Flush with possibilities for fishing, crabbing, clamming, kayaking, surfing and hiking, the glorious northern Oregon coast lures sightseers, seafood lovers and outdoor enthusiasts
I feel the tug on my fishing line. At first, it’s just a little bump, then a series of strong pulls. I’ve caught a salmon, and it feels like a whale. As I struggle to keep my fishing pole upright and reel it in, Captain John Bowles of JB and Water Sportfishing says, “If she’s pulling, let her run. When she stops, reel like crazy.”
I brace both knees against the pads on the side of the boat and focus on reading this fish — reeling in when there’s little pressure on the rod and holding fast when the fish fights. And fight it does. I hang on for dear life, feeling like this big fish will rip the $1,000 rod and reel right out of my hands. I grit my teeth and use all my strength as the fish yanks, flips and twists.
But wait, I get ahead of myself….
It’s fall in the Pacific Northwest, and we’re heading to Tillamook County on the gorgeous Oregon coast. Unlike other more-traveled parts of the coast, the Tillamook stretch is wonderfully undeveloped and largely undiscovered. Bookended by Cape Falcon and the small town of Manzanita on the north and Cascade Head and the even smaller community of Neskowin to the south, Tillamook has everything for a perfect autumn RV getaway — fishing, crabbing, clamming, surfing, beach horseback riding, kayaking picturesque inlets and bays, and hiking forested shorelines, sandy beaches and rugged seaside cliffs. And it’s all in a neat package that doesn’t require hours of driving.
While the fall shoulder season means fewer crowds and better prices on the coast, weather can be iffy. It’s a chilly 50 degrees under cloudy skies when we leave Oregon City on the southern outskirts of Portland. However, 45 minutes later when we reach U.S. Route 26, the clouds have disappeared, and the temperature has climbed to 60. As we cruise by farm fields and signs for freshly picked apples, we also leave behind the workday traffic.
Reach the Beach
Route 26, a two-lane highway with plenty of passing lanes and turnouts, takes us over the Coast Range though thick forest. We climb up and up — 500, 1,000, 1,500 feet. Vine maples set the forest ablaze with splashes of bright red and vibrant orange and yellow. We crest David Douglas Summit, pass over the Necanicum River and head south on U.S. Route 101, the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway.
We’re treated to our first stunning views of the mighty Pacific when we pull over at Neahkahnie Mountain Wayfinding Point. At a height of 1,680 feet, Neahkahnie (from the native Tillamook language meaning “place of supreme deity”) is best known for legends of buried Spanish treasure. For us, the embrace of the cool, briny sea air and views of wide, deserted beaches and frothy waves promise great things to come.
Just south of Manzanita, we pull into RV-friendly Nehalem Bay State Park. The campground features 265 blacktopped electric sites under the pines with picnic tables and fire rings. There’s also an equestrian camp with corrals for those who bring their own horses. The campground is tucked behind the first dune, so the sites don’t have ocean views, but an easy trail grants access to pristine beaches you have almost to yourself.
We have reservations elsewhere, so we head southward, passing through the tiny burg of Wheeler to the town of Rockaway Beach. Rough-around-the-edges Rockaway is a strip of shops, bakeries and restaurants along the highway. We stop at Old Oregon Smoke House, a fish market and restaurant that’s famous for clam chowder, fish and chips, and smoked salmon and oysters from nearby waters.
“We make everything here,” owner Harold Brecht tells us, as he serves up our chowder. “The only things in a jar are ketchup and mayonnaise.”
The chowder is über-creamy with plenty of clams, but it’s the smoked oysters that make me swoon. After boiling, they put them on a smoky fire, spritzing them with brown-sugar water until the edges are crispy. The result is a smoky-sweet earthy flavor that’s crazy-good.
Reel ’Em In
We stock up on Old Oregon Smoke House’s smoked oysters and salmon for later, and head to the fishing town of Garibaldi with a community of 800, our stop for the night. Both sport and commercial anglers dock at the busy marina where we find Harborview Inn and RV Park, a modest motel and RV campground with great views of Tillamook Bay. The 30 spaces feature 20-, 30- and 50-amp service, free Wi-Fi and cable TV, grills and a firepit. Because it’s close to boat parking and a launch ramp, this park is popular with RVing fishermen and women. The Port of Garibaldi operates a larger gravel-topped RV park near the marina, but because it’s directly across from the lumber mill, it may be noisy.
We settle our rig and stroll the busy marina, taking in the shops and seafood restaurants. At Community Supported Fishery (CSF), we meet Jeff Wong, founder and owner of the custom cannery, smokehouse and fish-processing plant. Wong is a former commercial fisherman whose goal is to make fishing more sustainable. CSF works with local fishermen and small boats that line-catch salmon, lingcod and albacore tuna, most within 30 miles of Garibaldi.
“We provide a number of local chefs with fish caught the same day,” Jeff says. “We also work with Eco-Trust to help put displaced fishermen back to work.”
The two-year-old company employs eight former fishermen and also develops new markets for products like purple varnish clams, an invasive species. “Harvesting those clams cleans up the bay,” he says.
We buy a couple of cans of CSF’s tuna and, back at our RV site, enjoy a seafood feast for dinner.
The next morning we wake before sunrise for chartered salmon fishing. Under cloudy skies and a cool breeze, Captain John Bowles motors his 26-foot boat into Tillamook Bay. John has been fishing these waters for more than three decades, and under his guidance, it doesn’t take long for that monster salmon to swallow the herring on the end of my fishing line, and then I’m in for a battle.
