Wandering the West – Part 6: Down the Oregon Coast

Following lunch in Seattle I was very tempted to take the ferry to Bremerton and stop off in Olympic National Park for the night. As tempting as it was, I decided that since I had already extensively explored the Washington coast and much of the Olympic peninsula when I lived there I would rather accelerate the initial southbound leg of the return journey to be able to spend more time in new territory. Once back on I-5 I sadly watched the Seattle skyline disappear in the mirror.

At Kelso I bid farewell to the fast path back to the desert and took the old bridge over the Columba to pick up US-30 on the Oregon side of the Columbia and follow it out to meet US-101 at Astoria. With little traffic and still early enough in the afternoon not to have the sun in my westbound eyes, it was a very pleasant start to the scenic portion of the return leg on a route I had not previously taken as all of my prior excursions to the Oregon coast had taken more direct approaches. It did neatly dovetail with my prior trips though, as on one of my early drives in that area I had once followed the Washington side of the Columbia on highway 4 and taken the US-101 bridge across the mouth of the Columbia, then turned straight around to follow 101 North.

Once on 101 out of Astoria the scenic fireworks gradually began to build. Much of highway 101 runs just a touch too far inland to see the coast, but the tradeoff is an easily drivable road with easy coastal access. From Astoria to Seaside it runs generally along the narrow coastal plain, but just past Seaside it enters a rockier stretch where the character of the route begins to surface. One minute you will be driving through towering pines and crossing ravines on bridges built with a view toward the decorative as well as the practical, and the next moment you overlook the Pacific stretching out to the horizon over a foreground of waves battering the coastal rocks or gently rolling into a long sweep of golden sand beach. The way the road was laid out gives it just about the perfect combination of speed and scenery, and there are no shortage of places to stop and enjoy the view.

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Approaching Tillamook it was getting to be about the time of evening where I needed to think about finding a campsite when a promising brown sign appeared pointing toward the water. Following it led to a Tillamook County Park which had a campground, and for around $20 I landed a quiet space among scrubby pines just a few steps from the beach and not much further to the Tillamook Bay jetty. It was a rather blustery evening, but watching the patterns as the wind blow the spray across the water and the sand down the beach more than made up for the discomfort. The campground also deserves mention for having one of the cleanest and best maintained restrooms I have come across in campgrounds and parks, which was well beyond anything I would have expected to find in that location.

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After an excellent night’s sleep and an early morning breakfast while strolling along the much calmer, and totally empty, beach, it was time to carry on down the coast. Coming into Tillamook an open sign in a coffee shop caught my attention, and after that stop the day’s journey began with a pastoral inland section (bypassing some great coastal scenery and an excellent café in Oceanside as well as the stunning Cape Lookout, both of which I had visited several times before) before catching up with the coast again near Lincoln City. In my opinion the section of 101 from Lincoln City to Heceta Head is probably the singular most impressive section of the entire stretch. Forest, rocks, mountains, surf, incredible art-deco inspired bridges, innumerable scenic viewpoints, lighthouses, and on and on and on. It’s almost enough to make the sight of waves crashing into offshore haystacks and coastal cliffs seem boring. But not quite… and when bad luck happens to hit and you find yourself stuck behind a slow moving vehicle in a multi-mile no passing zone, it’s almost always possible to find somewhere to pull off – such as Yaquina Head Lighthouse.

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After Heceta Head, 101 moves inland again to skirt the Oregon Dunes and then doesn’t really make it back out to the coast again until Port Orford. As with the section further north, there are lots of access points for those willing to go the mile or so off the highway to get to them, but the character of the road is decidedly different, switching from constant turns and cliff edges to much more rolling terrain… which is actually a welcome break from the incredibly dynamic scenery of the coastal section. One of the access points is Flora’s Lake. The sign on 101 for the county park makes it look deceptively close, but it takes several minutes to navigate the local roads before arriving at a small parking area, and a wonderfully placed portable toilet – the first opportunity in what seemed ages. Beyond that, it was a nice spot to go for a short walk past the edge of the freshwater lake and the small creek draining it to the ocean.

As a woodworker, I had long wanted to visit Port Orford due to constantly seeing references made to “Port Orford Cedar” which has a high reputation for being light, strong, straight grained, and basically a perfect cedar for everything from arrow shafts to hot tubs. I had expected to find a mass of lumber mills, but though there was evidence of a lumber industry in the area the town itself seemed to basically be just a regular small coastal town. Luckily I spotted a sign for the old lifeboat station and Port Orford Heads State Park, which made for a delightful walk with incredible views – but the point was being blasted by winds and on several occasions I nearly lost my balance and had to adjust my footing to compensate. A group of sea lions sunning on a rock below the head seemed oblivious to the wind.

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On leaving Port Orford I came across one of the required establishments of a small coastal town, a good chippy. The Crazy Norwegian made for a perfect roadside late lunch after the morning’s coastal meandering.

I was very tempted to turn inland at Wedderburn and explore at least part of the Rogue River Valley, but decided to stick with my plan of following the coast as much as possible on the return. Despite a couple more stops to enjoy the shoreline and do some tidepooling, I found the miles to Brookings and the California border ticked away far too quickly. I found myself back in my starting state, but was still further away from home than from Seattle.

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