The hazy mist rolls in over a stretch of sandy beaches as the road twists around lush evergreens, decorating the bluffs that hug the Pacific.
Oregon is one of the most serene places I’ve been and a place where I could see myself in 40 years, sitting in my rocking chair, writing and drinking a cup of tea while looking out over the sea.
I’ve been hearing about how incredible this part of the USA is since I was a kid and in August, I finally had the chance to visit while working our way north from California on our Pacific Northwest road trip. With 400 miles of coastline, it’s impossible not to find this state completely dreamy, especially from the most western points.
Here’s the Oregon Coast Highway: Top Stops Along the Way:
Oregon Dunes at Gardiner
You’re probably thinking well, this is pretty obvious beings we’re seeing Oregon from the coast (hello beautiful beaches!) but the Oregon dunes are more than just your average sandy beach. The 40 miles of sand knolls that stretch the span of Oregon’s southern coast are the result of millions of years of Oregon’s coastline bearing the winds and rains. And these aren’t just small little beach hills; some dunes are as high as 500 feet, making it the perfect place for thrill seekers to whip around in their dune buggies.
Stop at the dunes and rent an ATV to see why this place is so recreationally popular or come out here for sunset’s gorgeous lighting to take some shots of the mystical mounds.
Sea Lion Caves in Florence
About halfway up the coast of Oregon is a natural marine sanctuary that’s drawn in visitors since its opening in 1932. The sea lion caves are the only known mainland home of the Steller’s sea lions, with which hundreds come to bear the cold waters of the Pacific. Take an elevator down 208 feet to see the 25 million year old cave where the sea lions come to eat and breed or, head to the observation deck to watch them on the bluffs below, as well as a chance to see whales migrating out in the ocean.
Check the hours and current admission prices for the sea lion caves here.
Heceta Head Lighthouse
The most photographed lighthouse in the world has been illuminating the Oregon coast for over a century and, in fact, it’s the brightest light on the coast as it can be seen from 25 miles away. Heceta Head Lighthouse sits on the edge of the Pacific, a little over 200 feet above the water, within 550 acres of a state park. Before electricity, keepers were required to tend to the light every 2 hours throughout the night to ensure it would keep burning. In 1963, the lighthouse was fully automated, eliminating the need for manual lightings so the keeper’s home was turned into a bed and breakfast.
Visit Heceta Head to see why it’s a National Historic Monument, hike the scenic trails along the coast that begin at the lighthouse or head down to Heceta Beach for some wildlife viewing.
While the nearby Sprouting Horn and Devil’s Churn usually steal the show for visitors, Thor’s Well is the real winner here. This sort of sinkhole (nobody really knows exactly what to call it) fills with water all the way to the top, spilling out onto the basalt rock around it, then drains back down in a whirlpool motion. It’s thought to be about 20 feet deep and most geologists believe that it was once a sea cave but the roof collapsed. Thor’s Well is a popular place for photographers during the high tide as the splashing of the waves over the rock make for a stunning sight, especially in the golden hour.
One of the more popular tourist spots along Oregon’s coast, Yaquina Bay is the channel that sits in the town of Newport. The bustling oyster and clam businesses drew hundreds of people to this area in the 1800s, where it began to act as a main shipment and navigation port and the halfway point on the coast between Seattle and San Francisco. In fact, the vibe here is identical to San Fran’s wharf district with the existence of multiple chowder stands, tourist attractions like Ripley’s Believe It or Not and docks for sea lions to sunbathe.
Make a pit stop in Yaquina Bay to visit popular tourists attractions, see the stunning Bay Bridge that highway 101 crosses over, spend a day on the sandy beaches or stroll around the historic lighthouse that was built in 1870s.
You don’t have to be in Wisconsin to get some old-fashioned homemade cheese. Tillamook County is known for their cheese, more specifically their cream, which can be found in grocery stores throughout the country. Head over to the Tillamook Creamery for a classic grilled cheese sandwich and mac ‘n cheese, or for a quick yogurt snack and espresso. You may even decide to stay the night in Tillamook and if you do, camp out in an old covered wagon like we did, a nostalgic way to wake up on the Oregon coast.
