People who vacation regularly on the Oregon coast have their favorite spots. But for first-time visitors, like us, it can be hard to know where along the 363-mile coast to stay.
We figured out our overnight stops by deciding how long we wanted to drive each day (only about three hours, to leave plenty of time for sightseeing) and then researching what towns near those areas had well-reviewed AirBnB or motel rooms available within our budget (no more than $175 per night). That process resulted in us breaking our six-day drive along the coast in Gold Beach, Yachats, Tillamook, and Astoria.
Because we were traveling during the peak summer vacation period, we had to take the very un-vagabondy approach of booking all of our lodging several weeks in advance. As we drove past endless “No Vacancy” signs, even on the most tired-looking little roadside motels, we were very glad we’d planned ahead. In northern California, we met a traveler who’d just come from the Oregon coast and who’d had to sleep in her car one night because she couldn’t find any rooms available.
Although it was high season, the southern half of the Oregon coast didn’t feel very crowded, perhaps because it’s a long way from population centers. The Oregon Coast Highway (Route 101) isn’t a big road, despite its grand-sounding name. Between towns, it has only one lane in each direction, and we encountered few large trucks and no tour buses. Instead, it seemed like at least half of the vehicles were RVs, as this off-the-beaten path part of Oregon is beloved of vacationers and retirees in campers.
In all, the Oregon Coast has more than 80 state parks and recreation areas. Don’t get too hung up on trying to find the best one. All of them will reward you with pretty scenery. As we drove along Route 101, we paid special attention to pull-offs and parks whose signs indicated lighthouses, good viewpoints (a camera icon), wildlife viewing (a binoculars icon), or nature centers. Sometimes we stopped at pretty beaches for a walk or took short hikes to the ends of headlands. We also left Route 101 once, when it turned inland between Oretown and Tillamook, to take smaller coastal roads along the “Three Capes Scenic Loop” past Cape Kiwanda, Cape Lookout, and Cape Meares.
Route 101 passes through a number of pleasant-looking small towns. In addition to the ones we stayed in, towns that caught our eye included Bandon (with good seafood restaurants and shops, and the opportunity to rent gear to catch your own crabs and have them cooked for you), Depoe Bay (with a cute little harbor, whale watching tours, and a first-rate Thai restaurant), and Cannon Beach (with a huge beach and dramatic sea stacks, but a lot of traffic and people on a July weekend).
Not surprisingly, we ate lots of fresh seafood on the Oregon coast. The shrimp, crab, salmon, rockfish, and fried ling cod were especially good. Almost every restaurant serves clam chowder; it’s possible to travel the entire coast eating chowder for lunch and dinner every day (I gave it a shot). One local seafood specialty was new to me: a sandwich full of shrimp or crab and melted cheese between two slices of buttery garlic bread. I was skeptical about mixing seafood with cheese (probably influenced by Italian cuisine, where that’s definitely a no-no), but the results were delicious.
Here’s another piece of food advice: If you get a chance to eat anything made from Oregon cranberries or marionberries (a type of blackberry), do it! They’re wonderfully flavorful. Our favorites were marionberry jam from the Tillamook Creamery store, mixed nuts and dried berries sold at the Sunday street market in Astoria, and berry-flavored fruit gummies from the Cranberry Sweets & More shop in Bandon.
With the vital topic of food covered, here’s the lowdown on where we broke our trip up the Oregon coast:
Gold Beach. This small town on the southern coast sprawls along Route 101 at the mouth of the Rogue River. We stopped here to stay at Taylor Creek Lodge, a fancy-sounding name for a small B&B set in the woods a few miles inland. It features fun things like hot tubs, air hockey and pool tables, a waterfall trail, nightly s’mores over a bonfire, and a great homemade breakfast.
In the Gold Beach area, we walked on Myers Creek beach and saw beautiful views from the trails at Port Orford Heads State Park. Other travelers we met were planning to fish or ride jet boats on the Rogue River. (We spent one night here because that was all that was available at the B&B, but we could have happily stayed longer.)
Yachats. This cheery-looking, walkable little town on the central coast is becoming known as one of Oregon’s best coastal destinations. It’s home to our favorite lodgings of the trip, the mid-century Adobe Resort hotel. The hotel sits on a small bluff next to the ocean. For $157, you can get a nice ocean-front room, crack open the window, and fall asleep to the sound of waves on the rocky beach below. The downstairs dining room has the same view and good food.
A walking trail runs along the bluff past the hotel and through neighborhood streets to the center of Yachats (a river mouth with a large beach) and some nice little restaurants and shops. It’s a good place to walk and also a great base for visiting the lighthouses and beautiful scenery at Heceta Head, Cape Perpetua, and Yaquina Head. (We spent two nights here and wish we’d had time to stay longer, in part because of our ocean-view room.)
Tillamook. This large town in northern Oregon sits about 6 miles inland near a marshy area at the end of a long bay. Although there are pretty mountains in the distance, Tillamook is a flat place that smells like cows, from the local dairy industry. Food options are limited (the best place we ate was a Mexican food truck with outdoor seating).
The real draw here is the Tillamook Creamery factory, where cheddar cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products famous in the western United States have been made for more than 100 years. The factory tour and history displays were much more interesting than we’d expected, and the ice cream cones we bought tasted extra good because they were so fresh. Tillamook lies at the end of a pretty loop drive through Cape Lookout and Cape Meares state parks. (We rented a little AirBnB apartment here for one night, which was plenty.)
Astoria. This historic port town at the mouth of the Columbia River marks the end of the Oregon coast. Washington State begins on the other side of the river. With a population of about 10,000, Astoria was by far the largest place we stayed on the Oregon coast. (We rented an AirBnB room in an old Victorian house for two nights.)
Outside Astoria we visited a recreation of Fort Clatsop, where members of the Lewis & Clark expedition spent the winter of 1806 after reaching the Pacific Ocean, before their return trip back east. Astoria also has a fascinating maritime museum, where we learned what a shipping hub the Columbia River is and how dangerous its entrance to the ocean is to navigate. The river mouth has been the site of countless shipwrecks over the past two centuries, as vessels fell prey to strong winds, high waves, and shifting sands on the river bottom. When we were there, conditions were calm, and a row of container ships sat in the river off Astoria, waiting for their turn to sail upriver to the docks in Portland.
We spent our last night on the Oregon coast on a hilltop next to the Astoria Column, a local shipping magnate’s version of Trajan’s Column in Rome, painted with scenes from Astoria’s history. As we watched the sun sink over the Washington shoreline, casting rosy light on a 270-degree view of water, land, and mountains, we said goodbye to the coast that we’d spent the past week exploring. The next morning we were heading inland to Seattle for another week of housesitting. What a amazing coastal interlude this had been.