One of the great American drives winds along bluffs that overlook the Pacific Ocean, passing through unspoiled parks and funky seaside hamlets. Surf-carved rock formations jut from the sea and whales often spout offshore, adding to the visual drama. And no, it’s not in California.
The Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey to Morro Bay claims the majority of road-trip attention for the West Coast of the United States, but for a less-trafficked, more affordable and, dare we say, even more beautiful drive than California offers, pair a Portland visit with a road trip on the Oregon Coast. It’s possible to make the approximately 540-kilometre journey on US Highway 101 in one (very) long day, but try to allow at least three days to soak up the scenery between Brookings-Harbor, near Oregon’s southern border, and Astoria, which separates the state from Washington.
The Southern Stretch: Brookings Harbor to Florence
Some of the most stunning views of the wave-pounded headlands can be found along the less-populated southern coast. Timber, fishing and lily-bulb farms fuel the Brookings economy more than tourism, but Superfly Martini Bar & Grill, where they serve vodka from their own distillery and tasty panko-crusted fish tacos, is worth a stop. Coos Bay, the Oregon Coast’s largest city, marks the southern entrance to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a 65-kilometre stretch of undulating sand dunes popular with hikers and off-road-vehicle fans. The most impressive sand displays, some soaring 150 metres above sea level, are found in the Umpqua Dunes Area; the Eel Creek Trail provides nearby access away from the buzz of off-road vehicles. Florence, population 9,000, is representative of the charming towns that dot the 101: an outdoors-oriented enclave that’s home to the only known Steller sea lion population on the North American mainland and also has a worth-a-peek downtown set on the Siuslaw River.
Middle of the Road: Florence to Lincoln City
Whale watching is a staple of the Oregon Coast, and it’s possible to spot them without ever leaving your room at the gay-friendly Ocean Haven, just south of Yachats. The town of Depoe Bay is the state’s official whale-sighting capital, thanks to a pod of grey whales that take up residence there from March through December. Depoe Bay also has foodie cred since the 2009 arrival of Restaurant Beck, known for its seasonal menus of locally sourced ingredients. Queer-specific spots are scarce to the south, but Lincoln City is the home of Oregon Coast Pride in September and has a surprisingly hip hotel tucked into its beachfront, the Surftides Lincoln City — think nautical-themed motor lodge meets boutique hotel.
The North Coast: Lincoln City to Astoria
More towns fill the map on the northern coast, so don’t overlook the state park system. Nehalem Bay State Park sits on a 4.8-kilometre sand spit between the bay and the Pacific, the ideal spot for a seaside horseback ride. Sexy surfer alert: watch locals catch breaks on the secluded beach at Smuggler Cove in Oswald West State Park, which is particularly beautiful at sunset.
A popular weekend getaway spot for LGBT Portlanders, artsy Astoria is the coastal town most deserving of a longer stay. With a Sunday market May through October, cool museums and the occasional Q Night queer dance party at Astoria Coffeehouse & Bistro, it has a far more urban groove than you’d expect from a town of 9,500. Book into downtown’s trendy Commodore Hotel for artful accommodations that complement the town’s historic-hipster vibe. On a clear day, head up Astoria’s Coxcomb Hill to drink in panoramic Pacific Northwest views.
Astoria is roughly a two-hour drive northwest of Portland via US 26 West/NW Sunset Highway. To start the road trip in Brookings-Harbor, take I-5 South from Portland to US 199 South, which dips into California and connects to US 101 North via CA 197. The drive south through the Oregon interior takes about six hours.