Cape Perpetua in Siuslaw National Forest
For more than 300 miles along the Oregon coast, US-101 abounds with national forests, state parks, and viewpoints. But unless you have your whole lifetime to spend here, Cape Perpetua, two miles south of Yachats, deserves most of your attention. Stop first at the Cape Perpetua Visitor Center (541/547-3289), just east of US-101, for seacoast views and exhibits on forestry and area history.
From the visitors center, trails lead across the highway past wind-bent trees, piles of seashells and other artifacts left behind by indigenous peoples, excellent tide pools, and two coastal rock formations: the Devil’s Churn, right on US-101 at the north edge of Cape Perpetua, and the Spouting Horn, off US-101 a half mile south of the visitor center. During stormy seas, especially in winter, both are amazing spectacles, with the Spouting Horn shooting huge spouts of foam 50 feet into the air through a hole in the roof of a collapsed, underwater lava cave.
You can reach the top of 800-foot-high Cape Perpetua itself by following a two-mile-long road, marked by Cape Perpetua Viewpoint signs and leaving US-101 100 yards or so north of the visitors center. Once atop the cape, walk the Whispering Spruce Trail, a half-mile loop around the rim of the promontory that yields, on a clear day, 150-mile views of the Oregon coast from a rustic, WPA-built stone observation point.
Heceta Head and the Sea Lion Caves
Halfway between Cape Perpetua and Florence, a small bridge just south of Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park marks the turnoff to Heceta Head Lighthouse, perhaps the most photographed beacon in the United States. Built in 1894, it was named for the Spanish mariner who is credited with being the first European to set foot in the region. You’ll have to be content with gazing at it across the cove from a small but rarely crowded beach, unless you stay at the quaint old lighthouse keeper’s quarters, restored as an unforgettable Heceta Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast (866/547-3696, $215 and up).
A half mile south of Heceta Head Lighthouse, 11 miles north of Florence, traffic along US-101 slows to a stop at the gift shop that serves as the entrance to Sea Lion Caves (daily, $14 adults). You can ride an elevator down to the world’s largest sea cave, the only mainland rookery for the Steller sea lion. Fall and winter offer the best times to see (and smell!) these animals, which throng together here during mating season. When the weather is nice, you can often watch them swimming in the ocean (for free and without the seal smells) from a viewpoint 100 yards up US-101.
If first and last impressions are enduring, Florence is truly blessed. As you enter the city from the north, US-101 climbs high above the ocean; coming from the south, travelers are greeted by the graceful Siuslaw River Bridge, perhaps the most impressive of a handful of WPA-built spans designed by Conde McCullough and decorated with his trademark Egyptian obelisks and art deco stylings. Unfortunately, first impressions feel a little misleading, since much of what you can see from US-101 is a bland highway sprawl of motels, gas stations, and franchised restaurants.
The best part of Florence, Old Town, is just upstream from that landmark bridge, along the north bank of the Siuslaw River. Here, among Bay Street’s three blocks of interesting boutiques and galleries, you’ll find a number of cafés and seafood restaurants, like Bridgewater Fish House and Zebra Bar (1297 Bay St., 541/997-1133, Wed.-Mon.). Old Town Florence is also home to the welcoming Edwin K Bed and Breakfast (1155 Bay St., 541/997-8360, $160-240), a lovely white Craftsman-style home built in 1914 by one of the town’s founders.