Touring the Upper Oregon Coast
Text by Pat Middleton
Photos by Richard L. Middleton
“Give me BEACHES!”
Beaches were my destination of choice for the Oregon double-header that (along with a Columbia River cruise) would be our July get-away. Our coastal tour was easy enough to plan, given the website VisitTheOregonCoast.com. The four-day land-cruise would take us from Portland to Newport via I-5 and Hwy 20, then north along Hwy 101 to Astoria and back to the Portland from Seaside on Hwy 26.
We did find BEACHES, and lighthouses, and fishing villages. And elephant seals, gray whales, great birding, and even a six-foot long shark!!
We daily enjoyed fresh seafood of every type… Dungeness Crab, the freshest oysters, fresh halibut, white sturgeon, crayfish, snapper. Most small villages offered whale watching tours, pristine beaches, charter fishing, regional museums, and occasionally, upscale shopping.
“This is a drinking village with a fishing problem”
one plaque boasted cheerfully.
There were no plaques announcing that water temperatures felt just above freezing, or that a day at the beach required light jackets and jeans along with the bottle of wine!
But the payback was a wilderness beauty... only sprinklings of fellow beach hunters and miles where there was not one condominium—or even a cottage—visible beyond the high sand dunes. The infrequency of "DO NOT" signs was refreshing... visitors still drove cars on the beach and walked their dogs while families gathered around campfires at sunset in the ash-gray sand. Uncrushed "sand dollars" littered the beach here and there. On one occasion we found a newly dead 5-gilled shark washed ashore! A ranger at one of the state parks told us that even great white sharks are occasionally seen in these cold gray waters!
We relished our stay in easy-going Newport, it’s beach showcased by huge windows in our oceanside room at the Shilo Inn. (Shilo Inns are located all along the coast, visit www.shiloinns.com)
In the bustling Historic Bayside District, we had our finest meal of the trip... a Sunday Champagne buffet at the Embarcadero Resort (1000 SE Bay Blvd). We relished the freshest of raw local oysters, fresh mussels, and more!
The Oregon Coast Historical Society Museum interpreted the early history of Newport which included oystering in Yaquina Bay, tourism because of its beaches, commercial fishing and timber. The museum included an excellent display of native Indian art.
The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport provided an excellent hands-on introduction to our coastal journey. Here is your first opportunity to say hello to a lime-green sea anemone. I am not kidding, their sticky little arms latch onto your finger and it is, for all the world, like shaking hands with one of God's precious creations.
Just 3 miles north of Newport, off Hwy 101, a large section of the rocky tide pools of Yaquina Head Lighthouse State Park is open to explorers. Visit the interpretive center first to see when the tide will be lowest and what you are likely to see in the inter-tidal area. Walk carefully on the tidal rocks (to avoid slipping or stepping on mussels, barnacles, and other creatures) and study the pools for green anemones, star fish, and other creatures.
The black cobblestone beach was formed from cooled lava over 4 million years. Please don't carry any of the smooth round stones away with you! Harbor seals lounge just out of reach of visitors… And yes, it is possible to see resident gray whales off shore year around, but particularly during migration from December to May. Most villages offer whale-spotting tours and there is friendly competition among villages for the best location from which to spot a whale. Look for spouts, backs, and tails. Volunteers at the lighthouse will help you discern whales off shore and various types of Cormorants, Oystercatchers, and other birds on the wave-pounded rocks.
Upscale Cannon Beach was recently featured in USA TODAY as one of America’s 10-best beaches. This was a village of fine boutiques. restaurants, and cafes comparable to Carmel, California. As birders, we enjoyed seeing nesting cormorants, gulls, oystercatchers, and, in the Haystack rocks off Cannon Beach, the PUFFINS! We were forewarned that puffins prefer grassy rock tops to sheer rock. Thus the name Haystack Rocks.
Ecola State Park, another excellent Wilderness area, is located 2 miles north of Cannon Beach.
The commercial fishing docks in Garibaldi (maybe that was the village with a fishing problem!), introduced us to fine Albacore, snapper and crayfish. Any fish sandwich you order on the docks is FRESH indeed! Ironically, we introduced ourselves to an individual and a fishing charter group in Garibaldi. Unbeknownst to one another, both parties originated in Ontario, Wisconsin... a town of 300 souls!! Visit the steam engine and passenger cars at Lumberman's Park and the Captain Gray Museum, both just off Highway 101. Oysters are farmed in Tillamook Bay, so stop if you can to watch the processing of Oysters. This is the time to order Netarts oysters fresh from the shell!
Hwy 101, the coastal highway, meandered inland toward pasture-bound Tillamook where Oregon’s second most popular tourism attraction is located… the Tillamook Cheese Factory was compelling (well, we are from Wisconsin!) for its entirely automated production of Cheddar and Colby for the huge chains like Walmart, Sam’s, and Fred Meyer. Some 5,000 people a day visit the cheese factory!!!
Also located in Tillamook was The Tillamook Air Museum located at the Tillamook Naval Air Station & Blimp Hangar. This was one of 17 hangars built along the West Coast during WW II to house the US Navy K-Ship blimps that patrolled the west coast after sporadic shelling from a Japanese submarine landed near several coastal towns. The hangar is built entirely of spruce from Oregon and Washington (no steel at all in the structure) and is the largest clear-span building in the world. It is 1100 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 200 feet high. That's enough room for 7 football fields! Visit www.tillamookair.com
Most of the airplanes on display are flyable and privately owned. In my case, it is stories about people that makes the machinery so interesting. The docent shared with us that he met a former parachute jumper who told of jumping from one of the models on display 48 times. The last time, he hit a stump and broke his back. Recently, a pilot and his gunner were reunited at the museum for the first time since flying bombers in WWII.
