I knew it was going to be a long drive today -- in fact, it turned out to be over 13 hours -- but I was O.K. with it because it was one of my favorite stretches of road in America: U.S. 101, also known as the Oregon Coast Highway. I’ve driven (or ridden, when I was a kid) this entire stretch of roadway maybe 20 or 30 times in my life but have never gotten get tired of it. On the contrary: I still love it as much now as when I was younger. Normally I’d take two or three days to drive down the Oregon Coast but today I had to do it in only one, because I had a reservation that night at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, deep inside California and a stack of reservations following it for the next week. Yep, I had a lot of driving to do, but I wanted to stick to my schedule and get to southern California by the weekend so I could be in Austin by the following weekend, so I could be in Oklahoma City, for the NCAA softball tournament, by the following weekend.
Above: Heading down U.S. 101, known in this area as the Oregon Coast Highway, one of my favorite highways in America.
One of the most common questions I’ve gotten over the years from readers of my DelsJourney website is, “How long does it take to drive the Oregon Coast?” Often a reader will write in, saying something like, “Can I drive the Oregon Coast in a single day?” Well… yes, I supposed it’s technically possibly to do that: if you leave real early in the morning and don’t make many stops or see much of anything, except out your windshield. It’s much better to take two days – and even better to spend three. But here I was in that same quandary. So, thinking of all the places I wanted to stop and spend time at, I decided to make a very abbreviated stop at each of “Del’s Favorite Hits” during my drive down the Oregon Coast.
I pulled out of the drizzly Beverly Beach campground around 8 a.m. on Saturday. My first stop was just a few miles down 101 at the junction with U.S. 20 in the town of Newport, Oregon. Newport is the largest city on the central Oregon coast and most people who visit Newport go to the picturesque Old Town area along the waterfront (the original Mo’s Restaurant is a definite stop) or perhaps the interesting Hatfield Aquarium on the south side of the Yaquina Bay Bridge. Back in the 1990’s, the aquarium was the home of Keiko the Killer Whale, star of the movie “Free Willie,” before he was freed in the waters off of Iceland as a result of a huge outpouring of public protest over his captivity (and then promptly died – so much for the “Free Willie” thing, huh?) Nope, I didn’t have time for those places. Being the Extreme Geographer, my only interest on this abbreviated visit to Newport would be the junction of U.S. Highways 101 and 20.
Huh? You see, U.S. Highway 20 is the longest highway in America at 3,365 miles and it starts right here in Newport -- or ends here, depending on which way you’re driving. On its journey crossing the United States, Highway 20 goes through such notable cities as Sisters (Oregon), Brothers (Oregon), and Correctionville (Iowa) -- hmm, wonder what goes on there? Then it travels through Chicago and Buffalo before it terminates on the East Coast in Boston. I’ve driven on portions of Highway 20 during my numerous road trips around America, including the entire section in Oregon, but I’ve never driven the entire road – perhaps a future road trip? But for now, on this drippy morning in Newport, I just wanted to stand at the beginning of U.S. Highway 20. Perhaps when I get back East, I’ll do the same at the other end.
Above: Sights while driving down the central Oregon coast. Yachats (pronounced "Ya-Hots") has long been one of my favorite stops on the coast. Coos Bay is a lumber/shipping town, and the largest port on the Oregon coast. (0:52)
I hopped back into my truck and wiped off my camera and lens, then “proceeded on” (the term Lewis & Clark used frequently in the journals describing their epic journey across America in the early 1800’s). My next stop of “Del’s Favorite Hits” on the Oregon Coast was about 40 minutes south in the small, coastal artist community of Yachats. Among other things, Yachats has the dubious distinction of being the most mispronounced town on the Oregon Coast.
