The 75-mile stretch along Oregon’s Highway 101 from Astoria to Tillamook offers a day trip full of surprises. Also known as the Oregon Coast Highway, this route can be accessed a couple of hours from Portland and includes traversing the Northern Oregon Coast Range.
The diverse topography and charming towns make this a beautiful way to spend a day on the road.
Located in the northwest tip of Oregon lies the state’s first city, Astoria, and the largest on this trip. The Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean at this point, and, alongside the Astoria-Megler Bridge, this historic city offers a rich map of walking tours and water activities.
The Riverfront Trolley is a deal for $1, which gets you a one-hour round trip covering three miles on the River Walk with stops, including the Columbia River Maritime Museum. The museum offers multiple interactive experience about shipwrecks, information about the treacherous bar crossings and features a U.S. Coast Guard bar pilot pulling boat.
Take a drive up to the top of the hill overlooking city, to the Astoria Column, a monument to the Pacific Northwest and the people who settled there, as well as the Chinook Indian culture. If you are able-bodied enough to climb to the top, you’ll hold bragging rights to a 360-degree view of the city, bay and river. At night, the column is colorfully lit up for all to see from below. This city is full of cinematic history, too, with “The Goonies” having been filmed in town and, further south, in Cannon Beach.
A short drive south on Highway 101 you will find the town of Seaside. From kite festivals to sandcastle competitions to bumper cars, this family-oriented spot offers tons of things to do with the kids. Local eateries tempt you with freshly caught crab and other seafood or, if the kids are clamoring for a dose of fast-food fries, you’ll find them on 101, along with other national chains.
A stroll along the Promenade (or The Prom, as the locals call it) offers a 1.5-mile paved path along the coast. A history lesson about the Lewis and Clark expedition is found along the walkway in the form of historic landmarks and culminating in a bronze statue commemorating The End of the Trail. This is the spot where the explorers ended their 4,000-mile journey and turned around to return home.
Ecola State Park
Back on Highway 101, traveling south toward Cannon Beach, the road veers inland a bit around Ecola State Park. Stretching nine miles along the coastline, this park offers amazing views of the Pacific Ocean, hiking trails and glimpses of the famous Haystack Rock. Head into the town of Cannon Beach, where you can get a closer view of this massive rock.
Cannon Beach presents itself as a higher-end, artsy community of galleries, shops, restaurants and bars. No fast-food chains here and a bit pricier than its northern neighbor. Parking is ample throughout town, and it’s an easy walk to the beach for a view of Haystack. When the tide rolls out, you can walk up to it and search the various tide pools for colorful sea life.
Home to the largest onshore population of tufted puffins in the continental U.S., you might catch sight of them between April and August. Recent sightings of stranded cougars, during high tide, have put beachgoers on alert, but this is an uncommon event.
Leaving the town, you might want to choose to drive along South Hemlock Street, eventually merging with Highway 101. This is a popular place to see elegant elk, munching on local homeowners’ lush landscapes. Herds have also been spotted on the beach during sunrise and sunset, close to Haystack.
Back on the road, a few miles south, you will find a trio of sweet towns, Manzanita, Nehalem and Wheeler. You’ll need to first stop at a couple of scenic overlooks from Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain before you get to Manzanita’s main street. These spots offer jaw-dropping views and photo ops of Manzanita Beach and the Pacific Ocean, with a trailhead available from the south viewpoint.
From there head south to Manzanita’s Laneda Avenue for a drive down to the beach through this pleasant town, offering shops and restaurants run by locals. If you’re in the mood for a casual food truck, check out Manzanita Mudd Dogs for an authentic Chicago hot dog, or have it custom-made to your liking. You will find a nice selection of eateries for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The beach is easily accessible with the Neah-Kah-Nie in full view, reaching into the surf.
Don’t blink when you get to Nehalem or you will miss an opportunity to check out the North Coast Pinball lounge, the local distillery Spirits of the West, and Buttercup, a gourmet chowder and ice cream restaurant. Watch while your choice of chowder is created in front of you, then enjoy it on the banks of the Nehalem River. Don’t forget to taste their homemade ice cream creations before you leave.
Next, check out the antique shops and marina in Wheeler for a dose of old village charm before heading south for more discoveries. On the way to Rockaway Beach, keep an eye out for the old crabbing boat at the entrance to Kelly’s Brighton Marina. This is the place to go for lessons in crabbing, and the kids will love this campground with boat rentals available for your adventure.
On a clear day, Rockaway Beach offers a gorgeous view of the Twin Rocks but be prepared for the fog banks to roll in on a moment’s notice. Kites are a big deal here and, if you’re a fan of corn dogs, the Original Pronto Pup is a must see.
A visit to Tillamook Creamery, before entering the downtown district, offers an opportunity to see how your favorite cheese and ice cream is made. Entry is free, and multiple samples are offered. Touted as the House Cheddar Built, this facility offers tours, tastings and ice cream treats. After your visit, check out the Dutch Mill Café for lunch on Main Avenue, where you will be immersed in an authentic 1950’s diner.
To wrap up your trip along the northeast coast head due west on Highway 131 for 6 miles to Oceanside along the Three Capes Scenic Loop. On a clear day, you can spot the Three Arch Rocks as you make your way up to the Cape Meares National Wildlife Refuge and Lighthouse. You’ll get an up close view of the beacon as well as amazing views of the Pacific.
This trip represents only a fraction of what the Oregon coast has to offer but can easily be completed in one day. You’ll need to schedule a few more days to fully appreciate the entire coastline.