When riders think of the coastline-hugging U.S. Highway 101, California gets all the attention. But the highway actually goes through California, Oregon and Washington.
My plan is simple. I’ll ride the U.S. 101 highway, not in California, but from Portland, Ore., to California, to explore Oregon’s coast.
Look at a map of Oregon, and you’ll see that the northern stretch of 101 is the closest spot along the coast for Portland locals. And it seems that most of them are out today.
That means the prevailing speed on 101 is about 35 mph. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to hang a right and head a hundred yards over low dunes to the coast to follow a local road. The view from my bike is of modest beach houses, white sand beach and blue ocean. It’s shaping up to be a good day.
I roll past Sunset Beach State Park and then through the town of Seaside.
South of town, the landscape goes from low beaches to the rocky coastline you expect of Oregon. Uninterrupted horizons are replaced by seastacks: 80- and 100-foot-tall rocks sticking straight up, a few hundred yards offshore. And, this being Oregon, they’re covered with green foliage that makes them seem all the more otherworldly.
Hoping for a better view, I take the turnoff for Ecola State Park. I leave the U.S. route behind and immediately plunge into primeval forest. The new asphalt ribbon weaves among moss-covered conifers and ultimately leads to a parking lot overlooking the ocean. A short walk takes me to the edge of a cliff a good 150 feet above the water, where a white lighthouse stands.
The 270-degree vista is spectacular, from the deep blue of the ocean to the stark white of crashing surf to the murky green of endless forest. I breathe in fresh ocean air and spend far too many minutes completely zoned out as I gaze toward the horizon. There’s a lot to like here.
Back at the bike, I look at the map and count all the Oregon state parks and recreation areas along the coastline. There are at least 37. And that’s only on the coast side of the road.
I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve planned enough time for this trip.
I make it maybe 20 miles to Tillamook, and then a lucky detour puts me on what’s billed as the “Three Capes Loop.” I’m on a broad peninsula with a serpentine road linking capes Meares, Lookout and Kiwanda over maybe 40 miles.
This road is a standout, first ringing the west edge of Tillamook Bay, maybe 6 inches above the waterline, then diving inland to dodge among trees and dunes. At Cape Kiwanda, I walk down to the Cliffside and eat, a quirk of timing giving me the entire rugged coastline to myself.
I spend the night in Newport. Newport’s historic Bayfront features a line of trendy galleries mixed with a working-class fish house and a touristy aquarium. Charter-boat stalls stand next to restaurants and sandwich shops.
This place rocks.
The next morning, I head south over the causeway out of Newport.
Hugging the sheer cliffs that mark this section of coast, the road climbs, and the views out to sea are spectacular. At one turnout, I see waterspouts of surfacing whales.
Gray whales are the most common here, and they feed in shallow water near the shore during the summer and fall, migrate south to breed during the winter, then cruise back north in the spring.
This stretch is also home to what may be the single most-photographed lighthouse on the Oregon coast. Perched high above the ocean at Heceta Head, this lighthouse has been warning passing ships of the rocky coastline since 1894. Still shining through its original Fresnel lens, restored in 2000, it’s the most powerful light on the Oregon coast, visible more than 20 miles out to sea.
You can take the winding road up to the lighthouse itself, but I enjoy the long-distance view from 101, just south of the park. From a wide pullout, it’s easy to kill far too much time watching the lighthouse, the crashing waves and, far below, sea lions lounging on the rocks.
If you get the feeling that it’s hard to make miles along this coastline without stopping, you’re right.
Remember those great scenes from “On Any Sunday,” when Malcom Smith, Steve McQueen and Mert Lawwill go dirt-riding all over the dunes at Pismo Beach?
Well, Oregon has its own beach-riding paradise just down the road, at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Motoring by on 101, I see several shops that rent ATVs by the hour, and a couple of parking lots where empty trailers sit, their owners obviously out enjoying the day.
This 40-mile stretch of sandy hills looks like fun, but it forces Route 101 inland. So by the time I reach Coos Bay at the south end of the dunes, I consult the Wing’s GPS and hook a right toward Sunset Bay State Park.
Who could resist a name like that?
A few minutes later, I’m back by the ocean, taking in the cool breeze from the bike as I motor between open vistas and tree-covered lanes. The little road I’m on continues until it dead-ends at Cape Arayo State Park. I kill the motor and hear what sounds like a whole pack of dogs, mildly barking. I look out and see dark shapes on the offshore rocks. A sign tells me that this is a colony of marine mammals—harbor seals, sea lions and elephant seals. It sounds like the best party on the entire coast.
Realizing there’s less of this beautiful country ahead of me the farther south I travel, I engineer a new plan. Any scenic-looking road that loops off of and back to 101 becomes a must-ride.
That’s how I wind up rolling through a laid-back area of houses in Bandon, where the locals enjoy cliff-side views of tall rocks just 30 feet out from shore. And it’s how I find a cool working pier farther south in Port Orford, where a funky gift shop shares dock space with deep-sea fishing boats. In between, remote stretches of 101 alternately hug the rugged shoreline and dodge inland.
By the time I reach Brookings, I know I have only a few miles of Oregon left, and the afternoon is nearly gone. I start scanning the roadside, and as I near the California border, I find what I’m looking for and hit my turn signal.
I pull over by a lonely stretch of dunes. I park the Wing, and walk the hundred yards or so across low dunes to the beach.
Standing there, with the waves brushing the sand, I can look south and see the “Welcome to California” sign up on 101 that marks the official end of this ride.
But the sign can wait. I’m not going anywhere for a while.