So let’s talk about the most mispronounced coastal towns on the West Coast. In the state of Washington, it’s probably Sequim, near Port Angeles, which is pronounced “Squim” (i.e., one syllable, not two). Sequim also has the distinction of being, if you were reading earlier in my website when I described my brief visit there, the driest town on the West Coast of America north of Santa Barbara. In California, the most commonly mispronounced coastal town is probably Lompoc. Most non-Lompocians pronounce it, “Lom-pock” when in fact it’s pronounced “Lom-poke” (rhymes with “cowpoke” – well, sort of). But in Oregon, the most mispronounced coastal town has to be “Yachats.” No one outside of Oregon pronounces this town correctly; even most Oregonians mess it up. The correct way to pronounce it is, all together now, “YAH-Hots.” Don’t ever say “Yatch-ets” – at least not within 20 miles of Yachats – or you’ll get frowns and looks of disdain from Yachatsians that say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” Then they’ll go back to painting or pottery-making or sipping wine or whatever it is most of them do with their time.
Yachats has changed a lot over the years but I still love it. Back in the 1970’s, this was a sleepy little village on the coast with not a whole lot going on. When I was a kid, I always liked going through Yachats because the largest restaurant in town was called “Del’s” and since I didn’t see my name in big letters very often – or hardly at all, actually – it was always a thrill to come through here with my parents. It must’ve changed ownership about 30 years ago because ever since then, it’s been called “Leroy’s.” Now I have nothing against any Leroys out there. In fact, I have an uncle in Minnesota named Leroy. But I think “Del’s” is a much better name for a restaurant – or really, anything – don’t you?
During the past few decades, Yachats has increasingly become an artist town and there are lots of galleries and such scattered about. It’s still a nice little town, though, despite all the changes and “foofery” as I like to say. I stopped for about 20 minutes at one of my favorite coastal pull-offs, Yachats State Park, which is tucked away behind the “downtown” area because it’s a great place to watch the surf roll in. Yachats State Park is definitely one of “Del’s Greatest Hits” and thus was worthy of 20 minutes of my time on this very-compressed day.
The Central Oregon Coast
Those Amazing Sand Dunes... and Fly-Eating Plants
South of Yachats, Highway 101 climbs up the coastal cliffs, offering spectacular views and scenic waysides, like the Devil’s Churn, Cook’s Chasm, and – well, all right – Sea Lion Caves, perhaps the most famous commercial tourist destination on the Oregon Coast (note that I didn’t say “Tourist Trap” because it’s not; it’s quite interesting, actually). None of these places I had time to explore, because they didn’t quite make Del’s Greatest Hits list.
Heading into the beautiful town of Florence, which is my favorite town on the Oregon coast, I did however stop at the Darlingtonia Wayside. It’s not quite on Del’s Top 20 list but I hadn’t seen it in a long time so I decided to pull over. I love this little botanical State Park, which contains a panoply of Venus Fly Trap-like plants called Darlingtonia set in a marshy bog. The flies are attracted by the plant’s nectar, crawl up into the Darlingtonia, get confused and get stuck in a sticky substance, then they’re slowly devoured by the plant. Cool, huh? As good as a horror movie and a lot cheaper to watch, too. It’s just like the Roach Motel, because the flies check in but they don’t check out. Or was that Hotel California?
Anyway after 20 minutes of squealing with delight and cheering while watching the flies getting eaten at Darlingtonia (well, not really), I proceeded on through the coastal town of Florence. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved this town, and not just for the pleasant-sounding name that reminded me of Florence Henderson (look it up, you Millennials). I mainly love Florence for the massive sand dunes which, quite literally, border the town and extend for several miles south at various parks. In fact, this area has the largest collection of coastal sand dunes in America. From Florence south for the next 30 miles or so, the massive sand dunes entice visitors to explore – or squeal and cheer, whatever suits you. There are dozens of places to pull off, explore and camp, including my favorite state park in Oregon, Jessie Honeyman, which is just a few miles south of Florence.
I’d stayed at Honeyman a month earlier, so I drove past it this time, not having time to stop again, but I did stop at my favorite wayside on the Oregon Coast, the Dunes Overlook, a few miles south of Honeyman. The Dunes Overlook is relatively little-known, at least compared to the multitude of Oregon State Parks around here, but it’s a definite “Must See” if you’re driving on Highway 101. Not only is it on my Top 20 list of stops on the Oregon Coast, but it’s probably in the top two or three. From the parking area, you walk a few yards to a spectacular viewing platform where you look out upon an amazing vista of the Oregon sand dunes and you can see the ocean about a mile away. Those who are more adventurous can hike a mile to the coast. And if you’re really adventurous, you can hike a 3-mile triangular route that takes you past sand dunes and the lazy Tahkenitch Creek, out to the beach, up the beach for a mile and then back to the platform. I’ve done this 3-mile triangular hike several times since I first discovered it about 30 years ago and each time it blows me away. Friends, take my advice: If you’re ever driving near Florence on Highway 101, set aside a few hours to do this hike. On this day, though, time was at a premium so I had to satisfy myself with taking a few pictures of the seemingly-endless dunes from the platform.
