The Stunning Oregon Coast: Part I

What It Looks Like

The state of Oregon has 363 miles of Pacific coastline, and most of it is strikingly beautiful. We drove the entire length of the coast, from the California border to the Washington border, on the Oregon Coast Highway (Route 101). Along the way, we stayed overnight in four towns: Gold Beach, Yachats, Tillamook, and Astoria. I’ll tell you about them in the next post. But first, here’s why you should visit the Oregon coast in the first place: It’s stunning, dramatic, and varied, and it just keeps on going.

Wide sandy beach with white surf and green hills on the sides
Beach in Yachats

There are long, broad, sandy beaches, especially in the northern half of the state. Even in July, the water is too cold for swimming (unless you’re a surfer in a wetsuit), and the weather is often windy and cool, with highs in the 60s F. But you can sit on the beach and soak up the summer sun, or walk for miles listening to the waves. At low tide, you can look in little pools left behind by the receding water and see green anemones and orange starfish.

In some places, especially in the southern and central parts of the state, beaches are punctuated by low shelves of basalt. That hard gray stone, left over from ancient undersea lava flows, gets revealed when the softer sandstone around it is eroded away by wind and waves. Pacific harbor seals haul themselves up on the rock shelves to nap in the sun. Unless they move, they’re easy to mistake for logs of gray or brown driftwood. Large holes that sometimes form in the rock—with names like Thor’s Well and Devil’s Punchbowl—cause interesting effects when the tide comes in, sucking water down like a drain or shooting it high in the air like a geyser.

Harbor seals sleeping on rocks
Harbor seals sleeping on rocks at Port Orford Heads State Park

All along the coast there are headlands, where high hills come right to the ocean. When you pull off at the many scenic viewpoints along Route 101, you’re often looking from one dramatic headland to another. They help you measure your progress along the seemingly endless coastline, because frequently the view in one direction shows where you were an hour ago, and the view in the other direction shows where you’ll be going soon. Headlands are also good places to spot the gray whales that migrate along Oregon’s coast in December, January, April, and May, as they travel between their winter home in Baja California and their summer home in Alaska.

The headlands that stick out farthest into the ocean or that are most hazardous for ships are dotted with lighthouses, which were built in the late 1800s and all painted white. Some of them can be visited up close. Most of the surviving lighthouses are still used for navigation, though the lights are automated rather than operated by resident lighthouse keepers.

Tall white lighthouse with paths among brown grass
Oregon’s tallest lighthouse (93 feet) is at Yaquina Head
Top of lighthouse with red lantern bulb and sunlit ocean behind it
The shortest, 38 feet, is at Cape Meares

Over time, the land at the end of a headland can erode away, leaving big rocks—called sea stacks—standing alone or in groups in the water. Some sea stacks, such as the Three Arch Rocks near Oceanside or Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, become iconic symbols of their part of the coast. Steep sides and sometimes inaccessible locations make sea stacks hard to climb, so they become refuges for thousands of nesting seabirds.

Cannon Beach sea stacks

In addition to the beaches and headlands, there are some broad bays and wetlands and shallow “sand lakes” behind the coast, separated from the ocean by sand dunes. The Oregon coast has miles of dunes, some of which are surprisingly high. Pacific City has a 193-foot dune at Cape Kiwanda that you can climb. (It reminded Chris of the 260-foot Sleeping Bear Dune climb in Michigan that she used to do as a child.)

All of Oregon’s beaches, up to the high-tide line, are open to the public, thanks to a conversation-minded governor who in 1913 got the state’s entire coastline designated as a public highway. The idea wasn’t far-fetched: Until roads and railroads became more common, the usual way to travel between coastal communities was by stagecoach along the beach. When stagecoaches reached large headlands, they had to switch to small, twisty wagon roads that climbed up and over the hills. With smaller headlands, coaches could avoid a slow climb by making a mad dash at low tide around the point as they hugged the shore. (An area south of Cannon Beach is called Hug Point for that reason.) 

Travel became much easier when the Oregon Coast Highway was finished in 1936. Because of its era, many of Route 101’s small bridges over rivers and marshes have an Art Deco design, with decorative columns at each end that look like miniature Empire State Buildings or other famous buildings. Other bridges on Route 101 are marvels of engineering that were built into steep hillsides to carry traffic around big headlands.

Route 101 hugs the side of Neahkahnie Mountain
Route 101 hugs the side of Neahkahnie Mountain on a bridge made from local stone

Melissa, who has ridden on Highway 1 in the famously scenic Big Sur section of the central California coast, says that Route 101 in Oregon doesn’t feel as precipitous as the road in Big Sur. Route 101 hugs the coast in places, but not continually and not in a particularly scary way. Most of the time it’s not clinging to the edge of the land, and when it does, it’s not perched on cliffs high above crashing waves, as in Big Sur. Still, if you get nervous driving near drop-offs, you can minimize that by traveling the Oregon Coast Highway from south to north so you’re always driving in the inland lane. You’ll still have plenty of gorgeous views, though you’ll need to cross traffic to turn into the scenic pull-offs.

As we drove along the coast, we listened to short episodes of a podcast we’d downloaded called “Offbeat Oregon,” which features strange and fascinating stories from Oregon’s history. That’s where we learned about stagecoaches on the beach and about why at least one lighthouse was built on the wrong headland. If you’re not a fan of podcasts, you can find the same stories on the Offbeat Oregon website. Like our website, it’s a labor of love, and we fell in love with it as we explored some of the places it mentions.

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