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10 must-see stops on the northern Oregon Coast

Woman on rocks at Cape Kiwanda Dancing on the rocks at Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area.

Sculpted by powerful natural forces, Oregon’s northern coast combines the familiar with the otherworldly. Dramatic headlands separate sandy beaches and their adjoining communities. Like siblings, each town has its unique traits, as well as those that reflect a shared DNA.

The treacherous waters offshore are part of a longer ship-swallowing stretch known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. Yet when conditions are right, adventurous surfers and sea kayakers are quick to venture out.

Beachcombing is a year-round sport, and hiking through rain forests overlooking the shore can be amazing. While Oregon’s entire coast offers settings to behold, the roughly 100-mile northern stretch from Astoria to Lincoln City is particularly appealing—and easily accessible from Portland. Here are 10 places to soak in the wonders of an Oregon Coast road trip.

1. Astoria

Astoria Tower

Visitors admire the view from the 120-foot Astoria Column.

In Oregon’s northwest corner, Astoria sits at the gateway to the Columbia River Bar, where the Columbia River collides with the Pacific. This notorious stretch of the Oregon coast has claimed more than 2,000 ships since 1792, including the Peter Iredale, whose rusted hull remains on the beach at Fort Stevens State Park, about 10 miles west of town.

Astoria’s bustling riverfront district is filled with cafés, shops, and maritime attractions, including the Columbia River Maritime Museum, where exhibits showcase the area’s seafaring history from ancient times to the present.

From the riverfront, a 5-minute drive up Coxcomb Hill leads to unparalleled views from Astoria Column. A spiral staircase ascends to the 120-foot tower’s observation deck, but you can admire the scenery from anywhere on the grounds. The gift shop even sells balsa-wood gliders that you’re encouraged to loft into the air.

2. Gearhart

Gearhart Golf Course

Gearhart Golf Links is the Pacific Northwest's oldest course.

Sleepy Gearhart has a drivable beach and unpretentious Gearhart Golf Links, the oldest golf course in the Pacific Northwest, established in 1892. Next door, the 34-room Gearhart Hotel offers coziness just a block away from the beach. The hotel is part of the McMenamins group, which grew from one pub in 1983 to more than 75 restaurants and inns across Oregon and Washington.

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3. Seaside

Seaside Promenade

A 1.5-mile promenade lines the Seaside beachfront.

A lively arcade, casual oceanfront hotels, and a beach made for sand castles, kite-flying and skimboarding help make Seaside especially family-friendly. It’s easy to lose yourself in Funland Arcade, where you’ll find the latest video games and classic offerings such as Skee-Ball and bumper cars. Kids will get a kick out of the touch pools at Seaside Aquarium.

Bill Buoy

Local fisherman Bill Buoy shows off the crab catch in Seaside.

Among the hotels and inns that line the 1.5-mile beachfront promenade, the AAA Three Diamond Best Western Plus Ocean View Resort offers reliable comfort. For great people watching, try Mo’s Seafood & Chowder, a casual spot for clam chowder, fish-and-chips, burgers, and other pleasers. Its Seaside location, one of 9 in the local chain, is steps away from the Broadway Street turnaround, where a never-ending parade of humanity cruises past the bronze statue commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition.

4. Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock

Cannon Beach's Haystack Rock.

Tony boutiques and galleries lend a refined air to Cannon Beach. Its most famous attraction, a towering sea stack called Haystack Rock, is often confused with the slightly taller Haystack Rock in Pacific City, about 60 miles south.

Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock draws visitors to the beach for walks or rides on rentable, 3-wheeled contraptions called “fun cycles.” The visage of orange-billed tufted puffins grace T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other souvenirs throughout the town’s bustling seaside village, where restaurants and inns cater to a variety of tastes and budgets. Between April and early July, when they nest around Haystack Rock, you may even see the charmingly squat puffins from a distance. Keep an eye out for sea stars, anemones, and other marine creatures in the intertidal areas along the shore any time of year.

5. Oswald West State Park

Oswald West Surfers Trail

Surfers head to the beach at Oswald West State Park.

Coastal rain forest meets the sea at Oswald West State Park, where trails invite you to stretch your legs at any pace. Access is tricky because the small parking lots, right off Highway 101, fill up fast. From the north lots, the aptly named Short Sand Beach, popular among surfers, beachcombers and picnickers, is a mostly flat half-mile stroll away. The 2.5-mile (one-way) Cape Falcon Trail offers a more challenging trek through Sitka spruce, Western hemlock, and western red cedar to its namesake land feature. However, you need to hike only the first stretch to reach an impressive beach overlook. Trails in the south end of the park lead to the top of Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain.