A stop in Seaside, and the site of the Lewis and Clark Salt Cairn brought us to the far west and south end of the Lewis and Clark trail. While the expedition set up their winter camp at Fort Clatsop to the north, the salt team camped here to boil sea water to prepare 4 bushels of salt for the return to St. Louis.
We returned to the beach just north of Seaside to spend a long afternoon before our drive to Portland on Hwy 26. Other visitors were few and far between, which made for a particularly memorable farewell experience. We chose Hwy 26 so that we might see a huge Sitka Spruce at a wayside along the highway... it is estimated to be 750 years old, 250 feet high and some 52 feet across!! It was a GRAND tree, especially as it was not a Sequoia or Redwood.
Fort Stevens State Park, at the mouth of the Columbia River is also a must-see. The site has protected the Columbia River since the Civil War. The batteries which remain are from WWII, when concern was great that the Japanese might try to take the Columbia River. National Park Rangers offer guided tours through the gunnery stations throughout the day; but there is also a representation of a native Indian lodge and a regional historical museum. Fort Stevens State Park has the largest campground on the Oregon coast, with more than 500 sites, most with utility hookups.
For us, it was the sea pounding at the long jetty of the Columbia River that most attracted our attention. Birding out here in the estuary is excellent and blinds have been set up for visitors. Elk sometimes visit, as will an occasional cougar or coyote. It was on this beach that we discovered not only our shark, but the historic shell of the wreck of the Peter Iredale.
Fort Clatsop, the winter camp for the Lewis & Clark Expedition offers knowledgeable living history re-enactors who demonstrate exactly how the men would have lived through the long, wet, winter. This, too, was an excellent educational stop.
Our last overnight was a return visit to near-by Astoria on the Columbia River via Hwy 30. The Cove B&B overlooked the river and the downtown district from the hillside above. It’s worth noting that while many hotels, restaurants and warehouses are still located on piers over the river, there was a time when the entire downtown district was constructed on pilings. After most the downtown was destroyed by fire, the debris was used to fill in the flat area below the hill. The Flavel House, a Queen Anne style mansion built in 1885 by Astoria’s most successful Entrepreneur and river bar pilot, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum (www.crmm.com) are both must-see sites. There is a huge Sequoia tree in the yard of the Flavel House--surprisingly, it is not all that old--it was planted at the turn of the 19th century.
The maritime museum in Astoria interprets very well such key aspect of Oregon history as sea fishing and lifeboat rescues at sea. The Coast Guard school in the vicinity uses the punishing surf at the mouth of the Columbia to train an elite sea-rescue squad used for rescues at sea. These are the guys who are dropped down from helicopters and rescue boats in hurricane conditions to rescue sailors whose boats have capsized. One of the cadets called it a “Master’s Degree in conquering fear.”
The bravery and sacrifice of life boat crews, fishermen and sea captains is captured poignantly in an Astoria memorial similar to the Vietnam Wall. Each individual is commemorated in black granite with an etching representing his boat, his career, and perhaps how he was lost. One rescue attempt took the lives of several lifeboat crew as well as the entire fishing crew. The memorial is located directly under the big bridge, adjacent to the Holiday Inn Express along the river walk in downtown Astoria.
Several cafes are also located along the Astoria river walk, in restored warehouse structures. We had an exquisite dinner at the Baked Alaska Restaurant, including a desert of (you guessed it, flaming baked Alaska!). Do not fail to have fresh fish as often as possible along the Oregon coast. It was always fresh and well-prepared.
The Astoria Column erected by the Ralph Budd, president of the Great Northern Railroad in 1926, is also worthy of a visit. On a clear day, the high point where the column is located at Coxcomb Hill provides a magnificent view of the Columbia River, Young’s Bay, and the Lewis and Clark River.
The column is etched from top to bottom with scenes from significant events at the mouth of the Columbia River.. history that commence with the trade network of native Indians, the discovery by Capt. Robt. Gray, settlement by the Astorian expedition funded by John Jacbo Astor to establish the fur trade, and finally the migration of the pioneers. A recent restoration of the sgraffito artwork cost the community over 1 million dollars. The original cost of the Column was $27,133.96.
IF YOU GO
Travel Notes: We flew in to Portland's Int'l Airport to take the 8-day Columbia River Cruise aboard the Columbia Queen with Great American Journeys. The cruise included a transfer back to the Portland airport, where we easily started our coastal visit in a rental car. Portland south to Newport on the I-5 (the southernmost coastal city on our route) was a good 3 hours drive, but thereafter, coast villages are generally 10 to 15 miles apart. Our return from Seaside to Portland on Hwy 26 was about an hour, plus time to see the Sitka Spruce. We started planning our journey by visiting www.Visittheoregoncoast.com - (Phone 888-628-2101).
Request their excellent, free, "OREGON COAST: Mile-by-Mile Guide to Hwy 101"
Newport Visitor Information - www.newportchamber.org or Phone 800-262-7844
Garabaldi Visitor Information - www.garibaldioregon.com or phone 503-322-0301
Tillamook Chamber of Commerce - www.Tillamookchamber.org or phone 503-842-7525
Tillamook Cheese Visitor Center - www.tillamookcheese.com or phone 800-542-7290
Cannon Beach - www.cannonbeach.org or Phone 503-436-2623
Seaside Visitor Bureau - www.seasideor.com or Phone 800-444-6740 for information
Astoria Visitor Information- www.oldoregon.com
PO Box 176, 111 West Marine Drive, Astoria, Oregon 97103-0176
503-325-6311 or 800-875-6807
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