Standing 500 feet above the crashing waves and rugged cliffs of the Oregon coast, I am struck by a somewhat counterintuitive notion. As inspiring as this panorama is, my family and I aren’t necessarily here for the scenery.
In fact, if this first trip in our yearlong quest to explore America’s scenic byways is any indication, the jaw-dropping views from roadside turnouts like this are only half the story.
Our 12-month expedition, which we’ve dubbed “The Scenic Route,” is designed to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the National Scenic Byways program. So we thought it was only fitting to start here in Oregon on one of the first routes to achieve this special designation from the Federal Highway Administration.
The Pacific Coast Scenic Byway stretches 363 miles from California’s coastal redwoods to the Washington border at the mouth of the Columbia River. Along the way this undulating ribbon of asphalt took us past strikingly beautiful stretches of rocky coastline, bucolic rural scenes and small seaside towns fronting miles of wide, sandy beaches.
And yet, as different as it was from many of the other 150 scenic byways on the list, all these iconic roads share a number of important qualities that make them ideal RVing destinations.
For starters, they are almost by definition the roads less traveled, places where traffic jams are all but unheard of and national fast food chains have scarcely gotten a toe-hold. They are also places where the forces of natural and man-made history intersect, often with fascinating results. Then there are the abundant recreational opportunities — in this specific case everything from world-class beachcombing to mountain biking — that can’t be overlooked. Last but certainly not least is the scenery. Oregon can hold its own with anything on the face of the planet.
In short, these roads are the very definition of the scenic route, roads chosen as much for the pure pleasure of driving them than their sheer efficiency at delivering us from Point A to Point B.
We began our trip on the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway by following Highway 101 north across the border into the southernmost towns of Brookings and Gold Beach, known for mild weather and a sea stack-studded coastline. While this gorgeous meeting of land and sea is generally the first thing that comes to mind when people think of the Oregon coast, we pushed on to experience what in many ways is an even more remarkable natural wonder.
Being the father of a teenage boy means constantly being on the lookout for activities with a suitable cool factor and, for my son, not much ranks higher on that scale than riding an ATV like it’s a free-spirited bronco. Fortunately for us, the 40-mile Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area that runs between North Bend and Florence provides a perfect playground for this kind of four-wheel rodeo.
Spinreel Dune Buggy & ATV Rentals (541-759-3313) set my wife and I up with a side-by-side two-seater while my son opted for the independence of a traditional quad. Once suitably briefed and outfitted we headed for the dunes where we spent hours climbing the gentler slopes of these colossal sand piles, some of which are as tall as a 50-story building. At the top we were rewarded with views of the largest coastal sand dunes, coastal lakes and the blue waters of the Pacific.
If you find the idea of renting your own ATV intimidating, there are also a number of guided tour operations that will allow you to get first-hand look at this dramatic landscape while letting someone else do the driving.
Admittedly there’s no shortage of impressive viewpoints along the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway. I can tell you from personal experience, however, that not all of them are created equal.
We came to this conclusion shortly after lifting off from Apex Heli’s base (541-997-3270) at the city of Florence’s sleepy airport. Our pilot smoothly climbed to 500 feet as he headed north along the coastline toward the Cape Creek Bridge and historic Heceta Head lighthouse. Built in 1894 on an isolated rocky headland 100 feet above a sandy cove, the still-active lighthouse is considered to be one of the most picturesque of its kind.
Though the folks at Apex Heli offer several options for these half-hour flightseeing tours, I would highly recommend our route as an outstanding way to get a perspective on this stunning landscape.
While many of the small towns here have no shortage of shops peddling t-shirts and refrigerator magnets, I’m a sucker for souvenirs of a more do-it-yourself nature. So when I heard that the folks at Lincoln City’s Jennifer Sears Glass Art Studio (541-996-2569) were willing to let a five-thumbed artist like me try glassblowing, well, I couldn’t resist.
Given the fact that the art of glassblowing can take years to master, my instructor allowed me to take a remarkably hands-on role in everything from gathering the molten glass from the furnace (“hotter than a volcano,” she nonchalantly informed me) on the end of the blow-pipe to rolling the red-hot blob in small chunks of colorful glass first to shaping it with gentle puffs of air. The cantaloupe-sized globe now hangs in our kitchen window, giving me both a pleasant reminder of our time here and the satisfaction of knowing that I created something beautiful with my own two hands.
Continuing north, the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway turns inland as it meanders through the national forest and small dairy farms before emerging in the bay-front town of Tillamook. Among its other claims to fame, this small burgh is best known for being the home to one of the West Coast’s largest dairy- and cheese-making operations.
We immersed ourselves in this century-old local industry at the Blue Heron French Cheese Company (503-842-8281) where we sampled a tasty assortment of gourmet brie and blue cheese, mustard, hot sauce, wine and more.
Leaving Tillamook, we headed north toward the town of Seaside, Cannon Beach and the route’s terminus in Astoria. This area is home to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park (503-861-2471), a collection of sites marking the terminus of the Corps of Discovery’s arduous westward journey to the Pacific Ocean.
We spent the morning touring Fort Clatsop, a recreation of the tiny 50-square-foot outpost where the expedition housed more than 30 people during the winter of 1805-1806. On this sunny, 75-degree day, it seemed hard to imagine the journal entry we read that recorded it rained on all but 12 days of the four months the party spent here.
While we traveled the length of the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway in five days, I can tell you there are enough memorable diversions here to keep anyone amused for weeks. That is the point, to take in the scenic route and not worry about speed. It is also, surprisingly enough, about a whole lot more than just the scenery.