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Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad in Garibaldi
One of my favorite little places we came through on the Oregon coastline was Garibaldi. This old lumber town nestled in Tillamook Bay has a picturesque marina and old historic remnants of past logging companies. Now, it’s the main hub for the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad that runs between here and other coastal towns like Rockaway Beach. Prior to the railroad connecting these towns in 1912, people would have to travel here from Portland by wagon on a coastal trail, taking no less than 2 weeks.
Tickets for the rail are quite cheap and a popular thing to do in the summer months. If you don’t choose to take a ride, at least come to the train station to watch the old steam engines take off with the lush-evergreened hillsides as the backdrop.
The Original Pronto Pup
In the 1930s, the Boyington husband and wife team from Rockaway Beach made a living by selling hot dogs from their vendor stand to tourists and locals. After the buns got ruined in the rain one day, the husband thought it’d be smarter to cook the buns as needed so he created a pancake batter to dip the dogs in. While some claim that the corn dog originated elsewhere, this is the oldest record of the carnival snack being made.
Stop in to Pronto Pup Thursday through Sunday to snag your own original corn dog and ride the mechanical corn dog while you’re here too!
This adorable little coastal town was created in 1909 as a seaside resort by the Rockaway Beach Company, named after the same sort from Long Island, New York. Its monstrously wide 7 miles of shoreline, main street of shops and restaurants and the uniquely colored buildings make it a popular tourist area. One of the iconic sights of Rockaway Beach is the twin rocks, pictured here. After millions of years of erosion, these rocks have drifted apart from one another and from the coast of Oregon where they now sit idly out in the Pacific.
Hug Point is a state recreation site, fee-free and an awesome place to stop for a picnic on the beach while looking at various types of marine life. 19th century stagecoaches would use Oregon’s beaches as their highways and here, at low tide, the travelers would have to “hug” the edge to get around the bend, hence the name Hug Point. Historians also believe that many wagons were swept out to the ocean in this spot so someone, whose identity is still unknown, etched a sort of roadway into the edge of the cliff where visitors today can walk on top of and around to another beach.
Various sea caves can be explored here but do so cautiously as the tide tends to come in very quickly. Walking around the edge of the cliffhead, low tide pools reveal some neat marine life like sea stars and anenomes.
Cannon Beach & Haystack Rock
You may have seen this stunning sight pictured once or twice, as it represents one of Oregon’s most iconic landmarks. 15 million years ago, the lava flow coming down the coastline created Haystack Rock, which was once adjoined by the coast. Years of erosion from rain, sea water and wind have forced it out into the ocean. Standing at 327 feet above sea level, Haystack Rock is the 4th tallest off-shore sea stack in the world. At low tide, visitors can walk all the way out to Haystack Rock to see the tidal pools that hold sea anenomes, crabs and starfish, as well as tufted puffins who use the rock as their habitat for 4 months out of the year.
At the most northwest point of Oregon in Fort Stevens State Park sits what’s left of a 285 foot long ship, the Peter Iredale. In 1906, Captain Lawrence and his crew of 27 were sailing from Mexico to Portland via the Columbia River when heavy winds pushed the ship ashore at Clatsop Split. Plans were made to eventually haul the ship back to sea, as no real damage was done during the wreck, but unfavorable weather and ocean conditions delayed the tow, with which the ship became embedded into the sand where it still remains today.
Lewis & Clark National Historical Park
In 1805, the expedition of Lewis and Clark reached their final destination at the Pacific Ocean. After staying on the Washington side of the Columbia River, the group, including Sacagawea, took a vote to move to the Oregon side on a suggestion by the Clatsop Indians. Since the snow and treacherous winter conditions would delay their trek back east, they built Fort Clatsop in a matter of weeks, where they spent the winter between 1805 and 1806.
There are various historical markers throughout the park, including the replica of Fort Clatsop, the creeks with which the adventurers got their fresh water, and the forests where they hunted for elk and deer to sustain themselves during the winter months.
The gateway to Washington begins here in Astoria, specifically across the 4 mile Astoria-Megler Bridge. Fort Astoria was established in 1811 after an investor from New York City brought his American Fur Company here. It was the first permanent settlement on the Pacific and it also contained the first U.S. Post Office west of the Rocky Mountains. The decline of Astoria can be directly attributed to the growth of larger cities on the coast like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Many companies have shut down or moved elsewhere since the establishment but the town remains as a popular tourist spot for its convenient location at the mouth of the Columbia River.
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