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The North Oregon Coast is the place to be
Oregon Coast Notes - News

Spring break at Cannon Beach - an ideal stop for students, whole family

By John Gottberg Anderson for The Bend Bulletin

HaystackFebCollege students may soon be heading for the coasts of Florida and Mexico to celebrate spring break. If I were their age, I'd choose a nearer beach. And if I were the parent of school-aged children, there's no question I would take the whole family to the Oregon Coast.

For one thing, I'd save a lot of money on travel costs, keeping it close to home rather than flying to a distant destination. For another, I'd have plenty of activities to keep me busy for a whole week.

I consider Cannon Beach an ideal base for exploring the northern Oregon Coast. Earlier this month, I spent a couple of nights at the Ocean Lodge, my favorite beach-side oasis, and rediscovered the joys of this Pacific seaside community.

A five-hour drive from Bend via U.S. Highway 26, Cannon Beach is 25 miles south of Astoria and 75 miles west of Portland on U.S. Highway 101. The town, which stretches down the Pacific shore for more than three miles, has about 1,700 permanent residents and a seasonal population that soars many times higher when its inns and second homes are filled.

On the beach in Cannon Beach

The most popular reason to travel to the coast, of course, is to enjoy the beach itself. And the strand at Cannon Beach is awesome.

Haystack Rock is the first thing that catches any visitor's eye. The 235-foot monolith rises like a pyramid from the offshore surf. A rookery for tufted puffins, cormorants, guillemots and other seabirds, the massive rock and its colorful tide pools can be reached by foot at low tide. (Be sure to consult a tide table before you make the walk. If the tide comes in before you do, you'll either have to brave the riptide — not recommended — or wait 12 hours for the next low tide.)

But ocean lovers need not walk to Haystack Rock to appreciate the shoreline experience. As the surf rolls in, large waves crash upon the isolated rock towers flanking Haystack. The spectacle is especially impressive with the approach of sunset, as late-afternoon rays cast their glow through the rocketing spray.

When the tide rolls out, this beach is a broad swath of white sand. Beach walkers are sure to find sand dollars (and half-dollars), clam and crab shells, occasional sea stars and other marine denizens. People young and old, frequently accompanied by dogs (and sometimes by colorful kites), make the strand a playground.

The Ocean Lodge is a great place from which to observe the beach. Seagulls roosted on the rail of my deck, perched just above the high-tide mark. From my open-air seat, I could watch the tide roll in and out on Haystack Rock. Had the weather been stormy, as it so often is this time of year, a warming fireplace is standard issue in every room. And what I like best is the mezzanine library, where books and videos are free for guests' use, and where a fine continental-style breakfast is served each morning at no additional charge.

During spring break, the Ocean Lodge is offering a series of packages that take the entire family into account, including Fido. Visitors can ask about the kids-stay-free and Sunday-through-Thursday (three nights for the price of two) specials.

Connon Beach is an arts community

Cannon Beach is also a major center for the arts. The weathered Coaster Theatre, built as a roller rink in the 1920s, has already begun its 2010 season of community productions, often featuring a cast from Portland State University. The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Crimes of the Heart” (once a Robert Duvall movie) will open a one-month run Friday.

The Coaster is at the south end of downtown, which is actually the northern of three distinct segments of Cannon Beach. My hotel was in Tolovana, the south end; between the two is bluff-top midtown. Each has its shopping and dining attractions, but the lion's share are in three pedestrian-friendly blocks of downtown.

Not only is it nearly impossible to stay out of the art galleries, I can't fathom why any visitor would want to. Among my favorites is the Bronze Coast Gallery, whose collection of cast sculptures is among the best in the state. The DragonFire Studio has an eclectic and unusual selection of art in many media, from canvases to painted tennis shoes. The Jeffrey Hull Gallery features Cannon Beach's answer to Thomas Kinkade.

Besides the galleries, there are shops aplenty, including Once Upon a Breeze, which sells colorful kites and other beach-side toys. The Cannon Beach Book Co. is the hub of a literary scene that draws noted Northwest writers for workshops and getaway weekends. Dena's Shop on the Corner is one of several popular women's boutiques, and antique lovers throng to a curious shop called The Butler Did It.

There are numerous dining options near the galleries, including JP's at Cannon Beach, a family-owned restaurant that serves outstanding seafood plates. But my favorite is Newman's at 988, located in a bright and tiny yellow house in the heart of midtown. Chef-owner John Newman's restaurant opened four years ago; his menu focuses on the Mediterranean cuisine of southern France and northern Italy, and it has been a resounding success.

A sculpture of a gray whale, labeled “Endangered Species,” sits beside Ecola Creek at the north end of Cannon Beach. It's a reminder that this section of coastline is considered one of Oregon's best places for whale watching in the fall and winter. I didn't see any of the marine behemoths on this trip, but their northward migration from warmer winter waters should be starting any time now.

