Here’s the question I am most frequently asked by people who haven’t been to the Pacific Northwest: “I’ve heard it’s wonderful out there, and that the people are so nice, but what’s it really like?”
The simple answer, of course, is that it’s pretty wonderful and that the people are, in fact, so nice that strangers will smile and say hello to you on the street. That’s more likely to happen in Portland than Seattle, I must point out. The pace in both cities is fairly relaxed—but more relaxed in Portland than Seattle.
What it all boils down to is that most of the people who live in Seattle and Portland want to live there. More and more of them have moved there from somewhere else, and despite the urban travails that plague all of us, those transplants tend to remain. It’s called “livability,” a nebulous but seductive word if there ever was one. Nature plays a big role, and mobility (Seattle and Portland traffic notwithstanding), safe neighborhoods, an arts-and-culture scene, good food, good beer, and good wine all play a part. Perhaps marijuana does, too, though I’d hate to think that it’s the cannabis that is drawing record numbers of visitors and newbies to the Northwest. What I can say, unequivocally, is that both Seattle and Portland are absolutely booming.
The Oregon coast is an entirely different kettle of fish, as it were, and people gravitate toward it not so much as a potential place to live (unless it’s a second home) but as a place where the ocean is in charge and Nature calls the shots.
Extending from the mouth of the Columbia River in the north to California's redwood country in the south, the Oregon coast is a shoreline of jaw-dropping natural beauty. Yes, it's often rainy or foggy, and, yes, the water is too cold and rough for swimming, but the coastline more than makes up for these shortcomings with its drama and grandeur. Wave-pounded rocky shores; dense, dark forests; lonely lighthouses; rugged headlands -- these all set this shoreline apart.
In places the mountains of the Coast Range rise straight from the ocean's waves to form rugged, windswept headlands that still bear the colorful names given them by early explorers -- Cape Foulweather, Cape Blanco, and Cape Perpetua. With roads and trails that scale these heights, these capes provide ideal vantage points for surveying the wave-washed coast. Between these rocky headlands stretch miles of sandy beaches. In fact, on the central coast there's so much sand that dunes rise as high as 500 feet.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw, heard, and smelled the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon coast. The pounding roar of the breakers as they rolled into shore; the driftwood-strewn white-sand beach with its giant, forested headland and offshore monoliths; the sharp, salty breath of the sea—it was all so powerful, a sensory massage that put life in a new perspective that was both enlarging and humbling at the same time.
I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Actually, I’d only gone to Oceanside, a tiny hamlet on the Three Capes Scenic Loop between Tillamook and Pacific City. A friend had an old, lopsided, cedar-shingled beach cottage that had been in the family for decades. It had a delicious damp smell to it—the smell of a house that never entirely dried out—and a wood-burning fireplace, a little kitchen and a couple of tiny bedrooms. Oceanside had one sort-of store, a motel, a tavern, and not much else. That’s how much of the coast was before the surging real-estate boom that started in the late 1980s and didn’t stop until the crash of 2008. When you “went to the beach,” as Oregonians said, it was to reconnect with nature, walk on shoreline where you were the only person for miles, explore the wind-socked headlands, get soaked by the rain, make love, read books and play games, fix seafood dinners (or go out to one of the very few restaurants), dream by the fire, and let the lullaby of the sea tug you into a deep sleep.
And that’s what a trip to the Oregon coast is still about—except that now you don’t have to stay in a motel and do your own cooking, unless you want to, because every kind of accommodation is available, from yurts to luxury hotels; every town has at least one or two restaurants; and all the hotels have giant-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi so you can tune out the very nature you came here to enjoy. What hasn’t changed, despite all the new building, is that every inch of the Oregon coast remains open to the public. There are no private beaches anywhere along the 363 miles (584 km) of coastline that stretches from Astoria in the north to Brookings in the south. That’s why it’s sometimes called “the People’s Coast.”
As for the weather—well, that may be changing, but you still need to bring a fleece, a hoodie, and a windbreaker, no matter what time of year you visit. Maybe a wet suit, too.
I’m kidding. Sort of.
This is not a coast where you can swim and it’s not a coast where you can sunbathe. The very idea is preposterous. This is a coast where people come to watch storms, for heaven’s sake. The bigger the better. That’s not to say that the weather is never benign. August and September are the “calmest” and warmest months, but there can be periods of calm and sunshine throughout the year. And because of the topography of headlands and valleys, the weather blowing in off the Pacific can change from one mile to the next, one moment to the next. In July and August, hot weather inland can pull in fogs that don’t burn off until the afternoon.
