Life on the Edge – Oregon’s Coastal Cornucopia

November 16th, 2010  |  Published in Hot off the press

First appeared on Virgin Airlines’ Website, 12/03/09.

Whale watching, jet boat mail delivering, sand dune scaling, misty meandering on empty, wave thumped beaches, or swallowing ‘razors’ at surfside restaurants – it’s impossible to tire of Oregon’s 286-mile coastal strip. We’ve been trundling along here for over 30 years and still haven’t left our footprints on all the beaches.

Our Oregon orgy begins by crossing Columbia River’s expansive girth over the Astoria-Megler Bridge, rolling from Washington into Oregon. At 4 miles, it’s the world’s longest continuous truss bridge, a fittingly dramatic entrance to a histrionic coast.

Astoria is Mile O. The thing is, we’re always too eager to see our first breakers boiling in from Japan, so our first stop is usually Fort Stevens, 10 miles west. The 3700-acre state park is festooned with hiking trails and history, but it’s the skeleton of the Peter Iredale most come to see, shipwrecked in 1906 and still moldering on the beach. That’s where we head; we want to dip our toes in the Pacific churn. There’s something about realizing that these waves have chugged all the way from Japan that makes us silly.

Dripping back to our VW, we next prepare to meet Terrible Tilly. (Tillamook Head). Treacherous Tilly wrecked 2000 ships until a lighthouse built in 1881 warned off approaching potential victims. Now she threatens to wreck as many cars, as stunned motorists get her stark beauty full in the face. This coastline is first and foremost about gawking, and Ecola State Park, just north of Cannon Beach, is the perfect place to pull over and practice: mists twist up from Pacific crests, which in turn shatter on a silky expanse of beach. Then, a west coast touch – the scattering of shaggy pinnacles. We can never get enough of this, the first in a maelstrom of magical views. From the park, trails entice stunned first timers to viewing points of Tillamook Rock’s Lighthouse and Cannon Beach’s Super Star, the 235’ monolith called Haystack Rock. Never rush Cannon Beach. The Wayfarer Restaurant, lolling beside its shore, is where we like to digest the view and tuck into our first ‘razors’ of the year. Razor clams call these west coast beaches home, and we call them our signature Oregon Coast dish.

All this and we’ve only gone 30 miles.

At Bay City, our dream highway starts to wind inland slightly as it heads to Tillamook, which has two attractions worth braking for. Tillamook Cheese sets the gold standard for fromage, and who can pass up trying it? And there’s ice cream, snuggled in waffle cones made here, the perfect receptacles for over 30 decadent flavours of the creamy stuff. The featured flavour this year is Black Walnut. Go on, try it.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the hangar we pass upon licking and leaving is the largest wooden structure in the world – a WW II Blimp Hangar. Amateur aviators will be amazed at the number of old warplanes. There’s a whole flock of  ‘war birds’ in here – including an SBD Dauntless dive-bomber.

Tossing off Tillamook and thoughts of WW II, we roll over the hills to Lincoln City, 45 miles on. The Inn at Spanish Head hunkers on the beach here. It’s unique; structures can’t be built down here anymore. Ask for room 331. Recently renovated, the compact suite has a kitchen bar and a bed that’s practically in the sea. There’s great service at this venerable hotel, and a popular, romantic restaurant. We beach comb, and chase tumbling clumps of sea foam, then retire to our balcony to guzzle California bubbly and watch beach walkers making similar fools of themselves.

Then there’s this glass art studio we visit for a bit of artsy fun, blowing our own glass floats, shimmery, colourful souvenirs that are actually worth having. Lincoln City hides 2000 of these vibrant spheres on the beach every year, a great excuse to linger longer.

The next morning’s stop is only 15 miles away. At Depoe Bay we pull over on the front, our favoured vantage spot for seeing grey whales spouting just offshore. Claiming to be the world’s smallest fishing port, Depoe Bay’s harbour is accessible by a formidable narrow entrance at certain times of the tide. The locals call the experience ‘shooting the hole.’ If you’re up for it, book a fishing charter with Tradewinds and get the whole Zen: spotting whales up close, catching salmon or rockfish, and losing your breakfast in the frequently rough seas.

