Two Days Exploring the Central Oregon Coast

From sleeping in a 1950s-style motorlodge to witnessing a geyser that spouts during high tide, I’d say our two day road trip from Portland to the Central Oregon Coast was a success. Extremely fortunate to live within such close proximity to the Pacific Ocean (90 minutes), we surely take advantage and visit often.

It was early January and the tail-end of “whale weekend” on the Oregon Coast. During winter, from about mid-December through mid-January, nearly 20,000 gray whales migrate south to the warmer waters of Mexico. From late March through June the whales will return to Oregon on their way back towards Alaska. The Oregon State Parks website has a list of the best points along the coast for viewing whales, from the shipwreck at Fort Stevens State Park on the north coast all the way to Brookings in the south on the Oregon-California border. Having only two days for the road trip we decided to explore the quiet town of Yachats, a place we’d always heard good things about, along with Newport, one of our coast favorites. From Portland it takes roughly two and a half hours to drive to Newport, and from there Yachats is about 30 minutes south —perfect for a two-day getaway. Just south of Yachats is a pretty amazing spot known as the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area. A few of the whale watching locations can be found in the area too, including the Sea Lion Caves and Cooks Chasm.

Yachats, the “Gem of the Oregon Coast”

Yachats has been coined “the gem of the Oregon Coast,” and the quaint, neat little town certainly lives up to its name. We stayed a few miles outside of town at Deane’s Oceanfront Lodge because of its positive reviews, continental breakfast and beachside location, a great value for only $92 a night. 

Although the rooms were recently remodeled, Deane’s still has its original 1950s character and charm. The lobby is very wooded and cozy, with a small gift shop and tons of random B-list movies you can take to your room. The staff at Deane’s were super friendly and accommodating, clearly taking their customer service and guest satisfaction very seriously—which we appreciate! After a warm reception we proceeded to our room, not knowing how fortunate we were to receive a feature that only two rooms at Deane’s has—a super cool portable kitchenette. Bonus, there was even a log of summer sausage in the drawer! (Don’t worry, we didn’t eat it! But it was nice to know it was there if we needed a midnight snack.)

The room was super clean and remodeled with beachy vibes. There was an electric fireplace that provided a nice ambiance in the room, and the original retro glass block shower really transports you back in time. The room had a back door that led out to a huge shared patio with picnic tables and chairs for each guest room. We chatted with our friendly neighbors about the awesomeness of the Oregon coast and then made our way toward the beach. From the patio a long walkway cuts through the backyard, passing by a communal fire pit and a giant open yard that beckons for horseshoe pits, yard games and live concerts! (Seriously, if Deane’s ever goes up for sale we want to buy it and host concerts, movies and ragers in the huge backyard. #lifegoals)

A staircase leads down to the beach, cutting through these rad looking sandstone cliffs. We hung out for a little while, gazing upon the horizon hoping to spot some whale spouts, tails or fins, which ultimately never materialized. As the sun began to set the rain kept falling and dinner started calling—it was time to head into Yachats for some grub. While doing online research for lodging in Yachats this funky place had caught our attention, the Drift Inn. They were advertising a good rate for their unique safari-themed room with the wildest looking tiled shower. Although it looked amazing we simply couldn’t pass up the price at Deane’s and the opportunity to save $40 —which pretty much covered our drinks at dinner. Plus Deane’s is right on the ocean.

The Drift Inn is a hotel, bar and restaurant, with a gift shop, game room, and mercantile. The place has an interesting history, involving a former owner named Lester who made most of his money from the bars’ pool tables. After Lester passed away his family apparently found $20,000 worth of quarters in the trunk of his car, which he always kept parked outside the bar. Something we really appreciate about the Drift Inn is that they have live music nearly every night of the week. Gorgeous Italian-made parasols hang from the ceiling of the restaurant; not only do they make for great decor, but they’re all for sale too! Several delicate glass light fixtures also decorate the ceiling, like a jellyfish chandelier and a topless mermaid. The mismatched cloth napkins totally fit the restaurants’ vibe and create a real homey feeling. Just like the sweet tile shower that was featured in the Safari room photos, the bathroom tile work inside the restaurant was also colorful and eclectic.

The awesomeness didn’t stop there—literally all the food we ordered was A-MAZING. The menu is all over the map, including burgers, samosas, rice bowls, seafood and wood-fired pizzas. Our culinary journey began with an order of spicy, smoked chicken wings covered in a sauce that’s a mixture of Frank’s Red Hot and the Drift Inn’s “She Devil” sauce, and a GIANT $2.50 oyster shooter with two oysters. (And if you love the She Devil Sauce as much as we do, you’re in luck because they bottle and sell it.) For dinner we ordered a pepperoni and sausage pizza and the ultimate comfort food classic, a chicken pot pie. Even the side salad was shockingly amazing, made with leafy greens, beets and a flavorful raspberry-walnut dressing. Although the dessert menu of house-made delicacies looked tempting, there simply was no way we could eat anything more. After snapping a few shots of the awesome-haired mer-MAN mural, we headed north up Highway 101 back to Deane’s for a nightcap. (Update: We’ve been back to the Drift Inn to eat and stay multiple times since writing this, and it’s officially our favorite restaurant and hotel that we’ve found on the Oregon coast. The desserts are delicious, I’m obsessed with the potato-prosciutto-rosemary pizza, and the carrot-ginger dressing is to die for!)

