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A couple’s dream RV road trip on the Oregon coast

An overlook on the Oregon Coast Highway north of Manzanita offers dramatic cliffside views. An overlook on the Oregon Coast Highway north of Manzanita offers dramatic cliffside views.

Hungry and exhausted after a long hike, I am just about to fire up the camp stove at our northern Oregon campground when it begins to rain. Glancing at the campers across the way, my wife, Daysi, and I watch as they resignedly crawl into their cramped tents. We’ve been there: During our most recent tent-camping trip at Lake Tahoe, in fact, a sudden hailstorm interrupted our dinner and sent us fleeing into our car while juggling plates of half-eaten steak.

But not this time.

We stash our stove and camp chairs into storage compartments and waltz into our 22-foot Class C rental RV, relishing our elevated status. As we start cooking, the aroma of marinara sauce wafts through our mobile castle and my mind drifts back to idyllic childhood camping trips in northern Michigan, first in our family’s pop-up camper and then in a small travel trailer.

Fortunately, Daysi shares my love of the outdoors, and over the past couple of decades we’ve roughed it across some of the West’s most spectacular terrain. As we’ve gotten older, however, we’ve grown more accustomed to vacationing in cabins, lodges, and yurts. But the allure of camping has stuck, and we’ve always dreamed of getting an RV when we retire, which now (fingers crossed) isn’t too far away. In fact, it’s become something of an obsession. On the road to retirement, a persistent voice pesters me from the backseat of my brain: Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

We had decided to do a test run of this dream by renting a motorhome for a 10-day RV road trip along the Northern California and Oregon coasts. Our mission was twofold: to explore some of the Pacific Northwest’s most scenic coastal hiking trails and, more importantly, to find out if RV camping is all it’s cracked up to be.

Hitting the road

On a sunny late-July day, we pick up our home on wheels, a 2022 Sunseeker, from El Monte RV in Dublin, near Oakland. To get into the spirit of the trip, we want to give our RV a name, much like John Steinbeck’s (and Charley’s) tricked-out camping truck, Rocinante, and Ken Kesey’s (and the Merry Pranksters’) trippy psychedelic bus, Furthur. We christen our ride Hope. As in, we hope I can drive—and park—this behemoth. We hope we can distinguish the black water from the gray water. And we hope to soon retire and have one of these babies of our own.

Heceta Head

Fog rolls in at the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint near Florence.

While Daysi and I had planned this trip more than a year ago, it arrives at a consequential time for us. Still grieving the recent death of our dog, a convivial English springer spaniel who had been our traveling companion for the past 14 years, we are craving the calming nature of the forest and the romance and rhythm of the road.

Heceta Lighthouse

The Heceta Head Lighthouse, first illuminated in 1894, is the brightest beacon on the Oregon coast.

Our path to road trip bliss, however, is first fraught with busy Bay Area freeways. Almost as soon as we pull out of the rental lot, we’re nervously whispering sweet nothings to Hope as we navigate Interstate 580. The Sunseeker is built on a Ford E450 chassis and, fortunately, drives more like a van than a bus. Still, the RV is decidedly larger and less nimble than my crossover SUV, and it’s not until we see the first Sonoma County vineyards that we begin to relax and enjoy the Redwood Highway. 

What are the chances?

At our first camping stop in Oregon, Daysi and I hike from our campground at Sunset Bay State Park to Shore Acres State Park, a stretch of the Oregon Coast Trail that meanders along wooded bluffs overlooking fortress-size rocks in the sea. The trail eventually winds down to a road that dead-ends at Cape Arago State Park, where I’d arranged for a taxi to pick us up. “Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Daysi asks, looking around. “There’s no traffic here.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a Fiat pulls up alongside us. The passenger-side window rolls down and a voice calls out: “Hi, Brad and Daysi!”

I can’t believe my eyes. It’s Judy and Jody David, our former neighbors from Orange County. What are the chances?

