written by Felisa Rogers | photos by Tim LaBarge
Heading from our rural home to the big city of Florence, we drove through timber country—past saw-toothed mountains, river rocks, and waterfalls dropping over mossy cliffs. We passed an abandoned mill, glittering wetlands, and the rusting Cushman trestle bridge, crowned with a small wooden signal house, like a cabin dropped from the sky. Herons stalked in the mudflats outside of town, and mist hung low over the river.
Florence is a perfect staging ground for exploring one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, from the mountainous southern dunes to the craggy beauty of Heceta Head and Cape Perpetua to the north. But like many near-locals, I don’t take full advantage of the Oregon Coast. My weekly grocery missions to Florence are rushed and prosaic. I seldom make time to visit one of the town’s seven ocean beaches or seventeen lakes. The Sea Lion Caves and other famous local attractions remain unexplored or relegated to vague childhood memories.
I once had a better excuse. There was a time when it was easy to dismiss Florence as a backwater, dominated by RV parks and retirees in lumbering Cadillacs. But in the past decade, a spate of new restaurants, shops and food carts have materialized. I hesitate to use the word “Renaissance” to describe culinary developments in rural Oregon, but the thriving town clearly demands closer inspection. And then there are all those dunes and coves. My goal for the next seventy-two hours was to step away from the humdrum and see the region with new eyes.
Florence is a river town, and the historic district offers views of the Siuslaw, a placid expanse flickering with reflections of the dark hills. We arrived by early afternoon, which gave us time for a daylight stroll along the river through Old Town. The neighborhood has the requisite kite shops, salt water taffy and cheap t-shirts, but it’s also home to quirky little joints like Homegrown Public House. The pub’s funky aesthetic and local organic ethos was a good staging ground for my quest to see Florence in a new light. Hour one and I was already pleasantly surprised. Burgers made with quality local beef did not disappoint, and the pub plate included chive spread, pickled onions, a generous helping of smoked tuna and a stack of toasted artisanal bread. Our tattoo-spangled waitress recommended the fresh-squeezed margaritas and listed eight local beers on tap. Sipping our IPAs, we felt fortunate: fifteen years ago you would have been lucky to find Coors and Miller on tap in a Florence pub.
Feeling fortified, we crossed the street to Siuslaw Pioneer Museum. If you’ve ever looked at an antique and wondered about its past owners, this is your golden opportunity. Obviously a labor of love, the museum is crammed with items donated by the town’s pioneers, and everything is meticulously labeled with family histories and historical factoids. Saw blades and photographs of grim-faced men tell the town’s history as a logging port. The nametags on cloche velvet hats evoke the specters of long-gone flappers. One room is devoted to local shipwrecks, whale vertebrae and other ephemera of the sea. Although the interior looks exactly like an over-stuffed antique shop, the museum’s approach is more interesting than the false tableaus of pioneer home life.
After this foray into the clutter of the past, we headed south across the elegant Art Déco bridge, one of five distinctive Oregon bridges built during the Great Depression and funded by the WPA. The bridge’s stone towers are in perfect harmony with the wooded hills and brooding sky, and the mossy stone gates of Honeyman State Park sustain the Northwestern Gothic mood. We pitched our tent beneath firs the height of eight-story buildings, and settled into the well-appointed campground for a lazy evening by the fire.
I’ve lived in Lane County for the better part of my life and somehow never ventured into Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. I always imagined normal-sized dunes blaring with dune buggies full of tourists.
In my first loud dune buggy full of tourists, strapping on goggles and helmets, I was about to learn that my dismissive attitude was sadly off-base. Dedicated as a National Recreation Area in 1972, the 40-square-mile park is the largest expanse of coastal dunes in North America. This statistic didn’t prepare us for the scope of the dunes. As we roared out, the vista before us was awesome. A few dunes are scruffy with trees and salal, but most are as smooth and tensile as the flanks of giant slumbering beasts. We barely had a moment to take in the 500-foot peaks before we were hurtling down a seemingly vertical slope. We plunged over ridges, kicking up sprays of sand, descending and ascending at unbelievable angles and speeds. No rollercoaster on earth can compete.