The following morning we made sure to wake early enough to catch the free continental breakfast, which is basically a requirement for us while traveling. It was nothing special, just coffee and donuts, but enough to hold us over until lunch. The trip wouldn’t be complete without making a final walk down to the beach; and this time we saw seals! Or sea lions, it’s hard to tell when all you can see are their little heads popping up and down in the surf. Regardless, it was amazing and every time we see wildlife it’s just as exciting. (Does anyone else think sea lions look like fat cats without ears or legs, or is it just me?) Much of the Oregon Coast, including Yachats, is known for great beach combing and rock-hounding. We usually find mostly bright, colorful jasper but we’ve been lucky enough to score a few agates too.

From Yacahts we drove south to the Sea Lions caves in Florence, which is supposedly one of the best places to view whales during their migration. The weather was all over the place that morning, alternating between gray and sunny, rain on and off, and then all of a sudden a beautiful double rainbow appeared over the ocean!

The Cape Perpetua Scenic Area

Continuing south from Yachats on highway 101 we passed by countless parks, campgrounds and beach access roads as we made our way through the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area and Siuslaw National Forest. This protected area has tidepools, old growth forests, 26 miles of hiking trails, wildlife and plenty of cool stuff to see. Cape Perpetua is one of the tallest headlands on the Oregon Coast at 800 feet, and the highest viewpoint accessed by car along the coast.

The weather and timing was perfect for seeing Thor’s Well—it was rainy, stormy and one hour before high tide. Described as the “Gate to Hell” and the drainpipe of the sea, Thor’s Well may not sound like a ton of fun, but it’s actually a pretty neat geological wonder. When tide levels are high, seawater drains into a hole and looks to be disappearing into a blackhole in the ocean. During low tide it’s a bit safer to wander out on the rocks for some close-up pictures of Thor’s Well, but always be cautious, as the slippery rocks can be very dangerous. Please, always recreate responsibly to keep yourself, others, wildlife and the earth safe. Be sure to check the tide tables, always stay aware of the time, and be mindful of unexpected sneaker waves.

Thor’s Well isn’t signed but it’s pretty simple to find if you’re looking for it. Approximately half of a mile south from the Cape Perpetua Visitor Center look for signs to the Spouting Horn and Cook’s Chasm, which is accessible by foot on the 0.4 mile Captain Cook Trail. Start at this trailhead for the shortest hike to Thor’s Well, though you may also find the connecting Cape Cove Trail in the area. The Spouting Horn is a saltwater fountain that almost resembles a Yellowstone geyser. The best time to watch the Spouting Horn is one hour before high tide. As the waves flow in and out of the chasm, water is forced through a hole in the rock. The resulting pressure causes the water to shoot high into the air every few minutes like a geyser. As you descend the stairs toward the Spouting Horn, look right out towards the ocean to find Thor’s Well. It wasn’t long before we saw the 20-foot deep hole sucking water into the earth.

From there our adventure continued south on highway 101 to the Sea Lions Caves, the largest sea cave in America. Because we had visited before we didn’t feel the need to pay $28 ($14 each) to ride the elevator down, as there’s no guarantee the cave will be filled with majestic sea lions. Last time we only saw about 40 Steller sea lions down there, but apparently there can be a few hundred at one time! Could you imagine how loud 300+ barking sea dogs would be?! There is a live camera feed on the sea lions that you can watch up in the gift shop, so we recommend checking that out before paying to enter the cave. But if this is your first and likely only trip to Sea Lion Caves, by all means go down into America’s largest sea cave! It’s still cool. Although the cameras showed nearly 100 that day, we’re waiting for the mother-load of sea lions and instead opted to leave, but not before grabbing a bag of the gift shop’s delicious popcorn made with coconut oil. This trip was about finding the whales, so we stopped on the windy balcony to look for them. After seeing nothing yet again, we retreated to the car and started heading back north on highway 101.