After 10 minutes of pulling and reeling, I’m practically spent. I’m hoping the fish is, too, but it suddenly bolts under the boat, a move that can snap the line. “Put your rod tip in the water,” hollers John.
Finally, the fish swims out from under the boat, and I catch a glimpse of a muscular streak of silver. John expertly moves the big net into the water. “Easy, bring her alongside,” he advises.
Then suddenly the fish is in the net and flopping on the deck. It’s huge, weighing at least 25 pounds — a wild king salmon. “Nicest fish of the season,” John says, grinning like a proud papa. “Good job, sister.”
A few minutes later, another fisherman on our boat lands a salmon. Then the weather takes a turn, with steady rain, choppy seas and winds gusting to 40 mph that leave us wet and cold. It also makes the fish stop biting. After a soggy hour, we call it quits.
Back in port, Captain John cleans and fillets my catch, which we stash in our fridge back at the campsite.
We then spend the afternoon tucked in our RV reading novels. Listening to the steady rain on the roof, sleep comes early.
The following morning, our last in Tillamook County, the sky dawns brilliant blue, and the water is calm. There’s no trace of yesterday’s storm. We stop at Garibaldi Maritime Museum to learn about the nautical and timber history that has shaped this area. There’s the original bow of the Morningstar, a sailing ship wrecked here in 1814, and a terrific exhibit on Captain Robert Gray, the first recorded European to navigate the Columbia River.
We drive north a few miles to Kelly’s Brighton Marina in Rockaway Beach to sample fresh Dungeness crab, one of Tillamook’s delights. At the marina, you can rent a small motorboat (no license needed) with crab rings and bait (two hours for $85), or you can crab from the dock (ring and bait for $10). Or Kelly Laviolette and his team will just cook fresh crab, clams and oysters for you to eat.
We rent a boat and, after several minutes figuring out how to steer, motor into the water and toss our traps overboard. The day is gorgeous with soft breezes and gentle swells. Harbor seals bob in the water and lounge along the shore. However, after two hours of setting and resetting and pulling up our traps, they yield mostly small female crabs and only one male large enough to keep.
We buy a couple more crabs at the marina to add to our modest catch, and Kelly, in his signature floppy red crab hat, cooks our meal. Then we sit on the sunlit deck overlooking the water and enjoy some of the freshest and most delicious Dungeness crab I’ve ever eaten.
Quilts, Cheese and Trees
It’s early afternoon before we head south on Highway 101. In Bay City, we make a quick stop at the Tillamook Country Smoker Factory Outlet Store in Bay City to pick up some of their 2-foot-long teriyaki beef sticks ($1 each) for the road.
Soon we reach Tillamook, a dairy-farm town of about 5,000 a few miles from the coast. We spot a sign for the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center and, down a country road, find a quilt museum in an 1880s schoolhouse. Dedicated to preserving quilting and the fiber arts and providing space for fiber artists to work and exhibit, the center features beautiful handmade quilts that date as far back as the 1700s. While the modest museum has limited space to showcase their 400 antique quilts, groups of four or more can book a “bed turning” to see different types of quilts.
Tillamook is so crazy about quilting, there’s even a Quilt Trail with more than a hundred giant quilt squares painted on barns and businesses throughout the county. Visitors can pick up a Quilt Trail map at the visitor center and spend the day searching out these colorful icons.
We also stop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, the landmark farmer’s co-op that put Tillamook on the map. Once a modest cheese-making facility, the Tillamook Cheese Factory is the Disneyland of cheddar. The sprawling complex, which draws a million visitors a year, showcases how cheese is made with a self-guided tour, and sells Tillamook cheese, yogurt, butter, ice cream, fudge, hot food and “cheesy” souvenirs from hats to T-shirts.
Armed with cones topped with softball-size scoops of Tillamook Chocolate Peanut Butter ice cream, we head toward home on State Route 6. When we spot the Tillamook Forest Center sign a few miles out of town, curiosity gets the better of us. This modern exhibition center doesn’t disappoint. There’s a giant fire lookout and a bright and airy exhibit hall made to look like a 1920s sawmill.
The Tillamook Forest Center tells the unique story of a forest ravaged by multiple fires and brought back to life by the local community and state government working together. The 364,000 acres that’s now Tillamook State Forest was owned by timber companies. Starting in 1933, the area was devastated by four huge fires dubbed the Tillamook Burn. After salvaging the burned timber, the timber companies wanted nothing to do with the blackened and now-worthless land.
In the largest reforestation project of its kind, the forest was replanted by hand between 1949 and 1973 by the state and Tillamook communities. Even schoolchildren helped out. There’s an exhibit with notes from those who participated, including a girl named Peggy who wrote, “My school came here in buses in ’52 to plant trees. Now our trees are big.”
The stately Douglas firs that tower 80 feet or higher in today’s Tillamook State Forest are just part of the fascinating story of Tillamook County, and we’ve just scratched the surface. There are trails to hike, clams to dig, beaches to walk or ride horseback on, waves to surf and kayak, and so much more. We’ll be back soon to discover more Tillamook treasures.
Harborview Inn and RV Park
Port of Garibaldi RV Park
Nehalem Bay State Park
Netarts Bay Garden RV Resort
Cape Kiwanda RV Resort and Marketplace
Tillamook Bay City RV Park
Tillamook RV Park
JB and Water Sportfishing
503-812-3474 | www.jbandwater.com
For More Information
Tillamook Coast Tourism
844-330-6962 | www.tillamookcoast.com