores is the Fair Winds Nautical Shop, which specializes in old nautical artifacts, including marine paintings and prints. At Cannon Beach there is a large offshore monolith, called Haystack Rock.
Saddle Mountain State Park is an unusual botanical area with a large range of wildflowers along its excellent trails.
South Along the Coast
South of Nehalem turn briefly inland, following the road signs to Mohler, and visit the Nehalem Bay Winery, an example of the interesting Oregon wine production. The winery produces a Gewurtztraminer and a Pinot Noir. Linger for a self-guided tour of the winery and look at the art gallery upstairs.
At Tillamook, two impressive cheese-making operations are worth a stop to fill out the picnic basket. The Blue Heron French Cheese Company offers tastings of their brie and camembert cheeses, ranging from day-old camembert, used as a breakfast cheese, to garlic-flavored cheese. They also produce a mild blue cheese, called camemblue. Blue Heron also sells wine, if you have time for only one stop. Nehalem Pinot Noir and Blue Heron brie or camembert make an excellent picnic duo.
Cheese-making is a highly developed art in Oregon, and may be seen as a consolation for citizens forced to endure the incessant rains. Rain keeps the pastures growing. The other major cheese maker is the Tillamook County Creamery, one of the largest cheese plants in the West, home of the well-known cheddar sold under the Tillamook label. The importance of dairy products generally in Oregon is evident when you realize that dairy accounts for 25 percent of all farm income. From an observation area in the cheese factory you can view the cheese-making. A narrated slide show explains the process in detail. A museum to cheese-making puts the entire process in perspective. The cheese plant is easily recognized because on its lawn rests the replica of a large sailing ship, the Morning Star, built originally in 1854 to carry local produce and trade goods to west coast markets. Tillamook area history can be perused at length at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum in Tillamook at 2106 Second Street. Nature, the Native Americans, and the white pioneers are well portrayed here. Of special interest are the wildlife displays and a mineral room featuring rocks of Oregon.
At Tillamook you can see a forest recovering from the 1933 forest fire that swept away more than 500 square miles of Oregon’s choicest lumber trees, many of which were over 400 years old. Stop in at the Tillamook Forest Center to learn more about the burn, reforestation efforts, and forest management today.
West of Tillamook, the scenic Three Capes Loop takes you to three jutting promontories (Cape Meares, Cape Lookout, and Cape Kiwanda). Here the tall forests come right down to the pounding surf. This is a pleasing side trip from 101. At Cape Kiwanda you can purchase salmon fresh from the boats. There is a lighthouse, built in 1890, at Cape Meares. Along this route you’ll see a huge Sitka spruce tree, with multiple trunks, known as the Octopus Tree. Cape Lookout has a pleasant, year-round campground and an attractive walking beach.
Almost all the rivers emptying into the Pacific along the Oregon coast offer good trout, steelhead, and salmon fishing. Along the coastal beaches you’ll also see citizens with long suction tubes probing for succulent clams. Part of the pleasure of the Oregon coast is the unpredictable experience that a traveler will encounter. You may stumble upon a large gathering of kite flyers with all manners of fanciful kites on the beach at Lincoln City. In the spring, at Yachats, you may witness silver smelt coming in to spawn on the volcanic sand. The local people, aware of the smelt life cycle, will be waiting with dip nets to harvest their allowed 25 pounds per person per day.
Lincoln City is the start of a well-publicized “Twenty Miracle Miles” strip of coastal property. Here the ma and pa establishments typical of coastal Oregon give way to larger corporate ventures, capable of convention-size gathering. Among the noted resorts, the most famous is the Salishan Spa and Golf Resort, built tastefully of native stone, plus roughsawn fir and cedar.
Lincoln City has numerous art galleries, plus opportunities to visit with the artisans. At Alder House III, south of Lincoln City and a half-mile east of Highway 101 on Immonen Road, you can visit a glassblowing studio. Mossy Creek Pottery and Gallery, also on Immonen Road, emphasizes limited production of fine, handmade pottery. You can blow your own glass float at the Jennifer L. Sears Glass Art Studio.
