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A Coastal State of Mind

January 1, 2014
Cape Perpetua Overlook

Twisty roads, natural beauty, crashing ocean waves and awe-inspiring views kept Liz Jansen rapt on the Oregon coast

Story and photos by Liz Jansen

Poised between forest and sea, the road in front of me cut through a dense canopy of Sitka spruce, while to my right, the Pacific thundered and roiled, carrying off whatever stood in its way. Alternately fierce and serene, the ocean is never predictable.

Riding all the way to the Pacific wasn’t part of my original plan. When I decided to try a six-week experiment of working from the road, Lake Tahoe was as far west as I thought I’d get. However, when friends come calling, plans change. That’s how I ended up spending five days riding 500 kilometres along Oregon’s Highway 101.

I’d entered Oregon through the side door. After heading west from Montana and south through desert-like Washington, Highway 14 carried me 300 kilometres along the Columbia River’s north shore, a much preferable alternative to Interstate 84 on the Oregon side. I crossed into Portland, getting through the metropolis as quickly as possible. Temperatures had remained in the mid-30s for much of my trip, and I was eager to feel the cool ocean breezes and to wipe salt spray from my visor.

As I turned west onto Highway 6 from 26, I’m sure the drivers around me heard the audible sigh of relief through their rolled-up windows and air-conditioning fans. I was back in paradise, riding the curves through Tillamook State Forest up and over the Cascade Mountains. I’d been invited to camp near Tillamook with friends who were participating in a dual-sport ride. The visit was great – and the Pacific Ocean was only one sleep and 20 kilometres away.

Oregon PCH CarEmerging from the forest the next morning to sunshine and blue skies, I headed straight for the water. Whatever it is about the rhythm of waves and call of the sea that touches our spirit, it was calling mine.

In contrast to the rain forests and rocky outcrops that characterize much of the coastal area, rich grasslands carpet this region. Pioneers imported dairy cattle, and in 1894, with the help of Canadian Peter McIntosh, began what has become a world-famous cheese industry. A tour of the Tillamook Cheese factory and museum offers a fascinating glimpse of the area’s history. Where there’s a dairy, there’s ice cream, and you can’t leave without sampling it.

My plan was generally to head south, but now that I was at the ocean, it only made sense to ride as much of the coastline as possible. I made my way north, choosing Cannon Beach as my northern terminus.

Named for a cannon that washed up on the beach in 1846, it’s a pretty seaside resort town. Most of the picture-perfect buildings are clad in weathered shakes, and residents take great pains to preserve the natural history. If you want to browse through touristy shops and galleries, park in the centrally located municipal lot. By far the best use of time here is to get out onto the beach, where Haystack Rock juts 72 metres above the water. Home to many species of nesting birds, including tufted puffins, it’s part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Getting back on my bike, I returned south, relaxing into an extended coastal ride. Given that it was a beautiful sunny Sunday in August, traffic was heavy, but I’d expected that. The speed limit on much of Highway 101 is 45 mph (just over 70 km/h) – but why do you want to rush through such natural beauty on roads you may not pass through again? As you would expect, motorcycles made up a fair share of the traffic, but the vehicles in no way diminished the spectacular beauty I was riding through.

Cannon Beach at Haystack RockFrequent turnouts invite you to stop and take in the magnificent ocean vistas; take care when parking, though, as many do not have level ground. With friendly small towns to punctuate long stretches of uninterrupted riding, fuel for bike, body and soul is readily available.

Tillamook sits inland, so turn west at the main stoplight and catch the Three Capes Scenic Loop. It takes you along the water, a much more pleasant option than riding through town.

Just south of town, you can’t miss noticing a massive Second World War blimp hangar, touted as the largest wooden structure in the world. It’s been converted into a private aviation museum, although earlier this year, the owner announced they’d be moving that museum to Madras in central Oregon by 2016. Check its status before arriving if you’d like to tour it…

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