Native Americans were able to enjoy and thrive off the abundant natural resources of North America for centuries before the white man came to stake claim. But the areas of North America where Oregon’s coastline is today wasn’t populated by Native Americans until approximately 12,000 years ago…with barely enough evidence existing to this day that they were even there. The reason for the minimal evidence is because the Native American tribes near there only lived in the area by day to hunt for fish and other game to help them survive. This went on for thousands of years until various tribes (whose names are used today at well-known locales) were eventually set up in the area to live permanently. A lot of them probably fell in love with the qualities of the coasts of Oregon as a lot of people have in the modern era. If you don’t mind some occasional windstorms (a rite of passage there), the mystique of the Oregon Coast is quite alluring. It also offers plenty of entertainment activities outside of walking, fishing or hunting for your own (let’s hope not) survival.
About 200 years before tourism took over, the Spanish managed to sail there and claim ownership of the area during the early 1700’s. The established tribes up and down the coast (the Tillamook, Siletz, Siuslaw, Alsea, Coos and Coquille) all encountered these visitors–yet no evidence really exists of any intense battles among them…despite it inevitably happening. Later, the British managed to map out the entire area thanks to Captain James Cook who arrived with his crew in 1776 where Cape Foulweather is today. Ironic that America was just gaining its own liberty while the British had squabbles with the Spanish over who could truly stake claim to the Oregon coast regions. Little-known explorer Robert Gray later found out by 1792 that the Oregon Coast was a goldmine in finding furs. But the Native Americans were left at peace there for a while longer. It wasn’t until the world-famous Lewis & Clark expedition finished their journey west in where Astoria, Oregon is today did Native-Americans have their most meaningful encounters with European-born civilization.
Astoria was later named after John Jacob Astor who set up the first white settlement there after Lewis & Clark brought back the holy grail of furs. Astor, however, wasn’t profitable with the town–and the British took back possession of the area…unofficially. While the Revolutionary War played out in the east–little is it known that America and the British played a game of give and take in the Oregon coastal regions for the next fifty years. A patriotic scene resembling something out of 1945’s battle on Iwo Jima happened when naval explorer Charles Wilkes took an expedition to the Oregon Coast (still not yet named Oregon Territory) and planted a U.S. flag there. Native-Americans who were still in the area were probably continually perplexed with all this–but they still weren’t disturbed all that much for a long time to come. The Oregon Trail expansion is when the Oregon Coast started to be infiltrated with pioneers who built their own small communities up and down the coastline. Many of these communities stayed relatively small while eventually turning into lumber towns until more tourist aspects took over during the mid point of the 20th century.
Now that you know the tug-of-war history on the Oregon Coast-take a tour of the best tourist stops from north to south…
If you’ve started your NW excursion in Washington first (and Washingtonians want you to)–it’s well worth your time to start your Oregon Coast exploring by visiting the earlier-mentioned city of Astoria at the NW tip of Oregon. It’s located right at the mouth of the Columbia River that divides Oregon from Washington–and the river flowing into the Pacific Ocean Lewis & Clark discovered in 1805. Because Astoria is a port city, you can’t walk on any beaches here. Nevertheless, the historical importance with Lewis & Clark building Fort Clatsop there through a grueling winter of 1805-06 makes it a fascinating part of the history in the expansion of knowledge in what else America’s continent had to offer then. A replica of Fort Clatsop was built in the area in 1955 during the 150th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark expedition to Astoria. Unfortunately, that replica burned in 2005 right when celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the exploration were underway. It was immediately rebuilt, however, by about 700 volunteers and finished a year later. It was actually redesigned to look more historically accurate (meaning rustic) to the original. And the original fort site is somewhere nearby, but never officially found.
When you realize the profound feeling of discovery Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had in seeing the Pacific Ocean in Astoria for the first time–it’ll give you that same feeling when you visit Astoria’s Astor Column in town. If you can climb the steps all the way to the top of this 125-foot tower–you’ll be offered one of the most spectacular views of the Northern Oregon Coast in a man-made structure.
Tillamook cheese (literally) and Lincoln City (no relation to Abraham)…
You need to head south on the famous Highway 101 to Tillamook next where you may not find many beaches to walk on (you would have found that at beautiful Cannon Beach north of there)–but you’ll find it a desirable tourist stop to partake in the town’s famous cheese factory. If you love cheese (or yogurt, gourmet ice cream, etc.)–then you need to stop, take a tour, and buy some of these dairy products. The cheddar cheese there is some of the best-tasting on the west coast. Millions of people visit Tillamook’s cheese factory each year too.
