Spectacular sights and culinary adventures abound along the scenic roads of the Oregon Coast Highway.
Story by Donna B. Ulrich
The breathtaking views, forested headlands, sublime sandy beaches and, best of all, accessibility of the Oregon coast make for a scenic drive unlike any other in the country. The ocean is often within sight of the road, which offers easy access to more than 80 state parks and recreation areas.
The Oregon shore truly is “the people’s coast,” as it’s been dubbed. One hundred years ago, Gov. Oswald West went before the state legislature and successfully argued that the state’s entire 363-mile coastline should be established as a public thoroughfare. Construction of what is now Highway 101 soon followed.
In conjunction with this plan, the state’s parks department bought land for 36 state parks along the scenic coastal road, an average of one every 10 miles. Tourists soon took advantage of the improved roadways, putting little towns like Depoe Bay and Yachats on the map. In 1967 the legislature passed the Oregon Beach Bill, preserving free beach access for all.
The late Ray Atkeson wrote in his 1975 book, Oregon Coast, “I realiz(ed) that I was enjoying the privilege of seeing one of the most magnificent stretches of coastline in the world.” We met Ray early in our photographic career; his photos influenced my husband, Larry, and me to share his love for the shore.
We live only 80 miles from the Oregon border. When we first started traveling and photographing for calendars, magazines and books, images of crashing waves on rugged coastlines sold well, as did lighthouses and sunsets over sandy beaches.
We still like to take off for a few days, camp in the well-maintained state parks, hike the rugged trails and eat our way up the coast. Try breakfast at the Crazy Norwegian’s Fish & Chips in Port Orford, a scoop of mudslide ice cream from the Tillamook Cheese Factory, and then a feast of Oregon’s only native oysters, the Olympia, in Netarts Bay. These tiny oysters were harvested to near extinction but are now making a very tasty comeback.
After all that eating, we usually need to take a hike. I recommend the trail up to the top of Humbug Mountain near Port Orford—the view from the top is spectacular. Or head to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where more than 40 miles of coastline are waiting for your footprints.
Whale-watching is a year-round activity here. Gray whales make their way up the coast from late March to June and down from mid-December through January. For a week during each peak season, volunteers at 28 sites help you spot the giant mammals. Larry and I also enjoy bird-watching; when the whales are playing hard-to-get, we’ll watch brown pelicans diving for fish or osprey soaring above.
In any season, we like to travel the scenic roads off the coast to shoot stunning offshore rock formations called sea stacks. Cannon Beach features the famous Haystack Rock, and the area around the town of Bandon is full of these rock formations. They are especially gorgeous during low tide, when the sunset is reflected in the sand.
Waves crashing on the headlands at Shore Acres, near Charleston, also make a photogenic spectacle—especially from November through January. And near the city of Astoria, the first permanent settlement on the Pacific, you’ll find the reconstructed Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent a winter.
Whether you’re taking pictures, fishing, or watching whales or birds, the Oregon Coast Highway offers an accessible adventure, free of freeways and full of enough beauty to stop traffic.
Photos by Larry Ulrich