It was now shortly before noon and I proceeded southward down Highway 101 through the lumber shipping port town of Coos Bay and stopped about 45 minutes later at the town of Bandon, one of the jewels of the southern Oregon Coast. Bandon, along with the town of Tillamook on the north coast which I described earlier, each have large expanses of nearby meadows, and thus cows, and thus milk, and thus cheese. Tillamook cheese is better known but those Bandon cows make a pretty mean cheese, too. Years ago you could stop at the Bandon Cheese Factory on Highway 101, just north of Old Town, and get yourself a big scoop of delicious ice cream but they must’ve moved it. However, the Old Town area of Bandon more than makes up for it. It’s a vibrant place and another “Must See” if you’re driving on 101. There are lots of colorful shops here and the wharf area is dotted with loads of fascinating wooden sculptures and charming drawings made by local school kids. I stopped here last year and got some great fish and chips for lunch, but this time I only had time to walk around briefly and take a few pictures. Bandon’s Old Town is great and I highly recommend it.
Bandon and Cape Blanco
The Best Kept Secret on the Oregon Coast
After leaving Bandon around 1 p.m., I continued south down Highway 101 to the next planned stop on Del’s Greatest Hits of the Oregon Coast: Cape Blanco State Park, about an hour away. I absolutely love this remote park, partly because it’s not overrun by tourists. It truly is the best-kept secret on the coast. And that’s because of its geography. Highway 101 cuts inland here, about 5 miles away from the coast, and when tourists pull off 101 to take the road out to Cape Blanco, they see a sign that says “Cape Blanco: 5 Miles” and usually turn around and get back on 101. And I’m glad they do.
Cape Blanco is a little bulb of land that sticks out into the ocean, connected to the mainland by a narrow ridge with a one-lane, half-mile long paved road. I’ve camped at the campground here many times and have always loved it. I’ll warn you, though, that because of this area’s unique geography, the campground can get windy and foggy. Many times have I camped in the fog here while just a few miles inland, along the Highway 101 corridor, it was sunny and pleasant. Despite that, I heartily recommend making the 5-mile drive out of Cape Blanco.
As the Extreme Geographer, I wanted to visit this place because, sticking out into the Pacific Ocean like a sore thumb, it happens to be the westernmost point in Oregon, so it was a must-stop for me. But even more impressive is the beautiful lighthouse that sits here -- one of 11 that line the Oregon Coast -- which is open to the public six days a week in the summer months. I got a tour of this lighthouse, built in 1870, last summer when I visited it and also during several previous visits, so I didn’t take the tour this time, but instead I walked around the grassy promontory. I also stood for a few moments just past the lighthouse, because I wanted to be the westernmost person in the state of Oregon, if only for a few moments (more squealing and cheering ensued). I also took a panorama photo here to give you an idea of the spectacular views from this point.
I could’ve stayed at Cape Blanco for days but I had to press on, thinking about my campground reservation that evening in California. After leaving Cape Blanco, I stopped in the nearby town of Port Orford, which is definitely high on Del’s Greatest Hits list -- and for several reasons. First of all, this tiny town of Port Orford is the westernmost incorporated city in America. Secondly, the marina here is amazing. Lacking a natural harbor, this is one of few marinas in America where all the boats are pulled out of the ocean every night and then plopped back in the next morning. Visitors can park on the wharf -- in fact, there's a great little seafood restaurant there -- so I drove down and spent about 20 minutes walking among the boats parked high on their trailers while taking pictures. And amazingly enough, I recognized some of the boat names from my last visit to the Port Orford marina, back in 2002.
