A tour of some of Oregon’s universities for my college-bound son was the impetus for a recent trek to our neighboring state to the south. To make a vacation out of the trip, we decided to tack on a few days and head over to the coast for some beach fun a la Northwest style.
First stop was Florence, smack dab in the center of Oregon’s scenic coastal Highway 101. In addition to its wild and untamed beaches, full of caves and rocky inlets, Florence is also well-known for its sand dunes. The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area stretches 50 miles from Florence south to Coos Bay, Ore., and although it may not be as grand as the Sahara, this area is a sight of unique wonders that may make visitors actually feel as if they’re lost amid the African desert landscape.
The dunes are enormous in their proportions and can reach up to two and a half miles inland from the ocean. They rise to heights of more than 385 feet and their contours change continually with the force and action of the wind. One week a dune might be a towering giant and then the next time you see it, it might be a deep sand canyon.
Visitors to the dunes have a variety of recreation opportunities, including camping, hiking, horseback riding and sandboarding (“surfing” on the sand). The adrenaline pumping folks, however, want to ride this rollercoaster landscape in mechanized vehicles ranging from dune buggies to ATVs.
With two teenage sons and a husband who refuses to grow old gracefully, I knew that I would be outnumbered in our recreational choice for the day.
There was just too much testosterone to battle! We headed to Sand Dune Frontier, a locally owned company that rents vehicles to explore the dunes, and there we prepped for our wild ride through the soaring mountains of sand.
Padded in armor, with a host of instructions ringing in our ears, we set off to explore the area on our own. One son rode in a Polaris Quad, the other was in a one-seat Mini-Rail buggy. My husband and I shared a two-seat Rail. Through the massive sandy slopes, we carved our way, inventing our course as we went. We would climb to the peak of a large dune with an “I think I can” mentality, then slow down before we headed off the steep precipice, our screams and laughter catching in the wind as we dropped into a gaping abyss. The sand furiously whipped around us and attacked our faces and bodies with the vengeance of 1,000 needles. And yes, we got stuck a few times when we overestimated our abilities, or should I say when my eager husband overestimated his! But, the excitement and the thrills of this Disneyesque adventure made it all worthwhile, and more importantly, the looks on my sons’ faces as they careened over this amazing, out-of-Africa landscape were priceless.
Another popular outing in the Florence area is the Sea Lion Caves, located about 10 miles north of town on Highway 101.
About 200 Steller sea lions make their homes here in the world’s oldest and largest known sea cave. Visitors take an elevator 2,008 feet down to the ocean level to view these slippery-furred creatures in their natural environment.
It was amusing to hear them barking and honking and to watch them ride the waves into the cave or play king of the hill, as they tussled with one another and jockeyed for position on the rocks.
Many congregated in groups, lolling around in a semicomatose state; others were very active and jumped into the water splashing everywhere.
A video and an assortment of displays that describe the habits of this type of sea lions are located within the observation room. The winter months are an especially opportune time to visit, as it is likely that more sea lions will be inside.
One note of caution: the place has a definite strong odor that may make visitors shorten their time down in the cave area!
Just a few miles from the caves is a must-see sight for lighthouse fanatics and for those seeking a spectacular, drop-dead view of the Pacific. About a half mile from the main road is Heceta Head Lighthouse, one of Oregon’s most beautiful and most famous lighthouses.
As you walk up the hill from the parking lot, you will pass what used to be the keeper’s house, now a lovely B&B, and then you will come to the lighthouse itself. Tour guides take visitors up into the building and explain its history, as well as provide info about its operation, then and now. From the top level, you can look down through the windows at the crashing ocean and imagine the relief among sailors when they saw Heceta’s beacon of light flash in the middle of a dark, foggy night at sea.
Newport is the next big (by Oregon coast standards) town one comes to heading north on Highway 101. It’s a true working fishing village with miles of sandy beaches and tide pools, protected by lighthouses that once brought the great ships to safe harbor when Oregon was young and still undiscovered. Its historic bayfront is home to some of the state’s largest commercial fishing fleets, and where daily, fisherman haul in their catches of shrimp, oysters, crab, salmon and others wonders of the deep.
Fresh seafood abounds here, as it does up and down the towns that dot the coastline. After strolling the waterfront shops and eating our fill of fish and chips and clam chowder, we took a peek in the renowned Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center where we encountered habitats and animals that were here centuries before the first settlers arrived.
As one drives the coast highway, it’s the proverbial fresh crab signs, chowder houses, souvenir shops, antique stores and weather-beaten abodes that give this area its identity. There’s a fudge and salt water taffy shop on each corner and a store selling kites on the other. Charming romantic inns are tucked away, along with chain hotels and mom- and-pop motels. Bursts of sunshine mix with dark storm clouds and if you’re not happy with the weather, the old adage, “wait a minute and it will change” works well.
A trip to the Oregon Coast wouldn’t be complete without a quick stop at the Tillamook County Creamery Association Visitors Center in Tillamook. Home of the famed Tillamook cheese, it’s a popular tourist destination where you can take a self-guided tour of the cheesemaking process, sample a variety of cheeses and get a bite to eat at the Farmhouse Café, where the specialty is - you guessed it - grilled cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread!
Top that off with one of the creamery’s fabulous ice cream cones (try the marionberry) and you’ll roll back into the car.
Our final destination was Cannon Beach, a town that’s known for the scenic beauty of its seastacks offshore and its headlands onshore.
Famous Haystack Rock stands guard out in the water and it is one of the most photographed sights of the area. At 235-feet high, it is the third largest coastal monolith in the world and has been designated as a marine and bird sanctuary.
There are many intertidal creatures that make their home in the tide pools around the rock, such as barnacles, starfish, crabs, sea sculpins and anemones.
Several bird species nest on the rock in the summer, the most colorful being the tufted puffin. The nine miles of wide, walkable beach are perfect for flying kites, playing Frisbee, building sand castles or simply relaxing on a piece of driftwood and being lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves. I sat with a book (which I never quite got to read) and just watched the water and listened to the shorebirds, while my family played a rousing game of Nerf football. Later, we visited many of the quaint shops and art galleries that line the town’s streets. There are a number of good restaurants and cafes to grab a quick bite or have a leisurely meal. Clam chowder at Doogers, pizza at Fultano’s, haystack bread at Cannon Beach Bakery and peanut butter milkshakes at The Local Scoop are favorites with my family.
But the true winner is the mighty untamed ocean and the magnificent natural setting of the Oregon Coast. That’s what keeps us coming back.
Hotel Suggestions: In Florence, we stayed at Driftwood Shores, 1-800-422-5091 or www.driftwoodshores.com. In Newport, the Best Western Agate Beach Inn at 1-800-547-3310 or www.agatebeachinn.com. In Cannon Beach, the Hallmark Inn at 1-888-448-4449.
Sand Dunes Frontier: Open year round, weather permitting. 541-997-3544 or www.sanddunesfrontier.com.
Sea Lion Caves: Open year round. 541-547-3111 or www.sealioncaves.com.
Tillamook County Creamery Association Visitors Center: 1-800-542-7290 or www.tillamookcheese.com.
Oregon Coast Visitors Association: 1-888-628-2101 or www.visittheoregoncoast.com.