Sea to River: Oregon’s Spectacular North Coast
Here you’ll find breathtaking beauty, fun leisure activities and a sense of history all rolled into one
Oregon has some of the most spectacular and accessible coastline in the world. From the salt-water-taffy beach village of Seaside to the historic cannery town of Astoria, the North Coast offers breathtaking beauty, opportunities for fun leisure activities and some of the most compelling history in the West. It’s no wonder Oregon’s North Coast is an RVing favorite, and I’ve decided to take a few days to explore it all.
It’s about two hours (100 miles) from Portland to Seaside, my first stop, west along Highway 26 over the Coast Range. Just outside the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, traffic thins and the land opens to farm fields, nurseries and horse farms. It’s springtime and patches of snow dust clear cuts in the forests of the coastal mountains.
As I churn into the Coast Range, gaining elevation, the sun peeks from behind the clouds and the temperature hovers around 50 degrees. Big swaths of Douglas fir have been logged here, and panels along the roadway tell the story of the famous Tillamook Burn, a series of huge forest fires that occurred from 1933-1951 and consumed 355,000 acres of forestland. Today, conservation, salvage logging and replanting are breathing new life into the forest.
I pass a couple of deer, still shaggy in their winter coats, and cross the Coast Range summit (elevation 1,642). At the Tillamook turnoff, the road narrows to two lanes (with passing lanes) and forests replace farmlands. I have the road to myself, and I turn off the radio and let the sound of my wheels and the lush scenery fill me.
I encounter a number of intriguing places that make me want to explore the coastal mountains more — the Banks-Vernonia hiking trail, L.L. Stubb Stewart State Park (the state’s newest), Saddle Mountain Natural Area, and the iconic eateries, Oney’s Roadhouse and Camp 18, a timber-
themed restaurant said to serve lumberman-size meals. It will all have to wait for another day because the salt air pulls me north onto Highway 101.
I Come to the Sea to Breathe
A few miles farther, the neon sign for Bell Buoy of Seaside market, touting fresh crab, spring salmon, oysters and razor clams, lets me know I’ve reached Seaside and the sea. I roll down my window and breathe deeply.
I haven’t even reached the town’s main street when I’m drawn by a brown sign announcing “Lewis and Clark Salt Works.” Most of us know from school that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first American explorers to cross the continent from St. Louis, Mo., to the Pacific Ocean. They landed in the Pacific Northwest and their colorful history is plentiful here on the North Coast.
I follow the signs, winding through clapboard-cottage neighborhoods along the ocean to a short street that terminates at the beach. The sign tells me I am on the Lewis and Clark Trail and it’s exhilarating to think I am standing where these intrepid explorers once walked. There is a small park with a rock-cooking station where buckets were filled with seawater and boiled to harvest salt. I later learn that the third weekend in August, costumed actors camp here on the beach reliving the history of Lewis and Clark for The Salt Makers Return.
I’m eager to learn more, so I stop at the Seaside Historical Museum and Butterfield Cottage just off Highway 101. This modest museum traces the colorful history of the area, including the important role cedar played in the lives of the native Clatsop and Nehalam peoples and a profile of local native woman Tsin-is-tum (aka Jennie Mitchell), one of the few people who could identify, through family stories, the location of Lewis and Clark’s salt works. The museum also explores Seaside as a resort town, including its old natatoriums — indoor saltwater public pools popular with tourists and residents alike. Out back is Butterfield Cottage, one of the original area seaside cottages dating back to 1893.
Feeling a little road weary, I check in at the 250-site Thousand Trails/Encore at Seaside RV Park. Though it’s not on the ocean, the park offers big, gravel-topped sites, plenty of grass, room for big rigs, and full hook-ups, as well as a sauna, hot tub and an indoor pool. While I’m not a member, they reserve several sites for the public, and Tom, the attendant at the front gate, heartily welcomes me, and I settle in for a couple of days.
The next morning, I’m refreshed and ready to explore Seaside. The town is bordered by the ocean to the west and by two coastal rivers, the Necanicum and the Neawanna, and it’s surrounded by natural areas. At The Cove, a long, curving stretch of beach on the south end of town, I watch surfers in wet suits brave the chilly water. At Estuary Park, I gaze over constantly shifting sands where the Necanicum River meets the sea and creates an important habitat for young salmon. It’s also a great place to fish for Dungeness crab.
Following a tip from a local, I turn east off Highway 101 on Avenue S and drive to the Mill Pond area, a former quarry-
turned-logging-mill that’s become a haven for waterfowl. Material was scooped out to create roadbed for the highway and the resulting depressions filled with water. Later, lumber mills used the ponds to float logs. Today, herons, cormorants, buffleheads, Canada geese and iridescent swallows congregate here and I hike the 1½-mile trail and snap photos. During high tide, you can canoe the Mill Ponds by putting in at the Neawanna River at Broadway Park. However, if you miscalculate the tide, you’ll end up pulling your boat over muddy shallows.
