California's Pacific Coast Highway gets the bulk of road trippers’ attention, but the 363-mile journey south down Oregon's U.S. 101 rivals the Golden State's beauty. This five-night trip starts in Astoria, which is about a two-hour drive northwest from Portland (home to Portland International Airport, for those flying in for the journey). It ends at the southern end of Oregon's coast in Brookings, where you're about equidistant from Portland and San Francisco (six or seven hours). If you're on your way south, you can't go wrong with a visit to Redwood National and State Parks, just a short drive from Brookings over the California border.
The unpredictability of the coronavirus means travel restrictions are constantly evolving. Be sure to check Oregon's rules for visitors from out of state in advance, and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe travel.
Day 1: Astoria to Cannon Beach (25.5 miles)
Located at the mouth of the Columbia River, the snug port city of Astoria is often considered the Oregon Coast gateway. Start your day at the Astoria-Megler Bridge in Maritime Memorial Park and stroll along the paved Astoria Riverwalk a little more than a mile to the Columbia River Maritime Museum. There, exhibits and artifacts orient you to the region's nautical history. Come lunchtime, get your first taste of the coast's succulent seafood at South Bay Wild Fish House, which gets raves for sea-to-table fare. Order one of the hyperlocal Dungeness crab dishes.
Jump on 101 and drive south (a little less than an hour) to Cannon Beach, easily recognizable for its 235-foot sea stack — the smaller but more famous of the coast's two Haystack Rocks. Explore its pretty downtown area, with quaint shops housed in salt-weathered cottages bedecked with blooms, then make your way to the beach. At low tide, endless tide pools fill with chartreuse anemones, inky urchins and bright-orange sea stars. Also look for tufted puffins in spring and summer. At dinner, treat yourself to photo-worthy ocean views and pan-fried razor clams or Chinook salmon at the Wayfarer Restaurant and Lounge.
Where to stay: Five miles south of town, just steps from the beach, the Inn at Arch Cape has just six rooms that feel like private cottages, with fireplaces and small kitchens.
Day 2: Cannon Beach to Newport (108 miles)
The total drive today is around two and a half hours, but it's all about the journey. Ten miles from Cannon Beach is Oswald West State Park, named for the governor who preserved Oregon's coastline for public use. An easy trail right off the highway leads through a lush rain forest to Short Sands Beach, a gorgeous stretch for a morning walk.
Continue to Tillamook and its Latimer Quilt & Textile Center (open Mondays, Wednesday and Saturdays), which showcases antique quilts, hand-woven fabrics and sewing notions. View works in progress in a room full of looms and spinning wheels. On the Tillamook County Quilt Trail, a self-guided walking tour, see more than 30 wooden quilt blocks displayed around town.
A short detour onto Oregon 131 leads to the Three Capes Scenic Route, which winds past three giant headlands: Cape Meares (currently closed), Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda. Drink in the scenery at multiple pull-offs, then stop at the Pelican Pub and Brewery in Pacific City, home to the coast's other Haystack Rock, for an ice-cold craft beer and lunch on the beach overlooking Cape Kiwanda. A menu favorite: flatbread topped with homemade beer sausage.
It's about an hour down 101 to Depoe Bay, a small fishing village that fancies itself the whale watching capital of the Oregon coast. About 20,000 gray whales travel along the coast between mid-March and May on their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico, and nearly 200 spend summer and fall in these waters, too. Don't miss one of the private or group whale watching tours offered by Whale Research EcoExcursions (social distancing practiced on all tours). The mammals often feed close to shore, so you can spot them from the town's seawall or the nearby Depoe Bay Scenic View Area.
Where to stay: Overlooking the secluded sands of Agate Beach just north of Newport, Ocean House pleases with eight lovely sea-view rooms.
