Whale Sightings and Hikes on a Road Trip Along Oregon's Wild Rivers Coast

Since setting the perfect, moody stage for films like The Goonies, Oregon’s northern coast—home to Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, and charming small towns like Astoria—has been the tourism darling of the state’s 363 mile-long seaboard. But venture further south and you’ll find an undiscovered treasure trove of rocky coastline, home to stormy beaches, and culinary and craft brew bounties, perfect for your next Oregon road trip. Meet the Wild Rivers Coast.

Named after federally-protected “wild and scenic rivers” like the Rogue and Chetco that empty into the Pacific along this shorefront, the Oregon portion of the Wild Rivers Coast (the full region extends into northern California) stretches roughly 107 miles along Highway 101 from the town of Brookings to Coos Bay, Oregon. What this route lacks in length it makes up for in adventure: fat-tire biking on sandy beaches, hiking through old-growth forests, cold water surfing, and marine wildlife viewing are all on offer throughout the Wild Rivers Coast. The area even has its own officially-designated Food Trail, allowing foodies to eat and drink their way from bayside seafood shacks and cranberries bogs to local breweries and distilleries (or, fish, crab, and forage for your own meals like locals do). 

A leisurely four-day road trip is the perfect way to discover this untrammeled and overlooked part of the Oregon coast. Here’s how to do it. 

The trip: four days, 107 miles

Although the two-hour drive from Brookings to Coos Bay could easily be done in one day, stretching the trip out over four allows you to actually indulge in all the Wild Rivers Coast has to offer. 

When to go

A temperate climate uncharacteristic of the Pacific Northwest has earned this area the nickname Oregon’s “Banana Belt,” so travel is enjoyable year-round, with mild winters, balmy summers, and scenic autumns and springs. You can also plan your trip around different seasonal attractions, like watching for migrating gray whales in winter and late spring or visiting in fall during harvest season.

What to drive

Most cars can handle Highway 101’s well-maintained stretches, but a four-wheel drive with wet-weather tires will guarantee access to wilderness areas.

Days 1 to 2

Kick the trip off in Brookings in Oregon’s south, with a breakfast of home-made bagels and coffee from First Rise Bakery. The waterfront marina, downtown area, and manicured green areas like Azalea Park make for a relaxing morning. To get your blood pumping, head out to Harris Beach State Park for tide-pooling, or hike through redwood groves in Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

After lunch and a hoppy IPA at Chetco Brewing Company, start driving up the coast through the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a 12-mile-long wonderland of rugged coastline with wave-blasted rock arches, tree-crowned sea stacks, and verdant forests of ancient Sitka spruce. Home to 27 miles of the state-long Oregon Coast Trail, you can hike or drive to popular viewpoints like Natural Bridge, Arch Rock, Spruce Island, and Secret Beach. But nothing beats seeing these beautiful coastlines from a kayak or boat with South Coast Tours.

Then, head 13 miles north to Gold Beach, named after a late 1800s gold rush. Following a night at the chic Wild Coast Lookout, spend the next day fat tire biking along the beachfront Banana Belt Loop at Cape Sebastian State Park, boating on the mighty Rogue River, or go clamming, fishing, or crabbing on the beaches or riverfront. Unwind with award-winning brews at Arch Rock Brewing.

Day 3

Greet the day beachcombing at Otter Point before driving half an hour north to the artsy enclave of Port Orford. As both the oldest town on the Oregon Coast and the most westerly town in the contiguous United States, it’s full of art and history, like a “dolly docking” port (just one of several in the world) where longshoremen hoist boats out of the water onto dry dock. After a fish and chips lunch from The Crazy Norwegian’s, visit the 19th-century lighthouse at Cape Blanco State Park or head to Port Orford Head State Park for the scenic Loop hike. It’s here that the Wild Rivers Coast Scenic Bikeway originates, featuring 61 miles of invigorating ocean or riverside biking. Bike rentals are available from Pineapple Express Adventure Rides.

Continuing 26 miles north, you’ll reach Bandon, the Cranberry Capital of Oregon. If you’re around for fall harvest, stop at local farms to pick your own blueberries and strawberries and tour the cranberry bogs. After pizza and beer at Bandon Brewing Company, stroll the cliff-top paths opposite Face Rock and the other sea stacks that make up Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Here, you’ll also see a range of wildlife, including seals, sea lions, sea birds, and from May to August, tufted puffins. Then hit the hay at Bandon’s old-timey Wayside Motel + RV Park, which features thrifted, vintage decor and comfortable digs in a copse of trees just off the highway. Or, fall asleep to pounding surf and Coquille River and Lighthouse views at the stylish Lighthouse River Inn vacation rental.

