The Tillamook Bay Heritage Route
Photo courtesy of Tyson Gillard
Perhaps best known for its ice cream and cheese, Tillamook Bay is Oregon’s second largest and most accessible bay in the state. Encompassing nearly 600 miles of watershed, there is a vast array of activities here for the intrepid coastal explorer. For visitors looking for a complete historical, cultural, and outdoors experience, the Tillamook Heritage Route provides an all-encompassing overview of what this special region has to offer. Connecting five communities and five rivers, a long leisurely adventure down the coast is the best way to experience the wide variety of historical monuments, quaint communities, and breathtaking views.
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Beginning in the north with Barview County Park and Campground, an overnight here is a must. This gorgeous beach and campground is not well-known to the massive crowds coming out to the coast from Portland and Vancouver. Very popular with locals, this large campground is second in size only to Fort Stevens State Park Campground further up the coast.
From Barview, history buffs can dive into U.S. Coast Guard lore to learn about the hard-working crews that manned the life-saving stations in Tillamook Bay. With multiple buildings and structures to explore, from the Pier’s End Historic Coast Guard Boathouse to the Lookout Tower and Barview Life-saving Station, there is plenty to learn and see. Chiefly stewarded by the Garibaldi Cultural Heritage Initiative, the port town is one of the only places in the United States where structures from all eras of the Life-Saving and U.S. Coast Guard remain intact, and the historical significance cannot be understated.
All that sea history will have you itching to hit the open water yourself. Before you go, make a stop in the Port of Garibaldi to fuel up with a tasty meal at one of the local restaurants and stroll through this small coastal community. Known for its Dungeness crab and famous fishing runs, this is a place not to be missed if you love fresh seafood. Once you’re well-fed and stocked up on supplies, the Tillamook Bay Water Trail beckons.
Commercial oyster harvesting operation at the Port of Garibaldi. Photo by Tyson Gillard.
250 miles of waterways wind through restored estuaries, dark forest, and rolling pastureland. The Tillamook Bay Water Trail is a designated National Recreation Trail that includes the five watersheds of the Nehalem, Tillamook Bay, Nestucca, Sand Lake, and Netarts. To make your kayaking or stand-up paddleboard trip even easier, the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership provides fold-up waterproof guidebooks to help you choose your path through this vast network. With something for all ability levels, hardcore adventurers and families with small children will find equal enjoyment. Our favorite, is the 3.6-mile round-trip paddle to The Three Graces from Garibaldi Marina. Be sure to check the tides before heading out, however, as the water levels and current can strongly affect your experience.
If you’re worn out from all that paddling, or the weather has taken a turn for the drizzly, the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad provides a nice respite. Dogs are welcome in the open air cars, too. For those particularly keen on railroads, it’s possible to snag a seat in the steam locomotive engine. With several 30-minute stops along its route, this is a lovely way to see the coast from the chugging comfort of an old-fashioned ride.
McCloud River Railroad engine #25 at the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad. Photo by Tyson Gillard.
For a museum experience, the Garibaldi Maritime Museum is a tiny treasure waiting to be discovered. Designed to preserve the maritime traditions of the Pacific Northwest, the museum tells the stories of Captain Robert Gray and his ships, Lady Washington and the Columbia Rediviva. With replica ship models, old-fashioned costumes to try on, and numerous photographs, check the museum calendar to plan your trip around special events hosted on-site.
Traveling further down the coast, the Whitney Smokestack, a last remaining vestige of the Whitney lumbermill, is a distinctive sight. To stretch your legs a bit, stop at Hobsonville Point for a pretty view and easy beach access. Considered by some to be a ghost town, now-defunct Hobsonville was once a thriving community based on lumber and salmon fishing. Further on, once you arrive in vibrant little Bay City, the Bay City Arts Center makes a lovely spot to recharge and check out the local art work. As a hub for arts programs of all types for all ages, this is a local gem that works hard in the community.
To get your heart rate back up, the Oregon Coast Railriders should be your next stop. Not quite a bike, not quite a railcar, this is one unique experience! Riders sit on four-seat recumbent adjustable seats and are propelled by pedaling; it’s a breathtaking way to take in coastal views. Young children can even tag along, as car seats are welcome. The 11-mile round-trip ride usually takes around 2 hours to complete at a leisurely pace. With guides to assist in road crossings and spinning the railcars at the turnaround point, riders are taken care of from start to finish.
All that pedaling makes for a hungry crew, and a stop at Pacific Oyster Company Fish Peddler is just the thing to satisfy a grumbling belly. Tours of the production facility will have you drooling to taste the fresh seafood yourself. Fortunately, there is a restaurant on site to satisfy. A fish market can provide all you need for a quintessential Pacific Northwest campsite feast for the do-it-yourself types.
To work off all those oysters, a leisurely stroll through Kilchis Point Reserve is an excellent follow-up. Over 200 acres of native plants and animals and three separate interpretive trails are maintained by the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. Each trail is roughly 2 miles long and mostly flat. The largest Native American village on the north Oregon Coast was located here at Kilchis Point, as well as the very first pioneer to the area. Joe Champion arrived in 1851 and lived in a massive old-growth tree stump while he worked on a more permanent cabin.
No trip to Tillamook Bay would be complete without a stop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory. For 60 years the factory has allowed visitors to view the cheese-making process, taste samples, and eat delicious ice cream. Tillamook Cheese Factory promises a glittering new center will be available for dairy lovers to enjoy once more in spring of 2018. For now, a temporary visitor center is happily greeting guests who cannot get enough of the delicious Tillamook dairy.
For additional adventures on the Tillamook Water Trail, two boat launches further south in the bay offer easy access. Both the Sue H. Elmore Park and Memaloose Point Boat Launch offer good spots to access the waterways. Sue H. Elmore is a small park, just over an acre in size, with free access to the water. Memaloose Point Boat Launch is better developed and has more parking, which is useful for those with boat trailers in tow. It’s important to note that Memaloose Point does require a fee, so be sure to drop your payment in the drop box before hitting the water. When salmon are running, this parking lot can get quite full, so get there early!
For those without boats, your final stops should focused on Bayocean Peninsula and Cape Meares. With beaches, a lighthouse, backpacking, day hikes, and the well-known Big Spruce to visit, you can easily fill a day (or weekend) exploring. Extending 7 miles from Cape Meares, the Bayocean Peninsula protects Tillamook Bay from the wild Pacific Ocean winter storms. Uncrowded and pristine, sandy trails through salal, Sitka spruce and shore pine lead to numerous backcountry campsites protected from the coastal winds. Back on Cape Meares, shorter trails lead to the historic Cape Meares Lighthouse and beloved Big Spruce tree. With tours available April through October, the lighthouse has been open to the public since 1980. No longer functioning, it once shone its warning beacon 21 miles out to sea.
Regardless of the season, no matter where you stop along Tillamook Bay, whether you linger or race to catch all the sights, there is plenty of history and beauty to be found on the Tillamook Bay Heritage Route.
View of Cape Meares from Cape Meares Beach and community. Photo by Tyson Gillard.
You can learn more by watching Anchor Picture’s in-depth history of Tillamook Bay and the Port of Garibaldi: 19-Part Centennial Video Series