By Gail Rosenblum, Star Tribune
Oregon Coast brims with surprises, from a tide pool full of starfish to a cave that hosts sea lions
A few days into what was already a treat of a road trip down the Oregon Coast, I got my best memory to date: a sunset. My partner Patrick and I were heading down awe-inspiring Hwy. 101, the Pacific Ocean beckoning out our windows and each turn offering another panoramic view of evergreen-lined cliffs and thunderous waves below. We were near Tierra del Mar, hunting for a place to eat, when he took a surprising right turn onto a windswept and driftwood-laden beach. He stopped feet from the water and shut off the car. From the warmth of the front seat (July, it turns out, serves up an occasional storm), we gazed into a horizon growing deeper shades of blue, then black as the sun descended, feeling for a brief moment as though the Earth were ours alone.
I've lived in California. I've traveled to Seattle, and up into British Columbia's Victoria and Vancouver, dazzled by all of it. Somehow, I neglected Oregon. Last summer, I remedied that.
Patrick, who had twice made this trip, was an eager tour guide. I leaned back in the rental car and readied for a return to the familiar West Coast world I knew. Never saw it.
The Oregon coast is not like its neighbors to the north or south. During our six days of rambling, I slowly discovered that it's more emotionally stirring somehow, more visceral and raw.
We started our trip at the top of the state in hilly, historic Astoria, one of a chain of quaint towns filled with everything a girl loves and a boy endures: B&Bs, slow-moving bicycles, ice cream shops and bakeries, art galleries and boutiques. For dinner, we hit a small Mexican cafe where a hippie couple serenaded us with acoustic hits from the '60s and '70s.
Tide pool time-out
The first big surprise came soon after in nearby Cannon Beach. With fog hanging low and my tennis shoes wet, I didn't immediately understand why Patrick was leading me on a quarter-mile walk to ... what? Then everything grew clearer.
Rising 235 feet out of the water at low tide, we arrived at Haystack Rock, the centerpiece of one of nature's most spectacular outdoor aquariums. Visitors, many of them families, joined us in a hushed, almost spiritual, gathering in this tide pool featuring vibrant purple and orange starfish, tens of thousands of mussels clinging to rocks, sea anemone, crabs, limpets and more, all watched over by terns and puffins that remain here year-round.
Sea creatures, it turns out, would star in our weeklong visit.
Continuing south to Depoe Bay, we ran into a couple who swore they had spotted a whale in the area that very morning. A whale? In July? Turns out that a small number of whales remain here most of the year, so even summer visitors can get lucky. Thank goodness we had no plans, because I wasn't leaving this spot, called "the world's smallest harbor," until Shamu flipped his tail my way.
We watched -- and watched -- until my tired but hopeful eyes saw every jutting wave as that tail I awaited. Eventually, our hungry stomachs won out and we gave up.
While Shamu was M.I.A., we got all we hoped for soon after at Sea Lion Caves, near Florence. Billed as home to the world's largest sea lion den, it's accessible only by a smelly (Patrick said endearingly so) elevator ride down, down, down. Then off we stepped, carefully maneuvering the slippery floors toward a massive window overlooking the positively hypnotic world of sea lions.
What do they do? They work like fiends to pull themselves up onto rocks, fighting against the powerful waves until, uuuuhhhh, they're back on top! Then they leap right back into the water again. It's fascinating and crazy-making. I could not pull myself away.
Taking in the ocean views
As fascinating as the Oregon underworld is, it faces tough competition from glories well above sea level. Driving the narrow, hilly roads of Hwy. 101, we pulled the car over several times for breathtaking views and photo ops, including Cape Perpetua which, at 800 feet high, is the highest scenic overlook on the Oregon Coast. It was here, mesmerized by the near-violence of the crashing waves below, that I saw Oregon at its rugged, roguish best.
State parks are abundant, too, offering camping and countless hiking opportunities from easy to OMG. We veered toward the latter one afternoon, as we accidentally navigated ourselves right off the path to just feet from a spectacular drop-off.
I did find a safer way to look down. Oregon is home to 11 scenic lighthouses. As Patrick navigated down to a pebble beach, made up of perfectly smooth, slate blue rocks, I toured Oregon's tallest, and still functioning, lighthouse, Yaquina Head, standing 93 feet tall. After an hour wait in line, I walked up the same narrow 114 steps that Keeper Fayette Crosby walked up to light wicks for the first time in 1873. Before I descended, the good-natured actor playing the lighthouse keeper's role let me shoot his picture, wool vest and all.
From under-the-sea to the top of lighthouses, the last thing I thought I'd see next would be sand dunes. But there we were in Florence, the gateway to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. This was the price I paid for dragging Patrick into endless gift shops. After a detailed orientation about everything that could possibly kill us, we strapped ourselves into a dune buggy and took to the sandy hills for an hour ride where you lose your sense of the horizon. Glad I did it, once.
Oregon, obviously, offers a tantalizing variety of fresh seafood. A few times, we bought fresh crab and salmon from roadside vendors and ate it right out of the box in the car. But our best seafood meal was at Local Seafood in Newport, a harbor town with the stunning Yaquina Bay Bridge in the distance. The day was sunny, tourists mingled with townsfolk and we ate fresh salmon at a table overlooking the bay.
As our head-spinning week came to an end, we chose Bandon, the Cranberry Capital of Oregon, as our sweet finale. Bandon offers beautiful bridges, offshore rocks, aging rocker cover bands and a great little dive for breakfast where the bill was under 10 bucks.
But the highlight for me was sitting in a bar overlooking the bay as Patrick grabbed a box from a pile of games and taught me how to play cribbage.
Another Oregon surprise. You just can't plan these things.
By GAIL ROSENBLUM
Minneapolis – St Paul Star Tribune