South from Lincoln City, Cape Foulweather is a headland notable for its scenery because of the 450-foot height over the waves. This is one of the higher coastal vistas in Oregon. Captain James Cook named the cape in 1778. The Lookout, a gift shop at the crest of Foulweather, offers a range of wood, shell, and stone mementos from Oregon.
At Newport stop in at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center on Yaquina Bay. The Center is your best opportunity to study the natural history of the Oregon Coast. When walking through the exhibits, the traveler is reminded that estuaries are the most productive and scarce natural areas on earth. In the adjacent bookstore you can get nature books. The Marine Science Center has a major stake in studying any adverse effects on the state fisheries. The Center includes a hands-on exhibit where children can touch sea creatures.
Newport is the center of the Dungeness crab and shrimp fishery. Salmon fishing and oyster farming aquaculture are also major businesses. Restaurants specialize in local seafood. Newport is also popular with agate hunters, who scour the shore. The Newport Seafood and Wine Festival attracts many visitors the last full weekend of each February.
The Yaquina area boasts two lighthouses, Yaquina Bay (1871) and Yaquina Head (1873).
South of Newport in Seal Rock is an Oregon tour de force artistic effort that shouldn’t be missed–chainsaw art. At the establishment, called Sea Gulch, you can peruse one of these collections of chainsaw carvings.
The Heceta Lighthouse and Point, 12 miles north of Florence, is a scenic and rugged part of the coast.
Sea Lion Caves, 11 miles north of Florence, are a natural spectacle along the coast. The area is the a year-round home for wild sea lions on the mainland. An elevator takes you down to where the mammals can be viewed in the cavern.
The Oregon Dunes
Moving south, you enter an unexpected terrain, where sand dunes replace the forested slopes and rocky shore. Orient yourself to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, created in 1972, by stopping at Oregon Dunes Day Use Area 10 miles north of Reedsport or the Oregon Dunes Visitor Center in Reedsport.
One special aspect of the dunes area is the internationally popular Sand Master Park in Florence. This entity is a sandboard park. Jumps and railslides are part of this private, 40-acre terrain of sculpted dunes, with a larger area of 200 acres of dunes and forest.
How the dunes came about is an intriguing geologic tale. Though most of the coastal mountains of Oregon are basaltic, the stretch just behind the dunes is sandstone, which has eroded easily and has provided the loose sand. Most of the dune creation has occurred in the last 10-15,000 years, scientists believe. The dunes have benefited both from erosion and from sediment transported to the shore by rivers and streams. Ocean currents, in turn, have distributed the sand along the shore. Wave action then pushed the sand up onto the beaches. When the tide is out, the dry sand is picked up by wind and deposited further inland.
A walk in the dunes offers the traveler an opportunity for solitude and the aesthetic pleasure of examining the sensuous sandy shapes or the battering effect that a constant chisel of blowing sand makes on logs and rocks. Where vegetation has grasped a foothold on the dunes, you’ll find spring wildflowers amidst the silvery green beach grass. Swans, loons, hawks, and ducks are plentiful.
The only admonition for a visitor is to be prepared for wind, which means carry a wind-breaking shell as a coat or jacket, with layers of warm clothes underneath. The wind blows steadily from the northwest April to September and from the southwest in winter.
For a detailed hiking map of the area, check in with the staff at the Oregon Dunes Visitor Center. Between Florence and Coos Bay you’ll have 41 miles of dunes to explore.
If you are camping, the forest campgrounds have an appealing rusticity that contrasts sharply with the tidy appearance of the state park camps, which are also attractive in their manicured way.
Florence is also noted for its rhododendrons, which flower here most profusely in May, the time of the Rhododendron Festival.