Day 3: Newport to Florence (50 miles)
All along this coast, lighthouses once helped mariners navigate the Pacific's rough waters. Automated beacons made these structures obsolete, but the public can visit nine, including Newport's Yaquina Bay Lighthouse. Although the lighthouse is currently closed, you can still see the unusual structure — a two-story house with a light perched upon its roof — from the outside. It's a short drive across the Yaquina Bay Bridge to the quarter-mile, paved Yaquina Bay Estuary Trail, where shorebirds gorge on crabs and clams at low tide.
About a mile north of the artsy town of Yachats (pronounced Yah-hots) do a little shopping at three worth-the-stop galleries — Earthworks, Touchstone and Wave — selling jewelry, paintings, photography and pottery by Oregon artists and makers. Also wander around Yachats’ picturesque downtown, with its funky shops, art galleries and eateries. For lunch grab a picnic table at Luna Sea Fish House and feast on fresh steamer clams and fried lingcod.
At the nearby Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, 26 miles of trails wind among ecological wonders, from old-growth forest to coastal headland to rocky tide pools. From the Visitors Center, it's a short walk to the Captain Cook Trail, an easy 0.75-mile jaunt on a paved path featuring splendid views of Cook's Chasm and the geyserlike Thor's Well.
Continue 14 miles to the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint to take in the coast's most photographed lighthouse, a century-old working beacon perched on a rugged bluff 200 feet above the sea.
In Florence, a quaint fishing village, dine beside the Siuslaw River at the Waterfront Depot. The must-try: its crab-encrusted Alaskan halibut.
Where to stay: At the River House Inn, tucked along the Siuslaw's banks, watch boats glide by from your terrace.
Day 4: Florence to Bandon (72.5 miles)
After coffee and breakfast pastries at local favorite River Roasters, on Bay Street, head next door to the Siuslaw River Bridge Interpretive Center, a pocket-sized park dotted with signs recapping Florence's pioneer history. Continue walking along Bay Street, passing historic wooden storefronts, to a scenic boardwalk and wander among the boats docked at the marina.
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a vast expanse of massive golden sand dunes, stretches for 40 miles between Florence and Coos Bay. Saddle up with C&M Stables, just north of Florence, for horseback riding through a forest, over the dunes and onto the beach, a relaxing ride even for novices.
Back on 101, cross the picturesque Siuslaw River Bridge en route to North Bend, about 45 miles on. A short detour brings you to the Cape Arago Highway and four state parks hugging the coast. Pull into Sunset Bay for a swim, one of the few places on the coast with water calm enough to enter. Or stop at Shore Acres State Park, the onetime home of a 19th-century timber baron, for verdant botanical gardens.
End the day in Bandon with a crisp Willamette Valley pinot grigio and plump fried oysters at Edgewaters, on the Coquille River.
Where to stay: An ideal location overlooking the harbor makes the family-owned Bandon Inn an inviting option in Old Town Bandon.
Day 5: Bandon to Brookings (83.1 miles)
You've seen plenty of incredible scenery, but Bandon Beach may just be the star of the show, with its sweeping shoreline and myriad sea stacks. Make the short drive to Face Rock Scenic Viewpoint to marvel at the beach's beauty. If the timing works out, you may be in town when labyrinth artist Denny Dyke hosts one of his sand-art walks, Circles in the Sand, a seasonal series of meditation strolls along pathways created at low tide. Golfers may prefer teeing up at one of the five links courses overlooking the ocean at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. Its Pacific Dunes course ranks No. 24 on Golf Digest's 2020–21 Top 100 Courses in the World.
The 83 miles to Brookings are all about the views, especially once you pass Gold Beach. For the last 12 miles, the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a linear state park, runs parallel to the highway. From numerous pull-over spots, eye windswept bluffs, secret beaches and offshore rock formations.
Where to stay: Backtrack 25 miles to the Pacific Reef Hotel in Gold Beach for oceanfront condos with full kitchens or cozy economy rooms. Or head south to see the California Redwoods.
Enjoy some music along the route with this road trip playlist compiled for AARP by Adam Stern, associate conductor of the Oregon Music Festival orchestra.