A lot of people looking for homes near the beach buy vacation homes here–considering it’s only less than twenty miles from the nearest towns with accessible beaches. The reason for that is because it’s a quieter community compared to the cities you’ll discover as you head south on Hwy 101. I wouldn’t recommend living in Tillamook year-round, however. In the winter, heavy rains hit hard there and usually flood the inland areas. Farmers there have been devastated more than once in recent years from the area’s vulnerability to extra heavy rains. Of course, this article is intended for summer–despite the Oregon Coast having occasional amazing weather in the middle of dead winter.
Next, you’ll discover my favorite city of Lincoln City. It’s the first actual city you’ll find that’s increased its tourism and popularity in recent decades. As you enter the extra-populated parts of the city, you’ll encounter ‘D’ River on your right (and right on the beach), which is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest river. That’s been disputed a few times, but it still stands. It’s also the location of an annual summer kite festival that has to be seen to be believed. Even before that, you’ll come to the busiest section of the city since 1996: Chinook Winds Casino that’s also on the beach on your right. This casino started the new wave of Native-American casinos opening around the west coast of the United States…and subsequently becoming multi-million-dollar businesses. Prior to 1996, Lincoln City was still quite a sleepy little beach city with relatively busy to quiet beautiful beaches to walk on. Since ’96, it’s now turned the city into a mini-Vegas with retired tourists being bussed in by the thousands daily to play the slot machines at Chinook Winds. Top music acts from the past and present come there to perform on a regular basis. It may just be the second Branson, Missouri now with beaches included.
I’ve spent most of my life hanging out in Lincoln City during the summers–and it’s still a major place to find a lot of exciting activities and some of the best beaches to walk on in the central portions of the coast. The stretch of beach from ‘D’ River up to near Siletz Bay about ten miles south up the highway is loaded with side roads you can take that enable you to go down to secluded spots along the beach to park your car for free. There, you’ll find sections of beach where you can walk for over a mile or more if you can handle it.
Be sure to check out the Factory Stores Outlet mall in the middle part of the city. Numerous designer stores are in this mall that attracts tens of thousands of tourists all year long.
And, no, Abraham Lincoln never visited this city…despite kids probably always asking that question. It’s named after the county that’s named Lincoln.
Depoe Bay (where they filmed one crucial scene in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and then the greatness of Newport (which is actually quite old)…
I highly recommend spending time in the entire area from Lincoln City clear down to Newport (about a 60 mile stretch). This is my favorite neck of the Oregon Coast–because there’s so much variety and always something happening…even if it’s sometimes just a major storm brewing. In between those stops is Depoe Bay (about 20 miles south of Lincoln City), that’s just a small little dot on the map…yet you’ll find a lot of quirky magic here. It’s really been a best-kept secret from tourists, but people always discover it sooner or later. Here, you’ll find interesting little shops spread out on both sides of Hwy 101. You can also go for seasick-inducing excursions out into the Pacific on chartered fishing boats. I wouldn’t recommend that if you’re prone to getting seasick (I’ve avoided it), though some people find it a blast. The restaurants are usually laid-back and give you a true feeling of getting away from it all. For years, there used to be a small aquarium located in the strip of shops where you could interact with and feed pieces of fish to real sea lions that were kept inside a giant tank of water. Unfortunately, that aquarium has since closed because of animal activists getting on their case–and lulls during the off-season causing financial difficulties.
Of note: The famous bridge near the famous shops in Depoe Bay was used in the 1975 film classic “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The scene where McMurphy takes the inmates out fishing in the ocean was filmed right there in the bay and at the famous boat charter. Jack Nicholson’s girlfriend at the time (actress Anjelica Huston) can be seen leaning on the ledge of the bridge overlooking the ocean in one cameo scene.
And, after next driving through affluent little communities (such as Salishan, which also has a wonderful little mall of quirky shops you have to stop and visit),–you’ll finally arrive to Newport farther south. It’s a bit of a curvy drive getting there on Hwy 101 starting outside Lincoln City–as well as high altitude at times before getting back to sea level. But you’ll get spectacular cliff-view glimpses at the Pacific Ocean that are similar to ones you see around Malibu or Carmel in California.