This is a coastline of remarkable grandeur and endless natural drama, with vast white-sand beaches stretched between massive, forested headlands, along enormous bays and fifty miles of non-stop sand dunes. The surf pounds and surges against offshore haystacks, sea stacks, and monoliths, all of which were gnawed away from the mainland over countless eons by winds and the relentless chomping of the sea. The northern and central stretches of forested shoreline are considered temperate rainforest.
U.S. 101, also called the Coast Highway, is the backbone of the Oregon coast. It runs parallel to the ocean, with some inland stretches, and is one of the most scenic highways in the world. The highway is graced at several points by bridges designed in the 1930s by the great bridge engineer Conde McCullough.
In this chapter, I give you the highlights of the Oregon coast. The towns of most interest to first-time visitors—Astoria, Cannon Beach, and Newport—can be day trips from Portland. Although I didn’t have space in this chapter to describe all the wonders of the wonderful Oregon coast, I hope you will consider driving the entire length, from Astoria to Brookings. Such a trip could be done in 2 days, but I would draw it out over 5 days and savor every scenic mile along the way.
Passes and Passports Along the Coast
State parks, county parks, national-forest recreation areas, outstanding natural areas—along the Oregon coast, numerous state and federal access areas now charge day-use fees. You can either pay these day-use fees as you encounter them ($5 per day) or purchase an Oregon Pacific Coast Passport for $10. The Passport is good for 5 days and gets you into all state and federal parks and recreation areas along the coast. Passports are available at Forest Service and Oregon Parks and Recreation offices along the coast. For more information, contact Oregon State Parks Information Center (tel. 800/551-6949).
Wildlife-viewing opportunities along the Oregon coast are outstanding. From the beaches and the waters just offshore rise countless haystack rocks, rocky islets, monoliths, and other rock formations that serve as homes to birds, sea lions, and seals. Harbor seals loll on isolated sand spits, and large colonies of Steller and California sea lions lounge on rocks and docks, barking incessantly and entertaining people with their constant bickering. The best places to observe sea lions are on the Newport waterfront, at Sea Lion Caves north of Florence, and at Cape Arago State Park outside of Coos Bay. Hundreds of gray whales also call these waters home, and each year thousands more can be seen during their annual migrations. Twice a year, in late winter and early spring, gray whales migrate between the Arctic and the waters off Baja California. They pass close by the coast and can be easily spotted from headlands such as Tillamook Head, Cape Meares, Cape Lookout, and Cape Blanco. In coastal meadows, majestic elk graze contentedly, and near the town of Reedsport, the Dean Creek meadows have been set aside as an elk preserve. It's often possible to spot 100 or more elk grazing here. The single best introduction to the aquatic flora and fauna of the Oregon coast is Newport's Oregon Coast Aquarium, where you can learn about the animals and plants that inhabit the diverse aquatic environments of the Oregon coast.
Rivers, bays, and offshore waters are also home to some of the best fishing in the country. The rivers, though depleted by a century of overfishing, are still home to salmon, steelhead, and trout, most of which are now hatchery raised. Several charter-boat marinas up and down the coast offer saltwater-fishing for salmon and bottom fish. Few anglers return from these trips without a good catch. Crabbing and clamming are two other productive coastal pursuits that can turn a trip to the beach into a time for feasting.
To allow visitors to enjoy all the beauties of the Oregon coast, the state has created nearly 80 state parks, waysides, recreation areas, and scenic viewpoints between Fort Stevens State Park in the north and McVay Rock State Recreation Site in the south. Among the more popular activities at these parks are kite flying and beachcombing (but not swimming; the water is too cold).
As I've already mentioned, it rains a lot here. Bring a raincoat, and don't let a little moisture prevent you from enjoying one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. In fact, the mists and fogs add an aura of mystery to the coast's dark, forested mountain slopes. Contrary to what you might think, the hot days of July and August are not always the best time to visit. When it's baking inland, the coast is often shrouded in fog. The best months to visit tend to be September and early October, when the weather is often fine and the crowds are gone.
The Cost of the Coast
State parks, county parks, national-forest recreation areas, outstanding natural areas -- along the Oregon coast, numerous state and federal access areas now charge day-use fees. You can either pay these fees as you encounter them or purchase an Oregon Pacific Coast Passport for $10. These passes are good for 5 days and get you into all state and federal parks and recreation areas along the coast. (However, you'll still have to pay campsite fees.) A $35 annual pass is also available. Passports are available at most state parks that charge a day-use fee. For more information, contact Oregon State Parks Information Center (tel. 800/551-6949).