The Oregon coast is famous for its 350 miles of public beaches and dramatic cliff-side lighthouses, and fall is an ideal time to visit: Prices are lower than during the summer season, the beaches and towns have a little more elbow room, and the cool fall breeze is refreshing. From whale watching to hiking to antique shopping, it seems there's something new to do around each curve. When it comes time to eat, there are plenty of seafood restaurants and brewpubs in the area―Oregon has more than 70 microbreweries across the state. What better place to enjoy a locally made pint while watching waves crash against the shore than in a seaside restaurant?
This four-day, 255-mile road trip starts in Astoria, the oldest settlement west of the Rockies, and travels down Highway 101 through charming towns in the north and central coast, each with a unique range of offerings. Fly in and out of Portland, which has the closest large airport. The two-hour drive to Astoria on U.S. Highway 30 takes you along the Columbia River, and U.S. Highway 26 traverses the coastal range. With sweeping vistas all around you, it may be hard to keep your eyes on the road, so build frequent stops into your trip and remember to pack your camera.
Day One: Astoria
Nestled along the Columbia River, this fishing town, once the "cannery capital" of the United States, has polished its image in recent years, converting some of its waterfront canneries into restaurants, shops, and galleries. History lovers will enjoy how the town has retained its blue-collar feel, which is part of its charm. Start your trip at the 125-foot-high Astoria Column (503-325-2963), the highest point in town, and climb 164 steps for a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean and the town below.
Next, check out the Columbia River Maritime Museum (503-325-2323, www.crmm.org), with interactive exhibits, including piloting a tugboat and a chance to walk on the bridge of a World War II destroyer. While on the waterfront, climb aboard the Riverfront Trolley (503-325-8790), which is run by a team of friendly volunteers who share the history of Astoria during the 45-minute trip. Hop off at the 11th Street pier to stroll the many art galleries and antiques shops there, and along the main drag of Commercial Street. Then have lunch at the Wet Dog Café (503-325-6975), Astoria's only brewpub. Housed in a converted waterfront warehouse, the Wet Dog's traditional pub fare features fish and chips, plus eight microbrews on tap.
After lunch, watch fishing boats from the Sixth Street pier before jumping back in the car for a 10-mile trip west to Fort Stevens State Park (800-551-6949, www.oregonstateparks.org). The 3,700-acre park originally served as a military fort and is now home to the shipwreck of the Peter Iredale, an English sailing ship that ended its working life here in 1906. Ask for self-guided tour material at the information kiosk to plan your afternoon, including touring the abandoned fort and military museum. There are also 14 miles of biking and seven miles of hiking trails that wind through the park.
Where to stay: Built in 1902, the historic Rosebriar Hotel (room rates from $69; 800-487-0224, www.rosebriar.net) in downtown Astoria was once a convent. You can rent a carriage house or choose from one of 12 rooms in the main building, some of which overlook the river.
Day Two: Seaside and Cannon BeachIt's only 16 miles from Astoria to tiny Seaside, but it feels like you're stepping into another world where a carousel, an arcade, bumper go-cart parks, and other carnival-like sites sit between the shops on Broadway, the town's main street. (For decades, Seaside was also the home of one of classic cookbook author James Beard's cooking schools, though it no longer exists.) Have breakfast on Broadway at Pig 'N Pancake (503-738-7243, www.pignpancake.com), a local eatery famous for its dozen pancake varieties. Then walk toward the waterfront until you reach Heritage Square, home to the Seaside Candy Man and his 170 flavors of saltwater taffy (503-738-5280, www.seasidecandyman.com).
Back in the car, continue south on Highway 101 for nine miles to Cannon Beach, where Hemlock Street is lined with antiques shops, secondhand bookstores, and art galleries featuring the work of local artists. After shopping, watch seabirds nest at the beach next to Hay-stack Rock. At 235 feet, it's the third-highest sea stack (rock island) in the world and a great spot to explore tide pools. Stop for a predinner pint at Bill's Tavern (503-436-2202)―we recommend the fruit-flavored Blackberry Beauty―before heading over to cozy J.P.'s at Cannon Beach (503-436-0908) for fresh, local salmon and Oregon pinot noir.