Newport may end up becoming your most favorite location for general fun and shopping. Nevertheless, the beaches there aren’t necessarily my favorite as they are in the central regions of the coast. Newport is basically divided into two halves: The newer city center…and then the old part of Newport down on the bay, which is quite well-known. The old part is along Newport Bay where fishing boats come in regularly with their fish catches. Dozens of family-friendly restaurants are along the extremely narrow road (don’t take a huge RV through!) that makes up the entire strip of the old town. It’s not just restaurants though. Along there, you’ll find the world-famous Undersea Gardens (where you can go down several stories into a giant room with panoramic glass walls to view real sea life underwater in the bay) and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Wax Museum that’s a mix of interactive “Believe It Or Not” tales with robotically-controlled wax figures who interact with you in a few exhibits. Both of those are major highlights to visit with your family during a day visit. Don’t forget to go eat lunch at Mo’s Annex (Mo’s is a popular seafood restaurant franchise up and down the coast with a famous clam chowder recipe) that gives you a view of Newport Bay and the fishing boats coming in with their fish count. It gets uncontrollably crowded in that restaurant, though, during the lunch hour of the summer season (sometimes having to share a table with other perplexed and hungry tourists because of cramped space), so maybe try to eat lunch around 2 p.m. if you can when it’s quieter.
The biggest highlight of all in Newport is the Oregon Coast Aquarium that once housed the world-famous orca whale (and star of family film “Free Willy”): Keiko. When Keiko resided there during the 90’s and early 2000’s, it created a huge financial boom for the aquarium (and Newport itself) with people coming in from all over the world to see him. When he left to live in Iceland (where his unfortunate death occurred), business dropped off a little–but the aquarium started another impressive sea life exhibit in the same enclosed tank where Keiko was. The OCA is a must-see above all when heading to Newport. Expect to have to spend an entire day taking in all these things in Newport, however. You CAN walk on the beaches there near the jetty. Depending on your point of view, it’s not nearly as attractive as the straight stretches before getting to the bay of Newport. The famous wharf in the bay is worth a walk down (it’s an extremely lengthy walk) to get a closer view of the fishing boats coming in.
Don’t forget to also visit the Yaquina Head Lighthouse there (along Hwy 101), which is also famous and quite a tiring trip. Once you drive all the way to the top of the extremely high-altitude hill where the lighthouse is–you’ll be able to go and have tours inside of the structure…plus get a 360 breathtaking view of the Pacific and surrounding area. The first episode of the old late 70’s “Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries” TV series filmed an episode in the lighthouse. (Yes, it was a haunted lighthouse tale.) It’s supposed to be haunted in real life too.
You’ll have to stay the night in Newport after taking in all those things…because driving all the way back north to perhaps Lincoln City (if you’re staying in that area) will wear you out. The Embarcadero in Newport (located down on the bay) is one of the nicest hotels to stay in there–despite being expensive. Plenty of other cheaper alternatives for lodging are, of course, everywhere.
Florence, Reedsport…and then California, here we come (unless we turn around and head north)…
This part of the coast isn’t my absolute favorite…but many people love it in Florence and Reedsport. Florence has some wonderful tourist attractions such as the Sea Lion Caves. Here, you’ll be able to witness the permanent home of Stellar sea lions, which is the only place in the U.S. where you can see these species of sea lions year-round. By descending an elevator inside a giant complex, you’ll be able to go down into what’s purported to be the world’s biggest sea cave. When you see it, you’ll agree with that assessment. Being able to get this close to the sea lions in the indoor amphitheater is as about as spiritual as whale-watching is for other people who do that on the beach in the winter.
Florence is also home to a famous story of an exploding whale that became a part of urban legend with a Dave Berry column in 1990. The truth is, the Oregon Highway Division did blow up a dead sperm whale in 1970 in order to clear its carcass off the beach. Dave Berry got wind of the story twenty years later and turned it into a story that’s still spun different directions today. Self-exploding whales are known to occur, too, when their carcasses end up lying off shore. So be aware of that in the 1% chance you see a whale carcass while walking along the beach.
Heading south to Reedsport, you’ll find it to be a marshier environment that’s been vulnerable to flooding for decades. The most significant thing to see in Reedsport is the Oregon Sand Dunes at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. A lot of all-terrain vehicle aficionados go to nearby Winchester Bay to race their cars over the dunes. For some people, this is an annual summer event (it’s called Dunefest) where people meet up, socialize, race their dune buggies and have other fun…which does include beer gardens. Concerts are common during Dunefest too.
Much of the coastline in the southern regions of Oregon is much plainer (and straighter) due to being at a lower altitude level. The central regions have a lot more rocks and cliffs that give the environment variety. Nevertheless, if you want long, straight stretches of sand–you’ll enjoy walking on the beaches to the south. Seeing the dunes is akin to witnessing a natural wonder.
This hopefully exhilarated you enough to attempt a visit to the Oregon Coast during one of your future summers (or any time of the year). But so much more is available to you there. It’s really a whole other romantic world outside of the frenetic pace of your life back in the valley (no matter which state you’re in). And that’s unusual when you usually can’t find many environments like that in America without going out of the country.