Posted in North American Travel

Sea Cliffs and Sunsets: A Drive along Highway 101 on the Oregon Coast

Last year, a friend and I hit the road for a great adventure across America’s West.  For 6 weeks, we cruised through mountains, camped in a temperate rainforest (and froze our baby toes off), basked in hot springs, and drooled over towering redwoods. 

We spent most of our trip along the classic Highway 101, the coastal road that hugs the water along the Pacific Ocean from Washington to California.  The road is beautiful in all three states, but the drive along the Oregon Coast is truly spectacular.  

There is so much to stop and see on this route, and one could easily spend months pulling into small towns and meandering along sea cliffs.

Hello, great adventure.

Below, I’ve listed out my top “Must-Sees” along Oregon’s Highway 101. The list starts with the northernmost stop and continues south. Remember, driving times are estimates and 101 is a two-lane, curvy-road for most of its length. Traffic does happen and should be planned for.

Astoria, Oregon (Google pin here)

Astoria is the first town you hit when crossing the Columbia River from Washington into Oregon. It is a bit dated, and much of the river is consumed by large barges that carry cargo up the river. However, Astoria is a great place to begin your journey along the 101 as you get to experience crossing the Columbia on the Astoria-Megler Bridge.

Try not to drive off as you gawk around you. Photo credit: road-trip-usa.com

This truss bridge is the longest of its kind in the United States, and offers spanning panoramas of the Columbia River basin. Eagles, hawks, and ospreys are common sightings as they dart above the bridge, and the height of the bridge grants you spanning views of Oregon’s hills that you won’t gain elsewhere on this journey.

If stopping in Astoria, check out the Astoria waterfront trolley, which takes passengers along a 3-mile route through the historical port-city. We weren’t able to jump aboard due to Covid-related closures, but it looked super cute from the road, and very instagrammable.

If you don’t think this is cute, there is no hope for you. Photo credit: nworegontransit.org

Cannon Beach, Oregon (Google pin here) (40 minutes south of Astoria)

This town wasn’t on our agenda when we first headed out. We were suppose to spend a few days in Seaside, Oregon, just 20 minutes north of Cannon Beach. Every blog I read spoke about how amazing Seaside was, and I almost booked an Airbnb, sight-unseen, to stay here.

I am beyond glad that we took the risk and went through the town first. Seaside is cute, in a 1950’s, carnivalesque, where-is-the-line-between-corny-and-quaint kind of way. But it is incredibly busy, packed full of arcades and outdated motels, and it misses the mark on the quintessential coziness that images of the Oregon Coast represent. We drove in, had a look around, and then immediately headed back out for hopes of something different.

Instagram lied to me. It wasn’t this cute. Photo credit: seasideconvention.com

My tip? Skip Seaside and its cheesy attractions and head straight for Cannon Beach. This town represents everything that a visitor to the coast is looking for.

No crowds+Iconic rocks=happy traveler!

Situated between Ecola State Park and Hug Point Recreation Area, Cannon Beach is surrounded by dramatic sea cliffs, towering pines, and beautiful hiking trails. The town has a spanning beach with tide pools and towering sea rocks (such as Haystack Rock and The Needles). These rocks are the nesting sites of dozens of sea birds, including the Tufted Puffin. (Fun Fact: This is the most accessible spot in the Northwest to view these adorable birds.) If that isn’t reason enough to visit, then you are all a lost cause, but here’s an additional bonus. For my 90’s kids out there, this is also the filming sight to the much beloved classic, “The Goonies“. If you don’t know what movie I’m talking about, leave now, watch it, and come back. You can thank me later for expanding your cinematic education.

Just be sure to pack a real jacket so you don’t have to walk the cold beach wrapped in a blanket…#travelhacks

The downtown of Cannon Beach is comprised of quaint, northwestern seaside architecture. Think grey shingles on everything, and you’ve got a good picture. There are family-owned seafood restaurants, cozy bookshops, eclectic hippie stores, and perfect little cafes to grab that much needed coffee to ward of the ocean breeze. Cannon Beach is also a haven for fancy people with too much money, so you also get the random shop of luxury clothes and overpriced rain jackets (ogle at some windows and then go grab yourself a gelato).

It is sickening to think people actually get to live here. Photo credit: starfishluxuryrentals.com

We opted to rent an apartment in town and stayed for a couple days. It rains often in the Pacific Northwest, so this gave us the best chance of a few sunny days to enjoy the outdoors. Cannon Beach is a great place to spend hours walking the shoreline, grabbing a delicious calm chowder, hiking in the nearby state parks, and spending an evening on the beach with a fire while watching the sun dipped below the Pacific Ocean.