Coos Bay to the Border
Coos Bay, at the south end of the dunes, is the largest natural deep-draft harbor on the west coast between Puget Sound and San Francisco. The area is made up of three towns–Coos Bay, North Bend, and Charleston. An amazing floral landscape can be seen in Charleston at Shore Acres State Park. The grounds, originally groomed for lumber baron Louis J. Simpson, includes an Oriental garden. Simpson played a substantial role in Oregon in the first decades of the 20th century, which included a run for the governorship. He was the son of the legendary Captain Asa M. Simpson, a New Englander who founded the Oregon lumbering and shipbuilding empire that still bears his name. It is said that Asa Simpson never insured his ships, but instead took his risks, which fortunately didn’t ruin him. His son, Louis, came to Oregon in 1899 at age 22. Louis bought 320 acres at Cape Arago and built a fashionable New England-style house, lavishly inlaid with the native myrtlewood that now commands a high price even in knick-knack amounts.
The house, sited on a bluff 100 feet above the surf, was Simpson’s gift to his bride, and included Tiffany chandeliers and Persian carpets in the 56×32-foot living room overlooking the sea. By 1915 Simpson had 200 acres of formal gardens under cultivation around the house. To the native plants that flourish here, such as rhododendrons and azaleas, Simpson added plants from wherever his ships sailed. By 1918 Simpson had reached the apex of his career. In that year he ran for the governorship, but lost. Unfortunately, Simpson’s personal and business fortunes proved less secure than those of his father. His wife, Cassie, died in 1920. The house burned down a year later. A cluster of business ventures failed as the 1920s progressed. He tried rebuilding the house, but was short of cash, until he was aided with wood from someone else’s lumber ship, which happened to wreck almost on his doorstep. A second fire occurred. Finally, in 1934, Simpson deeded to the state the 134 acres that form the park.
Although tide pool viewing opportunities are excellent all along the coast, Cape Arago is a particularly outstanding area. There are three major coves here. North Cove is the largest, with numerous pools and channels among boulders and bedrock. Algae grow luxuriously. Intertidal animals, such as anemones, are abundant. Middle Cove, accessible by a steep but well-constructed trail, is the smallest and most exposed of the coves. Purple sea urchins are numerous here. South Cove is the final cove, accessible by a steep trail. Sharp, vertical cliffs give way to bedrock and large boulders. Large bull kelp quiet the subtidal flow. Chitons, starfish, and crab can be seen.
Large sea mammals are in plentiful supply on the Oregon Coast. Winding along the Cape Arago Highway Loop in Charleston, you’ll find the Simpson Reef interpretive stop. Here you’ll see Oregon’s largest haul-out site for seals and sea lions. Shell Island, part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, hosts Northern Elephant Seals, Harbor Seals, Stellar Sea Lions, and California Sea Lions.
Cape Arago is an appealing stop also for a look at its lighthouse. The names behind all these landmarks on the Oregon coast have their stories. When Captain James Cook, the English navigator, first saw this cape on March 12, 1778, he named the point for the saint of the day, as was his custom. Cape Gregory sufficed as a name until 1850, when citizens sought to honor the great German Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the biologist, explorer, and statesman who had described much of the flora and terrain of this wild region. Since the bay at Eureka, CA, had already been named Humboldt Bay, local citizens reached further back among the possible notables and came up with the name of Humboldt’s friend, the French physicist, Dominique Francois Jean Arago.
Coos Bay means lumber and is rich in lumber history, once calling itself the “world’s largest lumber shipping port.” As a state, Oregon leads the country in lumber production. Half of the state is covered with forests. At Coos Bay you’ll see freighters and large barges loading wood chips on their way to Japan.
Founded in 1854 by J. C. Tolman of the Coos Bay Company, the town of Coos Bay preserves its heritage in a museum and several historical homes, which can be toured. Stop in at the Coos Bay Visitor Center, 50 E. Central Avenue, for a self-guided tour map.
