The Southern Oregon Coast: More Than Sand and Water

Story and photography by
Nancy & Eric Anderson 


You could drive the 363-mile long Oregon Coast easily in a couple of days. But why would you? Better to take it in nibbles and cover only one part, perhaps the south coast, so you have an excuse to come back and savor, say, the north another time. And you’ll want to come back especially if you enjoy photography because you’re unlikely to get exactly the images you want in the ever-changing scene. It’s easy to get fleeting photographs of the Oregon coastline although there are days when your camera will give up trying to focus on something as ephemeral as mist.

Travel Oregon/Oregon Tourist Commission does a great job helping visitors and producing complimentary guides for tourists. We found additional resources published by Oregon Magazine and the People’s Coast to be particularly useful. The Mile-by-Mile free guide to Highway 101 enables you to see easily where you’re going and 101 Things To Do for Western Oregon and the Coast clarifies indeed why you should go there. The mile by mile guide has the milestones counted from Astoria in the north suggesting visitors need less math if they head south. Additionally, traveling the coast in a southerly direction puts your car closer to the coast for better viewing.

We came in from the east 128 miles from Astoria at Depoe Bay where the land was allotted by the U.S. government to a Siletz Indian named Charlie Depot. He was so named because he once worked at a U.S. Army depot! We passed the sign saying “World’s Smallest Harbor” which told us we were not in Texas. Then over the first bridge built by the celebrated Conde B. McCullough, the civil engineer who came to Oregon in 1916 and between two world wars built about 600 bridges, many the pride of the Oregon Coast. He was the pride of taxpayers as well with his reinforced concrete, custom-designed spans and cost-efficient efficiency.

We passed Whale Cove where Sir Francis Drake probably landed and three miles farther on Cape Foulweather so named by another British explorer Captain James Cook. We had bright sunshine.

Yaquina Bay next beckoned with its gorgeous arching bridge built by, who else, Conde McCullough. No wonder the man was revered by Coastal Oregon. His work actually looks crisp and new, a tribute to the quality of his materials and his skill in using them. McCullough was born in South Dakota, graduated from Iowa State and became the head of the Bridge Division of the Oregon Department of Transportation when that state was completing Highway 101. He later graduated as a lawyer then moved to Costa Rica to design bridges for the Pan American Highway. His bridges and the lighthouses are the most photographed man-made objects on the Oregon Coast.

The road is fairly flat. That, plus Oregon’s obsession with bicycles, means you see a lot on the highways. Their riders are very professional and careful, suggesting the Oregon way to reduce the state’s carbon footprint could well be adopted by states whose distances are more to the human scale than, say, Alaska’s. Seeing so many cyclists moving along so amiably on their bikes is delightful but painful to Southern Californian residents like us. The people in our streets seem harassed and not at peace with themselves, a feature perhaps of the over-crowding in the southern part of California. A genuine charm of traveling around Oregon and, to a degree, Washington state is how pleasant and agreeable the natives are up north from us. They seem in some ways to be like the Brits with their tongue-in-cheek humor and with their not taking themselves too seriously. For example Yachats comes up next, a village of about 600 people who show their true colors on the 4th of July by holding their famous La De Da Parade. In the middle of the last century they built their church from logs so naturally and typically unpretentiously they called it the Little Log Church.

We head south noting more road signs: Whitecap Drive, Silver Surf, Fireside Hotel, Cape Cod Cottages, Foggy Heights Lane, Elk, Rocks and, more interestingly, Florence, Ride The Dunes. That’s a reference to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area which parallels Highway 101 for about 40 miles south from Florence and is a reminder to stick our cameras in plastic bags and head for a tour operator allowed to drive dune buggies in this area that is now the largest coastal dune area in North America. We talked with Sandland Adventures and signed up for their half-hour ride in a long, flat, dune buggy with room to carry 13 passengers, built by the company with a 4.3 liter Chevrolet V6. The dunes seemed to stretch for ever. They are constantly reshaped by the wind. It is, in fact, the wind that created them. The Siuslaw river is second only to the Columbia for the amount of sand it brings down from the mountains and dumps in its estuary. The wind then blows the sand inland to create a desert that at first sight appears empty. In reality it’s full of life much of it nocturnal; we saw two deer crossing nonchalantly in front of our vehicle, evidence that animal life in the sand dunes can co-exist with man and his machines.

The guest book in the office has comments from previous guests: “Fantastic ride!” “Time of our lives.” “Absolute blast!” “Adrenaline rush; highlight of our tour.” “Our favorite event on the coast.” And one that makes a visitor smile, “Picking sand out of my ears all afternoon.”

We’re heading for Bandon now. We have a reservation at the Bandon Inn. The owners of the Bandon Inn, Ed and Peggy Backholm, know the area well – it’s Peggy’s home town -- and they really take care of guests’ needs whether the question is the name of the best seafood restaurant in Bandon to where is the best spot to shoot the Bandon beach. We wanted a full day in town to photograph its famous off-shore rocks. They show up best, we’d read, at early morning or sunset. It’s a pleasant stay in a little place that really is Small Town America. The inn sits high above Old Town with all its different restaurants a mere 200 yards below. Getting the pictures we wanted was a different story; it had been foggy for some time and a photographer armed with a tripod told us he’d camped out for three days hoping in vain for a blue sky and crisp photos.

The light is much softer in Oregon, shadows show less contrast and seascapes with a bit of spider’s web mist overhanging the coast really look more mystical than a shot made in the harsh light that made Hollywood famous.

Gold Beach is next up, so named when miners heading south on the California Gold Rush found gold in the banks of the Rogue River in the mid 1800s. Carbon dating shows people had lived along the Rogue River for more than 8,000 years but prior to the discovery of gold the local natives had met only a few white persons, mostly trappers or pioneers taking an alternative route to the end of their Oregon Trail. The two cultures inevitably clashed with the same, sad story that impacted every American Indian tribe.

As white settlements grew along the Rogue River the people, isolated from the outside world, started asking for postal service. They finally got their wish in 1895 -- and even today the lower Rogue is one of two remaining rural mail-boat routes in the United States (the other being the Snake River in eastern Oregon). The postmaster named his Rogue office -- about 60 miles upriver--  Agnes after his daughter and somehow an extra s was added to the name. Today an upgraded mail boat service delivers morning mail between Gold Beach and Agness.

The first mail boat was a cedar 18 footer. Today several jet boat tour operators run visitors up the Rogue. We chose the company that also delivers the mail: Mail Boat Hydro-Jet Trips (check out the video at its website and, yes, bring a plastic bag for your camera). Says Greg Walling, the company’s owner, “We’ve been delivering the mail 64 miles upriver to Agness for 114 years. Visitors love the run but today everyone is in a hurry so we added an express trip.”

Each of Greg’s seven boats is powered by three 6 liter Chevrolet engines and can hit 63 mph though the usual cruising speed is 25 to 25 mph. Our pilot was Chris Young. He had been on the river for 25 years and took pains to point out the abundant wild life we saw on our river adventure. We gazed at deer, osprey, bald eagles, otter -- and in the shallow rapids beyond Agness the famous “Aluminum Rock,” so called because many aluminum-bottomed craft have left their mark, literally, on this hazard that lies just below the surface.

We chose the afternoon river trip and it was becoming colder as we ran down stream with the flow. We had warned the front desk at the Brookings Inn Resort we’d be late so there were no issues. A former Best Western, the resort is now an upgraded Magnuson hotel. This is where our Oregon Coast trip ended. The resort has an indoor pool that clearly was an attraction for the families that had, like us, reached this little retirement town (with its micro climate) at the south point of the Oregon Coast.