Classic road trips: The Oregon Coast

Summer might be over, but it’s never out of season to take a road trip down the Oregon Coast. From summer sunshine to winter storms, following the Oregon’s Pacific coastline by way of Highway 101 provides for spectacular views, quirky stops and more fish and chips than you could ever want. Here’s your quick and dirty guide to making the best of it.

Getting started
Before you take off for the coast, spend a few days exploring Portland. Oregon’s largest city is known for its coffee culture, diverse array of restaurants and excellent microbrews; definitely the ideal place to kick off your road trip. Stop by Powells to pick up a map and even a guidebook to the coast; although driving down 101 is pretty straightforward — just go straight — it’s nice to know what towns you’re going through and where state and county parks are located so you can play on the beach.

Classic coastal cities worth a look

Cannon Beach
Portlanders love weekend trips to the coast, and the most popular route to get there is Highway 26, which takes you to the quaint coastal city of Cannon Beach. Here Ecola State Park and Indian Beach are popular with the surfing crowd; expect many Subarus and VW Vanagons that play double duty as surfboard transport and apres surf tailgate parties. For an authentic eating experience, take time to grab a bowl of chowder or a crab melt at the Ecola Seafood Restaurant; it’s a no frills kind of place, perfect for when you’ve got sandy feet leftover from your beach walk.

There’s really not a whole lot to do in Tillamook; it’s a small town surrounded by farms and on a road trip the smell of cows will certainly permeate your vehicle. But it does have one attraction that draws hundreds of tourists everyday: the Tillamook Cheese Factory. Learn and see just how the famous Oregon cheese is made and when your done, stand in line for free samples. The Tillamook Cheese factory also serves Tillamook ice cream — another Oregon favorite — but as a warning, the scoops are big; make sure your eyes aren’t bigger than your stomach.

Newport happens to be my personal favorite city on the Oregon Coast. It’s got a good coastal village feel, especially in the summer when the small beach-side cottages fill up with people intent on spending their vacation in a relaxed and charming atmosphere. For the classic coastal ambiance, head to the Historic Bayfront, featuring Oregon’s largest commercial fishing fleet. Along the main drag lie many a fish and chip shop, kitschy souvenir shops and even a Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Newport is also home to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Oregon’s famous Rogue Brewery (classic beers are the Dead Guy Ale and the Shakespeare Stout).

What to do
The Pacific Coast Highway is known for its amazing views and driving along it is an activity in and of itself. But for the classic Oregon coast road trip, you’re going to want to plan time to stop and do other things. On the northern coast near Astoria, you can cross over the Columbia River and visit Cape Disappointment, the place where the members of the Corps of Discovery — ie the Lewis and Clark expedition — had their first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.

Towards the central coast, between Florence and Coos Bay, is the Siuslaw National Forest – Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Here you’ll find the impressive dunes, sometimes towering to 500 feet, that have been sculpted by the coastal winds. If you’re not a fan of dune buggies, you can still hike up the dunes for incredible views and photo ops of the largest expanse of coastal dunes in North America.

No road trip will be complete without a trip to the Sea Lion Caves. Part tourist trap, part natural curiosity, the Sea Lion Caves are said to be the world’s largest. Located just north of Florence, a visit to the caves allows for a close-up look at sea lions in their natural habitat. The visit entails an 200-foot elevator descent down into the caves where the sound of sea lions is almost deafening — these sea lions have nothing on the ones at San Francisco’s Pier 39.

In the summer, true road-trippers will have their tent and sleeping bags in the back of the car; sleeping next to the beach is a favorite summer pastime. Keep in mind that parks fill up quickly in the summer; either get to the campsite early or make a reservation. But if you’re exploring the coast during more dreary weather, you’re probably not going to want to bear the elements. If time allows, consider renting a cabin, which will allow you to explore the beaches and towns close by and get a better feel for the local community. Another option is renting a yurt, allowing you to get the feel of camping without the hassle of being in a small tent.

Good towns to stay in — because of accommodation availability and things to do nearby — include Astoria, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Newport, Bandon and Coos Bay. Check out the Travel Oregon website for an extensive search engine of coastal accommodations.