Oregon Coast

Where to Eat, Stay, and Play on Oregon’s Central Coast

Yachats, Florence, the Oregon Dunes, Reedsport, and beyond: This stretch of 101 comes with sea lions, a lighthouse, lots of sand, and a real whale of a tale.

By Margaret Seiler Published in the June 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

Somewhere around Waldport, a Portlander's chances of running into their neighbor on vacation start to dip. You still might not be surprised to see your massage therapist enjoying a farmhouse salad with chia seeds, lemon-fennel probiotic dressing, and hidden kraut alongside a Thor's Well IPA or a house kombucha at Yachats Brewing, but south of there those chances really plummet. Heck, a lot of Portlanders don't even know how to pronounce the natural features here, like Heceta (ha-SEE-ta) Head and the Siuslaw (sigh-YOOSE-law) River.

Start enjoying this far-from-Portland feeling at Cape Perpetua. Several trails leave from near the visitor center, but get the most bang for the buck (or view for the walk) by driving about two miles inland to the Whispering Spruce trail, a short loop to a rock shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

Heceta Lighthouse

Guests can't stay in the lighthouse itself, but the Heceta Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast in the old keeper's cottage has one of the most stunning settings on the coast. The views from its six rooms and wraparound porch vary with the weather and are as dazzling in a winter storm as in the summer sun. Wildlife refuge Sea Lion Caves and its many lounging pinnipeds are just to the south. An elevator ride into the echoing sea cavern might seem a steep ticket price if the whole family's in tow (two adults and two elementary schoolers can run more than $50), but it's an experience every Oregonian should have at least once.

Stop at Homegrown Public House and Brewery in Old Town Florence for a pint of its Exploding Whale Pale Ale. Named for the 1970 Oregon Highway Division mishap involving a detonation of a whale carcass that “blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds,” as KATU's Paul Linnman reported at the time, the beer goes well with Homegrown's just-enough-zing cheddar ale spread appetizer or glistening fried fish sandwich. Then stroll the quaint town, with kitchen and quilting stores and the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum. 

From Florence south, a sandy ribbon of dramatic dunes separates the Pacific from US 101. Roadside signs suggest “just dune it,” Les Schwab ads all mention sand tires for ATVs, and sprawling state parks like Jessie M. Honeyman and William M. Tugman are more oriented around the sand mountains or inland lakes than they are the ocean. Let lunch settle before taking a dune buggy ride from one of the many tour operators along 101. If not everyone in your crew feels like speeding over the sand, they can kill time with bumper boats, go karts, and mini-golf at Sandland Adventures. 

Pass through tiny Gardiner, where a couple who helped create a community art center in Montana are looking to do the same with a shuttered middle school, turning an institutional white building that had looked like an abandoned prison into the Oregon Coast School of Art, with drop-in dance classes, painting series, and summer student workshops. A very particular kind of art is celebrated in Reedsport every June with the Oregon Divisional Chainsaw Carving Championship.

Say goodbye to the dunes with a grand, time-warp dinner at Hilltop House, a
neon-signed wonder high above the road that might remind an old-time Portlander of the long-gone Henry Ford's, serving scallops, steak, chicken alfredo, and a heck of a view.