The Oregon Coast is a geographical term that is used to describe the coast of the U.S. state of Oregon along the Pacific Ocean. Stretching 362 miles (583 km) from the city of Astoria to the California border, the Oregon Coast is unique in that the entire coast is public land. Oregon law prohibits private ownership of coastline property.
The Oregon Coast is often divided into three regions:
There are no large cities on the coast, mainly due to the lack of deep harbors with access to the inland agricultural areas. The largest metropolitan area consists of the bordering cities of Coos Bay and North Bend on the South Coast; the area has a population of approximately 25,000 people. The relative isolation of the coast from nearby large population centers has given the coast a reputation for being somewhat rustic, being a mixture of old logging towns, fishing villages, seasonal resorts, and artists' colonies. Tourism and logging are the major industries on the coast. The coastal region's popularity, combined with the fact that there is only one continuous highway along the coastline (U.S. Route 101) contributes to traffic along the coast being named the worst tourist traffic in the United States.
The Oregon Coast is known for its cliffs and rocky shores. There are some natural sandy beaches. Many exist only at coastal inlets or near breakwaters and jetties. The Coast Range approaches to within a few miles of the shoreline in places, although this varies depending on the location. Due to long-term erosion, the coast is known for large rock formations protruding into the ocean in many places. There are large areas of dunes on the central coast, notably Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. The surrounding area along the coast is largely temperate rainforest.
The coastline is broken by 22 major estuaries where inland rivers originating in the Coast Range, the Klamath Mountains, or the Cascade Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. Coastal communities are centered around the fishing and shipping opportunities the larger estuaries provide.
From north to south, the major estuaries of the North Coast are the Columbia River, Necanicum River, Nehalem Bay, Tillamook Bay, Netarts Bay, Sand Lake, Nestucca Bay, and the Salmon River. The estuaries of the Central Coast are Siletz Bay, Depoe Bay, Yaquina Bay, Alsea Bay, Siuslaw River, and the Umpqua River. The estuaries of the South Coast are Coos Bay, Coquille River, Sixes River, Elk River, Rogue River, Pistol River, Chetco River, and the Winchuck River.
The Oregon Coast is a region rich with hundreds of species of plants and animals. The Coast is home to Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex which consists of six National Wildlife Refuges stretching .
Several species of mammals exist on the Oregon Coast. There are several varieties of pinnipeds along the coast, including the California Sea Lion on the Southern Coast and Steller's Sea Lions throughout, as well as Northern Elephant and Harbor Seals. Sea Lion Caves near Florence, and the Newport Harbor in Yaquina Bay are the best places to see pinnipeds, though they can be observed in many other places. Whales can also be seen in the area, especially during migration in late December and late March. Among the species of Whales passing through are Gray, Orca, and Humpback Whales. Harbor Porpoises are also relatively common. The infamous "exploding whale" incident, where a dead beached whale was blown up by dynamite, happened near Florence.
Many varieties of birds make their home on the Oregon Coast. Birds along the Oregon Coast can be divided into four categories:
Tidepools are unique, contained ecosystems that are plentiful on the Oregon Coast. Red, green, and brown algae are common in tidepools. There are also several species of invertebrates. These include sponges, sea anemones, mussels, sea stars, limpets, crabs, shrimp, barnacles, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. Sunset Bay State Park, near Coos Bay, and Strawberry Hill near Seal Rock are among the largest collections of tidepools and are popular places for tidepooling.
Many species of plant life also call the areas around the Oregon Coast home. Due to their reproductive advantages, the Coastal Strawberry and Pacific Silverweed are the most common plant on the beaches and dunes themselves. However, the forests, wetlands, and meadows surrounding the coast are home to many species of plants, shrubs, and flowers.
Native Americans first came to the Oregon Coast 12,000 years ago to hunt, fish, and gather foods in the coast's bountiful forests and waters. It was largely substinence based living and the archaeological evidence left behind is limited. This was the lifestyle for thousands of years and as history progressed tribal communities would form. The major tribes of the Oregon Coast included:
The lifestyles of these tribes were very similar, as they built canoes to travel along the coastline, estuaries, and rivers where they fished, hunted seals, ducks, and game, and gathered fruits such as berries and seafood such as clams.
European exploration of the Oregon Coast would begin in the 18th century as Spanish explorers sailed northward from Mexico to explore, and, later, stake claims to the region. The British soon followed, and 1774–1795 was a time of intense rivalry between the Spanish and the British for claims to the Northwest Coast. However, neither side was ever able to successfully claim the area. Meanwhile, American Robert Gray visited the Oregon Coast via sea in 1788 and 1792 and came back with furs. After the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark reached the Oregon Coast in 1804 and staked the United States' claim to the territory. They returned east with furs, and this led John Jacob Astor to set up the first permanent white settlement in Oregon. The post, called Astoria, was at the mouth of the Columbia River. However, the venture was not as profitable as Astor had hoped it would be, and Astoria was bought out by the British North West Company. Britain and the United States continued to jointly claim the territory. In 1838, Charles Wilkes, on a voyage commissioned by the United States Congress, landed on the Oregon Coast and raised the American flag. The large-scale movement of Americans on the Oregon Trail cemented the United States's claim to the Oregon Territory.
Oregon achieved statehood in 1859, and the completion of railroads through the Coast Range mountains encouraged land development along the ocean shore. In 1874, the Oregon State Land Board began selling public tidelands to private landowners. Resorts grew up around the beaches at Seaside, Newport, and Rockaway, and the newly completed railroads brought tourists from the population centers of the Willamette Valley for weekend vacations. By 1901, about of tideland had been sold.
In 1911, governor Oswald West was elected on the promise to reclaim Oregon's beaches as public land. The legislature favored the privatization of these lands, but West was able to make an argument for public ownership based on the need for transportation. The 1913 legislature declared the entire length of the ocean shore from Washington to California as a state highway. Legislators also created the State Highway Commission, which began the construction of Route 101. The Parks and Recreation Department, a branch of the highway commission, bought land for 36 state parks along the coastal highway, an average of one every . With the completion of the highway-and-parks system, coastal tourism skyrocketed.
The Beach Bill declares that all "wet sand" within sixteen vertical feet of the low tide line belongs to the state of Oregon. In addition, it recognizes public easements of all beach areas up to the line of vegetation, regardless of underlying property rights. The public has "free and uninterrupted use of the beaches," and property owners are required to seek state permits for building and other uses of the ocean shore. While some parts of the beach remain privately owned, state and federal courts have upheld Oregon’s right to regulate development of those lands and preserve public access. Hawaii is the only other state to guarantee public access up to the vegetation line.
Hiking, fishing, cycling, kite flying, scuba diving, surfing, sandboarding and boating are among the activities that draw people to the Oregon Coast. Among the most popular attractions are the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Fort Clatsop near Astoria, "Old Town" shopping districts in several cities, including Florence and Newport, and the seven lighthouses that dot the coastline. U.S. Route 101, the main route along the coast, passes over many historic or notable bridges, many designed by Conde McCullough. There are many natural attractions, including sea caves and overlooks such as Devils Churn. Traffic along the coast was named the worst tourist traffic in the United States.