Head to Oregon's South Coast for Craggy Beaches and Painted Dinosaurs
Astoria, Seaside, and Manzanita are good and fine. The downside? Your neighbors are there, too. Grab the fam and drive down the South Coast, from Coos Bay—the urban center of this little universe—down US 101, along winding cliffs, pounding surf, and hidden gardens.
Time: 3–4 days
Distance: 342 miles from Portland to Brookings
Pack This: beach toys, camera, growlers
Get to Coos Bay in time for a fish-and-chips lunch at kid-pleaser The Boat, a formerly floating restaurant that now sits on dry land surrounded by a huge deck. (Bonus: checks are delivered with gummy worms.) If there’s a train lover in your car, plan to hit the Boat during the limited hours for the Oregon Coast Historical Railway museum next door. Alternatively, head to the Bay Burger Inn for stiff shakes and burgers that come in baby, regular, and king sizes.
Stop at Coos Bay’s Mingus Park for the stunning Choshi Gardens, started in the late ’80s in honor of Coos’s sister-city relationship with Choshi, Japan. The winding array of bridges, pagodas, and contemplative resting spots would be at home in any West Coast big-city Japanese garden; to find it all here feels like a discovery.
Add a half-pint of smoked sweet or hot Clausen Oysters to your road cooler for snacking, and a pick up a sourdough loaf from Empire Bakery, sure to come in handy if you visit Bandon’s Face Rock Creamery the next day. Snag other last-minute trip essentials at North Bend’s Pony Village Mall (also the offseason home to the town’s Wednesday farmers market, November–April) before grabbing dinner at the taxidermy-bedecked Blue Heron. This German restaurant slings hasenpfeffer (rabbit stew) and sauerbraten, with Ayinger and Hacker-Pschorr on tap and books by the founder scattered among the tables. (One tome promises “fun, frolic, and flippancy”; another details very strong feelings about the US government.) If the youngsters need more zing than schnitzel and spätzle, nearby 7 Devils Brewing has a kids’ menu where the chips are salt-and-pepper and the carrot sticks are actually spicy pickles. There’s an impressive live-music lineup, too.
For the night, book an Airstream or a Wedge cottage at “luxury” RV park Bay Point Landing (spring rates from $89–129/night). Its pool building and indoor play area are slated to be finished this spring. If the small bayfront beach that appears at low tide doesn’t satisfy, it’s just 10 minutes to Bastendorff Beach on the ocean proper.
Hit Shore Acres State Park ($5 day-use fee) to gawk at spring tulips in the ornate garden that stands as a vestige of an early-20th-century estate built by Louis Simpson, son of a Northwest timber magnate. Hike or drive a mile south for a look at Simpson Reef, part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and a popular hangout for seals and sea lions. Head back north for a stop at the Charleston Marine Life Center ($5 adults, kids free) to see whale and otter skeletons and a very much alive giant Pacific octopus named Octavius. Learn about another local habitat (estuaries) off Seven Devils Road at the South Slough Interpretive Center—or just take a break in its fireside armchairs.
Continue south to Bandon for an al fresco lunch at Tony’s Crab Shack, where you can have the namesake crustacean as a humble toasted sandwich, Dungeness crab cake, or cooked whole with lemon and butter. (Bonus for East Coast transplants: Tony’s also serves lobster.) Take in Old Town Bandon’s salt-water taffy vibe before hitting up Face Rock Creamery for ice cream and cheese samples. Continue south to the West Coast Game Park Safari and say hi to 400-plus animals, some of whom roam free (well, not the Bengal tigers or black bears) in what can feel like a giant petting zoo.
Find more snacks at Langlois Market and check out the day’s list for $5 growler fills, as well as the impressive can and bottle selection. (Signs strongly warned against breaking up the six-packs.) For the night, bed down in one of Port Orford’s old roadside motels or, for more of a couple’s retreat, book a cabin at the WildSpring Guest Habitat ($198–328/night; see below).
The entry price at Prehistoric Gardens ($8 kids, $12 teenagers and up) can seem steep, but a) you’re supporting a struggling business in a rural economy, and b) the kitschy painted concrete dinosaurs are a confirmed hoot. Plus, the easy, fully accessible walkway through huge redwoods and giant ferns offers all-natural air conditioning and a nice leg stretch. For an indoor break, Gold Beach Books is the coast’s version of Powell’s: two stories of new and used, with local author callouts and a coffeeshop. Pull off for vistas along the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, including Natural Bridges and the dramatic slopes of Indian Sands. For a less-cliffy ramble, continue toward Brookings to the paved walkways of Harris Beach State Park.
In Brookings, non-driving adults can grab happy hour margaritas at Oxenfrē Public House or a whimsical seasonal at Chetco Brewing Co (fill a growler with Chetco’s house-made birch beer for a kid treat). Both are stops on the Wild Rivers Coast Food Trail, and buy time before the big decision: for the drive home, do you noodle back the way you came, or dip into California to circle back through the towering sequoia stands of the Redwood Highway? —MS
Along the Way
Is your South Coast road trip more flirty than family-oriented? Leave the kiddos at home for an escape to wind-scrubbed Port Orford’s WildSpring Guest Habitat. Each of the eco-friendly B&B’s five plush, forest-ringed guest cottages is oriented for maximum privacy (windows staggered to avoid intra-cabin peeping). And beyond the cabins’ web of ferny pathways—lined with whimsical paraphernalia, labyrinths, and hammocks—find quite possibly the most picture-perfect soaking tub on the coast, slate-lined and overlooking the pounding surf. —RD