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Set Sail for the Oregon Coast

The 363-mile rugged Oregon coast is one of the world's most spectacular parks because it is all public land, owned by the people of Oregon.

It offers unusual diversity to the traveler. Everything from forests, seashore, dunes, beachcombing, camping, tide pools and fishing is available. There are 74 state parks and recreation areas along the roadway, including some that preserve virgin vestiges of the greatest coniferous forest in North America.

Part of the pleasure of the Oregon coast is the unpredictable experience that a traveler will encounter. You may stumble upon a large gathering of kite flyers with all manner of fanciful kites on the beach at Lincoln City. In the spring, at Yachats, you may witness silver smelt coming in to spawn on the volcanic sand. The local people, aware of the smelt life cycle, will be waiting with dip nets to harvest their allowed 25 pounds per person per day.

Fishing and logging have been the livelihoods that traditionally supported settlers along the Oregon coast. Tourism now edges out the fishing industry.


As an orientation to the coast, start at Fort Stevens State Park and work your way south. Fort Stevens, originally a Civil War fort, becomes a moderate-sized town in summer when its many campsites are filled. If this is your introduction to Oregon's state parks, you will learn that they are a well-groomed image of nature fully under control. There is a substantial biking and walking trail network at Fort Stevens. Four miles of shoreline at the park offer surf fishing, clam digging, and the material for sand castling. Fort Stevens, which guarded the mouth of the Columbia River, had the distinction of being the only U.S. military installation on the mainland fired on by the Japanese in World War II. A Japanese submarine did little damage, but caused a stir by shelling Battery Russell. An interpretive center tells the story of the fort going back to the Civil War.

Out along the water's edge at Fort Stevens you can look at the forlorn wreck of the four-masted, iron-hulled British schooner, Peter Iredale, which ran aground in 1906. The wreck forcefully emphasizes the importance of lighthouses along this treacherous coast. Between 1857 and 1895 lighthouse building proceeded. Today there are nine lighthouses, with six still serving as navigation aids. You'll find lighthouses at Tillamook Rock, Cape Meares, Yaquina Head, Yaquina Bay, Heceta Head, Umpqua River, Cape Arago, Coquille River, and Cape Blanco.

Just inland from Fort Stevens, along the Columbia, lies the town of Astoria. Astoria has always been marked by a maritime orientation, (don't miss the August Astoria Regatta), so it's fitting that it hosts the Columbia River Maritime Museum, charting Columbia River and general maritime history. The museum's assemblage of model ships, one of the best, includes a replica of the battleship Oregon. The largest artifact at the museum is the lightship Columbia, which served as a visual aid for ships crossing the Columbia bar from 1950 to 1980.

If you climb the hills of Astoria, you'll note the well-kept Victorian houses that generations of prosperous seafaring families have built and maintained. For a map listing the choicest Victorians, stop by the local chamber of commerce office, located at 111 West Marine Drive. Most of the prominent homes are on Grand and Franklin Avenues.

The other major destination at this northern tip of the coast is the Fort Clatsop National Memorial to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The memorial is on the Lewis and Clark River near Astoria. Fort Clatsop is worth visiting to immerse yourself in the rugged, self-sufficient world of the early explorers.

Moving south, Seaside is a prominent resort and convention area. It presents a lively ambiance with a beach boardwalk.

Nearby Cannon Beach received its unusual name from a cannon that washed ashore in 1846 after the U. S. Navy schooner Shark wrecked. This town is an artistic complement to Seaside and has become a coastal cultural milieu. Sculptors and artists fill the galleries and emerge onto the beach each summer for a sand castle building contest. Saddle Mountain State Park is an unusual botanical area with a large range of wildflowers along its excellent trails.


South of Nehalem turn briefly inland, following the road signs to Mohler, and visit the Nehalem Bay Winery, an example of the interesting Oregon wine production. The winery produces a Gewürztraminer and a Pinot Noir.

At Tillamook, cheese-making is a highly developed art and may be seen as a consolation for citizens forced to endure the incessant rains. Be sure and sample all of the delicious local fare when passing through.

West of Tillamook, the scenic Three Capes Loop takes you to three jutting promontories (Cape Meares, Cape Lookout, and Cape Kiwanda). Here the tall forests come right down to the pounding surf. This is a pleasing side trip from Highway101 with a lighthouse, built in 1890, at Cape Meares.

Lincoln City is the start of a well-publicized "Twenty Miracle Miles" strip of coastal property. Here the "Ma and Pa" establishments typical of coastal Oregon give way to larger corporate ventures, capable of convention-size gatherings. Among the noted resorts, the most famous is the Salishan Spa & Golf Resort, built tastefully of native stone, plus rough sawn fir and cedar.