Heceta Head Lighthouse Scenic Viewpoint and state park was the next stop on the tour. There is a $5 fee to use the park which can be paid at a small pay station in the parking lot (credit cards accepted). We’ve always been fans of the rocky beach in this cove, it’s simply beautiful with the lighthouse and headlands surrounding it. Heceta Head and the old lighthouse keeper’s home can be reached by a short and easy half mile hike from the parking lot. Armed with our new GoPro we began the trek and starting filming our very first action video! (If you’re looking for more hiking adventures in the area, check out the 1.5 mile hike to the lighthouse, and the one-mile out-and-back Hobbit Trail. The trailhead for both of these hikes can be found on the side of highway 101 about a half mile north from the lighthouse.)

lighthouse on a cliff above the ocean
The Heceta Head Lighthouse near Florence, Oregon is the most photographed lighthouses.

The trail passes through dense old-growth forest and is a steady uphill incline, but gradual and relatively short. Not too long into the hike and the trail starts to wrap around the cliff where you can pear out to the massive, endless ocean. We could even hear sea lions barking down below! After about 10-15 minutes we arrived to the 56-foot tall Heceta Head lighthouse, one of the most photographed lighthouses. It first began operating in 1894 and is said to be one of the brightest lights along the Oregon coast. We’ve found all the lighthouses along the Oregon coast, and they’re still cool every time we visit. (This is actually one of our favorites!) A friendly guide offered to snap our photo in front of the lighthouse before heading back down to the car. We passed by the historic keeper’s house again, which we learned now operates as a bed and breakfast and event venue.

The Stone Shelter is another cool historic landmark in Cape Perpetua that’s not too far north of the lighthouse. Built in 1934, it sits on top of a 45 million year old volcano and was used as an observation point during World War II. The views from the shelter are absolutely breathtaking; you can see for miles! The Stone Shelter can be found on the Whispering Spruce Trail. According to the Forest Service website the short walk from the parking lot to the shelter is only 750 feet. On both visits there we’ve been fortunate to have the sun come out long enough to get some amazing pictures of the coastline.

Since moving to Oregon we’ve become a little obsessed with covered bridges — the state has 54 of them! So our next stop was the Yachats Covered Bridge, which was built in 1938 over the North Fork of the Yachats River. It was only a 20-minute detour, with most of the seven mile drive winding along the scenic river. The weather started to get crazy again, alternating between fat rain and slushy snow; it was kind of ominous. From Yachats River Road you make a left turn onto North Yachats River Road, and drive two more miles on a narrow dirt road to reach the bridge. It’s one of those roads that people probably don’t travel unless you live there, or are hunting for covered bridges. The numerous ‘No Trespassing’ signs definitely made us feel welcomed.

red covered bridge in the rain
North Fork Yachats River Covered Bridge in Oregon

We were pretty excited to see finally see bridge, probably because that meant we could GTFO of there quicker! Before jumping out to snap some photos we noticed a truck approaching from the opposite direction, so we tried to be quick. As admirers of covered bridges we found this to be a pretty nice specimen. Nothing to write home about, but it’s in nice shape and we appreciate a bright red covered bridge. Wait, what ever happened to that truck? It just disappeared into thin air! Maybe we watch way too many crime shows, but something about this whole detour trip felt creepy! Driving as fast as we could, we hightailed it away from there and continued north to Newport.

Exploring Newport to Pacific City

Hello, Newport! This fishing port on the coast of Oregon is one of our favorite places to visit time and time again. We headed to our regular lunchtime spot down at the historic bayfront, Ocean Bleu at Gino’s. My usual order is the local steamed clams in a lemon, garlic and white wine butter sauce, surrounded by yummy bread for dipping — it’s a beautiful dish, and it’s delicious. Bob is a big fan of the fresh rockfish tacos, and we always split an order of Gino’s famous popcorn shrimp. We probably visit Gino’s 90% of the time we travel through Newport, because it’s simple, tasty and consistently good. We were so full after lunch though that we forgot to walk over to the docks to visit the resident sea lions!

At 4:00 p.m. it was time to check into one of our favorite Newport hotels, the Elizabeth Oceanfront Suites. We randomly discovered this place years ago and now we stay here every return trip to Newport. All the guest rooms have a private balcony with ocean views, and there’s a free hot continental breakfast! Bob ceremoniously put on his fluffy white robe, switched on the electric fireplace and pulled the balcony door open for the night (seriously, he won’t close the door so we can hear the ocean). He was excited to try his first time lapse GoPro video, so the first priority was utilizing our new octopus tripod to capture the sunset. While chilling on the balcony we noticed that the patio outside the pool had recently been refreshed with string lights and fire pits.