I cancel the taxi, and Daysi and I ride with the Davids to their campground, Bay Point Landing RV Park, to catch up over drinks in their 34-foot Super C motorhome, which tows their Fiat. The Davids moved to Meridian, Idaho, in 2019 after buying their first RV, which they couldn’t store at their Orange County condo. Their new house has a dedicated 45-foot RV garage, and the retired couple have been enjoying motorhome vacations ever since. “The thing about RVing is you meet the nicest people,” Judy says. “Everyone is so friendly.”

Judy’s words are on my mind later that afternoon when, back at our campground, I recognize a couple whom we’d crossed paths with earlier on the trail to Shore Acres.

“How was your hike?” the man asks.

“Crazy story,” I reply.

Nehalem Campsite

The author’s campsite at Nehalem Bay State Park

I pull up a lawn chair at their campsite and we get to talking. Jason and Jutta Tlusty, from Woodburn, Oregon, started RVing long before they retired. They began with a 23-foot travel trailer, upsized to a 26-footer, then downsized to an 18-foot pickup camper so they would be more mobile.

“Now that we’re retired and not constrained by vacation time, we don’t call it vacation,” Jason says. “We call it road-tripping. We love the adventure. We just go.”

The Are we there yet? voices echo in my head while the couple tell me about their longest road trip: a 50-night sojourn to Alaska in 2019. They had set off without any campground reservations, staying at first-come, first-served provincial parks in Canada. A couple of days before arriving at Denali National Park and Preserve, Jutta scored 2 nights at the park’s Riley Creek Campground after someone else had canceled. “It was so easy,” she says.

Nehalem Beach

The beach at Nehalem Bay State Park

But Jason fears COVID may have changed the landscape of RVing forever. “All these people bought RVs after the pandemic started. And more people are working remotely from an RV or a camper full-time, making it more difficult to find a campsite, even in the off-season,” he says. “Campgrounds have been raising their prices, too.”

Indeed, the vagabond days when one could hop into an RV and spontaneously roll up to where the flowers are blooming, the leaves are turning, or the grapes are ripening may be disappearing. The RV Industry Association, which represents manufacturers and suppliers, says demand has skyrocketed since the onset of the pandemic, with a record 600,000 RVs shipped to North American dealers in 2021, shattering the previous high of 504,000, set in 2017.

Coast with the most

The Tlustys have given me a lot to think about as Daysi and I head north to our next stop: the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, a forested headland that had enchanted us when we first passed through several years ago. It was here, where the intoxicatingly lush rain forest meets the brawling ocean, that we first fell under the spell of the Oregon coast.  

Cape Perpetua

The Cape Perpetua Scenic Area has 26 miles of trails, all accessible from a U.S. Forest Service campground just off the Oregon Coast Highway.

In the morning, we set out from the Cape Perpetua Campground to hike the Giant Spruce Trail. It’s a sunny 70 degrees, and a light breeze is cutting through the trees. In Southern California, it’s the sort of day we’d take for granted. But in western Oregon, where the coast is frequently socked in with rain and fog, it’s the sort of day that’s greeted with giddy reverence. As we walk through the temperate old-growth forest, smiling hikers march past us as if headed toward a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

“Beautiful day, huh?” one says.

“Gorgeous day,” says another.

“You can’t beat this,” I reply.

When we arrive at the trail’s namesake giant spruce, Daysi and I linger on a bench, listening to the lullaby of a nearby creek and admiring the 185-foot-tall tree. Daysi notices how the mighty tree’s branches are wrapped tightly in bright-green moss—a gift from Mother Nature.

From there, we hike a mile to the Cape Perpetua Visitors Center, then cross under Highway 101 to the ocean. Watching the surf lash the lava rocks, we understand why landmarks here are bestowed with such tempestuous names as Devil’s Churn, Thor’s Well, and Spouting Horn.

Because we aren’t towing a car, I’d booked campgrounds with direct access to trailheads to limit the number of times we’d have to disconnect and reconnect the RV hookups. We’d seen enough RV-themed comedies (The Long, Long Trailer with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is our favorite) to put the fear of calamity in us. Daysi had warned me for months: “Once we get to a campground and get that beast leveled, we’re not moving it until it’s time to check out.” But as the week progresses, Hope begins to feel less like a beast and more like an old friend. We don’t mind leaving our safe confines to explore more of the coast.