No Cannon Beach visitor should miss Ecola State Park, which embraces forested Tillamook Head immediately north of the town. It's reached by driving a narrow but well-marked strip of blacktop for a couple of miles through a dense growth of spruce and hemlock trees. Ample parking encourages a short stroll to a picture-postcard lookout point, with views south across the Bird Rocks to the town of Cannon Beach, and northwest to isolated Tillamook Rock lighthouse, battered by waves a half-mile offshore. A moderate and often-muddy 2-mile hike from the parking area leads to remote Indian Beach; it's a worthy walk for those in search of a little exercise.

The drive from Cannon Beach to Astoria

The 25 miles north from Cannon Beach to Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River, are filled with plenty to see. Sure, it's possible to make the drive in little more than a half-hour, but it's just as easy to take all day.

Seaside, Oregon's quintessential beach resort town, is immediately north of Tillamook Head, an 8-mile hike for hardy Ecola State Park adventurers. But the pleasures of Seaside are more commercial than environmental.

Oregon's answer to Atlantic City (minus the casinos), Seaside was the Northwest's first oceanfront resort in the late 19th century. Bumper cars and miniature golf, carousels and cotton candy share amusement halls on Broadway with video-game parlors, once penny arcades. An intimate aquarium, the state's first, occupies an Oceanside building that once was a saltwater swimming pool. Concrete has replaced the original wooden boardwalk, but the town's famous 1½-mile promenade is as popular as ever.

I didn't linger long in Seaside. After a brief drive through tiny Gearhart — Seaside's northern neighbor, as tranquil a community as Seaside is frenetic — I proceeded north to Fort Stevens State Park, where the 1906 shipwreck of the Peter Iredale is still a tourist attraction, its rusted hull buried in the wave-washed sand.

A coastal defense installation from Civil War times through World War II, Fort Stevens guarded the mouth of the Columbia River. It was the only garrison in the continental United States to be attacked by the Japanese when, in June 1942, a submarine fired 17 rounds, but the fort incurred no damage. Today, the park's 3,700 acres include remnants of the gun batteries and a small museum of military history. Mostly, though, it's a lovely place for hiking and camping among shore pines and grass-covered dunes.

Inland a few miles is Fort Clatsop, a replica of the crude stronghold where the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the rainy winter of 1805-06. This is the main Oregon site of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. An excellent visitor-center exhibit provides orientation to the famed explorers and their epic journey across North America. From there, a very short trail leads to the new fort reproduction.

A recent replacement for its predecessor, destroyed in a 2005 arson fire, the log replica of Fort Clatsop is basically a bunkhouse. Three rooms slept eight expedition members each; the leaders and their main sergeants had less crowded quarters, as did the Charbonneau family of Native American scout Sacajawea, her translator husband and their young child. While it's not the real thing, the replica gives a good sense of what a long winter's residence must have been like.

In Astoria

Just up the road is Astoria, imbued with a historic waterfront flavor. Founded in 1811 as the hub of John Jacob Astor's New York-based Pacific Fur Co., it soon became an isolated outpost until Oregon Trail pioneers began arriving in the 1840s.

Before long, it had become a key industrial center, both for fishing (especially salmon processing) and logging, shipping timber to San Francisco and points south.

Huge container ships still ply the Columbia River. Skilled pilots guide the boats through a network of treacherous, shifting sand bars where the great river collides head-on with high seas.

Although the river is nearly four miles wide at its mouth, the main channel is only a few hundred feet off the Astoria shore. About 2,000 vessels have been wrecked here, and more than 700 sailors have died, all but a handful before the pilots began their work. Their story is but one of those told at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, on the river just east of downtown.

There's lots more to see in Astoria. Visitors can climb the 164 steps to the top of Astoria Column, overlooking the town from the summit of Coxcomb Hill, for a glorious view of the surrounding area. They can board the Old 300 Trolley, built in 1913, for a narrated three-mile, 40-minute run along the riverfront.

They can explore the renovated Liberty Theatre, a 1922 vaudeville palace, and the recently reopened Commodore Hotel, one of several impressive historic restoration projects in Astoria.

Victoriana, it seems, is everywhere, from the 1883 Flavel House, where a sea captain once lived, to the home of “The Goonies.”

First released in 1985, starring a young Sean Astin, Josh Brolin and Corey Feldman, “The Goonies” is a Steven Spielberg-authored story about a group of kids who embark on a treasure hunt after finding a pirate map.

Not only will the chamber of commerce tell visitors how to find this house (38th and Duane streets, on the east side of town) and many other film locations, it will encourage them to return June 4-7 of this year, when Astoria will host the 25th anniversary celebration of “The Goonies.” Some cast members have already confirmed their participation.

To coincide with that party, Astoria is converting the former Clatsop County Jail into the Oregon Film Museum. “The Goonies,” you see, is not the only major production to have been shot here.

There was “Short Circuit” (1985), “Kindergarten Cop” (1990), “Free Willy” (1992) and parts of “Into the Wild” (2007), among others.