Lincoln City has numerous art galleries, plus opportunities to visit with the artisans. At Alder House III, south of Lincoln City and a half-mile east of Highway 101 on Immonen Road, you can visit a glassblowing studio. Mossy Creek Pottery and Gallery, also on Immonen Road, emphasizes limited production of fine, handmade pottery. You can blow your own glass float at the Jennifer L. Sears Glass Art Studio.

Moving south to Newport, be sure to stop at the well-known Oregon Coast Aquarium. Filled with indoor and outdoor exhibits, it's a great place to learn about coastal wildlife and includes many hands-on exhibits where children can touch the sea creatures. It's open every day but hours vary so call ahead for times.

The area boasts two lighthouses, Yaquina Bay (1871) and Yaquina Head (1873).

Farther south, the Sea Lion Caves are a natural spectacle along the coast. The area is the year-round home for wild sea lions on the mainland. An elevator takes you down to where the mammals can be viewed in the cavern. The Heceta Lighthouse and Point is also worth viewing in this scenic and rugged part of the coast.


Moving south, you enter an unexpected terrain, where sand dunes replace the forested slopes and rocky shore. Orient yourself to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, created in 1972, by stopping at Oregon Dunes Day Use Area 10 miles north of Reedsport or the Oregon Dunes Visitor Center in Reedsport.

One special aspect of the dunes area is the internationally popular Sand Master Park in Florence. The sand board park includes jumps and railslides on part of this private, 40-acre terrain of sculpted dunes, with a larger area of 200 acres of dunes and forest.

For a detailed hiking map of the area, check in with the staff at the Oregon Dunes Visitor Center. Between Florence and Coos Bay you'll have 41 miles of dunes to explore.

Florence is also noted for its rhododendrons, which flower here most profusely in May, the time of the Rhododendron Festival.


Coos Bay, at the south end of the dunes, is the largest natural deep-draft harbor on the west coast between Puget Sound and San Francisco. The area is made up of three towns — Coos Bay, North Bend, and Charleston. An amazing floral landscape can be seen in Charleston at Shore Acres State Park as well as a stunning oriental garden.

Large sea mammals are in plentiful supply here. Winding along the Cape Arago Highway Loop in Charleston, you'll find the Simpson Reef interpretive stop. Here you'll see Oregon's largest site for seals and sea lions. Shell Island, part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, hosts Northern Elephant Seals, Harbor Seals, Stellar Sea Lions, and California Sea Lions. Cape Arago is also an appealing stop for a look at its lighthouse.

South of Coos Bay, you enter berry country. Bandon is the state cranberry capital, with 900 acres under cultivation. Coinciding with the harvest is a September Cranberry Festival.

Nine miles north of Port Orford, the Cape Blanco Lighthouse rests on Oregon's westernmost point and is Oregon's oldest standing lighthouse. Sand at Blanco is also striking because it is black. The lighthouse, built in 1870, is a brick structure that has been continuously in use and is open for visits.

All along the Oregon coast, you can watch the migration of gray whales south in December to January and again north in March to April. The Port Orford Wayside State Park is one of the best sighting places.

Gold Beach, at the mouth of the Rogue River, is the departure point for jet boat trips up this intriguing waterway, one of the best steelhead fishing streams in Oregon. The Rogue is also one of the designated "Wild and Scenic Rivers" in the U.S. Guides on the jet boat trips are often competent naturalists and historians of the area. The jet boats, which can skim along on 6 inches of water, go 32 miles up the river from Gold Beach to Agness. Whitewater fans can also make a 104-mile trip down the upper reaches of the river.

Brookings, just north of the California border, has outstanding displays of azaleas that can be seen in the Azalea Park east of Highway 101. An Azalea Festival in May coincides with the major blossoming time.

This town is alive in the summer with different festivals. The Southern Oregon Kite Festival is the third weekend in July. There is a popular Festival of the Arts, a juried show attracting artists from all over the Northwest, on the third weekend in August. Fishermen converge on Brookings over Labor Day weekend for the Slam'n Salmon Ocean Derby, the largest fishing derby of any kind in Oregon or Washington. Upwards to 800 fishermen compete in this ocean salmon fishing event.

If you drive the coast, you'll want to walk the park trails to enjoy the scenery. Much of the coast falls under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Parks and Recreation department. Oregon's well-integrated highway and park system arose because park and highway agencies were seen as a unified effort, historically, as the state government was set up. In other states the two separate entities often pursue opposite goals.

Set Sail for the Oregon Coast