Ultimate Coast Guide: Southern Oregon Coast
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Go here if: you enjoy dune buggies and antiquing—and don’t mind a bit of a trek.
Travel time: about six to seven hours from Seattle
Feed Seymour at Darlingtonia Botanical Wayside
A roadside preservation five miles north of Florence showcases one of southern Oregon’s rarest curiosities: the native carnivorous (it just likes insects—don’t worry) plant called Darlingtonia, or the pitcher plant. The state set aside an 18-mile loop off Highway 101 to highlight and educate the public about this strange, alien-esque plant. Feed me, Seymour!
Drive dune buggies at the Oregon Dunes
Towering, expansive and stretching nearly 50 miles from Florence to Coos Bay, the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area (855 Highway 101, Reedsport; 541.271.6000) is the result of millions of years of erosion from the coastal weather system. These are some of the largest oceanfront dunes in the world, and while they may resemble the Sahara, especially with the wind-rippled sand mountains sometimes reaching upward of 500 feet above sea level, there are no camels in sight.
Off-road vehicles reign supreme at the Dunes. There are 11 OHV staging areas; one of the more popular is the South Jetty Hill (park one mile south of Florence on South Jetty Road, off Highway 101), known as “Show Off Hill” to four-wheeling locals. Local company Dune Buggy Adventures (881 Highway 101, Winchester Bay; 541.271.6972; dunebuggyadventure.com) rents ATVs, quads and sandboards, while Sand Dunes Frontier Buggy (83960 Highway 101, Florence; 541.997.3544; sanddunesfrontier.com; from $28 for a half-hour) offers scenic tours via dune buggies.
Portions of the park, including Eel Creek (67760 Spinreel Rd, Lakeside, OR.; reservations call 877.446.6777, visitor center 541.271.6000) are vehicle free. In fact, the park is quite recreationally diverse, sprinkled with campsites and hiking opportunities. Hiking the dunes is challenging but spectacular; the picturesque, tall “oblique” dunes are a must-see, and best viewed from the John Dellenback Trail (formerly known as the Umpqua Dune Trail) at Eel Creek. Throughout the recreational area are more than 30 lakes and ponds, so in the midst of the desert, even water sports fly here, including fishing, swimming and canoeing. (Laura Shinn)
See the Sea Lion Caves
Thanks to another feat of spectacular wind and sea erosion, Florence is home to the largest sea cave in the world: The Sea Lion Caves (91560 Highway 101 N, Florence; 541.547.3111; $8–$12). This natural grotto lies almost 300 feet beneath the earth (reached via an elevator) and is home to a number of wild sea lions. It’s a fantastic chance to see these great creatures hanging out in their natural habitat, but bring ear plugs—the sound bounces, and those suckers are loud (and be prepared for some aromas). The cave—operated by Sea Lion Caves, Inc., a private, for-profit organization—is open daily except on Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Fish for history at Old Town Florence
Originally settled in the late 19th century, Old Town Florence is situated on the waterfront of the city where the Siuslaw River meets the Pacific. The rhododendron-heavy main drag, Bay Street, has managed to keep the look and feel of what Florence used to be: a fishing village. Nowadays, visitors can amble along Bay—and the new boardwalk overlooking the Old Town Marina—and leisurely pop into boutiques, gift shops and coffee joints. A batch of antique shops are located outside of Florence off Highway 101; our favorite is Brown Dog Antiques (575 Highway 101; 541.902.7986) for intriguing finds from the 18th century.
Discover a shipwreck at Coos Bay
The newest beach attraction around Coos Bay is a shipwreck—a wooden-hulled ship unveiled by receding sands after this year’s winter storms. Archeologists believe it’s most likely the George L. Olson, a 223-long schooner originally launched in 1917 that carried lumber along the coast until it ran aground in 1944. The deteriorating but impressive remains are located on a beach near the North Spit (stop at the Coos Bay Visitor Information Center, 50 Central Ave., Coos Bay; 800.824.8486; visit oregonsbayarea.org for an area map)—reachable by a four-mile trek on foot. (It’s snowy plover mating season, so no beach driving is allowed.) A photo is the only souvenir you’ll be able to take away: The wreck is now an official archaeological site and must be left undisturbed.