9 West Coast Road Trips to Take This Year

  • water next to the ocean: Is there a more iconic road trip than taking Highway 1 south from San Francisco along California’s coast? We can't think of one. On this route, you'll hug the winding coastline, with pitstops on the Monterey Peninsula, Big Sur, and along the Central Coast. Take a long weekend to enjoy the ocean views (and wine) this drive has to offer. Where to stop: In Big Sur, stop for a picture of the Bixby Bridge, one of the tallest concrete bridges in the world. The kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is another chance for a photo; or, pull off in Paso Robles and do a self-guided tour through the area's nearly 50 wineries.  Where to eat: In Monterey, make a reservation at Aubergine within L'Auberge Carmel. Chef Justin Cogley doles up multi-course tasting menus that focus on local fish, and there's a 2,500-bottle wine cellar full of California and French wines that you should absolutely sample. Down south, make sure to pull over for fish and chips at the no-frills Malibu Seafood.  Where to stay: There's Post Ranch Inn, the splashiest place to stay in Big Sur thanks to its swoon-y clifftop location, or Glen Oaks Big Sur, where you can have a mid-century modern room for night two of your road trip. In Santa Barbara, the Hotel Californian is a refreshing hideaway right on the coast, with ocean views, a great on-site restaurant (Blackbird), and a Moroccan spa to counteract hours spent in the car.  Planning to just do half the drive? We planned your trip from San Francisco to Paso Robles.

  • a path with trees on the side of a mountain: Down the snaking shoreline from Washington State to the California Redwoods, Oregon's Highway 101 puts on a show, from broad Cannon Beach to dozens of outstanding state parks with even better names (see: Devils Punchbowl, Cape Perpetua). Each detour is distinctive, and the drive is—dare we say it—as lovely as California's Highway 1. Where to stop: Thanks to its appearance at the end of the 1985 kidventure flick The Goonies, Haystack Rock is forever known as

  • a body of water with a mountain in the background: Eastern California is blessed with prolific and diverse national parklands. Start in Yosemite National Park with North America’s highest waterfall, Yosemite Falls, and the 3,000-foot tall granite monolith, El Capitan, then head south to contiguous national parks Kings Canyon and Sequoia, underscored by larger-than-life, centuries-old Sequoia trees within virgin forests. Finish the park tour exploring the ethereal sand dunes and canyons of Death Valley National Park by way of the Death Valley Scenic Byway. Where to stop: In Yosemite, make sure to pull over at Tunnel View on your way out for a sweeping look at the entire park. Put size into perspective with a picture of the largest tree on earth, the 275-foot-tall General Sherman sequoia tree, in Sequoia National Park.  Where to eat: Splurge on dinner at the Majestic Yosemite Dining Room, a formal, candle-lit space that maintains its 1920s grandeur with candelabra chandeliers, fine china, and modern takes on classics like oysters Rockefeller and French onion soup. Where to stay: Unpack at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee Hotel), a Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed, Y-shaped lodge in the heart of Yosemite National Park—and the first-ever luxury hotel in America’s national parklands (it opened in 1927). If you're up for camping, the lower campgrounds at Yosemite are the spot to do it—you'll wake up to a world class view, with amenities at an arm's reach. 

  • a close up of a hillside next to a body of water: The 75-mile Columbia River Highway connects Troutdale, Oregon, with The Dalles, for a short drive that is jam-packed with scenery: expect to see towering waterfalls, moss-covered bridges, and lush greenery throughout the entire drive. Plus, you can pick up the drive just thirty minutes east of Portland (to really stretch things out, combine it with a longer trip up or down the Oregon coast). Where to stop: The 610-foot Multnomah Falls are a must-see, and visible from the road, but they tend to draw a crowd. Consider making your way to Oneonta Falls, just off the highway, for a short hike with equally impressive views (if you’re feeling especially adventurous, wade through the Oneonta gorge). Where to eat: Snack at the fresh berry stands along the route, or stop at one of the wineries in Hood River. Hiyu Wine Farm, which produces nearly everything it serves, from biodynamics wine to hearty steaks, is a favorite. Where to stay: With Portland right near the west end of the highway, it’s easy to use the city as your home base. The Hoxton and Ace Hotel both have outposts in the city, right in downtown—perfect for gliding on and off the highway. 

  • a field with a mountain in the background: Why choose between California’s two most renowned wine regions when you don't have to? Do both in one trip: Take in the verdant hills and highly polished wineries and estates of Napa Valley, and then head west to Sonoma County, a region rich in mom-and-pop establishments, artisanal wineries, and towering Redwoods. Where to stop: In Napa, tour the caves and fuel up on sparkling wine at Schramsberg Vineyards. In Sonoma, delight in superlative cabernets at Jordan Winery. Where to eat: Off the scenic Bohemian Highway, follow the scent of fresh-baked delights to Wild Flour Bread in Freestone (population: 32), Sonoma’s first historic district. Grab a cheese fougasse and piping hot “Egyptian” bread with fig, pear, and candied ginger for an afternoon picnic. Where to stay: Sleep off the food and wine at Vintners Inn, a family-owned, 92-acre estate in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.    Extend your trip by following the Russian River to the Pacific Coast Highway, before looping back down to San Francisco. We've plotted it out for you.