A nationwide conservation effort focuses on the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Coos Bay. The state of Oregon established this 5,000-acre, mostly-undeveloped site in 1974, and dedicated it to improving our understanding of estuaries, those unique places that form where rivers meet the sea. South Slough is now one of more than 27 national sites dedicated to estuaries. It offers visitors outstanding examples of freshwater and saltwater wetlands and coastal forests, a well-developed network of hiking and paddling trails, and a full-service visitors’ center including exhibits, interpretive programs, and guided events for families, groups, and schools.
At Coos Bay you also enter myrtlewood country. This distinctive local hardwood is fashioned into dishes, jewelry, and other decorative mementos for travelers. One of the active factories to visit is the House of Myrtlewood in Coos Bay. There you can see the myrtlewood logs sawn into slabs. Skilled artisans with lathes turn the myrtlewood into bowls, plates, goblets, and other artifacts.
South of Coos Bay, you enter berry country. Bandon is the state cranberry capital, with 900 acres under cultivation. Coinciding with the harvest is a September Cranberry Festival.
Nine miles north of Port Orford, the Cape Blanco Lighthouse rests on Oregon’s westernmost point and is Oregon’s oldest standing lighthouse. Sand at Blanco is also striking because it is black. The point was first noted in the records of Spanish explorer Martin de Augilar in January, 1603. The lighthouse, built in 1870, is a brick structure that has been continuously in use and is open for inspection.
Port Orford, the most westerly city in the contiguous U. S., is a friendly and unpretentious port town, thriving on fishing and lumber.
All along the Oregon coast, you can watch the migration of gray whales south in December-January and again north in March-April. The Port Orford Wayside State Park is one of the best sighting promontories. Though once harvested to the brink of extinction, the gray whales, now protected, have climbed back up to stable numbers. They make the annual 14,000-mile migration from chilly arctic waters to the warmth of Scammons Lagoon and other lagoons in Baja to give birth to their young.
Gold Beach, at the mouth of the Rogue River, is the departure point for jet boat trips up this intriguing waterway, one of the best steelhead fishing streams in Oregon. The Rogue is also one of the designated “Wild and Scenic Rivers” in the U.S. Guides on the jet boat trips are often competent naturalists and historians of the area. The jet boats, which can skim along on 6 inches of water, go 32 miles up the river from Gold Beach to Agness. Whitewater fans can also make a 104-mile trip down the upper reaches of the river.
Brookings, just north of the California border, offers unloading and processing facilities for salmon, tuna, shrimp, crab, and rock fish. Brookings is also the nation’s major producer of Easter lilies and daffodils. Outstanding displays of azaleas can be seen in the Azalea Park east of Highway 101. An Azalea Festival in May coincides with the major blossoming time. The entire southern third of the Oregon coast is a bonanza for driftwood collectors and kelp kickers. Harris Beach State Park and Samuel H. Boardman State Park are choice locations for such pursuits.
Brookings is a lively place in summer for further festivals. The Southern Oregon Kite Festival is the third weekend in July. There is a popular Festival of the Arts, a juried show attracting artists from all over the Northwest, on the third weekend in August. Fishermen converge on Brookings over Labor Day Weekend for the Slam’n Salmon Ocean Derby, the largest fishing derby of any kind in Oregon or Washington. Upwards of 800 fishermen compete in this annual ocean salmon fishing event.
Another attraction along the southern reaches of the coast are the roadside stands selling berries and preserves, a true cottage industry here, especially for blueberry jam.
If you drive the coast, you will on many occasions want to walk the park trails to enjoy the scenery. Much of the coast falls under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Parks and Recreation department. Oregon’s well-integrated highway and park system arose because park and highway agencies were seen as a unified effort, historically, as the state government was set up. In other states the two separate entities often pursue opposite goals.
Oregon Coast: If You Go
The coast has its own tourism resource, the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, with website at http://www.VisitTheOregonCoast.com.