Van Go: Oregon Coasting
By Julie Snyder
The hunt was on. Our mission? To find an idyllic coastal campsite within two hours of Portland. A scenic spot close to the beach that we could pop off to with a minimum of planning.
What a silly idea. Campsites on the coast are scored far in advance by those in the know. We typically traveled in the off-season and were clueless.
Still, we were able to snag two midweek nights at Nehalem Bay State Park just before the fourth of July. Our camping neighbors said they’d reserved in February, so we recognized our good fortune.
Our plan was to base at Nehalem Bay while checking out other campgrounds between Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River and Lincoln City, one hundred miles down the coast.
But first, we had to tear ourselves away from Nehalem Bay.
Nehalem Bay State Park occupies a 900-acre, four-mile-long spit of sand between Nehalem Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Primitive horse campsites and rustic yurts join 265 tent and RV sites with electricity and water. A small strip supports fly-in camping, and there’s a first-come, first-serve hiker-biker camp for those arriving foot or two wheels.
A sanctuary of sea pine and grassy dunes, the park tempted us to chill on the beach to the soothing sounds of the surf. It also enticed us with myriad diversions, including hiking, biking, kayaking, and horseback riding. If we’d wanted to forage for our dinner, there’s crabbing, clamming, and fishing.
Our campsite was situated close enough to the beach for seagull flyovers and crashing wave sound effects even if dunes blocked an ocean view. After a threatening sky prompted us to wrestle unsuccessfully with Van Go’s awning, we were relieved when the clouds scuttled by, and we could build a fire without fear of a deluge.
As we waited for our pre-cooked ribs to warm up on the grill, our neighbors invited us to sample their superb roasted oysters with salsa and delight in the antics of their adorable German Shepherd puppy, Pearl.
Across the way, another neighbor plucked on his guitar in front of a pristine 1957 Airstream (“Looks like it just rolled off the factory floor,” said Joe), while his wife cuddled their dog, a fluffy little white thing. As with the campground on our last trip, I was struck by the sense of community created by casual co-existence. We were all living our lives outside in full view, strangers sharing nature—and sometimes oysters.
The next morning, after a long beach walk down the Spit, I perched on top of a dune and studied Neahkahnie Mountain. Just north of the park, the headland features a trail network built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1940s and has long been on my “to climb” list. An ancient Spanish treasure is rumored to be buried somewhere on its flanks. But not even the promise of gold doubloons would incent Joe to undertake the 1,700-foot trudge to the top.
We headed south to Lincoln City, popping into a few campgrounds on the way. Several were closed, and others had a limited number of sites available. However, our return route along the Three Capes route yielded a camping contender and 30 miles of stunning ocean vistas.
In Cape Kiwanda, we split our attention between the massive dune, the towering Haystack sea stack, and the wild wave action churning below the sandstone cliffs. Up the coast at Cape Lookout, the headland juts two miles into the Pacific, a thumb of old-growth forest with an edge-of-the-earth panorama.
At Cape Lookout, we chatted with a fit young trio who were hiking the Oregon Coast Trail from Astoria to the northern California border. Though they still had three-quarters of the trip ahead of them, they bubbled with enthusiasm while slathering peanut butter on slices of bread. “Remember when we had that much energy?” I asked Joe. “I’m not sure we ever had that much energy,” he replied.
In the parking lot, we chatted with a gentleman closer to our age who had a hang glider on his roof rack. He’d just moved from Santa Cruz, California to nearby Netarts for the winds. “Nope,” said Joe. “We never had that much energy either.”
We did have enough energy to make our way north, through the beach towns of Netarts and Oceanside and up to Cape Meares, a National Wildlife Refuge. The Cape is also home to the Octopus Tree, the largest Sitka spruce in the state of Oregon, and an 1890s lighthouse. Just offshore reside a pair of sea stacks, Pillar Rock and Pyramid Rock, that harbor upwards of 20,000 nesting birds.
Back at Nehalem Bay, the weather gods were cantankerous.
”The humidity has gone up a bit,” my husband observed as the drizzle turned to a downpour. Campfire plans squelched, we decided to try dining inside Van Go for the first time.
What a clever vehicle. The front seats conveniently swivel toward the interior, and a small table attaches to the front of the stove. We dined on cold salmon and potato salad as the rain rat-a-tat-tatted on the roof. When we tired of playing backgammon, we crawled into our snug bed and watched a movie on my iPad. So decadent.
The next morning, I walked on the beach for over an hour, entirely alone save for the squawking gulls. At the far end of the Spit, I toed “Alone” into the sand and watched the foamy fringe of the ocean erase it.
While I was beach walking, Joe wandered the circles of campsites, taking photos of quirky camping arrangements, from a border of pink flamingos to an American flag crafted from Christmas tree lights. He discovered another 2002 VW Eurovan Camper, this one an ocean blue rental from LA named Topanga (evidently all the rentals were named after surfing beaches).
Our scouting trip over, we packed up Van Go. The trip had yielded a few more campsite keepers—Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, which we’d inspected en route to Nehalem Bay on the day we arrived, and Cape Lookout State Park. Mission accomplished.
We headed home to make camping reservations.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.