Where to stay: Check into the Cannon Beach Hotel (room rates from $70; 800-238-4107), a European-style bed-and-breakfast where your stay includes a French basket of pastries and fruit delivered to your door with the paper each morning.
Day Three: Tillamook, Lincoln City, and Newport
The highway veers inland during the 50-mile trip south from Cannon Beach to Tillamook. You'll know you're there when you see cows; the area is famous for its dairy industry. Sample four types of cheddar cheese, plus 40 flavors of ice cream, during a tour of the Tillamook Cheese Factory (503-815-1300, www.tillamookcheese.com), Oregon's largest cheese factory, which also offers delicious homemade curds.
Spend the early afternoon driving along the Three Capes Scenic Route, a meandering 40-mile stretch of shoreline. Stop at Cape Lookout State Park for what's considered the best view of the Oregon coast. Hike two and a half easy miles along the peninsula as waves crash 400 feet below. The cape is named not only for its vantage point, but also for its 28 designated whale-watching spots. Twice a year (mainly during the months of December and March), grey whales can be seen on their way from Alaska to Baja California, Mexico, then back again. Trained volunteers man the posts during certain whale-watching weeks to help you spot the spouts (visit www.whalespoken.org for more information).
Back on four wheels, continue south for 45 miles to Lincoln City, which boasts the shortest river in the world, the 120-foot D River, and proclaims itself as the kite capital of the world. This month, watch hundreds of kites fly across the sky during the annual Fall Kite Festival, October 8 and 9. While here, enjoy local rockfish, Pacific halibut, and Oregon shrimp at the Blackfish Café (541-996-1007, www.blackfishcafe.com). Then drive another 30 miles to Newport to top off the evening at the Rogue Ales Public House (541-265-3188, www.rogue.com), which has more than 20 house beers (free tastings will aid your decision making).
Where to stay: Climb aboard the Newport Belle (room rates from $100; 800-348-1922, www.newportbelle.com), a bed-and-breakfast stern-wheeler (with five spacious rooms and decks to lounge on), docked at the Newport Marina.
Day Four: Newport and the Oregon Dunes
Start the day walking through Newport's Old Town bay-front area, and watch sea lions sunning themselves on various decks along the way. Stop for lunch at Mo's (541-265-7512, www.moschowder.com), where the first bowl of the locals' favorite clam chowder was served more than 50 years ago.
Ten miles south on Highway 101, you'll find the town of Seal Rock, named for the seal-shaped rocks that jut 20 feet above the water. Another 25 miles farther is Heceta Head Lighthouse. Climb the steep half-mile to the lighthouse, and notice the old lightkeeper's house on the cliff side on your way up.
Stop by the sea lion cave just south of Heceta Head, then wrap up your trip with a visit to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area 30 miles south (541-271-3611). Here the sand dunes reach 500 feet above sea level. The best place to climb them is at the Umpqua Dunes (10 miles south along Highway 101; look for the Umpqua Dunes Trail signpost), or rent an all-terrain vehicle at Dune Buggy Adventures (rates from $35 per hour; 541-271-6972, www.dunebuggyadventure.com).
Where to stay: For a room with a cliff-side view of the ocean, return to Heceta Head Lighthouse―the old lightkeeper's house is now a six-room bed-and-breakfast (room rates from $133; 866-547-3696, www.hecetalighthouse.com).
Enjoy an early start for your three-hour return trip to Portland. From Newport, take U.S. Highway 20 to Interstate 5 if you're looking for the fastest route. Or retrace your steps and stop by places you missed―and have one more bowl of hearty Northwest chowder.
Megan McMorris is author of Foghorn Outdoors Oregon Hiking. She lives in Portland, Oregon.