Seaside is just as appealing as its natural surroundings. Back in the 1850s, the city was established as a resort town and it’s been hosting beach-going tourists ever since. The walkable downtown streets, filled with beachy stores selling T-shirts and towels, ice cream and candy parlors, and video arcades, are a throwback to the 1950s and children and adults alike stroll late into the evening. I spend several hours cruising the shops and filling myself with chocolate-covered sea foam and saltwater taffy from Phillips Candies.
Broadway, the main thoroughfare through downtown, ends at the ocean and “the Prom” turn around, a circular drive-around featuring a statue of Lewis and Clark. It’s also the location of the promenade, a broad, 1½-mile-long ribbon of pavement snaking along the ocean in front of many of the town’s hotels and oceanfront homes. At nearly any time, you’ll find visitors — old and young — strolling, running, skating, biking and walking dogs along its length.
One highlight along the Prom is the iconic Seaside Aquarium, a popular attraction for the past 75 years. I wander around the 35 tanks, ogling snake-like wolf eels, shy giant octopus, and colorful tiger, copper and yelloweye rockfish. At the touch tank, kids of all ages, including me, squirm as we touch starfish and sea anemones.
Astoria and The Mighty Columbia
The next morning, I head north toward the mighty Columbia River and Astoria, a once hard-scrabble salmon cannery town that’s now a historic city filled with breweries, museums and good restaurants. I pull off at Fort Stevens State Park, a fascinating military reservation that guarded the mouth of the Columbia River from the Civil War through World War II. The park has hiking trails, bike paths and loads of fascinating concrete gun batteries. But the weather has turned rainy, so instead I head for South Jetty, a rock barrier that protects the mouth of the river and the place where the ocean and the river meet. I climb up onto the observation tower, barely able to stand against 30-40 mph winds, and watch the sea’s waves crash up against the river.
I motor across Old Youngs Bay Bridge from the fort into Astoria. My first stop is the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a world-class exhibit that tells the river’s dramatic story. The Columbia, the largest river in the Northwest, is a giant, stretching 1,243 miles, powering 14 hydroelectric dams, flowing through four mountain ranges, seven states, 13 Native American reservations, and one Canadian province, and draining 260,000 square miles (about the size of France). At its mouth here in Astoria, the river pumps 265,000 cubic feet per second, flowing at an astonishing 4-7 knots often with 70-mph winds that cause the sandbars and shoals to constantly shift. The river’s mouth (the Columbia Bar) has earned the name “Graveyard of the Pacific” for the 2,000-plus ships that have wrecked here.
The museum features a fascinating collection of ancient mariner maps, a fur trade and exploration exhibit, videos of bar pilots braving the river’s rage to safely steer ships over its shallows, and the 44, a Coast Guard rescue boat tipped at a dizzying angle. There’s also a theater showing 3-D movies, the Lightship Columbia (a mobile lighthouse) and a huge map showing shipwrecks in the river.
After a quick lunch, I head up the hill to tour the Flavel House, an impressive Queen Anne mansion built by Captain George Flavel, one of Astoria’s most prominent citizens and the man who established the river pilot system. As I wend my way through the home’s ornate Victorian furniture, coal-burning fireplaces, 14-foot-high ceilings, and 9-foot-tall carved fir doors, I’m grateful to the historians who preserved and restored this beauty.
I drive over to Fort Clatsop National Historical Park, one of several sites in the area that make up the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. It’s also here that I’ll camp at one of the park’s bargain-priced RV sites.
Ranger Bill Milligan, an expert in Lewis and Clark history, leads us through the woods to a small log fort, like the one the explorers stayed in during the winter of 1805-06. “We know Lewis and Clark stayed here,” says Ranger Bill, showing us a map from the explorers’ original journals. “Was the fort exactly in this location? It’s likely, but we don’t know.”
In the summer, costumed rangers and volunteers bring the Lewis and Clark story to life by re-enacting life at the fort. Today, however, summer is a distant memory and the mist has morphed into larger raindrops. I peer into the fort’s small, dark rooms, and imagine the buckskinned explorers cursing the wet conditions.
The next morning as I churn southward back toward Seaside, I’m intrigued by the sign for High Life Adventures Zip Line and impulsively pull in. Yes, they have space for me. As I sign the waiver and strap on the tiny helmet and climbing gear, I wonder, what am I thinking?
But soon I’m streaking through the Douglas firs, across lakes, and over meadows, screaming and laughing my head off.
Yes, Oregon’s North Coast really does have it all.
For More Information
Astoria & Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce
800-875-6807 | www.oldoregon.com
Columbia River Maritime Museum
503-325-2323 | www.crmm.org
Lewis and Clark National Historical Park
503-861-2471 | www.nps.gov/lewi
Seaside RV Resort
Seaside Visitors Bureau
888-306-2326 | www.seasideor.com