This story was originally published on Departures.com in September 2020.
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is an American rite of passage, filled with some of the most stunning coastal vistas you can find anywhere in the world. When people envision the iconic journey, though, their gaze is typically confined to California. However, the route continues to the state’s northern neighbor, which boasts its own pristine stretch of coastline with which to wage scenic war. There are iconic viewpoints, quaint coastal towns and an endless array of beaches and parks, not to mention can’t-miss accommodations along the way. The Oregon Coast Highway is an under the radar and pandemic-friendly getaway that holds its own alongside any coastal road trip, even California’s.
From Brookings, Oregon at the state’s southern tip to Astoria, it’s northwest edge at the mouth of the Columbia River, is about 340 miles. With so much to explore along the way, though, you’ll want to take your time and spend multiple nights, allowing you to get out of the car for your choice of sights and hikes galore.
The coastal highway offers rapidly shifting landscapes and climates, from dense fog rolling over craggy outcroppings to crashing waves along sandy shores, all pinned up against lush greenery. Stop at Thor’s Well, where strong winds and churning seas display the fierceness of the environs, with ocean water tunneling through caverns and spouting up through bored holes in the rock. Sea Lion Caves is touted as America’s largest sea cave, but elsewhere across the Oregon Coast Highway, there’s a fascination with tinier standouts – Depoe Bay is known as the world’s smallest harbor, and the D River in Lincoln City was once proudly the world’s shortest river, but has since been displaced.
Driving north you’ll pass through Yachats, a funky resort town, and drive over the Alsea Bay Bridge, passing over a beautiful little bay with sand bars and clear blue waters. There’s Seal Rock to explore, and the Oregon Coast Aquarium, leading you into Newport. Stop in town for a beer at an outpost of Rogue Ales & Spirits, and continue onto Depoe Bay. Beyond having its “smallest” claim to fame, the town is known as a whale watching hotbed and showcases an enchanting bay view, with a strip of inns, restaurants and gift shops tracing its edges. The town also served as the location for the fishing scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Stay at the SCP Depoe Bay, part of the micro-chain of hotels touting “Soul. Community. Planet.” as its ethos. This location is nestled along the harbor, and after an extensive renovation of a prior property, was opened in January. It splits the difference between the communal and homey aspects of a B&B and with the modern amenities of a boutique hotel, while each member of the SCP group plants a tree for every guest stay.
Spend the next day with a choose-your-own outdoor adventure. Consider a hike to Drift Creek Falls, with a rewarding passage over a suspension bridge revealing the waterfall below, or consider exploring the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where you can dune buggy or ATV across the terrain.
Stay put nearby in Gleneden Beach at the Salishan Coastal Lodge. The property’s sprawling green grounds include a golf course, bicycle pump track, and a world-class Aerial Park, where with the benefit of a magnetic safety-clip system you can safely Tarzan swing, rope climb and otherwise maneuver 21 obstacles amid the trees high above the ground.
Weaving nature trails connect different areas of the hotel together, including one with direct ocean access, taking you past a salt marsh until reaching the white sandy beach beyond. Spacious accommodations with fireplaces and balconies are scattered across the property in a collection of different lodges. Meanwhile, the main lodge building offers a restaurant and marketplace, as well as fire pits, where roasting marshmallows for s’mores is a year-round activity.
Both reinvigorated from the adventure and recharged from the relaxation, continue the drive up the coast, sticking to the Three Capes Scenic Route, a 40-mile stretch including Cape Kiwanda, Cape Lookout and Cape Meares. If you’ve worked up an appetite you’re in the right place, because you’ll soon be coming upon Tillamook. Stop into the Tillamook Creamery and its expansive visitor’s center, “the house that cheddar built,” with a restaurant and gift shop.
You’ll need to stop at Astoria, because, well, you’re out of Oregon coast if you’ve made it this far. The Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa is the place to stay, with a unique locale hanging above the dock alongside the towering Astoria-Megler Bridge. The property celebrates and honors Astoria’s history as the global hub of salmon and tuna canneries, and its beautiful red facade makes for a striking scene set 600-feet out into the river. Plan your evenings around what should be appointment-viewing of a spectacular nightly light show of a sunset, looking out onto the notoriously fraught waters of the Columbia Bar, which have provided seafarers nightmares for generations.
From Astoria, you can jump off to explore the area’s history and its great outdoors, which are intrinsically linked together. Lewis and Clark National Historical Park is located here at the site of Fort Clatsop, where the expedition wintered in 1805-1806. More history and hikes can be had at Fort Stevens, while in town, the Columbia River Maritime Museum offers a detailed look at the legacy of this rugged maritime outpost, the oldest city in Oregon, and the first American settlement west of the Rockies.
Made it to Astoria and have an itch to keep on moving? You can stick to the water even as you leave the coast behind. Follow the Columbia River east, sticking faithfully by its side for more stunning scenery, and you’ll hit Portland in 100 miles, and Hood River another 70 miles after that. It’s the latter where the river life really comes into focus, an idyllic town seemingly built on the premise that windsurfing and kite surfing are mandatory activities. The Hood River Waterfront Park is an epicenter for the sports, while kayaking, paddleboarding and hiking are also mainstays.
Hood River is situated along the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and its endless views, and has become a premier destination for beer, with standouts such as Double Mountain Brewery, pFriem Family Brewers and Ferment Brewing Company, spirits, with Hood River Distillers, and wineries, with an abundance of local options. Drive the “Fruit Loop,” a small mapped-out itinerary around the area with over two dozen wineries, cideries, orchards and other purveyors to visit, and stay in town at The Historic Hood River Hotel.