May 9, 2017

From shipwrecks to cheese-makers

By Kris Parfitt Travers

Photo by John “Raz” Rezell

The northern Oregon Coast is rugged. Almost uninviting due to what seems like a never-ending drizzle of rain, nausea-inducing winding roads and life-snatching high tides.

The coast nevertheless has an allure in its remote beauty stitched between alcove towns filled with quaint discoveries and friendly souls.

With history steeped in maritime crews, pioneers and artisans, this northern end of Oregon tempts the adventurous spirit along vista-laced hikes, through museums and galleries, and to partake in feasts at local eateries.

In a rented Hideout Campervan, my husband Dan and I spent a few days along the Oregon Coast last summer.

Intending to explore every cove, vista and cranny between the towns of Astoria and Tillamook.

We planned museum visits, downtown strolls, hikes, kayak tours and beach bike rides. We were keen on digesting the fine fare of artisan cheeses in the fertile Tillamook farm region as we looped back through Portland later in the week.

Our well-laid plans were drowned in an endless mid-summer coastal downpour. Despite the deluge, we managed to soak our curiosity in a handful of eccentric and unique places along the beautiful northern shores of Oregon before driving inland for a drier adventure.


Rich in history, Astoria is a treasure trove of exploration. Intrepid mariners still risk life and stern to cross the iconic Columbia River Bar — a nautical threshold between the salty Pacific and the freshwater of the sixth-largest drainage basin in the United States. This shifting delta creates a sandbar that is known to be one of the world’s most dangerous maritime passages to navigate.

We were eager to dive deep into the maritime history of the Graveyard of the Pacific — the nickname the mouth of the Columbia River has earned over the centuries for swallowing boats and crews — and spent the better half of a day visiting the Columbia River Maritime Museum.

That afternoon we drove 30 minutes west to Fort Stevens, once a primary defense at the mouth of the Columbia River (an active arm in a triad with Forts Canby and Columbia, both on the Washington banks), to see the Peter Iredale shipwreck, the ruins of a turn-of-the century shipwreck that ran ashore in 1906.

While its impressive skeleton is still visible, it also marks the beginning of the Clatsop Spit — a 6.5-mile natural spit and man-made jetty that marks the southern entry to the Columbia River. Seasonal elk, migratory birds and crashing waves beckon hikers for a 1- to 5-mile trek.

Dodging Raindrops in Cannon Beach

The next day we set our sights on Oregon’s famous seaside artist’s hamlet, Cannon Beach, with the hope of riding fat-tire bikes along the beach and doing some leisurely gallery-hopping and window-shopping.

A mid-summer downpour started us scampering along side streets instead, attempting to see all that Cannon Beach had to offer while dodging raindrops. The famous beach and Pacific haystacks hid behind a wall of gray rain and fog.

Soaked, laughing and hungry, we stumbled upon the Public Coast Brewery and delighted in tasting outstanding craft brews and juicy hamburgers. Drier, warmer and renewed with a sense of adventure, we darted into various galleries and curiosity shops on our way back to the van.

A Quick Embrace at Hug Point

Ten miles south of Cannon Beach lies Oswald West State Park and somewhere in between is a well-known gem called Hug Point. Bejeweled with a seasonal waterfall, sandstone caves and outstanding tide-pool exploration, this point is where an old stagecoach road “hugged” the cliffs, lending to the site’s moniker. The 43-acre state recreation site offers forested picnic areas and access to the Oregon Coast Trail.

By the time Dan and I pulled into the parking lot, the downpour was more of a heavy drizzle but the fog had grown denser. Instead of exploring a beach we couldn’t see, we opted for a quick hug and selfie in front of the park’s sign and continued our way to Oswald.

Traversing the Damp Devil

Donning rain gear and brimmed hats at Oswald West State Park, we traversed a quarter-mile of soggy trail to Devil’s Cauldron Overlook. The overlook provides views of a jagged and narrow, wave-crashed cove that is gorgeous and stunning even in fog and rain. Damp and muddy from our jaunt, we decided to return on a later and drier day to summit Neahkahnie Mountain, stroll along Short Sand Beach and traverse Cape Falcon, one of Oregon’s marine reserves.

Pilgrimage of Cheeses

Early the next day we checked the weather report and upon seeing more days of coastal rain, we decided to head inland to the sunny shores of the Columbia River Gorge near Hood River. However, on our drive along Highway 101 and State Route 8, we stopped to savor cheese samples at three local merchants.

The largest and most well-known is the Tillamook Cheese Factory, which welcomes about 600,000 visitors a year. Our self-guided tour of the factory and sampling a variety of cheeses led us to the visitor center and souvenir shop where we discovered some of the cheese factory’s history which dates back to 1855.

The original visitor center is being demolished to make room for a major expansion, making it about 50 percent larger to accommodate about 1.3 million visitors annually. In the interim, the Red Barn temporary visitor center continues to welcome visitors with cheese and souvenirs. The new building is scheduled to open in the summer of 2018 and will include a larger café, larger space for indoor and outdoor seating, a new gift shop and an enhanced ice cream shop — with no lines promised for its popular sweet treat!

About a mile south and just off the highway from the Tillamook Cheese Factory, we stopped at the smaller and quieter Blue Heron French Cheese Company. In business for 37 years, Blue Heron offers unlimited samples of every cheese, cracker, dipping sauce and wine. Owned and operated by the Pastega family, the company relies on local artisans to craft most of its products.

Our final cheese visit was about 30 minutes west of Portland just off State Route 8.
Much smaller than both Tillamook and Blue Heron, the Fraga Farmstead Creamery sits in the heart of theTillamook State Forest and prides itself on award-winning, certified organic goat cheese. Romanced by delicious tasting samples and a sweet community of artisan cheese makers, we found Fraga to be an excellent conclusion to our rugged and wet Oregon coast journey.


Hideout Campervans:
Columbia River Maritime Museum:
Cannon Beach:
Oregon State Parks:
Oregon Cheese Guild:

Kris Parfitt Travers is the former managing editor of OutdoorsNW magazine. She and her husband Dan Travers travel around the world looking for adventure and interesting people to interview.