Traveler’s Guide to the Oregon and California Coast
by Nell Bruckner
Places to stay:
Traveler’s House, Portland OR
Glue Gull Inn, Cannon Beach OR
Bandon Inn, Bandon OR
Seaside Motel, Cayucos CA
Tips before you go:
- If you fly into Portland, stop at a local grocery store and stock up before you leave on your road trip. We bought a loaf of bread, peanut butter and jelly, crackers, goldfish, small boxes of raisins (to bring on hikes), paper plates, portable fruit (apples, oranges), plastic utensils, paper towels, baby wipes, and some toiletries (shampoo and conditioner, razors, feminine hygiene products). This one grocery stop lasted us essentially until we got to San Francisco, only buying more fruit and another loaf of bread.
- If your trip is primarily for scenic enjoyment, USE THE COASTAL ROADS. Often Google Maps will direct you on more direct interstates, but that causes you to miss the best hiking and views. In Oregon, the coastal route is 101, but in Northern California 101 turns inland and route 1 becomes the coastal route.
- Plan your hotel the night before, make a reservation, and set that as your destination to keep the trip moving. If you have lots of time, this isn’t as important, but for a two-week trip this was essential. Allow plenty of time for stopping at scenic overlooks, picnicking, and hiking. Make sure your hotel is located in a coastal town.
- If Google maps says the time on the coastal route to your next night’s hotel will take 4 hours, depending on the weather you should add in 3-4 more hours to account for frequent stops.
Things To See:
Powell’s Books, Portland OR: The largest bookstore in the world, it boasts an impressive square-city-block of new and used books. There are cashiers and assistants all over the store to direct you to the genre or specific book you need. It is also situated in a fun Portland neighborhood with plenty of independent businesses, restaurants, and larger chain stores to explore. Make sure to stop at Blue Star Donuts, similar to the popular Voodoo Donuts but regarded by locals to have better food.
Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach OR: The largest “rock on a beach” in North America, it’s geologically significant because unlike an island or a mountain, it is one single rock that fell from the coastline while the glaciers were moving through. It is approximately the size of a 3-4-story building, and in the spring is often inhabited by a raft of puffins. This is also an excellent spot to see sea birds and other interesting wildlife.
Cape Lookout State Park, Cape Lookout OR: Just outside of the town of Tillamook (famous for cheese and dairy products), Cape Lookout State Park is a breathtaking coastal park known for beautiful hiking trails and stunning pacific vistas. If you have time, the hike on the cape is at sea level on the beach, offering views of both the open ocean and a coastal bay. If you are doing this trip in Spring, be aware that the weather can have a huge effect on your experience, as winds and freezing rain are common during March and April. If you continue up the park road (straight up, it ascends a mountain) you will hit a trailhead that allows access to two different trails, a shorter nature trail and a longer, more arduous hike. We took the longer trail, which takes you along a high coastal ridge with great views of the temperate rainforest as well as the Pacific Ocean. It was rainy when we did it, making the trail extremely muddy and puddle-riddled, but the view at the end of the ridge was worth it. The spring is peak Gray Whale migration season, and we saw two pods of whales (about 12 whales in total). The trees offer good cover and once you start hiking you warm up, so don’t let the weather dissuade you from doing this awesome hike.
Manzanita, OR: This coastal town is a must-stop on your drive south from Cape Lookout. Its quaint 1950’s feel is welcoming and charming. The rows of older beach cottages and small independent businesses create a great place to stop for lunch or take a walk on the beach.
Elk Meadow, Orick CA: On our way to Humbolt Redwoods State Park we saw a sign for “Elk Meadow” on Highway 101. Not knowing what to expect, we pulled off the short turn and were greeted by a herd of wild elk that had made the meadow their habitat. If you continue into the park, there’s a windy road that takes you to the beach and to “Fern Canyon,” two popular tourist destinations. It was another 2 hour drive from Elk Meadow to Humbolt, so make plenty of time so your time in the Redwoods isn’t rushed.
Humbolt Redwoods State Park, Weott CA: Humbolt State Park has one of the only old-growth Redwood Forests in the world. Humbolt contains 90 of the 100 tallest trees in the world, and it is not something to miss. Drive down the “Avenue of the Giants,” a scenic byway straight through the forest. Ask a park ranger about which hikes to take depending on the weather and the season, but make sure not to miss the Rockefeller Grove, containing “Tall Tree” and “Giant Tree,” Giant Tree being the largest tree in North America. Make sure your car has plenty of gas and you have plenty of space on your phone and camera for photos. You drive through several small towns (some population 30 or smaller) along the Avenue of the Giants, which ads to the charm.
Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco CA: Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the most famous tourist attractions in San Francisco, and it is often quite crowded. It is definitely worth a trip to Pier 39 to see the Sea Lions, and to Boudin Bakery, famous for its sourdough creations often in the shapes of animals and trees. Stroll along the pier and see street performers, or catch the trolley for an unofficial tour.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey CA: YOU MUST GO TO THE MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM. It is worth EVERY penny. Spend an entire day in the aquarium, and make sure you’ve seen everything. Go outside onto the pier and watch the otters in the bay. Sometimes you can even see whales!
Big Sur, CA: Big Sur truly is everything it’s cracked up to be. This stretch of scenic route 1 is absolutely breathtaking, and you will find yourself making frequent stops to see the jaw-dropping vistas and ocean views. The best hike in Big Sur is the McWay Falls hike, leading to a waterfall that drops right onto the beach. Camping is permitted at the top of the falls by permit only, so contact the California Department of Parks and Recreation for information. Hearst Castle is also a must-see stop in Big Sur. The late William Randolph Hearst, newspaper tycoon, erected the castle in the early 20th century. Visits to the castle are allowed only through scheduled tours. After your tour take a stroll through the gardens and make sure not to miss the indoor and outdoor pools. It is on the top of a hill and can often be quite windy, so bring a jacket. Not far from Hearst Castle off route 1 is an elephant-seal viewing point, a view not to be missed. Masses of elephant seals corral on the beach to bathe in the sun, and you can often see many baby seals as well.
Joshua Tree National Park, Joshua Tree CA: This park was the highlight of my trip. Located in the Mojave Desert about an hour and a half outside of Claremont, CA, Joshua Tree is famous for the Joshua Trees that grow in the park. Drive down the main park road and stop at the hiking trails that pique your interest. We drove clear across the park, and ended up having dinner that night in Palm Springs. If you want to go to Palm Springs, pack a set of clothes to change into so you don’t look like you just walked out of the desert, even if that is what you just did.
Have FUN! Explore everything and anything, eat good food, meet interesting people, and do NOT be afraid to ask for directions. Locals will know the best spots to see, places to eat, and places to stay.