My hand slaps the skeletal hull of the shipwreck.
“I touched the butt!” I shout as I turn to run from an incoming wave. The water foams up and catches my right foot, soaking into my trail runners. I race back up to my mom and we pause to imagine the Peter Iredale as it looked when it first ran aground over a hundred years ago, 285 feet long with four masts reaching up to stormy skies.
Four hours into our holiday road trip and my feet are already wet. They will remain so for the next three days as we follow Highway 101 from Astoria down to California’s redwood parks.
Many have experienced the Oregon coast in the mild summer months, but winter is a unique time. Yes, it’s dark and damp and stormy, but the brooding conditions lead to magical solitude and an extra dose of adventure. Time and again my little blue Fit is the only car in a huge parking lot at a trail head or viewpoint. We have windswept beaches and bluffs completely to ourselves.
For holiday cheer…
At Tillamook Cheese Factory, I sink my teeth into a sandwich oozing with a gooey blend of cheeses produced on-site. It’s the perfect comfort food, especially when eaten in this winter wonderland of Christmas trees bedecked in lights and ornaments. Along with the usual cheese and ice cream samples, the shop offers free gift wrap, though we learn you can’t get a block of cheese wrapped.
For Christmas lights, we head to Shore Acres State Park near Coos Bay after dark. All the locals have turned out, making this our only crowded stop. The gardens blaze with 325,000 rainbow LEDs. The displays celebrate the Oregon coast, including an animated leaping orca and a spouting gray whale. When it begins to rain, we huddle inside the garden house and snack on free cookies and hot cider.
Less than 10 minutes away, the Old Charleston Schoolhouse holds a miniature Christmas village. Toy trains hum through hundreds of intricate little buildings and decorations. I stand lost in the details of tiny amusement parks and dance halls and even a quidditch stadium.
For curling up with a good book…
The Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport is a book lover’s paradise. Each room in this creaky old cliffside B&B is themed after a famous author, from Mark Twain to JK Rowling. The doors are left open on vacant rooms so you can explore at your leisure and flip through their guestbooks. You might even come across a cat or two on the way.
We settle into the Steinbeck room, with its jalopy headboard, faux windows overlooking Monterey, Calavaras jumping frogs lining the sills, and of course a bookshelf with Steinbeck’s complete works.
Upstairs, a cozy library overlooks the ocean, complete with mulled wine in the evenings and an attic nook with games. Breakfast is served family style in the Table of Contents restaurant, where we chat with old ladies about the gentrification of Portland while eating dutch babies.
For winter wildlife…
During the winter months, the Sea Lion Caves just north of Florence teem with Stellar sea lions. The roadside caves have been privately owned since 1880 and open to tourists since 1932, making it super commercial. We buy our admission ticket in the gift shop (the popcorn machine is out of service) before taking an elevator over 200 feet down to the cave.
As I step into the viewing gallery, a barking din and the smell of fish overwhelm my senses (glad I don’t have that popcorn). Brown lumps occupy every flat surface, the smallest sea lions relegated to tiny rock islands that are pummeled by the waves while the big bulls sprawl high and dry. Every so often, a sea lion lets out a high-pitched, human-like scream that rises above the general grunts and bellows. It puts the internet-famous goats to shame.
From mid-December to January, the coast is witness to a migration of grey whales from Alaska to Mexico, making anywhere with a view of the ocean an opportunity for whale watching. We find lookouts at Ecola State Park, at Cannon Beach with its iconic Haystack Rock, and at Natural Bridges cove. However, it’s difficult to tell the spout of a whale from general whitecaps and spray.
On the way out of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in California, we spot a herd of Roosevelt Elk in a misty glade, aptly called Elk Meadows. It almost feels like they’re on display as they graze closer to surrounding the sign warning “Danger – Wild Elk: Do not approach on foot”.
For getting your feet wet…
“Oh, look, a salamander!”
I bend down to examine the little fellow as he crawls across the trail-head parking lot then bid him goodbye as we set off down the Taylor Dunes Trail in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
Moments later, I spot another salamander. Then another. I begin counting as we start off down the trail, but am soon overwhelmed.
“Oh no – they’re everywhere!”
The hike turns into a stressful game of dodge-the-salamander in the style of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, as we hop and lunge and tiptoe over the well-camouflaged amphibians.
The next obstacle is a flooded section of the trail. We roll up our pants and wade through before squelching our way onto the dunes and down to the ocean. The wind sweeps the sand over the beach in hissing, hypnotizing patterns that sting my bare calves and toss the waves into foam.
The following day, after an anticlimactic geocache at Oregon’s largest Monterey cypress tree, we pass into California. A silent forest road takes us to another empty parking lot at Stout Grove in Jebediah Smith State Park. Fog enshrouds the redwoods. We walk along the paved trail, hunched under our sodden rain jackets. The wet is winning – we need a shift in mood.
“Hey, Mom, you have to look up to see how tall the redwoods are,” I prompt.
She falls for it, peering up into a faceful of pouring rain which sets us off laughing and trying to catch the drops in our mouths.
The sun returns for our final coastal stop, Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The last stream crossing is too much for my low-clearance car, so we ford it on foot and walk down the road. When we come to the canyon, my mom balks.
“That’s not a trail, it’s a stream!”
“Come on! Our shoes are already wet!” I urge.
Up go the pant legs again and we head in. Five varieties of ferns cover the sheer walls, water sluicing off the fronds to plink onto the flooded canyon floor. It feels prehistoric, which is no doubt why some of Jurassic Park 2 was filmed here. At one of the logjams, my mom has had enough so we splash back the way we came.
Adventures over, we follow 101 as it leaves the coast, headed inland toward family, holiday celebrations, and dry shoes.
Our full itinerary from north to south:
- Fort Stevens State Park
- Tillamook Cheese Factory
- Ecola State Park
- Cannon Beach
- Sylvia Beach Hotel
- Sea Lion Caves
- Oregon Dunes
- Shore Acres State Park – Holiday Lights
- Old Charleston Schoolhouse Christmas Village
- Gold Beach Hotel
- Jebediah Smith State Park – Stout Grove
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park – Fern Canyon
- Jelly Belly Factory