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Central Oregon Coast Driving Tour
Excerpt from National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways & Byways
Photo by Krista Rossow
Photo: Oregon
A viewpoint along Highway 101 looks north towards the Heceta Head Lighthouse.

Cascade Head to Bandon on U.S. 101: 160 miles (257 kilometers); 6 hours; all year. The northern portion of this section of the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway is a vintage Oregon coast blend of seashore and forest, while the southern section skirts the incomparable Oregon dunes.

*Bolded names in the text below correspond with our map of this tour.

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Picking up from the northern Oregon coast drive, continue south on U.S. 101 for miles past state parks, and appreciate the wildlife as well as the head-turning views—the threatened silverspot butterfly at the Cascade Head Preserve, seals and brown pelicans near Siletz Bay, and gray whales off the coast near Yaquina Head.

The town of Newport (Chamber of Commerce. +1 541 265 8801 or 800 262 7844) lies on the Yaquina River. Side by side on the bay's south shore are two premier institutions for teaching the general public about the coast and ocean: the Oregon Coast Aquarium (2820 S.E. Ferry Slip Rd. +1 541 867 3474. Adm. fee) and the Hatfield Marine Science Center (2030 S. Marine Science Dr. +1 541 867 0100. Closed Tues.-Wed. & Labor Day–Memorial Day; donation). Here in Newport you will also find one (some say the most beautiful in America) of the 11 remaining lighthouses along the coast. The Yaquina Head Lighthouse is still in use, but you can visit it for a nominal charge.

In Yachats (yah-hots), a small but charming coastal town, the U.S. 101 bridge takes you over the Yachats River. Go south a mile and you enter the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area (Visitor Information Center. +1 541 547 3289. Memorial Day–Labor Day, scenic area all year; adm. fee). Here, at the Devils Churn, waves rumble up a narrow channel and explode against massive rocks. Just beyond, a side road climbs two miles to the Cape Perpetua Overlook. Highest point on the Oregon coast, it offers views of the Pacific, the coast, and the towering Coast Range.

The Cape Perpetua Visitor Center (closed Nov.-April) on U.S. 101 is the access point for numerous trails that fan out to tide pools, old-growth forests, and Native American shell middens.

For the next 23 miles (37 kilometers), state parks and waysides hold the delights of rocky shores and sandy beaches, where sandpipers scamper at the edge of the surf and harbor seals loll. In the area's deep forests, you might see elk browsing. At Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint (near mile 172. +1 541 547 3966. Lighthouse tours; parking fee), you can visit the lighthouse and a mile farther on the Sea Lion Caves (+1 541 547 3111. Adm. fee). The vast cavern houses a raucous colony of Steller sea lions. Five miles (eight kilometers) beyond at the little Darlingtonia State Wayside, a boardwalk leads through bogs thick with carnivorous cobra lilies.

Just south of here, U.S. 101 quits the coast, leveling out as it enters the fast-growing town of Florence. The Old Town waterfront has a pleasant mix of galleries, cafés, and shops. Across the Siuslaw River, you enter the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (+1 541 271 3611), its 31,500 acres (12,750 hectares) stretching along 40-some miles (64 kilometers) of coastline. Right away you see dunes, but they're mostly covered by forest. In fact, the Oregon dunes are not a sea of pure sand but a blend of open dunes, tree islands, wetlands, forests, and lakes.

About six miles (9.6 kilometers) inside the recreation area, you'll come to a side road for the Siltcoos Recreation Corridor. The recreation area has a broad sandy beach fronting the ocean and a trail that follows a wildlife-rich estuary of the Siltcoos River. Farther along U.S. 101, turn right at the Carter Lake Campground and walk the half-mile Taylor Dune Trail.

About a mile down U.S. 101, you can look across waves of sand that reach heights of several hundred feet at the Oregon Dunes Overlook. From here, the road continues south past forests and lakes until it hits civilization at Gardiner, on the Umpqua River. This tiny town was named after the owner of the brigantine Bostonian, which went down off the coast in 1850. Salvage was used to build the town.

Across the Umpqua, in the larger town of Reedsport, the Oregon Dunes Headquarters (+1 541 271 3611) has brochures, displays, and a film on the dunes. Four miles (6.4 kilometers) farther, the drive passes the town of Winchester Bay. A brief detour into town will bring you to a marina, the Umpqua Lighthouse, a nice park, and some savory clam chowder.

After Winchester Bay, U.S. 101 once again passes by forested dunes and lakes as it returns to the east side of the Oregon dunes. After about nine miles (14.4 kilometers) you can hike into the Umpqua Dunes via a 0.25-mile (0.4-kilometer) trail out of the North Eel Campground. Reaching heights of 400 feet (122-meter), the Umpqua Dunes are among the highest in the recreation area. From North Eel, you pass through a familiar landscape of forests and lakes for another 11 miles (17.7 kilometers). The drive continues through the coastal towns of North Bend and Coos Bay (Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, 50 Central Ave. +1 541 269 0215 or 800 824 8486) before ending 30 miles (48 kilometers) later in Bandon.

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