We didn’t know what to expect when we rolled into Oakland, Oregon, a tiny town just a short hop off I-5 south of Cottage Grove. But we sure didn’t expect a gleaming lineup of vintage cars along the main drag, a margarita kiosk in the street, an avalanche of antique stores bringing back memories and an adorable bakery serving some of the best key lime pie we’ve ever had. We hadn’t been out of the car for more than five minutes and Oakland had charmed the dollars right out of our wallets.
This well-preserved historic town happened to be celebrating “Summer Fling,” a ’50s-themed street party and one of the many community events it puts on nearly every weekend from spring through summer. As we poked around in the shops, checked out the old-school soda fountain at Tolly’s and admired the beautifully preserved old buildings adorned with restored mural advertisements, we almost forgot this was supposed to be a pit stop, not a destination. Eventually, we pulled ourselves away and back into the car. We had a campsite on the coast to set up and we wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to savor the ride there.
Usually, we don’t relish long drives, but we were taking the gorgeous Umpqua River Scenic Byway out to the coast, a river-hugging 66-mile route steeped in pastoral Pacific Northwest beauty. It’s one of our favorite ways to reach the southern Oregon coast, whether we’re venturing to the “Banana Belt” south of Bandon, with its 200 days of sun and dramatic views from the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, or heading to the almost mythical landscape of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. It’s a drive that is actually relaxing, as the quiet, bucolic road, blessedly devoid of semi trucks, rolls past pastures, forests and the vineyards of the Umpqua Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), with glimpses of anglers fishing for smallmouth bass and steelhead in the river.
The Umpqua River is a breathtaking sight along the drive. Photo courtesy of traveloregon.com
About a half hour after leaving Oakland, we were already in the cute town of Elkton. Although its population tops out at around 200, it has its own AVA, where cool-weather grape varieties like Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Riesling thrive. Brandborg Vineyard and Winery is perhaps the most wellknown among local wineries; its wines are on lists at some of the best restaurants in Portland, including Le Pigeon. Tasting rooms for Bradley Vineyards, Anindor Vineyards, River’s Edge Winery and Lexème Winery are big draws as well, just steps from the road. The kids, however, were much more interested in the Elkton Community Education Center, with its monarch butterfly pavilion, native plant gardens and historic Fort Umpqua interpretive center.
Monarch caterpillars live at the Elkton Community Education Center. Photo courtesy of Elkton Community Education Center
We continued on, heading west on Route 138 toward the coast until we reached the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area, just before Reedsport, where the Umpqua River meets the Pacific Ocean. We pulled into the parking area and walked along the path, scouring the tall grasses until we saw signs of velvety antlers moving up and down as the giant beasts grazed.
Elk grazing near Reedsport
Back on the road, we made a beeline for the Eel Creek Campground, just a few miles south of Reedsport. Our cozy campsite offered the perfect jumping-off point for a weekend of dune adventures. ATV rentals and tours are nearby; the Umpqua Lighthouse is just up the road; and the John Dellenback Dunes Trail, which traverses undulating mountains of sand on its way to the ocean, starts at the campground. We’ve seen dunes before, but didn’t expect the otherworldly sea of sand that awaited us on the trail the next day. It seems the roads already traveled can still lead to surprises.
TO GET THERE
The northernmost portion of this trip is about a five-hour drive from Seattle.
Why we like it: The route crisscrosses and then hugs the wide and lovely Umpqua River the entire way, crossing over tributaries and cruising past recreation areas offering river access, if you have time for fishing or a quick dip.
Main attraction: The byway deposits travelers right in the heart of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, one of the most popular recreation areas in the state. Here you can choose your own adventure, with an array of campgrounds, ATV tours and rentals, hikes, quaint beach towns and lakes with boat and standup paddleboard rentals.
Don’t miss: The picturesque Rochester covered bridge is just a two-minute loop detour off the highway outside of Sutherlin. Take a right on Stearns Lane and follow the signs.
The Rochester covered bridge is just a short drive from Sutherlin