The Oregon coast may be the most beautiful in the United States; certainly the 363-mile-long coastal Highway 101 provides the best viewing and access to the beaches in the entire Northwest. Here mountains drop into the sea, punctuated by small sandy plains and beaches where rivers reach the sea.
All along the northwest coast of Oregon, Northern California, and Washington, high, rocky headlands, topped with incredibly green spruce and redwood forests, frame the beaches. The beaches may consist of fine sand, very coarse sand, or even cobbles, and some beaches are merely thin drapes of sediment on top of hard rock. During the winter storms, sand and cobbles can be stripped off the smaller beaches and carried offshore to build large bars. Therefore, beaches in some localities come and go with the season and are locally called "vanishing or disappearing" beaches. This is the stormiest and coldest water in the continental U.S. Swimming and wading are not prime activities.
Some people make the long trip to Oregon during the summer in order to escape the crowds and humid weather back home. The beaches, while never large compared to Atlantic and Gulf coast standards, come in a large range of sizes and composition. Even black sand beaches, best known to occur in Hawaii, can be found here as the high waves and swift currents sort out the river sands, leaving behind the heavier, black-colored ones. During the summer, the black sand can be so hot that you cannot stand on it, but then you run into the water that is so cold that you might pass out. Hypothermia is a major concern for any swimmer or even improperly prepared skin divers in these cold waters flowing down from the Arctic. These beaches are nice for enjoying the scenery as well as walking, kite flying, beachcombing, and bird watching.
The Oregon coast is literally "pocketed" with little beaches of all shapes and dimensions, while the sand spits at major bays can be several miles long. This is the best place in the United States to find a secluded beach in one of the hundreds and hundreds of small coves along the rugged coastline. The air coming off the Pacific Ocean and the water are some of the cleanest to be found anywhere; the mixture of the dark blue water and the bright green vegetation in this pristine environment is really breathtaking and well worth the time to stop and enjoy. The freshness cannot really be described in words, only experienced by the senses. There are a myriad of state park beaches, offering great camping at very reasonable rates. Elsewhere, coastal towns like Brookings, Bandon, and Newport offer amenities for people seeking creature comforts.
Brookings is the most southern seaside town in Oregon, and residents and visitors alike enjoy a climate more like Santa Cruz, far to the south in California. Temperatures are remarkably mild year-round; frost is rare and snow is almost unknown. Like Santa Cruz, Brookings has a southern exposure and a backdrop of mountains to protect it from the harsh weather. Wintertime temperatures of 70 degrees are not uncommon here in Oregon's "Banana Belt," making Brookings the home of winter flowers and host of an annual azalea festival.
The nice, often sunny weather at Brookings is great for enjoying the beach. Large offshore monoliths and beach rock formations dominate the seascape at nearby Harris Beach State Park. Strolling along this pristine beach is good exercise, and it never gets that hot during the summer because of the onshore sea breezes. Sport fishing is a popular recreational activity throughout the Oregon coast and so is whale watching.
During December and January, thousands of grey whales migrate south to more temperate breeding grounds. These gentle giants are best viewed from jutting coastal headlands, such as at Harris Beach State Park in Brookings or Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach. The best time to whale watch is during times of little wind and hence no whitecaps, which often occurs in the morning. One of the most spectacular sights are these huge whales breaching the water before they take another deep dive for food. The waters are also active with frolicking seals and sea lions.
Bandon-By-The-Sea is a quaint seaport village and a popular vacation spot and artist colony. One of the area's major industries is cranberries. The bogs can be seen both north and south of town. Bandon's coast is one of the most photographed on the West Coast because of natural sculptures such as Table Rock, Elephant Rock, and Face Rock carved by the relentless sea over eons of time. In addition to wave watching and photographing sunsets, you can collect agate, jasper and other semi-precious stones on Bandon's beaches. This makes the area beaches popular with rockhounds and sunbathers alike.
Bandon's claim to fame is it's title of Storm Watching Capital of the World. Storm watchers present lectures on weather and beachcombing. Oregon in the winter is a great place for storm watching as huge waves from the Pacific Ocean hit the sheer rocky seacliffs and splash up almost a hundred feet. The raw energy alone is enough to dazzle. A few people brave the wind and rain along the beach, but others prefer to enjoy the fury from the warmth of a fire in an oceanside cabin. After the storm, the beaches are the place to be - it's great fun to pick up what the ocean has washed ashore. Favorite finds are the colored glass floats that Japanese fishermen once used for buoyancy of their nets. Storm watching and beachcombing are very popular pastimes along the Oregon coast.
A 40-mile ribbon of sand dunes along the central coast has been set aside as Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Some of the 32,000 acres of dunes reportedly tower as high as 300 feet, making them among the highest coastal dunes in the world. Entire books have been written by coastal scientists about these magnificent shifting sands and the various dune forms and shapes. About half of the area is open to off-road vehicles. You can bring a dune buggy or arrange a tour from a commercial operator.
The beaches fronting this massive accumulation of sand are fun to walk, but perhaps more interesting is the vast assortment of freshwater lakes and ponds, marshes and estuaries, and lush coastal forests on the landward side of the frontal dunes. Over the millennia, wind-blown sand has blocked the coastal creeks, forming freshwater lakes. The color of the larger, clear ponds reflects the color of the sky. Lake Tenmile, Tahkenenitch, Woahink, and Siltcoos are popular areas for fishing and offer the best swimming on the Northwest coast.
Some of the best amenities in terms of accommodations and restaurants can be found at Newport. Oregon's largest coastal port is known for its seafood, especially crabs, shrimp, and oysters. This seaside resort dates back to 1856, when the hot sea baths enticed victors to nearby Nye Beach. The broad sandy beach which extends for five miles constitutes one of Newport's prime attractions. The northern area is called Agate Beach State Park because of the colorful translucent pebbles that can be found along the beach face. Beverly Beach, just to the north of Newport, is also one of the best state parks along the Oregon coast.
Near Tillamook is Bayocean Spit, a several mile-long finger of sand that projects northward along the bay. A coastal town once stood on this barrier beach, but incessant coastal storms and progressive beach erosion finally took their toll. The development was abandoned during the early 20th century. Today the beach is dominated by driftwood and huge tree trunks. In terms of water safety, logs in the surf are one of the greatest unrecognized dangers for swimmers. People have been injured and even killed when struck by a wave-propelled log. Rip currents and hypothermia are also major concerns for bathers and swimmers along the Northwest coast.
Cannon Beach is a scenic resort community fronting a spectacular white sand beach. Just offshore is 235 feet high Haystack Rock. Cannon is one of the most photographed and popular beaches in Oregon. This seven-mile-long beach was named for a small cannon that washed ashore in 1846 when the Shark shipwrecked off the coast. At low tide you can walk far out on the beach, almost to Haystack. People love to play in and around the water on this wide, gently sloping beach. The fine-grained sand is great for digging, and each spring Cannon Beach hosts an annual sand castle building contest. The town itself is the home of many artists, whose work can be found in the local galleries and shops.
Seaside is Oregon's largest beach resort and offers an abundance of activities and good amenities. History was made here when Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific after a harrowing journey across vast stretches of uncharted territory. A two-mile boardwalk along the wide sandy beach attracts the volleyball crowd. There are amusement rides and arcade games for the kids. At the south end of the beach is The Cove, a popular surfing area. Low tide brings out clam diggers who scour the beach. Drier sports include horseback riding and hiking along this picturesque coast. Other attractions include the Seaside Aquarium and Tillamook Head Lighthouse to the south of town. All in all, quaint Seaside along the northern Oregon coast is well worth the visit.