They don’t call it “the beach,” and if you go there, you’ll know why. Oregon’s 362 miles of oceanfront is a sea-stacked, highway-winding, sailor-challenging, tourist-pleasing coastline to rival any in the world for scenic beauty.
To mark the state’s 1959 centennial, Oregon issued auto license plates bearing the motto “Pacific Wonderland,” and justifiably so. Oregon’s 362 miles of oceanfront is a sea-stacked, highway-winding, sailor-challenging, tourist-pleasing coastline to rival any in the world for scenic beauty. Where rocky capes don’t jut into pounding surf, monumental golden dunes meet the waves.
Landmarks ranging from Cook’s Chasm, named for Capt. James Cook, at Cape Perpetua, to Devil’s Punchbowl, at Otter Rock, reflect the coast’s rich human history of exploration and its natural history of fierce, swirling seas.
It’s no hyperbole to call it a wonderland for travelers. Need ideas? Here are three good places to stay on the north-to-central Oregon Coast, in premium, midrange and budget price ranges. We offer fun things to do nearby as well:
Premium: Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast
“Fulfill a fantasy,” says the B&B brochure, and there’s something to that, you can’t help but think, as you snuggle under a (provided) blanket with your sweetheart in a two-seater Adirondack chair and sip wine on the covered veranda, looking down on gray whales spouting again and again just offshore.
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People hear about “staying at a lighthouse” and envision a precipitous spiral staircase and cramped quarters. The reality is you stay in the lightkeeper’s quarters, and that’s a much more comfortable (and roomier) prospect — with the same rugged setting and spectacular views.
Heceta Head, about 11 miles north of Florence, was named for Portuguese explorer Don Bruno de Heceta, who in 1775 embarked on a secret voyage for the Queen of Spain to sail up the west coast of North America. An onslaught of scurvy onboard turned him back not far north of this point.
In the mid-1800s the U.S. government established 16 lighthouses on this coast to help trade and settlement, but this wasn’t one of them. The closest were about 30 miles to the north and south, volunteer tour-guide Chick Weinert told me, “and mariners were concerned there was a big black spot on this coast.” That’s when the government budgeted $80,000 for the Heceta Head Lighthouse, and the original five-wick oil lamp started blazing in 1894.
It required three full-time lightkeepers, housed in two stately Victorian residences. The lightkeepers are long gone — their jobs victims of automation — but one large home remains, sitting on a bluff with unencumbered views of the Pacific. It’s about a quarter-mile walk from the lighthouse.
Operated as an inn since 1995, it has six guest rooms, four with private bath. Tread the shining hardwood floors and pleasantly creaking stairways, and it’s easy to imagine yourself as one of the lightkeepers pictured in historical photos on the walls (there’s also said to be a ghost). Perks include a kitchen open to all guests, shared parlors with fireplaces (fire logs provided), a piano anyone can play, and the beach view from the shared bath’s claw-foot tub.
Rates and reservations: $209-$315 May-October; hecetalighthouse.com/bed-breakfast
Eating: During my stay, the seven-course breakfast ranged from a Moroccan fruit salad to peach-rose lassi to frittata with fresh spinach from the lighthouse garden, shared around a long table with guests from New York, Florida and Colorado.
Special treat: Walk to the lighthouse after dark (flashlights provided). The first gasp-worthy sight as you step out the door is the lighthouse’s powerful, rotating light beam (visible 21 miles out to sea) tracking across the mountainside just across the cove from you. Then gasp at the stars filling the dark sky, far removed from big cities. Perch on a dew-damp bench at the lighthouse’s base and look up at the brilliant beams dancing across the sky and flashing like lightning bolts through trees directly behind you. The signature flash out to sea, every 10 seconds, tells mariners, “That’s Heceta Head, you’re on course, and you’re safe tonight.”
Then head back to your cozy bed.