I prefer watching the action from The Tidal Raves Restaurant and having scallops for a late breakfast. (It doesn’t open until 11.)

Just 13 miles on and we cross Yaquina Bay Bridge, the first of five ornate bridges with art deco touches, built in the 1930s. Welcome to Newport. We pull into South Beach Sate Park for our second night and book a yurt. The park has paths along Yaquina Bay, beaches to forever, and 2-hour guided kayak tours. Nearby is the Oregon Coast Aquarium, which features changing exhibits, although the permanent Passages of the Deep, a suspended underwater acrylic tunnel, is a draw in itself. We head outside to the outdoor viewing pools to catch a glimpse of some tufted puffins.

Day 3 opens its eye and it’s 23 miles to Yachats, a little village with a huge roster of year round festivals. We turn up routinely at their mushroom fest in October, in time for a guided forest mushroom walk and some fabulous fungi food.

Now we continue 16 miles down 101 to our next stop at the world’s largest sea caves. The Sea Lion Caves, a 60+year-old attraction, has to be visited at least once, but for us it’s an annual ritual, sort of like communion.

By mid afternoon we’re nudging toward sand country and pass a few hitchhiking dunes. When we reach Florence, the start of Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, we put paid to the rest of our day and book a yurt in Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park, smack dab in duneland. At the lap of these golden humps reclines warm Woahink Lake, perfect for rinsing off all that sugary sand. As everywhere on the Oregon coast, hiking trails go on forever, tempting visitors, especially those with kids, to head to the nearby dune buggy rental outlets to get up close and personal with that sand.

Day 4 includes a stop at Bullards Beach State Park for a mile long walk on the paved pathway to the beach. Destination Coquille River Lighthouse, where we spend an hour on the breezy breakwater, watching the river clamor out to the sea and the occasional marine traffic clamber in.

Bandon is another essential stop. We head into the historic old town, chockfull of interesting buildings, and the home of Bandon Coffee Café, brewing the best java on the coast. Here’s where we munch pastries and sop them up with prima Italian coffee.

So on to Port Orford, more stops en route to rave and to revel at the vistas, and then day’s end at Gold Beach. The Rogue River mail run departs from here, and no one should miss this 6 hour backcountry adventure.

We book at the Tu-Tu-Tun-Lodge on the Rogue River’s north bank and wait for our ’ship’ to come in; it’ll stop right on front of our luxurious lodging.

Day 5 and we’re running out of Oregon. A must stop at Harris State Park Beach in Brookings for pelican spotting. Flocks of them perform here, trolling past with huge bills agape. It’s a perfect place to give our budget a break and bed down in another yurt. Later we’ll take our wine glasses down to the lookout and watch the most spectacular sunset on the Oregon Coast, before driving the same route back tomorrow.

Trust me. There are some road trips you never tire of.


Lots of info on this site:

Speaking of razors:

Lincoln City’s Chinook Winds Casino also has razors to rave about. It’s our favourite coastal casino.

Parks Unlimited:

This site contains info on all state parks described above.

There are 46 of them, a mind blowing assortment of picnic sites, campgrounds, rest spots, and trailheads – many with hiking trails, self guiding signs, historical plaques, washrooms, showers, drinking water, viewpoints, history, lighthouses, whale and bird watching sites. Welcome to park heaven.

Yurting it:

Throw some sleeping bags into your boot and maybe even a camp stove and dishes, and then plan on staying at some of the yurts found in 14 parks en route. The cyclindrical structures have heat and electricity, beds, an outside water tap and covered picnic tables. Nearby central blocks have showers, sinks and hot water. Best yet, the cost is $27-$30.

Sand Castles:

Cannon Beach’s June competition is the oldest and the first on the coast. Sand sculptures also spring up at Lincoln City. Check their sites for the dates.

Don’t forget:

. Binoculars to spy grey whales, tufted puffins, pelicans.

. Rain gear and boots. Walking on the beaches in the rain and mist is very Oregon coast.

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