We’re often asked what our favorite place has been so far on our Year on the Edges of America adventure. “Wherever we’ve just been” has become my standard answer.
That’s especially true of Oregon, which has catapulted near the top of our Must-Return list. The coastline is all public, making it more accessible than in any other state we’ve visited, and it boasts magnificent views. The wildlife is abundant – we saw elegant elk, spray-spouting whales and frolicking seals. The history of the Beaver State is significant, the hiking and biking has been great, and we made a couple of great new friends.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream, though. We had a horrific blowout on a narrow two-lane highway midway down the coast – a smoking, stinking mess that was scary and difficult. The decimated tire was just the symptom; the cause was dry and overheated wheel bearings – for which there’s no easy fix on a Sunday.
We wound up spending the night in the parking lot of a Les Schwab Tires in Coos Bay to be sure were No. 1 on the fix-it list the next morning. We came away from the whole experience extremely impressed with the tire chain’s professional, efficient, polite and affordable service and thankful that our mishap cost us only 24 hours, $114 and no injuries to anybody.
The best thing about Oregon?
We made some great Casita friends.
We’ve kept a tally of Texas-made Casita travel trailers on the road. It’s a small, family-run company with an eclectic customer base. So far, we’ve seen 38 in our seven months on the road, including one clear out in Nova Scotia in July and another way up in British Columbia last month.
We hit the jackpot in Oregon – both in quantity and quality.
We’d been in the state for barely a week and already we’d seen nine Casitas. The best was the one that happened to park near us at Fort Stevens State Park on the northern tip of the Oregon coast. That’s because owners Bob and Alison, a cool couple in their 50s from Ontario, Canada are so fun and interesting.
We paused to compare Casita notes one afternoon in the middle of the campground circle. The impromptu encounter lasted at least a half hour. Bob and Alison have been on the road in their beloved Casita since June; they enjoy many of the same things we do.
An example: One of our favorite spots on the Washington coast was the National Park Service’s South Beach campground on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
We loved that campground, too!
We had the best view from spot #55.
We stayed in spot #55, too!
Turns out they’d been in the spot just a night or two after we had. Their timing was a bit better. It rained during our stay; it was sunny and bright during theirs. Still, we felt a cosmic connection. Of all the campgrounds and all the campsites in Washington State, what are the odds?
Bob is a retired firefighter; Alison recently retired from a leadership role in a non-profit. We quickly learned we have a lot in common – the love of travel, an appreciation for nature’s quiet, a parent who died of Alzheimers complications, lawyer sons, etc.
They’d planned on moving on the next day. G invited them to dinner. They decided to extend their stay.
It’s a good thing. G made his famous shrimp goat cheese pasta.
Bob and Alison brought cheese, wine and firewood. Here’s Alison slicing some delicious white cheddar.
Here’s the chef at work over the campfire.
The final prep included a wonderful beet salad, the last of the pickled beets from friend Annie’s garden in Missoula.
We spent some five hours that evening chatting, drinking and savoring gastronomical delights.
Bob and Alison traveled across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (they didn’t like the state parks there, too tight) and then west along the border on the Canadian side through Saskatchewan (which they loved for the quiet and the dark skies), through Waterton Lakes, Banff and Yoho national parks, across Kamloops into the Olympic Peninsula and now down the Oregon coast. Their tour almost mirrored ours!
They’ve been to 25 U.S. states but never Texas. We raved about Big Bend, the Hill Country, Guadalupe Mountain and Palo Duro State Park. It would be fun to do the Bluebonnet Casita rally with them in Bandera!
Eventually, we got to dessert. It was a banana-peach-strawberry flambé a la Georges. Here’s a short video.
The next day, we both departed and headed south. Amazingly, we found ourselves some 80-plus miles further down the coast at precisely the same campground late that afternoon, twin Casitas next to each other (theirs is a 2011, ours a 2007), totally by coincidence.
We watched the sun set together from the beach that evening at Cape Lookout State Park.
The next morning, we said goodbye again. Who knows for how long? Maybe we’ll hook up in the redwoods of California before they turn around to head home to Ontario….
