Highway 101: Oregon’s lighthouse highway
I’ve made five trips to the Oregon coast – three since 2007, but something very significant happened during my trip there this past July 1-28.
It didn’t rain.
The only rains I encountered along the coast were a few paltry spits that just managed to keep me cool while I camped.
And cool it was. The average high at Newport was 54-56, a stark contrast to Iowa in July.
The main Oregon coastal road is Highway 101, an old but updated highway that still manages to evoke quaint glimpses of mom-and-pop campgrounds, curio shops and eateries, as well as more modern accommodations and spectacular art galleries. While the rains held off for most of my trip, a nearly perpetual cloud cover hugged the coastline. I made good use of the clouds, though, taking photos all day in the naturally filtered light. At least every other night the clouds parted for spectacular sunsets.
If you’re planning on taking 101, don’t be in a hurry. It’s winding, and if you’ve never driven it, you’ll be making constant stops to photograph some of the world’s most magnificent lighthouses. From north to south, they include Lightship Columbia at Astoria; Tillamook Rock; Cape Meares; Yaquina Head, probably one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country; Yaquina Bay, an older, yet more unique lighthouse; Heceta Head, an iconic lighthouse with a breathtaking view just north of Florence; Umpqua River; Cape Arago; Coquilla River and Cape Blanco. Two lighthouses I visited this trip were at Yaquina Bay and Yaquina Head, both near Newport.
The Yaquina (prounounced Yah-quinna) Bay lighthouse was built in 1871. The light sits atop a wood-frame house where the lighthouse keeper lived. The lighthouse was reactivated a few years ago.
The Yaquina Head lighthouse, built two years later, is anchored to what could be the most blustery promontory on the Oregon coast. I was trying to photograph the sunset one evening, but the gale-force winds pelting mist from 100 feet below made it more than difficult. Perhaps the most interesting feature about the lighthouse at Yaquina Head is its first-order fixed Fresnel (fray-nell) lens, which continues to serve navigators. The lighthouse is iconic, with a curved stairway and absolutely magnificent view, even from the base.
A trip to the Oregon coast wouldn’t be complete without some fresh seafood. Varieties you’re most likely to find are oysters, clams, steelhead and salmon. If you’re buying salmon, be ready to shell out a few dollars and be hungry, because you’ll be buying a whole salmon and paying by weight. Prices range from $25 and up.
Newport is also home of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, one of the best family experiences you’ll ever find. The aquarium has a heavy focus on ecology, and kids love the indoor tidal pool, where they can actually reach out and touch nature.
During this trip I spent a week in Elk City, where I purchased property three years ago. (It’s on the spot where Paul Newman raced his dirt bike in the 1971 movie “Sometimes a Great Notion.”) With only a handful of people there, Elk City is shown on my road atlas just east of Newport and Toledo.
I have fallen absolutely in love with Elk City. Every morning, clouds dance up the Coastal Range to the south. Set back a few miles from the coast, it’s harbored from the weather, but still manages to stay moderately cool during the summer. If you fish in the Yaquina for salmon, steelhead or trout and see the water flowing upstream, you aren’t going crazy. The Yaquina is subject to tides even at Elk City.
Other than a county campground, Elk City is comprised mainly of a few permanent residents. Every April 15 through Oct. 15, the population doubles. That’s when people are allowed to move their trailers and campers onto the flood plain. Toward sunset, campfires flicker, beer cans pop open and the locals regale one another with fishing tales.
Heading back south on 101, from Florence to North Bend, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area offers abundant opportunities for dune surfers. A bit south from there you’ll find myrtlewood factories and gift shops with items carved from the beautifully grained wood.
A few miles down the road is Brookings, the last major town before California and redwoods country. Harris Beach State Park at Brookings offers outstanding rock formations and surf that create magnificent sunset photos.
Oregon state parks are about the best I’ve seen anywhere. There’s one every few miles along the coast. They’re moderately priced, generally $22 to $24 for tenting, and some have yurts that cost a little more.
It seems that everyone who visits the Oregon coast walks the beaches. Besides common driftwood, you might run across a timber or spar from some long-ago shipwreck or even, on rare occasions, a Japanese glass ball float. In places, the cry of gulls is constant, especially at minus tide, when the gulls gorge themselves on shellfish. At early morning and late dusk, the sun and waves cause the pebbles to sparkle like diamonds.
Oregon’s beaches are incredibly romantic places. You can tell that by the number of honeymooners holding hands as they stroll into the sunset.
Story and Photography by Michael Tidemann
Click on this link to view the original story posted on the Des Moines Register website.