Few highways capture the traveler’s imagination like U.S. Route 101, which spans all 363 enchanting miles of the Oregon Coast and winds through its storied towns and cities. The Pacific Coast Scenic Byway, as it’s known, was designated an All-American Road in 2002, and it’s easy to wax poetic about its awe-inspiring highlights: secluded beaches open to everyone by law, coastal mountains forested with towering conifers and laced with hiking trails, nearly a dozen historic lighthouses, and the freshest, most sustainable seafood you’ll taste anywhere.
That’s just for starters — you could easily spend a lifetime rambling up and down the 101, discovering something new around every curve in the road. The problem is that most of us just have a couple weeks to spare, so how do you plan a trip that hits all of the highlights as well as a few off-the-beaten-path stops? While there’s no wrong way to do it, here’s a roadmap of a few favorite experiences to add to your summer bucket list.
Explore Astoria and Warrenton
What better way to start your adventure than by foot in Astoria, famous for its riverfront, brewpub scene and historic attractions? After touring Astoria’s bohemian downtown, head to nearby Warrenton to explore the great outdoors. Also, don’t miss beachcombing for sand dollars and other treasures along the northernmost section of the Oregon Coast Trail. The 382-mile route runs north to south mostly along the beaches, with some segments winding through state parks and public lands.
Simple pleasures of sand and surf
Fly a kite on a quiet beach in Manzanita, spoiling yourself with treats from the local cafes and boutique shops. Then hike up Neahkahnie Mountain for a spectacular view of the coastline below; the 3-mile climb to the summit is steep but worth every step. Nearby, Seaside beckons adventurous families with a fun-loving downtown and Cannon Beach invites art-lovers from around the world to explore its numerous galleries.
Three Capes Scenic Loop
Drive the 40-mile Three Capes Scenic Loop around Tillamook, which will take you on a tour of a few of the Coast’s most famous lighthouses. Fuel up along the way with ice cream and cheese, climb Cape Kiwanda in Pacific City and try your hand at clamming in Netarts Bay. (Visit MyODFW.com for resources, videos and tips on family-friendly clamming, crabbing and fishing along the Coast — an easy add-on to any road trip.)
Spot some whales and catch the ocean spray at Depoe Bay, dubbed Oregon’s capital of whale watching. Friendly staff and volunteers at the free Whale Watching Center will help you use binoculars to spot gray whales as they blow, dive and breach, nearly year-round. The busiest weeks are during the whale’s winter and spring migration, peaking in December and March respectively.
Learn about marine life
Get up close and personal with marine life at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, where it’s easy to be mesmerized by the giant Pacific octopus and walk away with a new understanding of wave energy. While you’re here, pick up the geocache-inspired “Quest” booklet for the kids with clues to two-dozen sites you’ll soon come upon along the Central and South Coast.
Sand dunes and sea lions
Get sandy at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area near Florence, the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America, rising up to 500 feet above sea level. Whether you go to hike, take photos, ride horses, camp or find a waterway to paddle on, it’s a playground you won’t find anywhere else. Don’t miss the Sea Lion Caves for another wild encounter.
Go on a safari
Stretch your legs at the West Coast Game Park Safari in Bandon, which bills itself as the largest petting zoo in North America. Find yourself among hundreds of free-roaming animals — goats, sheep, deer, peacocks — that you can feed and pet, plus hundreds more wild species like tigers, lions, bison and chimpanzees that you can see up close. It’s not every day you can go on safari in Oregon.
Hop on two wheels on the South Coast, which is quickly becoming a bike-lover’s paradise thanks to the growing popularity of fat biking on the beach and the Wild Rivers Coast Scenic Bikeway in Port Orford.
A trip to the Coast isn’t complete without tide pools, and Harris Beach State Park in Brookings couldn’t be more stunning. One of Oregon’s seven designated marine gardens, it’s dotted with dazzling rock formations including the aptly named Arch Rock. At low tide you’re likely to see sea stars, green anemones, hermit crabs and more. Join in a free tide pool clinic in Lincoln City this summer and learn from local marine ecology experts.
If you go:
Whenever you’re recreating in Oregon’s coastal natural areas, make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles — leave the place cleaner than you found it and be mindful of the sensitive ecosystem. Pack out what you pack in — even pistachio shells and orange peels are harmful, because scavengers will eat food scraps even though it’s not good for them. Visitors should not feed wildlife since it can attract scavengers to nesting areas of threatened bird species such as marbled murrelet and western snowy plover.
When using the trails, respect all signs posting beach restrictions due to snowy plover nesting season (Mar. 15-Sept. 15), keeping dogs, bikes, kites and drones off these beaches in these areas. Stay on the trail, since wandering out into a meadow may damage plants critical to the Oregon silverspot butterfly, a threatened species. Keep pets and children within a safe distance on the trail, carry a map and dress in layers, and prepare for adventure — the Coast is full of surprises.