Rockaway Beach, Oregon (Google pin here) 40 minutes south of Cannon Beach, Oregon

Rockaway Beach is a town the hit its heyday a couple decades ago. The town is cute, but many of the condos are outdated and Cannon Beach still wins in a “perfect, Oregon town” race. However, Rockaway is a great stop along Highway 101 to stop and stretch your legs.

Diamond Beach is a beautiful beach for a morning stroll with a coffee, offering spanning views of the ocean with a sea arch in the distance. Rockaway Big Tree Trail is a great, family-friendly boardwalk offering a nice break from the road as you walk amongst massive ferns and towering trees. This is a great stop to get out and get some air, before continuing along your way.

Aw, one of the three days a year this coast is sunny. Photo credit; thrillist.com

Cape Lookout State Park (Google pin here) 40 minutes south of Rockaway Beach, Oregon

This is a great stop for those looking for a more strenuous hike– check out Cape Lookout, South Trail for a great 6-mile trail down the cliffs and to a remote beach. There is a campground here for those looking to experience camping on the beach, and the pin above links to a spectacular overlook, where you might catch sight of whales in the summertime. The campground offers tent sites, RV sites, as well as yurts and deluxe cabins, so this could be a perfect overnight stop to spend a night with the stars and surf.

“Camping”-Oregon Style. Photo credit: stateparks.oregon.gov

However, this is also just a great route for those looking for a beautiful drive and scenic overlooks. South of Rockaway Beach, Highway 101 stays inland for awhile. If you have time, put in this state park into your maps so you can stick to smaller county roads that stay along the coast. After the state park, you can connect back with 101 south of Pacific City.

Depoe Bay, Oregon (Google pin here) 1 hour and 10 minutes south of Cape Lookout State Park

This was by far one of my favorite stops along the entire stretch of Oregon’s 101. The town of Depoe Bay sits on the precipice of a cliff, with adorable shops situated along the main road and sweeping views of the ocean. Sea lions and seals are frequent visitors on the rocks below, and there are countless seafood restaurants and novelty stores that can easily fill up an afternoon.

Not pictured: the very strong wind. Bring a jacket.

The town is famous for its tiny, 6-acre harbor hemmed in by the cliffs and houses. It is claimed to be the smallest navigable harbor in the world, and visitors can walk along the bridge above this picturesque harbor to get a first-hand account of just how adorably small it is. You can also spot seals sunbathing on the rocks around the harbor. (I would share my picture of the seals…but they look like very blurry logs instead of adorable sea creatures. Enjoy this harbor shot instead.)

My one complaint? Not one boat named “Jenny”.

My favorite part about this town? We visited in the summer, and were able to hop aboard a whale watching tour with Tradewinds Charter. For just $25 each, we got an hour-ride out of the bay, along the coast, and got up and personal with some beautiful gray whales (Gray whales migrate along this path December-February as well as March-May, but some stick around all summer).

I promise, that’s a whale. I was just terrible at photography on this day, so this is the best I got.

Compared to the prices of whale watching tours up in Washington (sometimes running as over $100 a head), this felt like a steal, and we got to see the Oregon Coast from the water– which is a must for any visitor! Our boat had about 15 guests with 3 crewmen, and we were able to move about freely throughout the ride.

The boat ride is worth the $25, even if you’re not there during whale season.

If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to sit this part out, or stock up on dramamine. The Pacific Ocean doesn’t like to play the smooth and calm game.

Seal Rock State Recreational Site (Google pin here) 35 minutes south of Depoe Bay, Oregon

View from the parking area. In case you don’t want to walk. (Looking at you, Dad.)

We stumbled upon this stop just driving along the coast, and it was a great place to get out and take a nice walk along the beach. Seal Rock is known for its towering rock formations just off the beach, and the coastal area is full of tide pools to check out as you walk along the sand (check tide tables here, and plan to go during low tide). The walk from the parking are to the beach is steep, so those unsteady on their feet may want to jump on the back of a trusty family member. There is also an overlook area here that you can easily access from the parking area without doing the great descent. Sea lions and seals frequent this area, so keep a sharp eye out for these lovable creatures.

If you get there at super low tide, you can walk right up to the basalt rock formations!

Pro Tip: The town of Seal Rock is also a great overnight destination for travelers looking for a quaint, coastal town. While my favorite is Cannon Beach, I can’t deny that this town was definitely adorable and I could easily spend days here. A quick perusal on Airbnb also revealed some great options for houses and apartment. We stayed just down the road in Yachats at Deane’s Oceanfront Lodge. While the rooms are small, this is a beautiful, privately-owned coastal motel that just screams American road trip. I was here with a friend, but this is a great romantic stop (you can thank me later).

