A road trip along the Oregon coast is hard to beat, finds Michael Burgess

This is an American dream. It may not be as famous or steeped in folklore as Route 66 but a journey along the Oregon coast is one of the great US road trips. To put it simply - Oregon has the coast with the most.

New Zealand has some fine scenic drives so there are decent grounds for comparison but it's hard to top the breath-taking scenery, natural beauty, quaint small towns and sheer variety of activities on this long strip of land alongside the Pacific Ocean.

The Oregon coast is known as the "people's coast", as century-old legislation has guaranteed public accessibility to all 585km.

Heading out of Eugene - I had avoided getting too lost in what locals label the "Bar-muda triangle" in the famous college city - my first stop is Dunes City, part of the largest area of coastal sand dunes in North America. At Sand Master Park, the world's first dedicated sand board park I try my luck on the boards while others roar across the huge dunes in buggies.

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After a brief stop and a huge pancake in the charming old town of Florence - notable for a spectacular bridge featuring twin towers and double arches - I pull in to see Heceta Head lighthouse, recommended by an enthusiastic Portlander. It is one of 11 lighthouses along the coast, seven of which are open to the public, and the setting is as spectacular as promised.

It has been automated since 1963 but remains a working facility and is the most photographed lighthouse in the US. For the ultimate room with a view, there is a bed and breakfast option. After spending the night gazing in wonder at the ocean - with the beam reaching 33km out to sea - guests enjoy a seven-course breakfast the following morning.

Next up for me though, is the world's largest sea cave. An elevator takes you 60m down into a giant cavern 12 storeys high and as large as a football field, where you can observe sea lions in their natural habitat. If they are in. They aren't this time - mating season had sent them out to sea - but the cave is a spectacular experience and the displays of sea lion skeletons are fascinating.

Newport is known as the world's crab capital. Photo / Getty Images
Newport is known as the world's crab capital. Photo / Getty Images
Michael Burgess with the Goonies.
Michael Burgess with the Goonies.

Following local advice, Newport is the recommended destination for lunch. Bordered at both ends by lighthouses, the town is known as the crab capital of the world and there are plenty of inexpensive restaurants with great ocean views.

One of the unexpected joys of my road trip comes from the car stereo. Every second radio station seems to be playing country music featuring unintentionally hilarious lyrics that add much amusement to the journey ("Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed..."; "No, he can't amount to much, by the look of that little truck... ";"I'll marry you tomorrow but let's honeymoon tonight...")

Highway 101 winds past Otter Rock and Cape Foulweather and on to Depoe Bay, one of the many whale-watching sites along the coast. Like the sea lions, these mammals aren't around either, but crowds spread along the sea front to see the famous "spouting horn" rock formations, created when the huge waves crash into the intricate rock and lava beds. The force creates spectacular geyser-like fountains up to 20m into the air.

Depoe Bay - which claims to have the world's smallest navigable harbour - has a sea wall that runs the length of the town that makes for a unique view. Sitting in a picturesque cafe, I rediscover a taste for filter coffee (underrated and effective) and enjoy the postcard views out over the edge of nowhere.

Back in the Chevy Mailbu rental car, I drive on past secluded beaches, along windy canyon roads, and through picturesque towns. The scenery takes in towering forests that hug the coast and the ever-vigilant lighthouses. I ignore the temptations of several fast-food restaurants but do stop at Tillamook cheese factory. In an otherwise nondescript town, the landmark draws national and international tourists. There is no time for the tour but I manage to scoff what is reputed to be the best icecream in Oregon. Ignoring the temptations of the icecream adventure (all 29 flavours in one bowl), I sample hazelnut and salted caramel and grandma's cake batter (advertised as a whole birthday cake in a cone) before settling for the superb chocolate peanut butter.

As I drive north, various quirky billboards continue to catch my eye. One is "ChristianMingle.com - Find God's match for you" followed a few kilometres later
by "Divorce on Demand.com - Log on. Move on".

There are compulsory pit stops at the iconic Haystack Rock, a 70m monolith within the spectacular Ecola state park. The drive down to the park, where some of the final scenes of The Goonies was filmed, remind me of New Zealand's narrow and windy back country roads. The views are simply magnificent - even on a grey day - and on another visit I'll sample the hiking trails that wind around the cliffs.

Fittingly, one of the highlights of the Oregon coast is saved to last. Arriving in Astoria, I take some time to find my hotel, said to be "near the river".

It would more accurately be described as in the river, as it is built on the site of a historic cannery. My room has floor-to-ceiling bay windows on every exterior wall and it feels like sitting in a luxurious version of the lighthouses I've seen throughout the trip. The Columbia river pounds outside, as ships edge past, framing the misty coast. Overhead, the Astoria-Megler Bridge (the longest continuous three-span bridge in the world) looms mysteriously.

There is something rather cool about watching massive container ships edge past the window from your bathtub. The hotel also offers chauffeured rides into town in classic Cadillacs, Mustangs and Buicks, and provides a daily schedule for ship-spotting, too.
Astoria is a delightful town, though, as a Goonies tragic, I spend most of my morning visiting scene locations, before stopping at Fort Clatsop for a dose of history.

Lewis and Clark's expedition party, having made the huge, ground-breaking journey across the continent from the east coast, spent the winter of 1805-06 at this austere camp. Those hardy men took more than six months to reach this spectacular coast - fortunately for today's travellers it is only a plane ride away.

Fact file

Getting there:

Hawaiian Airlines flies three times a week from Auckland to Honolulu. From Honolulu, Hawaiian Airlines connects to 11 US mainland destinations, including Portland, Oregon, and has a 2 x 32kg bag allowance.

Things to do:
Visit sandmasterpark.com, hecetalighthouse.com, sealioncaves.com, tillamook.com and cannerypierhotelcom.

Further information:
See DiscoverAmerica.com or traveloregon.com for more on visiting Oregon.

• Michael Burgess flew to Oregon courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines and was hosted by Travel Oregon.