sunset over Pacific Ocean
Sunset in Newport, Oregon

Another reason we keep coming back to the Elizabeth is for the FREE warm cookies in the lobby at 8:00 p.m. every night! We left dinner in time to get back for the cookies, arriving at 8:08 p.m. Perfect timing, or so you’d think. We were each ready to grab a respectful handful of cookies — like three to four isn’t too greedy, right? I cannot even describe the incredible disappointment we felt when we saw that ALL the cookies were already gone, besides a row of lemon (ugh, lemon?) cookies and one sad broken chocolate chip. Meanwhile, a suspicious family stood by the elevator with something cloaked in napkins in their hands… So we grabbed that broken chocolate chipper and a stack of lemon and made the best of it — we made lemonade out of lemon cookies, ha! The Elizabeth also meets a major requirement for our road trip hotels, and that is the aformentioned free breakfast. I’m pretty sure we fell in love with the place a little more when we discovered the new mini waffle maker in the kitchen, which obviously called for waffle breakfast sandwiches! They also upgraded to a new fridge, coffee and juice machines, and added a few more breakfast items. We love the Elizabeth’s free hot breakfast so much, that sometimes we wake up early for first breakfast and then return for second breakfast before the buffet closes. (Are you starting to see a pattern here…we love to eat!)

The trip was coming to an end but we weren’t ready to give up on the whales just yet. Skies were clear and the seas calmer, so we decided to take the longer drive home to pass through Depoe Bay, the “whale watching capital of the Oregon Coast.” Unfortunately it didn’t live up to its reputation that day; the whale watching center was closed and we didn’t see any out in the bay. We’ve been lucky to see whales there before so it’s always worth stopping just in case. Someday we’re going to go on one of those guided whale watching tours so we can see them up close in the wild!

After driving north on highway 101 for about 45 minutes we found ourselves in a familiar area of southern Tillamook County, in Pacific City, or “PC,” another one of our favorite quant little coastal towns. Home to the famed Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area and located on the Three Capes Scenic Route, it has to be one of the most beautiful places on the Oregon coast. We used to think the famous Hackstack Rock in Cannon Beach, shown in the movie “The Goonies,” was the only Haystack Rock on the coast —until we visited Pacific City, and discovered that there is another strikingly similar Haystack Rock! (And actually another Haytack Rock farther south in Bandon.) The more famous Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach stands around 235 feet, and because it’s right at the tide line has some accessible and awesome tide pools filled with ocean wildlife. However, the Haystack Rock in Pacific City stands nearly 100 feet taller, at roughly 327 feet. There appears to be rock arm on the side of the PC rock which is pretty neat looking, I just wish this Haystack wasn’t so far away from the shoreline.

There’s plenty of free parking available at Cape Kiwanda in a large parking lot by the beach, right in front of the Haystack Rock. It’s also conveniently located next to one of the best breweries on the coast, the Pelican Brewing Company. Had we not just eaten the biggest breakfast ever, we absolutely would have stopped for lunch. It’s fun to sit on the back patio at the Pelican, which is basically on the beach, and watch the surfers. Regardless of the weather conditions, I swear we see surfers here every time! I don’t understand how they can stand that freezing cold Pacific Ocean, even in wetsuits, but we’ll watch them all day.

There’s a huge dune at Cape Kiwanda and oftentimes you’ll see streams of people climbing up and down the hill like ants marching. The hike is a good workout trekking uphill in the sand and the juice is 100% worth the squeeze. There are some amazing views at the top, and we’ve even seen whales from up there! At the bottom of the dune sits a relatively new hotel, the Headlands Coastal Lodge & Spa. We stopped by to check it out and the friendliest staff member took us on a tour of the entire property, and it is unbelievable. Honestly the $300 price tag per night seems reasonable after you check the place out—it is luxurious. The rooms are state-of-the-art, with iPads, trendy decor, and glass walls in the shower so you can see the ocean, from the shower. There’s a spa and a gym, along with an outside hot tub that has drink service. The place even has an herb garden for the onsite bar and restaurant, and a cute gift shop in the lobby area. The Headlands Lodge is a straight up banger and I can’t wait to stay there someday!

From Pacific City we headed north for about 30 minutes until reaching Tillamook, which may sound familiar if you’ve ever eaten Tillamook cheese. At the Tillamook Creamery you can tour the cheese factory, eat free cheese samples, grab some yummy Tillamook icecream, eat at the restaurant, and drop cash on local Oregon treats in the neat gift shop. From Tillamook the drive back to Portland is about 90 minutes up over the Coast Range. It was a gorgeous, foggy drive on the windy road (sometimes it makes me a little car sick TBH). The trees are so green and in some cases extremely mossy. There are actually quite a few waterfalls along Route 6, some that are easy to access if you know where to find them. Fern Rock Falls is a 35 foot cutey right off the side of the road, with a huge parking area. This last stop was (unfortunately) the conclusion of an awesome and action-packed 48-hour trip to the Central Oregon Coast. Although we never found those whales we were looking for, every trip to the Oregon coast is a good trip!

Check out the original blog post from 2019, Central Oregon Coast Attractions: From Yachats to Pacific City, on Travel Deeper to see photos from our first trip! The content here was updated in February of 2021. We’ve since been back to Yachats and Cape Perpetua so many times I’ve lost count.

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