Cape Falcon

The Cape Falcon Trail at Oswald West State Park.

So, for our last big hike, we unhook Hope from our campsite at Nehalem Bay State Park and drive 7 miles north to Oswald West State Park for a climb to the dramatic Cape Falcon lookout. Rounding the steep switchbacks near the top of the trail, I note how, more than anything, it’s the dense forests and the majestic trees—the redwoods, the sequoias, and, here in coastal Oregon, the Sitka spruce—that keep drawing us back to the Pacific Northwest. “When we retire,” I tell Daysi (for probably at least the hundredth time), “I want to be somewhere close to these giant trees.” 

The future can wait

Oswald Beach

A surfer braves the chilly Pacific at Short Sand Beach in Oswald West State Park.

Heading south on the 101 back toward California, on the last leg of our Oregon journey, we savor the coastal scenery. At times, the clifftop views remind me of Big Sur, only with mountains a deeper shade of green. To the east, on the other side of the forested Coast Range, lies the Willamette Valley, home to 700-plus wineries, and I fantasize about how many we’ll be able to visit when we finally stop punching the clock. As the miles unfold, we take stock of our RV experience.

All in all, the trip has been surprisingly smooth. Our biggest glitch was having to skip a planned hike at Cape Lookout because we couldn’t find a spot in the trailhead lot to park the RV. Other hiccups were almost comically minor. At our first Oregon campground, we awoke to discover we didn’t have electricity because I didn’t know to flip on the breakers after connecting to shore power. One evening, having run out of pinot noir, we had to pair our fresh wild-caught salmon with a malbec, like savages.

And over a campfire one night, after I delivered an impassioned, 5-minute soliloquy on how to roast the perfect marshmallow, I took one bite of the gooey treat and dropped the rest of it onto my shirt. When Daysi, still laughing hysterically, stood up to help me clean it off, my roasting stick got stuck on her sweatpants. I pulled the stick off of her and accidentally broke it in half, brushing the sticky marshmallow remains against my jeans in the process. The carefree silliness was like a scene out of my distant childhood. Yet, importantly for me, I was immersed in the moment.     

Contemplating all of this from behind the wheel of Hope, I hear that voice again: Are we there yet? I glance at Daysi, who’s now dozing in the copilot’s chair, and I picture our future selves, sporting wide grins on our wrinkled faces as we motor our future RV along some tree-lined, 2-lane back road with our future dog, a golden retriever named Rambler, curled up in the back. And I wonder if we’ll feel wistful then for days gone by, when there was more tread on our tires and more fuel in our tanks.

Ahead of us, the 101 rolls out toward a cloudless blue horizon, the dotted yellow line splitting the road like the pages of an open book that’s waiting to be written. We have a couple more nights to camp. A few more s’mores to make.

At least for today, we live in Hope.

Brad Wright is a copy editor for AAA Magazines.

* * * * *

Want to make this trip?

If you have enough time—and you’ll want to take at least 10 days—the Northern California and Oregon coast is a magical destination to explore, especially in the summertime.

Where to rent a RV: El Monte RV offers discounts to AAA members and it has several rental locations in California, including in Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and SFO/Dublin (near Oakland). For road-tripping the Northern California and Oregon coasts, consider picking up your RV in Dublin, near Oakland (no overnight on-site parking), or Sacramento (parking, $5 per day). (888) 337-2214; elmonterv.com.

Where to stay: The San Francisco North/Petaluma KOA in Sonoma County is a convenient first-night stopover before heading to the coast via the Redwood Highway (US 101).

Cobble together your dream RV road trip by camping at any of these excellent state parks and USDA Forest Service campgrounds:

  • Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Weott, California
  • Elk Prairie Campground at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Orick, California
  • Harris Beach State Park, Brookings, Oregon
  • Sunset Bay State Park, Coos Bay, Oregon
  • Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, near Florence, Oregon
  • Cape Perpetua Campground, Yachats, Oregon
  • Cape Lookout State Park, near Tillamook, Oregon
  • Nehalem Bay State Park, Nehalem, Oregon

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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