Worth a visit nearby:
• Old Town Florence is a pleasantly walkable historic district with waterfront pocket parks and views of the historic Highway 101 bridge over the Siuslaw River, one of many Oregon coastal bridges designed by innovative 1930s highway engineer Conde B. McCullough. Popular restaurants include the Bridgewater, next door to Firenze Wine & Chocolate, in the false-fronted Italianate Kyle Building, circa 1901, and the Waterfront Depot, in a 1912 Southern Pacific railroad station moved here to save it from highway widening in the nearby town of Mapleton. florencechamber.com/chamber/discover-old-town
• Just north of Florence, signed from Highway 101, Darlingtonia State Natural Site is a kid-pleaser that will also interest any botanist. The small preserve is home to thousands of marsh-loving Darlingtonia californica plants, also known as cobra-lily or pitcher plant, which trap and digest insects. Free.
Moderate: Agate Beach Motel, Newport
This is a classic 1940 motel, built in the heyday of motor lodges, renovated in the 1990s, preserving the old-time look outside while adding comfortable amenities inside. It’s nicely hidden off Highway 101 a mile north of Newport and situated on a cliff above a popular surfing beach that is walkable for miles. (No cars on this beach, or most of Oregon’s sandy coast.)
Dog-friendly units cluster around a large lawn with picnic tables and a fire pit. The high perch gives good views from most units, with the best from Units 1 to 6, which also feature the largest decks. A long, zigzagging wooden staircase with resting platforms leads down to the sand.
Inside, quality touches range from the ginger-grapefruit bath products to extra-comfortable mattresses. There are flat-screen TVs with DVD players; rent a movie at the office for a buck and microwave popcorn is included.
Rates and reservations: $159-$199 peak season; agatebeachmotel.com
Eating: Each unit has a full kitchen, even stocked with a generous canister — not just packets — of locally roasted Surf Town coffee. This is the kind of family beach hideaway where you should prepare your own specialties. Outdoor crab cookers are available. Among the best local culinary finds are the fresh, succulent oysters from Oregon Oyster Farms, with a farm stand 20 minutes away on the Yaquina (“ya-KWIN-uh”) River. oregonoyster.com
Special treat: Grab one of the lounge chairs at the top of the stairs and watch surfers ride the waves, from sunrise to sunset.
Worth a visit nearby: Next door is the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area ($7 for three-day vehicle pass), which includes the tallest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast, open for tours most days except Wednesday.
Visit at low tide and take the short walk down to Cobble Beach for some of the best tide-pool exploration anywhere, with thousands of purple sea urchins and spearmint-green sea anemones (it’s designated an Oregon State Marine Garden). “Step carefully, turban snails can be 100 years old,” naturalist intern Anna Zahner cautioned me. Naturalists will loan you a laminated field guide or help you look through scopes at the seals and thousands of sea birds on shoreline rocks and sea mounts. Hiking trails abound.
Budget: Nehalem Bay State Park yurt
You can’t drive more than a couple miles on the Oregon Coast, it seems, without happening upon an Oregon state park. Nehalem Bay is among coastal parks that offer yurts, an alternative for travelers who want the campground experience without pitching their own tent or driving an RV.
These hexagonal canvas shelters with wooden floors, heaters and electric lights come with bunk beds and futons to sleep five (bring your own bedding or sleeping bags). There’s a picnic table on a raised deck outside, and your own fire pit. And in Oregon parks, hot showers in nearby restroom blocks never cost extra.
The park is 2.75 miles off Highway 101, near Manzanita, where the Nehalem River meets the Pacific. The campground is nicely wooded with shore pines. A five-minute walk over adjacent grassy dunes puts you on miles of wild beach with views to the north of Neahkahnie Mountain, rearing like a massive sea monster from the surfline.
Rates and reservations: $44/night; oregonstateparks.org.
Eating: Find the best bratwurst at a grocery along your way and have a wienie roast over your fire pit. Firewood is $5 a bundle at the front gate.
Special treat: In summer, there are horse rentals at the park. Go for an hour ride on the beach and through the dunes ($80; oregonbeachrides.com). Option 2: Bring your bike and ride the 2-mile cycling path.
Worth a visit nearby: The quaint cedar-shake town of Manzanita, what you might call Oregon’s “Little Carmel,” is five minutes away. Manzanita News & Espresso is an alluring coffee shop and newsstand with a pine-shaded patio. Shopping diversions range from a boutique called Unfurl, with “planet-forward” hemp and organic-cotton fashions, to Toylandia, featuring sand-castle forms such as Mayan pyramids and the Parthenon.