This scenic highway, stretching along nearly 400 mi/640 km of coastline, is the Oregon you have to see—it's the Pacific Northwest as we all imagine it. (Our description starts at the northern border of Oregon and heads south.)
Astoria—Located near the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, Astoria was founded in 1811. It has a fine collection of Victorian homes and a historic downtown core bustling with a revival. You can get a stunning panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean from the observation deck of the 125-ft/39-m Astoria Column, built in 1926, or from the 4-mi-/6.5-km-long Astoria-Megler Bridge, which crosses the Columbia to Washington. At Flavel House, you can see what a sea captain's mansion looked like in the town's heyday. The Columbia River Maritime Museum on the waterfront has an impressive collection of nautical artifacts and exhibits (be sure to tour the lightship Columbia). Fort Clatsop National Memorial is one of 12 park sites that make up the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. Clatsop features a re-creation of the site where the Lewis and Clark party spent the winter of 1805-06. Members of the park staff dress in traditional buckskin clothing and demonstrate frontier skills.
Seaside—Inviting old beach houses and hotels line the historic promenade and oceanfront boardwalk. A family destination and a popular spring-break hangout, the town is filled with a surprising number of shops and restaurants and a hum of activity. Nearby Gearhart is just the opposite: Stately beachfront mansions offer peace and quiet.
Cannon Beach—Cannon Beach has become one of Oregon's major cultural centers. Art galleries and boutiques abound in this tidy and sophisticated beach town. Haystack Rock, with its Pacific Ocean backdrop, is one of the state's most photographed landmarks. Just north of town, Ecola State Park is a good place to watch sea lions on the rocks offshore. Take time to walk the cliffside trail.
Tillamook—Cheese and flight are the big attractions in pastoral Tillamook. Take a tour of the largest cheese-making plant in the western U.S. and see the excellent pioneer museum. Cape Lookout and Cape Meares state parks are on the shore just outside town, along the Three Capes Scenic Loop (a 40-mi/64-km route). Both offer great views and wildlife. Cape Meares has an old lighthouse and the fabled Octopus Tree—a spruce that marks a Native American burial site. The Tillamook Air Museum, housed in a massive blimp hangar, features more than 30 World War II aircraft.
Lincoln City—Handmade kites are a specialty in this coastal resort community, where craft and kitsch shops are common. Lincoln City holds three kite festivals each year—in June, October and the Indoor Windless Kite Festival in March. Blown glass is increasingly popular, with many shops offering places to blow your own glass float. The town also has a glass-float treasure hunt where handblown glass floats are hidden on the beach. The event is held between mid-October and the end of May. While there, sample the fresh seafood at roadside stands or try your luck at the Chinook Winds Casino.
Depoe Bay—At Depoe Bay, visitors will get great views of the rocky ocean shore and excellent opportunities to spot migrating whales. The Whale Watching Center, located along the seawall, is a great place to learn how, when and where to watch whales. It's also the perfect perch for storm-watching or just wave-watching. Take a sightseeing cruise, charter a boat for deep-sea fishing or observe the commercial fishing fleet maneuvering in and out of what's claimed to be the world's smallest harbor.
Newport—Newport is the home of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, which is located on Yaquina Bay next to the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center (a working oceanographic laboratory). The aquarium takes visitors through forests, estuaries, and nearshore and offshore environments along the Pacific Coast—all without leaving the property. A whale theater focuses on the gray whales that migrate along the Oregon coast. Outdoor tanks house sea otters, seals, sea lions, tufted puffins and a giant Pacific octopus. Children love the aquarium where they can touch some of the sea creatures. Passages of the Deep is a shark exhibit with submerged tunnels that allow visitors to walk through marine environments.
When you tire of viewing sea life, you may want to consume some. Newport is, after all, the self-proclaimed Dungeness Crab Capital of the World, and there are plenty of restaurants along the working bayfront where you can savor the melt-in-your-mouth treat. The city is also known for Yaquina Bay shrimp and oysters. If you want to catch your own, deep-sea fishing charters for salmon and bottom fish are available, as are short cruises for whale-watching.
Be sure to stroll through historic Nye Beach, a charming district nestled along the ocean edge and chock-full of shops, cafes and both the Performing Arts and Visual Arts centers.
Florence—Florence lies at the mouth of the Siuslaw River, where the scenery changes from a rocky shoreline to a 40-mi/64-km stretch of surreal sand dunes. The nearby Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area provides plenty of opportunity to slide, jump, roll or somersault down steep, sandy slopes. Honeyman State Park, 3 mi/5 km south of town, is an excellent spot to sandboard, boat, swim or picnic. In Florence, the preserved Old Town has shops and historic buildings. Fishing excursions can be chartered at the harbor. The town celebrates spring with the Rhododendron Festival (parade and carnival, in mid-May). North of town you'll find Heceta Head Lighthouse and Sea Lion Caves, the only known mainland shelter for the Steller's sea lion in the continental U.S.
North Bend—The commercial area around North Bend and nearby Coos Bay is one of the world's largest providers of wood products. You can learn more at the Coos Historical and Maritime Museum and at area myrtlewood processing plants (tours available). Beachcombers should visit nearby Sunset Beach, Shore Acres and Cape Arago state parks, all set on the beautiful rocky coastline. Shore Acres preserves the grounds of an old estate, lush with azaleas and rhododendrons. Clamming, crabbing and fishing are good in the North Bend area.
Bandon—This town features a spectacular coastline, with lots of rocky islands that are great places for tramping around. Be sure to visit the historic Old Town (cafes, shops and a marina) and the Coquille River Lighthouse (tours May-October). The town is also known for its clamming, crabbing, fishing and prolific cranberry farms. (The chocolates filled with cranberry-nut jelly at Cranberry Sweets are incredible.) If you have time, bicycle to Bandon Marsh, a national wildlife refuge on the Coquille River—one of the best bird-watching spots on the West Coast. Also, Bandon Dunes Golf Resort sports world-class Scottish links-style courses with amazing coastal views.
Gold Beach—At the mouth of the Rogue River, Gold Beach is an excellent jump-off point for fishing, sightseeing or hiking. Take a jet-boat trip up the rapids of the Rogue River (the Rogue River Jet Boat Marathon is held in June). Nearby Cape Sebastian State Park offers magnificent views.
Brookings—In addition to the rugged coastal scenery, visitors will find deep-sea and freshwater fishing (cutthroat trout run the Chetco River). There are a number of places to enjoy the trees and flowers, including 30 acres/12 hectares of wild azaleas in Azalea State Park (the blooming is celebrated with the annual Azalea Festival in May); impressive myrtlewood trees in Loeb State Park; and giant coastal redwoods throughout the region.
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