The beautiful coastline
In addition to Bob and Alison, one of the best things about Oregon is its coastline – thanks to former Gov. Oswald West.
In 1913, Gov. West got a law passed declaring Oregon’s seashore a “public highway.” This prohibited private ownership of any land between the high and low tides. The law was challenged but reaffirmed by the Oregon Legislature in 1967 (the new version modeled, believe it or not, on the Texas Open Beaches Act).
As a result, there are no “Private Property” or “No Trespassing” signs on the coast. Oregon’s beaches, capes, bluffs and headlands are accessible for all to enjoy.
Some of the best views are from Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach. Here is the view looking south down the coast.
This is looking more west from the same park. You can see the Tillamook Lighthouse in the distance. Built in 1879, “Terrible Tilly” shined its beacon out to sea until it closed in 1957 and nesting seabirds returned to Tillamook Rock.
We loved our picnic at this park, especially when we learned that the land the point is on was given in 1932 to Oregon State Parks by three families with distinctly Belgian-sounding names – Flanders, Glisan and Minott. Other landowners in the area followed suit. And in 1994 the Elmer Feldenheimer family donated a wide strip of land around the park’s northeast boundary that ensured a forest buffer for the park, which now totals more than 2,700 acres.
Eventually, we drove further south. But we didn’t get very far before we had to pull over again to soak in more scenery. Here’s a view looking back north to the town of Cannon Beach.
The Oregon coast is more developed than Washington’s, where much of the coast is protected by the Olympic National Park, the surrounding national forests and Indian reservations. Both coasts are gorgeous – Washington’s is wilder, with limited access; Oregon’s more accessible, also more crowded.
Near the town of Garibaldi, fishing boats were lined up one afternoon in Tillamook Bay. We watched one of them snag what looked through the binoculars to be a huge salmon. We heard the men hoot in delight as they landed the fish on the deck of the boat.
Here’s a view of the coast from Cape Lookout State Park.
G and I went for a walk. I was taken by this camper with a sleeper-hammock who brought her paints in her backpack and paused long enough to try to capture the late-afternoon vista on her canvas.
And by this fellow, who toted his fishing pole from the back of his bike on the beach.
Another great viewpoint was at Rocky Creek.
I couldn’t stop taking photos, wanting never to forget this beauty. Here’s looking south into the sun a bit.
Here’s looking more north.
We decided to picnic here and enjoy the view from the Casita’s “living room” window. G made a great halibut lunch.
We hated to leave.
One night we camped at Beachside State Park. I was feet up on a beach chair by 3:30 p.m. reading my book.
G was next to me, bird watching.
It wasn’t all sunshine and brightness. One day we could hardly see the coast for all the fog. And it rained a lot. At Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, we bundled up for a three-mile loop walk out to the beach and back from our Waxmyrtle campsite. Here’s what it looked like when we got there.
Not all of Oregon’s coastline is the along the Pacific. Earlier in the week, we’d crossed over the mouth of the Columbia River on this four-mile bridge from Washington to launch our Oregon adventure by way of the town of Astoria.
It took us a moment to digest the fact that we’d actually seen the very beginning of the Columbia River nearly a month ago in British Columbia. This is the spring-fed Columbia Lake on Aug. 31, nearly 1,500 miles before any of its water reaches the Pacific Ocean.
The abundant wildlife
We saw lots of wonderful wildlife in the Beaver State (but no beaver).
You already saw in the photo leading this post of the three elk who greeted us at our Fort Stevens campground one afternoon. They grazed the area for a good hour-plus, completely unruffled by gawking campers with cameras or the occasional car cruising for a campsite.
One night four raccoons pestered us for dinner scraps. We’d left the back hatch to the car up, and one of them nearly jumped in to snoop around before I could close the door.
Another afternoon we watched a half dozen spray-spouting gray whales cruise back and forth just off shore at Depoe Bay State Park. We saw several more at Rocky Creek. My iPhone picked this particular moment in time to malfunction so I missed recording the perfect tail-in-the-air wave one whale gave us, but it will live in my mind’s eye forever.
