When driving Oregon Coast Highway 101, don't plan on getting anywhere in a hurry. Around every bend, it seems, there's another scenic lookout beckoning you to pull over and take in a view of the vast Pacific Ocean and the dramatic, rocky coastline. Driving the 101 in June with a friend and her two children, we must have made dozens of unscheduled stops: At Seal Rock, south of Newport, we watched those placid creatures sunning themselves on rock formations out in the water. (Had we come a few weeks earlier, we might have seen a whale, one local told us.) At Cape Perpetua, just below the town of Yachats, we checked out Spouting Horn, an ocean geyser created by the pounding waves. (Unfortunately, it was low tide, but the view from 800 feet up was definitely worth it.) The Oregon coast is chock-full of such moments, a 338-mile stretch from the mouth of the Columbia River in the north to the California state line in the south. We started our Oregon road trip in Portland, taking in the rose gardens (then in full bloom) and the vibrant food scene, then made the 1-1/2-hour drive northwest to Cannon Beach. From there, we barely strayed from U.S. 101 until we hit the town of Bandon, three days later. Here are some of the highlights of our trip; there are many more.
This most inviting of Oregon coastal towns has dozens of quaint galleries, shops and restaurants, along with several inns. But the main draw here is the broad expanse of beach and, just offshore, striking Haystack Rock. A 235-foot-high basalt dome, Haystack is impressive from every angle, and a favorite with photographers. On a windy Saturday the beach was perfect for flying a kite; if you didn't bring one, stop by Once Upon a Breeze (240 N. Spruce St., 503-436-1112). We timed our visit to the annual Sandcastle Contest, which created a carnival atmosphere, as crowds strolled up and down the beach admiring creations both impressive and whimsical.
Note that while Cannon Beach is the among the tamest of the Oregon Coast beaches, you probably won't do much swimming -- the Pacific Ocean is cold, rarely reaching above 50 degrees. And when the beach is breezy, as it was the day we visited, you'll want a sweatshirt. The same is true for most of the coast, even in summer.
INFO 503-436-2623, cannonbeach.org
Pictured: Max Perritt, 3, from Worcester, Mass., gathers seawater in a bucket with Haystack Rock in the background in Cannon Beach, Ore., Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010.
Oswald West State Park
In contrast with unmissable Cannon Beach, Oswald West State Park -- named for the governor who declared the shoreline a public highway -- hides lovely Short Sand Beach at the end of a half-mile hike through the woods. Popular with surfers, the beach is framed by steep cliffs and dense pines -- you'll know you aren't on the Long Island shore anymore. Before checking out the beach, we hiked along a good stretch of the moderate 2 1/2-mile Cape Falcon trail (one of many in the 2,484-acre park), a coastal rain forest lush with ferns, salal, salmonberry and massive old-growth Sitka Spruces, which apparently ends at a promontory with a good view. Our 6-year-old got weary, so we turned back.
INFO 800-551-6949, oregonstateparks.org
Nehalem Bay State Park
We spent the night at a campground on the four-mile peninsula between Nehalem Bay and the Pacific, just south of the little town of Manzanita. (The Inn at Manzanita is a good option for those who prefer a roof over their heads; rooms start at $179 a night, June-September, 503-368-6754.) The family-friendly campground has 256 sites with paved parking, a picnic table, a fire ring, an electrical outlet (handy to keep our phones charged) and a tap with running water ($29 per night). Our 12-year-old begged to stay in one of the 18 yurts ($44-$54 per night), but they had all been reserved in advance (800-452-5687). We pitched a tent in a stand of low shore pines, within shouting distance of the bathrooms (clean, with showers). Just over the dunes was a long, windswept beach perfect for an early morning walk.
INFO 800-551-6949, oregonstateparks.org
Pictured: Heceta Head Lighthouse Florence Oregon Pacific Ocean and Sea Lion Cave house in distance.
Sea Lion Caves
We continued down 101 with a stop for lunch at Pacific City (pacificcity.org), a popular public beach with a massive 500-foot dune that the kids were eager to climb. For my money, it was a less attractive spot than Cannon Beach, if only because people are allowed to park their cars on the sand, marring the view. We continued on past Newport, site of the Oregon Coast Aquarium (541-867-3474, aquarium.org), which we skipped. (It seems to get mostly raves on TripAdvisor.)
Instead we passed through Yachats and made a pit stop at Sea Lion Caves (adults $14, kids 5-12 $8; 541-547-3111, sealioncaves.com), where a promontory looks down on the rock where dozens of Steller sea lions congregate in the summer months. You hear them -- and smell them -- before you see them. Then an elevator takes you down to the sea cave, where the creatures can be found in winter.
The caves are also worth a visit since they offer a splendid view of picturesque Heceta Head Lighthouse. If you're truly enchanted, take a tour or stay at a B&B in the lightkeeper's cottage ($315 May-October; hecetaheadlighthouse.com, 866-547-3696).
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
The highlight of our trip was a final day and night in this 40-mile stretch of coastal dunes extending from Florence to Coos Bay and managed by the U.S. Forest Service. We camped at the Eel Creek Campground near the town of Lakeside, with 54 sites (no showers), right at the foot of the dunes ($20 per night, reserve at recreation.gov or 877-444-6777).
The John Dellenback Dunes Trail led us on a twilight hike through a magical windblown landscape of shifting sands, where you felt like a character in "Lawrence of Arabia" -- until you saw the Pacific Ocean in one direction and the pine-covered Oregon hills in another. The children never tired of bounding down an enormous sand dune and climbing back up to do it over again. Parts of the Recreation Area are open to dune buggies and other off-highway vehicles (OHVs); take a guided tour or rent one of your own from Spinreel Dune Buggy and ATV Rental ($25 per seat for a 30-minute tour, 541-759-3313, ridetheoregondunes.com). The dunes were such a blast that we had a hard time breaking down our campsite the next morning. Our consolation prize? We'd get a passing glance at all our favorite spots on the return trip up the 101 to Portland, and home.
INFO 541-271-6000, fs.fed.gov