You might know that Portland is the place young people used to go to retire, or that the Columbia River Gorge was created by a cataclysmic deluge. You might be familiar with Mt. Hood or Crater Lake. But Oregon, the Beaver State, has much much more to offer.
Yes, the Northern Oregon coast is nice, stunning even. But when you’ve had your fill of salt water taffy, big city crowds, Pronto Pups and rainy beach days, set course for the Southern Oregon Coast, where sandy beaches, resident gray whales, towering sand dunes, world-class golf courses and day after sunshine-y day await. And that’s just the tip of the conifer; it's got plenty of views, tasty brews, and more trail than a garden of slugs.
Recently I was invited to experience all the aforementioned wonders by Travel Southern Oregon Coast. Specifically, to ride and experience the Whiskey Run Trail System—a purpose-built mountain bike destination that has been delivering quite the buzz among my fellow riders. Having lived in Portland for a couple of decades it was a great opportunity to head south and see what all the fuss was about.
The drive from Portland to Coos Bay–the metropolitan heart of the Southern Oregon Coast region–is long enough to get into an audiobook but short enough to still feel refreshed on arrival (in other words, just under four hours). Our choice for this trip was George Saunders’ Liberation Day, which is full of humor, pathos, and the author’s signature obsession with the absurd and the mundane; if you're into the whole “piercing the membrane of fiction and reality” thing, it's worth a read (or listen). Connecting to the coast via Florence, we stopped in at The Old World Gingerbread Village, a kitschy restaurant that was definitely channeling some Saunders' energy.
Heading south from Florence, the 101 skirts the Oregon Dunes, which are famous for inspiring Frank Herbet’s “Dune” and are a throttle-twister’s playground with plenty of rental opportunities for those looking to spice up there next adventure. Unfortunately Chalamet and Zendeya we’re not available for a private tour, so we skipped the side-by-sides on this trip and made our way another 50 miles south to Coos Bay.
The area in and around Coos Bay is perhaps best known for Bandon Dunes, a world class golf complex featuring five links courses and a par-three course. Bandon draws players from around the world and if swinging a club is your thing by all means make sure to pack a set when you to head to the area.
For those of us who are less club-inclined, the Southern Coast has plenty more to offer. Instead of swinging clubs we spent a long weekend slapping corners (doing some really nice mountain bike turns), washing landscapes (attempting to watercolor), and gamely floating sloughs (kayaking!). More on that, plus other travel tips, below.
Where To Stay
We were fortunate to be set up at Bay Point Landing, a coastal resort replete with cute modernist cabins, remodeled (and rentable) Airstreams, and RV hook-ups. It was the perfect basecamp for our crew, providing easy access to town, the trails, and the beach. Pro tip: the waterfront cabins are definitely worth booking if they're available. Baypoint Landing also has fire pits, a community space, an indoor pool, a gym, and an office center. Go ahead, make yourself at home.
We linked up with Dave Lacey from South Coast Tours for an afternoon paddle in the South Slough of Coos Bay. A National Estuarine Research Reserve, the slough is a bird watcher’s paradise with heron, osprey, egrets, and bald eagles being just a few of the standout operators in the area. Dave is super nice and very knowledgeable and he runs a number of different tours with the Port Orford Ocean Kayaking.
The central focus of our trip was the Whiskey Run Trail System. The trails are a purpose built, bike-only network with over 30 miles of dirt ranging from beginner to advanced. Whiskey Run has something for riders of all levels.
Whiskey Run’s close proximity to the coast helps keep the dirt damp and the duff thick, meaning riders are guaranteed a heaping helping of Pacific Northwest loam on every ride. Lead trail builder Eddie Kessler was our guide for the day and Eddie’s background as a pool skater shows in his trail builds. Flow can feel like a four-letter word in the world of mountain biking, but it seems Eddie has the magic touch. His Whiskey Run trails channeled Goldilocks because the riding was consistently fast and fun.
If exploration on foot is more your speed there are plenty of places to hike, walk, stroll, and job. We recommend sticking to the coast with Sunset Bay to Cape Arago delivering an exceptional eight-ish mile hike down the coast. For short jaunts, there are scenic loops at Shore Acres, Sunset Bay, and Cape Arago.
Every View a Painting
One afternoon took us to Shore Acres State Park for a watercolor class with Chris McNally. Go to Chris’ website, have a look. The joy, exuberance, and expression that you see in his artwork is a direct reflection of Chris’ personality. It was truly special to have a little tutorial from Chris about his process. Hopefully he’ll be doing more classes soon, watch this space!
It didn’t hurt that the class was held in a cozy little cove that was buffed out with all the furnishings of a beautiful ocean scene. Cliffs, trees, rolling waves, carefree tourists, gliding gulls, lazy clouds… the whole shebang. Later that night, Barb from Travel Southern Oregon Coast opined that the area is just as spectacular as Big Sur but without all the people, and after a couple days in the area I can say she makes a good point!
Also don’t miss the “Shoreacres” Botanical Garden, and bring your own set of watercolors!
Eat, Drink, Be Merry
We were all invited to 7 Devils Brewery for the release of their Gnome Wrecker IPA, which takes its name from one of my favorite trails at Whiskey Run, the eponymous Gnome Wrecker. That evening, tese tasty IPA’s were pouring, the bbq cooking, and the live band smoking. With the crowd spilling into the street and a wide selection of beers on tap it's obvious to this old brewery hand that 7 Devils is definitely a go-to spot in town.
A Whale Tail and Coast Crawl
While the majority of our crew spent Sunday at Whiskey Run racing the Dirt Wave Flowduro, my partner and I decided to spend some time checking out more of the coast. We were on the search for whales. Despite numerous attempts, including a paid boat ride, we have yet to see any whales traveling the coast. With “whale” as the Wordle of the day, there was no denying we were off to an auspicious start. Our first stop took us to Simpson Reef Overlook where we shared a spotting scope with some keen eyed old timers and watched sea lions and seals worm their way across the island's sun warmed sand.
From there we pushed a little further south to Cape Arago State Park, which offered a stunning and expansive view of South Cove and the receding coastline stretching toward the southern horizon. But enough of that because “thar she blows”!
Finally, whales. We’ve since learned there are resident gray whales who live year around off the Southern Oregon Coast. And this particular whale was doing it all: flukes out, spouts of water. The long wait was all worth it. Watching a whale is truly a special sight. And like the whale, we’d only just touched the surface of the Southern Oregon Coast, and hope to migrate down there again soon.