Astoria, built at the banks of the mighty Columbia River at the border with Washington, is at the northern end of the Oregon coast, so it’s a great place to start a coastal drive. It’s tops for another reason, as well: At the crest of 600-foot-high Coxcomb Hill, the 125-foot Astoria Column gives those who dare climb its 164 steps (sorry folks: no elevator) a magnificent look at the Columbia River, the town of Astoria, and the impressive Astoria-Megler Bridge. At four miles long, it’s the longest continuous truss bridge in North America and quite spectacular.
From part one, my adventure driving the Oregon coast continued picks up in Astoria…
In museums: Lewis & Clark, The Goonies and maritime history
Billed as the first permanent settlement on the U.S. Pacific coast, Astoria dates back to 1805, when the Lewis & Clark Expedition spent the winter at nearby Fort Clatsop. Three miles to the east of Astoria, the fort has been reconstructed to show how the expeditioners lived that cold and rainy winter. Fur trader John Jacob Astor built a fort to protect his interests six years later, and thereafter lent his name to the town.
Besides taking a walk or ride around town to see some of its elegantly preserved and painted old houses. A stop in the expansive Columbia River Maritime Museum gave me insights into everything from the fur trading era and the area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” to Astoria’s fishing and canning industries. Admission includes a stop at the Lightship Columbia, the last seagoing lighthouse on the west coast.
Film buffs might want to venture into the Oregon Film Museum, housed in a former jail, where the cells hold memorabilia of the film The Goonies. The museum celebrates the state’s filmmaking history, which started in 1908 with The Fisherman’s Bride. Other Oregon-made films include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Paint Your Wagon and Animal House.
Nearby, the Flavel House Museum harkens back to 1885, the year the Queen Anne manse was built by retired sea captain George Flavel. Today the site is surrounded by a lovely garden, and the house is filled with period furnishings.
A lunch stop at Buoy Beer Company introduced me some of the best clam chowder ever, a platter of local Wallapa oysters, and a serving of Portuguese-style steamer clams. If you guessed that the eatery makes its own beer, you’d be right (17 selections on the menu the last time I looked), but you probably don’t know that you can actually see resident sea lions through a glass portion of the floor.
Cannon Beach and Oregon’s most famous rock
Stoked by seafood, photographer Bill Rockwell and I headed south 28 miles along Route 101 to Ecola State Park, which gave us our first look at Haystack Rock rising majestically out of the sea. The park has numerous viewpoints located on high bluffs, perfect for a first look at Oregon’s most famous rock.
At Cannon Beach, the much-photographed rock lies just offshore and was visible a few hundred feet from the balcony of my room at Surfsand Resort. I could hardly wait to venture out and head determinedly for an up-close look at this 235-foot-tall colossus, which formed millions of years ago when volcanic lava flowed into the ocean, cooled and was pushed upward by geologic shift. It’s best to explore the rock at low tide when you can get a bit closer, but keep in mind that its fragile ecosystem and variety of nesting bird species make it a protected area.
Tip: The town is one of the best places on the west coast to see the tufted puffin.
Named for a cannon that once washed up on its beach, Cannon Beach has the sophisticated vibe of Laguna Beach and La Jolla, (though it’s not quite there yet), with smart upscale shops with eye-appealing landscaping and 11 art galleries representing original work by regional and national artists. National Geographic named Cannon Beach one of the “World’s Most Beautiful Places,” and John Villani named it one of the “100 Best Art Towns in America” in his book of the same title.
Dinner that evening at the Wayfarer (adjacent to Surfsand Resort) proved an adventure. I got to try for the first time in a while an appetizer of sauteed, tongue-shaped, Panko-encrusted razor clam and an entree of sturgeon, rare to find on a menu. Award-winning chef Josh Archibald has connections with local fishermen and farmers and sources much of his food items from them. I was lucky to be there on a day when fresh-caught sturgeon was the menu’s daily feature, fresh from the Columbia River.
If you explore the Cannon Beach art scene, Northwest by Northwest Gallery at 232 N. Spruce Street features the work of several regional master artists including bronze sculptor/public artist Georgia Gerber and PBS-featured fine art photographer Christopher Burkett. Just look for the sculpture garden outside displaying Ivan McLean’s signature red sphere.
Tillamook: Famous cheese curds and the outdoors
The 37-mile drive south to Tillamook took us past many sites we’d have liked to have visited, including Munson Creek Falls (at 317 feet it’s the tallest in the Coastal Range) and Kilchis Point, home to the largest Native American village on the north coast. Under a time constraint, we did squeeze in a stop at Oswald West State Park, where we hiked down a trail along fast-flowing Necarney Creek through a glen of towering trees to the beach. The trail ends at a large semicircular cove where I lingered to watch some impressive wave action that smashed aggressively against the rocks.
From Oswald we headed non-stop to Tillamook, home to the Tillamook Creamery, where we arrived just in time for lunch and a taste of the infamous tempura-battered cheddar cheese curds with sriracha ranch sauce, a delectable I heard about all the way up in Astoria. The casual restaurant serves up pizzas, sandwiches, burgers, and mac and cheese. Be sure to stop at the ice cream bar for a free sample or two. “Hazelnut Salted Caramel,” “Marionberry Pie” and “White Chocolate Raspberry Yum” were three of my favorites.
The creamery draws over a million visitors annually, each of whom can take a free, self-guided tour of the facility that opened in June of 2018. The tours take in the cheesemaking and packaging process with free samples provided along the way. According to corporate communications coordinator, Chandra Allen, the creamery will turn 110 in 2019, and photos of the dairy cooperative’s early years are posted along a wall near the entrance. Today’s members number 90 dairy farmers who contribute a mix of milk from Jersey (better output) and Holstein (creamier product) cows.
Cape Meares Lighthouse, Tillamook Bay and an absinthe fountain
Ten miles west, Cape Meares Lighthouse is one of nine surviving lighthouses on the Oregon Coast. First illuminated in 1890, the lighthouse stands 217 feet above sea level on a scenic vista on Three Capes Loop, yet its 38-foot tower is the shortest of all nine. Cape Meares also has an excellent view of a large colony of nesting common murres. In fact, it’s one of the most populous colonies of nesting sea birds on the continent.
An early check-in at Sheltered Nook gave me a chance to walk down to the beach at Tillamook Bay before dinner. I must say that staying in a tiny home (365 square feet of space) was a new adventure, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless. At Sheltered Nook, a series of the small structures ring a central open space with a communal fire pit. Each tiny home holds up to six people and includes a loft (with low ceiling), a fully equipped and stocked kitchen, a common room, a bedroom, a bath, a front porch with barbecue grill, and complimentary breakfast.
In Tillamook, it was fusion night at Pacific Restaurant, where chef Philip Biermann and his wife Nelia Serapion are restaurant veterans with years of experience between them. Listening to the tunes of a live pianist, my photographer and I started with a round of grated yellow beets topped by a similar one of red beets served with radish sprouts and a blackberry ginger balsamic dressing with a sprinkle of Icelandic lava salt. That was just the beginning of a meal of creatively assembled dishes that included courses of scallops, shrimp, and a large double-cut pork chop brined for 100 hours and then cooked sous vide.
An exciting addition to the Pacific Restaurant experience is the bar’s absinthe fountain that prepares the drink the proper way. Because absinthe is not normally drunk neat, the fountain delivers the right amount of ice cold water into the absinthe-filled glass. It’s fun to watch and oh-so-chic.
In part three: Kiwanda to Florence.
For more information on the Oregon coast, visit traveloregon.com.
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Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.