  • a rocky beach: In its northernmost reaches, Highway 101 loops some 330 miles around Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, showcasing vast swathes of temperate rainforest in Olympic National Park, mist-shrouded emerald lakes, cascading waterfalls, rocky coastline, and dozens of quaint, small towns with populations under 1,000. (Even better? The loop itself is just a couple hours' drive from the city of Seattle, making it easy to reach.) Where to stop: See what an American rainforest looks like at Hoh Rainforest, where towering spruce and western hemlock trees dominate and black bears and bobcats roam. Don't miss the Dungeness Spit, one of the world's largest sand spits (somewhat like a natural jetty) and a national wildlife refuge. Where to eat: Sample the seasonal “garden-to-plate” items at Nourish in Sequim, where all ingredients are local and organic. Where to stay: Get back to nature in Olympic National Park at the rustic Kalaloch Lodge, which sits between evergreen forests and the Pacific Ocean.

  • a train on a train track with a mountain in the background: The 1,390-mile Alaska Highway has a legendary name—the Alcan—and views to match. Starting in Seattle, it crosses the Canadian border into Vancouver, and then on to Anchorage, where you'll see the best of the Northwest, super-sized.

  • a body of water with a mountain in the background: Many Angelenos are under the impression that Los Angeles is a desert. And while that’s not actually the case, it doesn’t take long to get to one—just head east and you’ll hit Palm Springs in under two hours (depending on traffic, that is). From there? It’s just another 45 minutes to Joshua Tree and surrounding small towns like Twentynine Palms, making for the perfect weekend away from the big city, replete with art, great food, and that dry desert heat. Where to stop: Design lovers should beeline for the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center, or swing by Sunnylands, a family estate that embodies the mid-century modern design the area is known for, and offers tours. Where to eat: Counter Reformation, inside the Parker Palm Springs, is a wine bar serving charcuterie and great bottles a cut above its competition; Rooster and the Pig, known for contemporary Vietnamese-American cuisine, also pulls a crowd with dishes like pork belly fried rice, and signature cocktails. Where to stay: The Ace Hotel & Swim Club is a Modernist haven, filled with lazing hammocks and local art right at home in the desert—and a pool for when you desperately need to cool off. The dreamy Joshua Tree House, available on Airbnb, is a well-appointed two-bed, two-bath house right outside the park.

  • a body of water with a mountain in the background: Southern Californians in the know have been following Mexico's 1D toll road on long weekends for years. Looping through the northernmost part of Baja California, there are four main food-and-drink-focused stops: Head to Tijuana for nitro cold brew and taco carts; inhale no-frills regional seafood in Rosarito and Ensenada; then, drive inland to the Valle de Guadalupe where you'll find two of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, and over 50 wineries. Throughout it all, the views change from panoramas of the Pacific to sweeping desert landscapes.  Where to stop: In Tijuana, pop into Object boutique, a design shop that pulls together furniture, clothing, and home goods from artisans across the country. Then, detour at KM 84 for the Mirador observation deck, between Tijuana and Ensenada, which has the best ocean views of the trip.    Where to eat: For a quick refuel, don't miss seafood tostadas at the Bourdain-approved La Guerrerense cart in Ensenada (the scallops are a highlight). If luck strikes and your dates line up, join an Animalon pop-up dinner, hosted by the region’s star chef Javier Plascencia under a 200-year-old oak tree in the Valle de Guadelupe.  Where to stay: Encuentro de Guadalupe's is a favorite stay, with modern villas scattered among boulders on the hills of the Valle de Guadelupe. The Bruma de Guadelupe vineyards are another retreat right in the middle of the desert (pair those organic reds with in-room massages and a meal at farm-to-table Fauna).  Following this route? We planned your entire three-day road trip.

The best West Coast road trips

Day 4

After a coffee and fluffy biscuit from The Rolling Pin, exploring Bandon’s quaint Old Town is a must. Stop at the market to buy local goods, sample rum and whiskey from Stillwagon Distillery, stuff yourself with rich cheeses at Face Rock Creamery, and chow down on Tony’s Crab Shack’s Dungeness crab sandwiches and oysters. Then rent a bike from South Coast Bicycles to hit the nearby Whiskey Run mountain biking trail system.

Driving thirty minutes north toward Coos Bay, take a detour to loop through the three state parks at Cape Arago to watch colossal waves bash sandstone cliffs at Shore Acres. In Coos Bay and neighboring North Bend, refresh yourself with a beer from 7 Devils Brewing before spending the afternoon kayaking through peaceful estuaries in the South Slough Reserve, taking a surfing lesson from Waxer’s Surf & Skate, or searching for razor clams at designated spots like the appropriately-named Clam Island and North Spit. You can also continue a bit further north to the southern tip of the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area, home to one of the biggest expanses of temperate coastal sand dunes on Earth.

After a fresh, scrumptious seafood dinner from Sharkbites Cafe, close out your Oregon road trip with a stay in one of the minimalist cabins or sleek Airstreams and RV hook-up spots at Bay Point Landing. Lauded for its Scandinavian-influenced design, a night or two at this waterfront glamping resort— which has a heated saltwater pool and laidback clubhouse—is the perfect way to end your Wild Rivers Coast adventure.

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