The town of Yachats. Also a great place to stay for a few days!

Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint (Google pin here) 20 minutes south of Seal Rock Recreational Site

Just south of the infamous Thor’s Well, is a little pullout on 101 overlooking the ocean. We stopped here for photos (and to wipe sea spray off of the windshield), but found a small hiking trail leading down from the overlook to the rocks below. I mention this stop because these rocks contained the best tide pools by far that we saw on all of the Oregon Coast. The best part? They also had no one else around (unlike Thor’s Well).

Not a place you want to go barefoot.

Sea-stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs, and fish fill this area, with the occasional seal popping up just beyond the surf to say hello. We showed up just as low tide was turning, so we enjoyed about an hour of adventuring along the rocks and peering into the underwater world before the rising water forced us to turn back. This adventure requires sturdy shoes, solid feet, and the acceptance that you will probably slip on seaweed, but if you’re up for it, give it a go! Just be careful where you step, as this is a fragile ecosystem. Stick to dry rock without any barnacles so you’re not damaging the creatures we all love.

This was before I got access to a fancy, underwater camera…

Heceta Head Lighthouse (Google pin here) 15 minutes south of Neptune Viewpoint

Ok, honest moment. We actually didn’t stop here (thank you, bad weather), but we did see it from the road–so that kinda counts. This list wouldn’t be complete without a picturesque light house, so here you go. Heceta Lighthouse has an easy overlook just south of the turn, and it offers panoramic views up the coast with the charming light house front and center. This is also a bed and breakfast, so if you’re feeling fancy, check it out!

How it’s suppose to look when you’re not drowning in rain. Photo credit reluctantly goes to my sister, Sarah Reed…who got to see it in the sunshine.

The famous Sea Lion Caves (pin here) are a few minutes south of here, so if you haven’t had a chance to see a sea lion yet, pull off here, pay the $14 to get in, and bask in the glory that is flubber and fur.

My sister stopped here and got to see the caves…without sea lions. They leave the caves in early Spring to have their babies, but you can see them sunbathing outside. (See below)
#nextlifegoals.

Port Orford to Brookings Drive (1 hour route) 2 hours from Heceta Head Lighthouse

Okay, so if you’re looking at a map, you might have some questions. I skipped a lot between the last stop and Port Orford. Most notably, Coos Bay and Dunes City– both featured in most travel guides for this area. However, in my quest to stay honest, I did not find the southern portion of Oregon’s 101 as picturesque as the northern portion. Many of the towns (especially Coos Bay) felt run-down and outdated, missing the quaint shops and welcoming aura that perforates villages along the northern stretch. We stopped in many areas along the way, but didn’t find anything to beat what we had already seen, until we hit the stretch of road between Port Orford and Brookings, the final hour of 101 in Oregon…

This portion of the road can arguably be the most stunning and jaw-dropping of the entire route. While northern Oregon wins in cute towns, this stretch wins in twisting curves, dropping cliffs, and spanning views of pine trees, redwoods, and roaring waves. I included this as a route rather than a stop, because I feel like this entire area is a stop, and should be treated with leisure. To break up the drive, you can stop for a hike at Cape Sebastian Trail, a 6-mile (roundtrip) hike through the trees down to the beach. This trail is steep, so it may not be for everyone in the family (like the one who chose to wear flip flops today).

Yes. It really does look like this. I was just too busy gawking to remember to take a photo, so photo credit goes to: tripsavvy.com

I adored this portion of the drive, and believe it deserves much more than the hour it takes to just drive it without stopping. So plan to pack a lunch, wear some sturdy shoes, and enjoy your final stretch of Oregon’s 101– with one hell of a finale.

Even Mr. Crab says this route is amazing.

Wrap-Up

As you can see, there is so much to take in along Oregon’s 101. These are just a few of the hundreds of stops you can make along the route, and the scenery never gets old. Since this is a road-trip, it is also very affordable (especially if you opt for camping at the numerous state parks along the way!). Food can get pricey (as most of it is seafood, yum!), so stop in a few grocery stores along the way so you can plan for affordable picnics.

The best part? Most of the attractions along Oregon’s 101 are completely free! Parking and beach access is free along the route (unless you’re accessing a State Park), and hiking is always free.

Have you visited the Oregon Coast before? Drop a comment below of your favorite part of this amazing drive!

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