Tour the gardens at Shore Acres Park
Once the dashing, well-manicured grounds accompanying a private estate on Coos Bay, the formal gardens at Shore Acres (one mile past Sunset Bay State Park; 541.888.3732; shoreacres.net) survived years of disrepair before being purchased by Oregon in 1942. Today, the seven-acre park, located on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean, prides itself on being a “garden for all seasons.” Depending on the time of year, roses, dahlias, rhododendrons or daffodils may be blooming. In addition, the original owner, pioneer and lumber baron Louis J. Simpson, imported several unique flowers, plants and evergreen shrubs from all over the world, making the park a botanical smorgasbord.
Dig for clams at Charleston
Coos Bay—the state’s largest estuary—makes it a favorite spot for clam digging, especially around the small community of Charleston.
Several species of clams are found in the port of Charleston, and if you trek farther out into the bay, you’ll find softshell clams—not to mention razor clams on the beach. Marty Giles at Wavecrest Discoveries (541.267.4027; wavecrestdiscoveries.com) offers clamming adventures that include instruction, equipment, licensing and even how to prepare the tasty shellfish.
Bandon by the Sea
A once-secret community takes its place in the limelight
Situated on the southern portion of Oregon coastline where the Coquille River meets the ocean, the beachside community of Bandon by the Sea started out as a logging town. In 1885, a New Englander transplanted cranberry vines from Massachusetts in bogs near Bandon. Today, those vines are responsible for a lucrative industry; Bandon produces 5 percent of the nation’s cranberry crop. But as a travel destination, Bandon by the Sea, until recently, was one of the Oregon’s best-kept secrets.
The natural beauty of Bandon is hard to beat. Its coastline boasts striking forest-covered mountains that roll down to the foggy Pacific. Bandon’s square six-block downtown bustles with boutiques, antique shops and restaurants, yet has only three traffic lights. It’s also recreationally diverse. Feeling mellow? Fish for Dungeness crab off a dock in Old Town or take the scenic Beach Loop Drive to Face Rock State Park viewpoint (one mile southwest of Bandon).
For the more adventurous, explore Bullards Beach State Park (two miles north of Bandon, 52470 Highway101 N; 541.347.3501) and its enormously craggy sea stacks by horseback; Bandon Beach Riding Stables (54629 Beach Loop Drive; 541.347.3423; from $40) is open year-round and offers guided tours every day. Got some antsy kids? Take them on a mini-safari at the West Coast Game Park (46914 Highway 101 S; 541.347.3106; gameparksafari.com).
In 1999, Bandon’s proverbial cat was let out of the bag. That’s when the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (57744 Round Lake Drive; 888.345.6008; bandondunesgolf.com) opened five minutes south of the seaside gem, attracting upscale vacationers and thrusting Bandon under an international sporting spotlight. With three 18-hole courses meandering along the rocky Pacific and another slightly inland, golf aficionados have fallen over themselves with praise for the resort’s oceanside links (starting at $120 per round in Feb, from $100 Nov-Jan). Simply put, the Oregon coast has the geological chops—wind, trees and a rocky beach—for this Scottish game, and Bandon Dunes created a set of world-class courses—as well as a resort with full-service amenities—that utilize Bandon’s location to its fullest potential. The result is luxury sans the pretension. Rooms at the New England–style cedar shake lodge range from $100-$205, depending on the month—but charming, four-bedroom cottages nestled amidst a grove of firs are available, too. Featuring world-class Northwest cuisine, it’s the perfect resort—driven by nature, unassuming and subtly glamorous. Just like Oregon. (Laura Shinn)
This article was orginally published in May 2008
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