You may also like: 4 perfect days in Central Oregon

6. Manzanita

Manzanita Signs

Manzanita has a charming small-town vibe.

Manzanita has fewer tourist amenities than its neighbors, making it more like a small town than a full-blown resort community. Visitors tend to rent vacation homes or camp south of town at Nehalem Bay State Park. When conditions are right, curling waves lure surfers and body boarders to Manzanita’s wide, sandy beach. The half-mile main drag between the highway and the sand includes inviting cafés and eclectic boutiques. If you have time to chill, settle in under the trees at Manzanita News & Espresso. If you’re tight on time, fill your picnic basket or ice chest with gourmet natural foods at Manzanita Grocery and Deli before you get back on the road.

7. Nehelam Bay State Park

Nehalem Horse

With clamming and crabbing, as well as horseback rides and kayak tours, Nehalem Bay State Park is a little like an all-ages summer camp. The park stays open year-round, but most activities take place spring through fall.

A bike trail runs the length of the park, which sits on a spit between its namesake bay and the beach, and it continues to neighboring Manzanita. In addition to 265 campsites with electrical hookups, the park also offers yurts and primitive sites for those with horses.

Even if you’re just passing by, stop by Nehalem’s downtown to sample local flavors. Don’t miss the remarkable convergence of house-made ice cream and inventive chowders at Buttercup Ice Creams & Chowders, a casual foodie landmark.

8. Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint

Cape Meares lighthouse

The lighthouse at Cape Meares is one of Oregon's shortest at 38 feet tall.

The scenic viewpoint at Cape Meares offers a glimpse at one of the Oregon coast’s most famous oddities. At 38 feet tall, Cape Meares Lighthouse, which until 1963 helped ships navigate the treacherous waters some 200 feet below, is said to be the state’s shortest lighthouse. Even when the lighthouse is closed for tours, its grounds offer prime viewing of the gray whales that pass offshore on their way to Mexico from late December through January, and on their return to Alaska from March through June. Cape Meares Scenic Viewpoint is also home to the Octopus Tree, a freakish Sitka spruce with almost no visible trunk, as well as the state’s largest Sitka spruce, a 144-foot-tall champion (48 feet in circumference) believed to be more than 750 years old.

You may also like: Must-visit spots beyond Washington’s Olympic National Park

9. Cape Kiwanda

Pelican Brewing Company

Diners can gaze on Pacific City's Haystock Rock from the Pelican Brewing Company restaurant.

From the beach along the south face of Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area, a short, albeit steep, hike leads to the top of the sandstone cape, which puts you nearly at eye level with the top of Pacific City’s Haystack Rock, just a few hundred yards offshore. From there, one trail leads around the cape, while another continues farther up an adjacent dune. Either direction offers unique views of the towering sea stack and the shorebirds that patrol these waters.

You can also admire Haystack Rock from the beachfront dining room at Pelican Brewing Company, which offers burgers, flatbreads, fish tacos, and other casual favorites elevated by a bounty of local and regional ingredients. (Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.)

10. Lincoln City

The Finders Keepers program in Lincoln City raises the bar on beachcombing by hiding locally crafted glass floats along its 7.5-mile beach. The treasures are inspired by the authentic Japanese glass fishing floats of yesteryear, which still occasionally wash ashore.

The beach links a group of neighborhoods that offer treasures of their own. In the centrally located Nelscott neighborhood, off SW 35th Street, you’ll find shops, restaurants, and a bronze statue of Joe the Sea Lion, the pinniped that captured local hearts in the 1930s. The Taft neighborhood, off SW 51st Street, is home to Lincoln City Glass Center, where you can watch glassblowing demonstrations, join a workshop, and shop for glass art.

Lincoln City’s family-friendly hotels include the Best Western Plus Landmark Inn, a Holiday Inn Express, and The Coho Oceanfront Lodge, which all have AAA Three Diamond status. If you’re in an RV or a camper, bunk down in Devil’s Lake State Recreation Area, which offers full-hookup sites near the center of town.

Seattle-based writer Rob Bhatt visits the Oregon Coast as often as possible.

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