After the morning’s excitement we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon in Old Town, starting with ribs and an exemplary pot roast dip sandwich at the Maple Street Grille, and then wandered two blocks east to the excellent Humane Society Thrift Shop, which brims with old lady treasures and must be one of the cheapest stores in the state.
The day was almost warm, and South Jetty Beach beckoned. After cresting the dunes for a wind-blasted view of the open ocean, we walked toward the seawall, keeping an eye out for the wreck of the Bella, a timber schooner that grounded in 1906. It’s said that the top of the wooden skeleton is sometimes visible at low tide, about a mile south of the jetty. We found crab shells and pebbles of green beach glass, but the Bella didn’t reveal herself. Nonetheless the day seemed perfect. A bird dog ran in ecstatic loops on the shimmering sand, the waves crashed and boomed, and the world seemed vast and bright.
Back in town, we ate dinner at The Waterfront Depot, Florence’s take on fine dining. A favorite with locals, the riverside restaurant was crowded and convivial, and we split a round of bracingly fresh oysters, a pile of snappy deepfried asparagus and a seared steak. After dinner, we crossed the street to Beachcombers, a Florence institution since 1936. The pleasantly divey bar is redolent of stale Coors, but the beer list surprises with twenty beers on tap, mostly local, and more than 100 varieties of bottled beer. Not too shabby.
We could have explored the beaches north of Florence by following the Oregon Coast Trail, a 382-mile walking trail that spans from border to border. That sounded slightly too ambitious, so we drove north on Highway 101. Our first stop was Darlingtonia State Botanical Wayside. The eighteen-acre botanical park is ringed with cedars and spruce that look like they’ve been growing since time primordial, but the real attraction is a swamp full of carnivorous cobra lilies. Standing at twenty inches, these specimens of Darlingtonia californica look like the alien from the eponymous movie, and have an aggressive reputation to match, although supposedly their threat is limited to the insect realm.
Our favorite beach at Heceta Head looked crowded, and the idea of paying money to be in a cave full of sea lions did not seem terribly appealing, so we bypassed the more popular attractions and stopped at Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park. The five-mile span of sand is not one of the region’s famous spots, which says something for the quantity of outstanding beaches along this stretch of coast. Bookended by cliffs and bisected by sparkling streams, the shore is ridiculously scenic. We catnapped on a drift log and watched college kids parade in bathing suits, a clue that they’re from out of state. As any true Oregonian knows, wearing a bikini on the Oregon Coast is almost as gauche as carrying an umbrella.
A light lunch seemed wise before our afternoon helicopter ride, so we went back to Florence in search of the elusive Taste of Hawaii food truck. The term “fusion cuisine” usually kills my appetite, but all of my Florence friends insisted that this is the place. Turns out they’re right. Our pretentions of eating light were foiled by the menu. Pulled pork tacos were sloppily delicious, and a panko prawn musubi was fat and succulent.
Next stop was Apex Helitours. At the hangar, we were greeted by owner and operator Byron DeVries, who lead us out to the Robinson R-44 Raven II, which looked like a dragonfly and was much smaller than I expected. I experienced an unexpected surge of terror, which subsided as we went gliding off the tarmac. My previous helicopter experience had been limited to Vietnam movies, and the Raven II was a pleasant surprise—stealthy, sleek and comfortable. Headsets allowed us to engage in easy conversation as Byron took us up the North Fork of the Siuslaw River and onward, pointing out a restored wetland, a network of trestle bridges that denote the old railroad line through the lakes, and to a location I promised not to reveal, his favorite mountain top for watching the sun set over the sea. Then we wheeled north and headed out over the Pacific Ocean.
The helicopter trip reminded me that sublime potential lurks just beyond the scope of our daily lives. Limited to grocery missions on the main drag, Florence seemed an unpromising string of hardware stores and gas stations. But aloft, the aerial view reveals the true scope of the area: hidden lakes and dunes surround the little town on all sides, rivers meander through green valleys and dense forests. The Coast is a treasure trove of sea caves, secret coves, hobbit trails, tide pools, sea lions and grey whales migrating north to Alaska for the summer. We swooped low over the dunes to chase a buggy tour, hovered over a family racing off-road vehicles across a sand flat, spotted clam diggers waving from the shining tidal sand, and circled surfers and kite boarders at South Jetty. Seventy-two hours in Florence are just not enough.