Here’s the best I could do before my phone froze. The whale is to the right of the foaming water and has just shot a spray of water into the air.
Here’s another whale a few moments later.
Days later, at Simpson’s Reef miles further south, we spied the New York City of sea lions and seals. They were quite the conversational bunch, barking and roaring so loudly at one another that I wondered what they were discussing.
You can see them here in the distance sunning themselves, despite the cloud cover, on the various rocks and sandbars. Note the clarity of the shallow water in the foreground as the tide recedes.
I always assumed that sea lions were just a bigger version of seals. Not so. From the information plaques at the various viewpoints, we learned:
- California sea lions are chocolate brown and bark. The males can get to 8 feet and 750 pounds.
- Steller sea lions are goldish-red. They do more of a low-pitched roar. They are the largest of the sea lions, with the males reaching 10 feet and weighing a ton.
- Harbor seals have gray coats, with unique and distinct spots of dark gray or white. They have that very cute, innocent-looking round head and big eyes. They can reach six feet and 300 pounds.
- The northern elephant seal is gray and bigger than the harbor seals – and most sea lions. They look like logs when they rest on rocks. They snort, with the males inflating their bulbous noses to make a drum-like sound during breeding season. These guys can reach 16 feet long and weigh more than two tons.
We saw all four from our vantage point at Simpson’s Reef. So did the couple in the center of the next photo. They communed nearer to the seals and sea lions after walking down the half-mile trail to the water’s edge when the tide was out.
The significant history
The first thing we did upon entering Oregon at Astoria – the first permanent European-American settlement on the West Coast – was head over to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park at Fort Clatsop. The fort and museum there underscore the astonishing accomplishments of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their two-year-plus trek from the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers at Camp River Dubois in southern Illinois out to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Their 44-man Corps of Discovery – plus Sacajawea, the Shoshone wife of French-Canadian expedition member Toussaint Charbonneau, who acted as translator and toted her infant son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, for most of the trek – covered 8,000 miles and encountered close to a dozen Indian nations. They managed to smooth their way past them all, losing but one man along the way, believed to have died from a ruptured appendix.
Their mapping of the West in 1804-1806, at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson, shaped the lives of untold Americans, Canadians and Native Americans for generations to come. I’m currently reading Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, set in the late 19th century. Many of the decisions that the real-life Ingalls and Wilder families made about where to farm and how to start a new life were predicated on findings of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Reading Prairie Fires while learning more about Lewis and Clark made both experiences all the more vivid.
Lewis and Clark also filed reports on 122 animals previously unknown to Western science. One of them was the prairie dog, which Lewis called “barking squirrels” because of the sound they make when approached. The expedition, after considerable effort, even succeeded in flushing a prairie dog out of its hole so they could ship it back to President Jefferson as a specimen of their scientific discovery.
A museum plaque noted that the expedition took 15 modified 1792 and 1793 militia rifles with them – obtained from the very Harpers Ferry, West Virginia arsenal that we visited in May on our bikes.
We walked out to the re-created Fort Clatsop, named for the tribe of Indians it ultimately displaced, and marveled at how physically small it is.
Tagging, it seems, is hardly a new phenomenon. On the expedition’s return to the east, Clark carved his name into the sandstone near Billings, Montana and it is reportedly still visible there today.
But taming the wilds of America isn’t Oregon’s only claim to historical fame. It’s also home to Tillamook Creamery, a farmer co-op that dates to the 1800s and built its first factory near the coast in 1949.
Tillamook “means land of many waters.” The creamery – a regular Disneyland for cheese and ice cream connoisseurs – produces 170,000 pounds of cheese and 18,000 gallons of ice cream every day. It distributes across the western United States.
There’s the factory, the above-ground visitor’s center with windows looking down on the working factory floor, a free cheese-tasting area, a gift shop – and a huge food court featuring, of course, loads of ice cream and yogurt.
We did it all. Some fun facts we learned along the way:
- The co-op works with farms of all shapes and sizes. Some member-farmers raise 100 cows; others several thousand.
