No tour of the Oregon coast would be complete without a little time spent in the heart of the region. The section of coastline between Newport to the north and Coos Bay to the south has some of the state's most interesting and dynamic scenic areas. The area is also enormously rich in history, as the rivers in this region played huge roles in the economic and cultural development. A person could easily spend a week getting to know the dunes, beaches, forests, and waterways, but unfortunately few of us have that kind of time. A free weekend is a great start, however, and with a little planning you'll get to know a good portion of the area.
This itinerary is just a sample of a few things to do with a quick weekend traveling north along the central Oregon coast. Even this stripped down itinerary is ambitious, so make substitutions according to weather, traveler temperament, and time constraints. Just don't let yourself rush through these wonderful places. It is better to spend the time to thoroughly enjoy these spots; if you run short of time, you'll just have to come back for more!
Depending on your preferences and your budget, there are plenty of options for accommodation on the Oregon coast. If you can get a reservation, however, staying in a yurt is a totally unique and comfortable choice. Yurts come with different amenities, from beds alone to units with kitchens and private bathrooms, so be sure to check out the individual campground for more information so you know what to bring. For this itinerary, see if you can grab one of the deluxe yurts in Umpqua Lighthouse State Park Campground on the first night; this will set you up well for several nearby adventures the next day. Then, for the second night, book a yurt in Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park Campground farther north and nearer to Florence. You'll save hours in driving time by moving farther up the coast for the night, and you'll get a little more familiar with a new section of this region.
Kick off your first day with a quick walk around this beautiful little coastal lake that sits directly below Umpqua Lighthouse State Park Campground. At just more than a mile, this nearly level trail around Lake Marie is an excellent choice for families and for anyone looking for a dose of some healthy coastal habitat. A small beach sits near the road, and several secluded picnic areas hide in the dense vegetation along the north shore. There are plenty of spots to throw a fishing line, and you'll also find a small boat ramp for non-motorized watercraft.
Once you've stretched your legs a bit, plan to spend a little time at the Umpqua River Lighthouse just up the road. You'll have great views from the bluff above the mouth of the Umpqua River, and you'll get the opportunity to tour the museum and lighthouse for an excellent introduction to the region's recent history. Did you know that Oregon's lighthouses were positioned as links in a chain of light so that mariners traveling along the coast would travel into the range of a new beam just as they left the range of another? Or that the first Coast Guard rescue boats were designed to right themselves following a capsize in just under a minute? Stop in at the Umpqua River Lighthouse to find out more.
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is one of those special places that feels a little otherworldly. This incredible span of dunes challenges your sense of proportion with gigantic mounds and an undifferentiated, uniform sandscape. The John Dellenback Trail that cuts from Highway 101 to the ocean is one of the best ways to experience this totally unique environment. Give yourself a little extra time to walk in this soft sand from trail marker to trail marker, then cut through an incredibly dense section of coastal scrub, and finally emerge onto a vast and likely deserted beach (note there are some use restrictions to protect the snowy plover). This is truly a must-see area along the central Oregon coast, and a perfect end to your first day. If you are headed north for the night, the drive from the John Dellenback Trailhead to Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park Campground is approximately one hour.
Start the morning of your second day by continuing your exploration of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. One of the most popular access points for this northern section is from Honeyman State Park, just 30 minutes south of Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park Campground. While the Umpqua dunes may be technically larger, the dunes at Honeyman are no less incredible than their southern siblings; in fact, rumor has it that Frank Herbert was inspired to write his science-fiction classic, Dune, after a visit to this section of the Oregon Dunes. Honeyman State Park provides incredibly easy access to a massive dune right out of the parking lot, and you can continue your walk further if you like (just be aware of areas were motorized vehicles are allowed). Additionally, Cleawox Lake is a very popular spot to cool off on those rare and precious warm days on the Oregon coast.
The light on Heceta Head is the Umpqua River Lighthouse's twin, as the two were positioned to work in tandem to fill in the dark stretch of coast between Yaquina Head to the north and Cape Arago to the south. The Umpqua River Lighthouse's construction was considerably more fraught, and the Heceta Head Lighthouse construction was comparatively straightforward (though also very difficult!). The Heceta Head Light was completed in 1893, and the Umpqua River Light in 1894. Currently the walk to the newly restored Heceta Head Light passes the Keeper's House that has been converted into a bed and breakfast, surely one of the more unique places to stay in the area. Also, take some time to enjoy the beach and enormous sea caves at Cape Cove.
If you have the time once you finish, access the beach just north of Heceta Head via the Hobbit Trail. For years this trail was an unofficial path through a prohibitively dense forest. Dubbed the Hobbit Trail by those in the know, it was named for the imposing and verdant walls that the trail tunnels through, evoking both a mythic ambience and diminutive postures from those squeezing under branches and around rhododendrons. The trail has become more popular over time, and while some official maintenance has opened the trail up a bit, the name is no less apt today than it once was.
Just about 10 miles north of Heceta Head, Thor's Well + Cook's Chasm makes for a fantastic, close-up counterpoint to the aeriel views that await you from Cape Perpetua. Bring your rain gear and some waterproof shoes, as this area is a notorious soaker. Waves surge and burst through holes left from collapsed holes and tunnels, sending geyser-like spouts up to 40 feet high. You won't regret a quick stop here, just be sure to keep an eye on your camera (and yourself)!
For an entirely different perspective on this stretch of coastline, take in the view from Cape Perpetua. From approximately 800 feet above the Pacific, you'll get excellent views of some land you will have just seen, including Heceta Head. The precipitous overlook is stunning, and it is a great way to get a sense of the dramatic geography in this region. The shelter at the top comes courtesy of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and it can be a real relief when the winds start pressuring this lookout. Come during a gray whale migration for a great chance to observe these incredible creatures moving just off the coast.
By now your day is stretching out, but you're nearly finished! Drive another 20 minutes north for a great end to your action-packed trip. Close your day at Seal Rock with a toast to a staple resident of the Oregon coast, the venerable harbor seal. It's highly likely that you'll see these playful creatures working the surf or hauling out for a little down time. This is also a great spot to focus on the sea life that is right at your feet, as the tide pools in this area are plentiful. Look for green anemones, purple sea urchins, gooseneck barnacles, and California mussels. A walk down the broad beach here is a great way to collect your thoughts before you hop in the car for the drive back.