Cannon Beach's Haystack Rock, an icon of the Oregon Coast (photo: Christian Heeb/Travel Oregon)

A Wild Ride Up the Oregon Coast

By Crai S. Bower

The Oregon coast boasts more than 50 state parks and recreation and scenic preserves along its 374-kilometre stretch of Hwy. 101 (a.k.a. the Oregon Coast Highway). The result: an unbroken stretch of wildlife-rich estuaries, deltas and natural beach where road-trippers journey barely 10 km without some kind of access to a whimsical shoreline of sea stacks, cliffs, grasslands and sand dunes.

Located just two hours north of the California-Oregon border on Hwy. 101, Bandon-by-the-Sea is a great long-weekend destination in itself: a quaint fishing hamlet with excellent amenities. Renowned for its links-style Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, the community is also the best place on the west coast to view tufted puffins.

The second wildlife stop heading north on 101 is the Sea Lion Caves’ huge herd of Steller sea lions. Just north of the caves is 255,000-hectare Siuslaw State Forest, where dramatic elevation changes lead to the Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint (excellent for marine mammal surveys) and spectacular Cape Perpetua (highest elevation on the Oregon Coast Highway). Numerous roadside pullouts make it easy to scan for migrating grey whales and pelagic seabirds, and to clamber surfside to explore tidal pools that spark even more curiosity about the region’s marine ecology. The answers are just an hour north.

Like all top marine science centres, Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium doubles as a research facility, focused mainly on the local ecology: seals and sea lions, the sea at night and the restoration of the coast’s sea otter population. The aquarium’s coastal conservation efforts are also a huge benefit to the region’s estuaries and wetlands; the recently preserved Beaver Creek Natural Area (within Brian Booth State Park) is just one example. Barely 20 minutes south of Newport, this 130-hectare wetland supports more than 1,000 beavers (a species hunted to near extinction 150 years ago) and is a kayaker’s dream. A guided afternoon paddle of its Beaver Creek leads past beaver lodges, a great blue heron enclave, river otters, wetland songbird migrants such as the common yellowthroat and Wilson’s warbler and, in the fall, spawning salmon—before reaching the creek’s terminus just 100 metres from the Pacific surf.

Seeking good eats? Chowder houses and coffee shops line the coast from Bandon-by-the-Sea to Newport—any one of them is a good bet for lunch or coffee overlooking ocean and inlets. Try Waldport’s Salty Dawg Bar and Grill (375 Port St.), between the Sea Lion Caves and Newport, to fuel up before paddling Beaver Creek. With six locations from Bandon to Newport, Mo’s Chowder Houses are the go-to chowder spots. As for dinner in Newport: the Chowder Bowl is the locals’ fave alternative. And on the wharf downtown, Saffron Salmon practically tosses fruit de mer from Yaquina Bay onto diners’ plates, while Bay Boulevard neighbour Rogue Ales Public House concentrates on another Oregon delicacy: exceptional brewing.

Ecola State Park Oregon Coast Whale Watching
Whale Watching at Ecola State Park (photo: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department)

After a good night’s slumber, continue north on Route 101 until the 92.3-km mark. Then turn west on Sandlake Road toward Cape Lookout and Cape Meares State Parks—two excellent vantage points for whale-spotting. Each spring, some 20,000 greys migrate past both sites from the calving lagoons of Baja, Mexico, to their Bering Sea feeding grounds (returning in December). The local population numbers 400-plus, and more than 1,000 can be counted here during March “peak whale week” migrations. (The cows and calves follow the bulls and are best seen in April.)

Two- to three-hour whale-watching tours are available in Depoe Bay, just north of Newport (with Tradewinds Charters), and in Garibaldi, 16 km north of Tillamook (Garibaldi Charters). Those with powerful binoculars can also pull over at one of many waysides to track whales, orcas and harbour porpoises, plus brown pelicans soaring on the breeze. Rejuvenate at Five Rivers Coffee Roasters in Tillamook, home also to the famous Tillamook Cheese Factory and its daily tours and Farmhouse Café.

About 45 minutes north of Tillamook and just 15 minutes south of Cannon Beach, experience that California dreamin’ vibe with a mid-morning break in Manzanita. This mellow beachfront community is reminiscent of Tofino, B.C., or Bolinas, California. Check out the political bumper stickers and huge selection of loose teas. Road-trippers who haven’t tarried with a guided whale-watch tour may opt to linger for Mexican fare at Left Coast Siesta before checking in to their Cannon Beach hotel, before or after a walk on the beach.

At Cannon Beach, Ecola State Park wraps around Indian Beach—a protected cove well known for big waves and a must-stop for an early morning or mid-afternoon hike of the four-kilometre historic Clatsop Loop Trail. Its giant spruce shelter the marbled murrelet, a golden seabird whose arboreal nests were discovered locally just 20 years ago. Surfers flock here by the thousands for the sonorous offshore waves and the sun dipping behind emblematic Haystack Rock.