North coast, family style
Squish, squelch, slip. In mid-May, the popular trail between Ecola Point and Indian Beach on Oregon’s northern coast — marked “easy” in guidebooks — had yet to dry out.
Within 10 minutes of starting our “easy” hike (one parent lugging a heavy toddler in a hiking backpack, the other shouldering all the remaining kiddo supplies), our boots were sucking mud with every step. We slithered down, and up, and down, and up again. And then — as if we weren’t breathless enough already — the trees cleared, leaving a pure vista of sky, sea and cliff.
“The book says the cliffside trail sections have fences,” I said, staring at the thin, guardrail-free dirt track that vanished around the side of a steep, grassy slope. Far below, the surf smashed cheerfully into the rocky shore. Birds wheeled and called overhead.
“Good thing we trapped our child in a hiking backpack, then,” said my sweating husband. We shuddered, contemplating the idea of a blithe toddler running ahead on the trail to this vertigo-inducing curve. And then we carefully trudged on, ignoring the spectacular view in favor of putting one foot in front of the other.
The coast is Oregon’s top tourism destination. Vacationing families often head to the central and north-central coast, which offer such kid-friendly activities as a scenic railroad, an air museum, the Tillamook cheese factory, the Sea Lion Caves and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. But the last stretch of north coast is closest to Portland, making weekend getaways more feasible.
Each town here is dramatically different from the next, ranging from the discreet languor of Gearhart to the riotous carnival of Seaside to the beach-and-shopping bustle of Cannon Beach to the mellow calm of Arch Cape and Manzanita.
The problem? You’re on your own for figuring out which parts of the north coast are amenable to kids. (As our hike demonstrated, “easy” for most folks doesn’t always apply to families.) Here’s a list of tips for sussing out where to stay, eat and play.
Overnight options on the north coast run the entire touristic gamut, from campgrounds and RV parks through motels, hotels, resorts, and condo and house rentals.
Camping is usually a hit with older kids, although the local campgrounds fill up fast. The two major camping destinations along the north coast are Fort Stevens State Park in the north and Nehalem Bay State Park in the south. Fort Stevens features yurts, cabins and the wreck of the Peter Iredale on the beach; Nehalem Bay’s perks include guided horseback rides and special campgrounds for adventurers traveling by horse or private plane.
For non-camping families — especially those who need to cook for picky eaters or do piles of laundry after a messy day at the beach — house rentals are the most practical option. (Some hotels, however — such as the Tolovana Inn in Cannon Beach — offer suites with kitchens.)
Beachcombers NW, Beach Connection and NW Coast list a variety of local vacation-rental companies on their websites, but you can also search online for oceanfront rentals by town: Gearhart, Seaside, Cannon Beach, Arch Cape and Manzanita. You can also troll Portland’s Craigslist for possibilities; most of the listings there are ads posted by property-management companies.
Note that most hotel and vacation-rental companies require at least a two-night stay, especially in summer; some places require visits of a week or longer. (An exception to the two-night rule is the Inn at Manzanita, which also offers special family accommodations). If you can’t book a weekend, try going midweek instead.
Trying to find that sweet dining spot — you know, a family-friendly place with good food somewhere between fish-and-chips takeout and white-linen elegance — can be tricky.
Coffee shops, bakeries and eateries that do only breakfast and lunch are generally good bets, such as the Waves of Grain Bakery in Cannon Beach and Bread and Ocean in Manzanita. (At both, lunch options are available only after 11 a.m., so you’ll be out of luck if you’re hoping to get a picnic to go along with your breakfast sticky bun.)
Good bets for lunch and early dinner in Cannon Beach include Seasons Cafe & Deli (255 N. Hemlock; 503-436-1159) for its soups, sandwiches and quiet outdoor seating, and Crêpe Neptune, a takeout-only joint making savory and sweet crepes to order. In Manzanita, try Left Coast Siesta for its straightforward Mexican fare, swift service and spacious deck.
For dinner, try the eclectic menu (burgers, pizza, pasta) at Pacific Way Bakery & Cafe in Gearhart, the beloved chowder and excellent fish and chips at Norma’s Ocean Diner in Seaside or the reliable pizza at Marzano’s Pizza (60 Laneda Ave; 503-368-3663) in Manzanita.
Many local eateries are closed midweek and change their opening hours seasonally, so call ahead. And bring all known forms of legal tender with you; some establishments accept only cash, or only cash and checks, or only cash and credit cards — you get the idea.
The first and best reason for going to the coast, of course, is to hit the beach. Plenty of folks do nothing else during their visits here; as one friend who goes every summer told me, “We have breakfast, then go to the beach. We have lunch and maybe take a nap, then go back to the beach. Have dinner, go back to the beach to watch the sunset. And then we get up the next day and do it all over again.”
Nearly all of the north coast’s beaches — with the rocky exception of Hug Point — are long stretches of sand, making them ideal for small fry. Older kids usually dig Cannon Beach, for the tidal pools around Haystack Rock, the beach-trike rentals and the kite-flying. Younger kids who just want to splash in freshwater creeks prefer Indian Beach, Arcadia Beach, and the beaches at Manzanita.
Beach access is free nearly everywhere, but some of the state parks — including Fort Stevens, Ecola and Nehalem Bay — charge $5 day-use fees, so bring cash.
Strolling along the beach — or just along Seaside’s pleasant paved Promenade — counts as hiking for most coast visitors. But if you’re looking for something a little more woodsy and/or challenging, you have a few options.
The popular mountaintop hikes of Saddle Mountain (east of Cannon Beach, off U.S. 26) and Neahkanie Mountain (north of Manzanita, off U.S. 101) feature amazing views, but they’re best only for older, energetic kids and teens willing to climb over large boulders and trudge up steep switchbacks.
The 1.5-mile hike from Ecola Point to Indian Beach is doable for elementary-age kids. As noted above, though, you may want to wait until the sludgy trail has dried out for the summer, and unless you’re carrying your toddlers in backpacks, you’d better be certain your children can handle treacherous stretches of exposed cliffside trail. Don’t want to deal with the stress? Simply drive all the way to the Indian Beach parking lot instead.
For a family-friendly excursion that’s essentially the Pacific Northwest writ small, with old-growth forest, streams and waterfalls, cliffs and crashing surf, hit Oswald West State Park north of Manzanita. Park in one of the three parking lots along Highway 101 (labeled “Cape Falcon”) and hit one of the many wide, well-groomed and fairly flat trails winding down along creeks through old-growth Sitka spruce to Short Sand Beach, a long, curving strand with a wide, rocky stream and a waterfall, as well as plenty of surfers. The hike is short, easy and beautiful; the beach is spectacular. Bring a picnic.
Seaside and Manzanita have parks with playgrounds a few blocks south of their downtowns, at Cartwright Park and Manzanita City Park. Cannon Beach’s downtown City Park (at Second and Spruce) and Tolovana Wayside about a mile south both have playgrounds.
Don’t want to leave the beach? The sands of Seaside have numerous swing sets sitting quietly in the grassy dunes.
When it rains
Seaside is your best bet for entertaining the tykes on blah days. The small, dark Seaside Aquarium has nothing on Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium, but the constant parade of kids throwing fresh fish to the aquarium’s seals never gets old.
The old-fashioned carousel inside the Seaside Carousel Mall features reindeer and rabbits as well as horses. And, of course, the seemingly endless array of video games, bumper cars and junk food along Broadway in downtown Seaside will enthrall older kids for hours.