Getting back in my truck, I continued south down Highway 101, stopping at the Fred Meyer grocery store in Brookings, just north of the California border. I knew this would be my last chance to hit a Freddies on 101, so I restocked my supplies. Fred Meyer, a chain of grocery stores that is unfortunately found only in the Northwest, is my favorite store, as you may know if you’ve been reading my website. It is truly a “one-stop shop.” Freddies sells everything: groceries, clothes, hardware – whatever you need, you’ll find it at Freddies. The Brookings Freddies is one of their largest (it even has an elevator!) and thus one of my favorites.
Above: Port Orford and Gold Beach on the southern Oregon coast. I love the Port Orford marina. Because there's no dock here, it's one of the few marinas in America where all the boats are pulled out of the water every night. (1:05)
I got back on 101 about 4 p.m. and still had a long way to go that day. I crossed the California border, then went through the Agricultural Inspection station, which is like a toned-down Customs Inspection. If memory serves, California is the only state in the U.S. that quizzes every incoming driver about their vehicle's contents and they've been doing this for as long as I can remember, at least 40 years. And lucky me: I pulled up behind a guy who answered the single question, "Do you have any fruits or vegetables?" incorrectly (dude, the answer is "No"). So after sitting there for a few minutes and watching the guy get lectured from the somewhat-peeved Agricultural Inspector, I backed up and pulled into another lane to get quizzed. Now don't fret about it. If you answer "No," your stop at the Inspection Station will last all of five seconds and you don't have to provide any documents. But if you answer "Yes"... well, spread 'em wide.
I could’ve spent two or three days exploring this section of 101, between the California border and Eureka, this being the heart of the Redwood Country – and I have on previous road trips. But I had to make hay, so I whipped past many of my favorite Redwood nooks and crannies, like Del Norte Redwoods, the Klamath River viewpoint as it enters the Pacific Ocean, and the famous Trees of Mystery. OK, I’m just kidding ‘bout that last one. What “Sea Lion Caves” is to the Oregon coast, the Trees of Mystery is to the Redwoods. Yes, there are other “commercial enterprises” (i.e., tourist traps) in the Redwood Country, like the Drive-Thru Tree, the Immortal Tree, the Thing, and about a dozen others. But the Trees of Mystery is the granddaddy of them all – and with the ultimate price tag, too. Now I have to admit: I’ve never actually ponied up the admission price (currently at $16) to see the Trees of Mystery so I shouldn’t rag on it too much, but why would someone pay a lot of money to see the fascinating redwoods when they can hike through any of the groves for free in a state or national park?
As the sun was setting, I drove through Eureka and 40 minutes later entered Humboldt Redwoods State Park in the gathering gloom. Of all the places to visit in the Redwoods country, this park has long been my favorite, ever since I took my first solo trip through here back in 1980. One of the best things to experience here is the “Avenue of the Giants,” which used to be the old Highway 101 and is now a scenic alternate route. If you have to get from Point A to Point B quickly, stay on Highway 101. But by all means, if you have an extra hour or so, take the Avenue of the Giants route instead and pull over at any of the numerous redwoods groves, then get yourself lost among the towering giants.
I pulled into the Burlington campground of Humboldt Redwoods State Park in the darkness around 9 p.m. and found my reserved site. This being a Saturday night, the campground was packed but everyone was quiet and respectful – except for one campsite on the other side of the campground. The folks there apparently brought their barking dog along with them and didn’t do much to try to keep it quiet either that evening or the next morning. It’s sad that one inconsiderate group of campers can ruin the camping experience for so many other respectful folks. But I didn't let it bother me as I cooked up some brats for dinner (what else?) Except for the loquacious canine, it was a very pleasant evening and it was wonderful to finally be back in the Redwoods. During all those years that I spent working in Qatar, one of the thoughts that pulled me through was being able to camp again amidst the colossal redwoods, so I was living my dream and enjoying every moment.
It had been a long day and I’d hit all 20 of my Favorite Coastal Hits (actually 21 if you include Darlingtonia). But it was a wonderful drive with lots of squealing and cheering. And as I drifted off to sleep surrounded by the redwoods, I realized that tomorrow would be just as busy.
Port Orford and South To California