- The farmers send them 1.6 million pounds of milk a day. In less than 24 hours, they turn the fresh milk into cheese or ice cream.
- It takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. They use 8-foot tall cooking vats that require special walking decks for the testers to access the contents. It takes less than two hours to turn the milk into cooked curd. Each vat holds 53,500 pounds of milk. That’s 6,220 gallons.
- Butter was the first dairy product made in this valley in the 1800s. The creamery now produces enough yogurt to fill six Olympic size swimming pools annually.
- Tillamook ice cream has more cream and less air, making it weigh a half pound more per gallon than the FDA standard.
- A high-speed machine seals to 120 packages a minute. They actually go through a metal detector for quality control.
- They cut 1 million pounds of cheese a week. That’s 115 two-pound baby loafs a minute
- The taste testers grade 62 blocks of cheese a day, tasting up to 500 samples. (These are real human beings.)
- Tanker trucks roll through the country all day long, picking up milk from their member dairy farms. Each tanker truck holds 6,000 to 8,000 gallons of milk.
- The creamery receives 25 truckloads of milk a day. The milk usually arrives at the factory within an hour of leaving the farm. In less than 24 hours the milk is turned into cheese or ice cream.
Of course, we had to sample the wares. G tried the coffee almond and the Oregon black cherry. I went for the Oregon hazelnut with salted caramel. (We also shared some Tillamook mudslide chocolate late one evening at the campsite, courtesy of Bob and Alison.) G pronounced it some of the best ice cream he’s had in his life.
I won’t argue with that.
A few days later, purely in the name of scientific research, we sampled the wares of Face Rock Creamery in the town of Bandon-by-the-Sea. It’s similar to Tillamook Creamery in its proud Oregon origins but smaller, less expensive and without as expansive a visitor’s center overlooking the factory floor.
Face Rock boasts many kinds of made-on-site fresh cheeses from local cows, including my newfound favorite peppercorn cheese curds, as well as ice cream, yogurt and clotted cream.
This series of definitions was fun. (G is a bit of a blue cheese guy; I’m more of a goat-cheese gal.)
Our conclusion: The espresso and Bordeaux cherry ice creams were every bit as good as Tillamook – and the $2 “child-size” cups bursting with robust double scoops, a real bargain!
The Oregon coast bike route stretches nearly 400 miles from Washington to California and attracts thousands of cyclists every year.
Some of the state parks have paved bike paths, separate from the roadways, which makes it a delight to bike around historic areas, through the forests, and along various spits of land separating the ocean from bays and inlets.
We biked a bit of everything. And loved it.
We spent two nights in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and enjoyed bicycling its paved paths. We were surprised by the prevalence on the dunes of OHVs (off-highway vehicles, similar to the ATVs of Texas, but bigger and more aggressive). In North Carolina, the huge windswept sand dunes are dominated by hang gliders, here by loud and fat-tired quads – rather undermining the stereotype of Oregon as a bastion of liberal quiche-eating tree-huggers.
We saw many a courageous cyclist along Highway 101. In Washington one morning just over a week ago, we saw three young women with full panniers huffing and puffing their way headed south along the coast. We passed them and settled into a campsite later that afternoon, puttering the evening away and spending the night. When we departed the next morning, we passed them again – they’d caught up to us – and we marveled at their strength, perseverance and endurance.
Ten days and hundreds of miles later, we were at a viewpoint at the top of a long hill on the Oregon coast. We looked back and saw three cyclists slogging their way up the steep incline. Their bike panniers looked vaguely familiar….
Sure enough, when they reached the top and high-fived one another, we realized it was the same three heroines.
Turns out they’re from Switzerland, doing the full Washington-Oregon-California scenic byway, camping along the way, having a grand time.
They’d spent the intervening 10 days pedaling steady-eddy without diversion, fit and focused … while we lollygagged our way along, biking a few miles here a few miles there, eating cheese and ice cream and complaining about the cloud cover….
So much for thinking of ourselves as adventurous.