Cruising the Pacific Coast Highway - Washington and Oregon
Above photo: Fishers offload fresh-caught salmon at Westport, Washinton's marina.
Story and photos by Joe Rogers
Traveler’s long-awaited road trip starts in Seattle and winds through Washington and Oregon.
Rain from the saturated forest canopy drips onto my tent as early morning light filters through Washington’s Kalaloch Campground in Olympic National Park. Perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the campground is a three-hour drive from Seattle, where yesterday I started my 1,700-mile road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway to San Diego.
For years I’d set aside my obsession with writing about classic American road trips to work jobs I didn’t enjoy because I believed that paying bills was more important than happiness. As a child, seeing my mother work three jobs yet still struggle to pay monthly bills after her divorce is what created this mindset, and I carried it well into adulthood.
Then, in 2005, I met Hailima. Her disregard for anything that holds her back from living life on her terms was both new and intoxicating for me.
Over the years, her support and at times, her tough-love approach as she repeatedly urged me to “live life and stop worrying so much,” changed my life. Hailima isn’t along for this adventure — she’s back home in Colorado — but her influence is why I’m here. As I raise my hand to unzip the tent, the shiny new wedding band on my finger reminds me of that.
As I climb out of the cozy sleeping bag, it’s a little chilly and my back aches — but I’m excited about driving the Pacific Coast Highway, a rite of passage for most rubber tramps like myself. On the first day, after a quick coffee at Pike Place Market and a glimpse of Seattle’s picturesque skyline from Kerry Park, I steered my rental car toward Highway 101, headed for the campsite.
Washington Offers Drivers Spectacular Views
The drive in the northern Olympic Peninsula brought heavy rain, dense fog and brief patches of brilliant sunlight from Port Angeles and Lake Crescent to La Push. Repeatedly, I was inundated with spectacular views of emerald rainforests, sprawling beaches, twisted cliffs and reflective waters, all infused with pungent aromas of saltwater and wind-sculpted Sitka spruce.
After breaking camp, today’s drive offers more of the same, and because the summer crowds have departed, I encounter more clear roads and quiet moments than I’d expected.
I drive south for 70 miles, passing Queets, Neilton and Humptulips. In Aberdeen, birthplace of grunge music icon Kurt Cobain, I visit the small memorial park dedicated to him. Then I detour 20 miles west to Westport, situated on the southernmost peninsula known as Point Chehalis, where expansive views of Grays Harbor and the Pacific Ocean greet visitors. The town is known for its fresh seafood, charter fishing adventures and good surf.
I spend the warm afternoon devouring crispy fried oysters at Aloha Alabama BBQ & Bakery and walking around the docks. Seagulls chatter, charter boat bells clang and fishermen unload fresh salmon. All that — and the picture-perfect sunset over the quieting marina — convince me to stay one more day. Tomorrow I’ll find some waves to surf and enjoy a few more of those fried oysters.
Two days later, I begin a relaxed 85-mile drive to Oregon. I pass thick forests, open pastureland and oyster farms. Some 42 miles from South Bend, the self-proclaimed “Oyster Capital of the World,” I arrive in Long Beach, home to restaurants, T-shirt shops and Marsh’s Free Museum, a delightfully bizarre shop filled floor-to-ceiling with trinkets, funky antiques and sideshow oddities. I buy a few kitschy gifts and then pick up some tasty doughnuts at the local bakery to enjoy while wandering down the walkable main drag.
Oregon’s Attractions Invite Exploration
From Long Beach, it’s only 18 miles south to Astoria, Oregon, the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. Near here, where the mighty Columbia River merges with the Pacific Ocean, local Clatsop Indians made contact in December 1805 with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery. The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park at the site boasts a visitor center, a replica of the Fort Clatsop stockade and wooded hiking trails.
Astoria is a community of antique stores, craft breweries, late Victorian-era homes and riverfront restaurants that pair fresh seafood with rugged Pacific Northwest views. After strolling along the town’s Riverwalk, I drive to Coxcomb Hill and climb the 164-step spiral staircase of the Astoria Column, a tower built in 1926 that sits in a city park. Billowing clouds hide Mount St. Helens’ volcanic slopes to the east, but views of Astoria-Megler Bridge and the Columbia River estuary draw “oohs” and “aahs” from everyone around me. Though I missed it on this trip, the Columbia River Maritime Museum also comes highly recommended.
A 15-mile drive brings me to Seaside, where I wolf down a plate of fish and chips at The Crabby Oyster, check into my hotel room and then make my way to Ecola State Park, some 20 minutes farther south. A short walk to Ecola Point rewards me with a sweeping shoreline view backed by Cannon Beach’s iconic coastal charm, rocky sea stacks and sprawling mountain ridgelines. I’ve chased the sun here for yet another experience — one of rolling waves, faint purples and soft tangerine sunset tones — that I’ll try my best to describe when I get home, back to Hailima. I hope the photo I text to her conveys the magic of this moment.
Coastal Stops and a Creamery Delight Travelers
The next morning at Sleepy Monk Coffee Roasters in Cannon Beach, I swap travel stories with retiree Bruce Maxwell, who offers me a seat at his table in the crowded café. “I bet you’re seeing a lot of beautiful places on your trip,” he says.
I tell him I’ve got quite the running list. “There’s definitely no shortage of scenery,” I say. “It’s pretty incredible out here.”
I spend two days driving the remaining 300 or so miles of Oregon coastline. The journey to Lincoln City, 86 miles from Cannon Beach, features eye-candy overlooks, scenic state parks, cattle-dotted dairy farms and an impromptu self-guided tour at the Tillamook Creamery while enjoying a cup of their lip-smacking marionberry pie ice cream.
I make time to send Hailima photos of my homey patio chair at Sailor Jack’s Beachfront Inn in Lincoln City, the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport and Heceta Head Lighthouse near Florence. That last one, taken from above the lighthouse situated 200 feet above the ocean, is her favorite. Then I’m off again, following Oregon’s forested coastal corridors through fishing towns such as Waldport, Yachats and Bandon. Every stop on the drive heightens the senses and I find myself inclined to linger, so the trip takes more time than I’d planned.
With the music turned up and the last Oregon mile finally ticking away south of Brookings, I look toward California as it comes into view. If these past 700 miles serve as my introduction to a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, I can only imagine what the Golden State has in store for me.
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