Long Weekend Trip: Coastal Wayfaring in a Camper Van

Van life is sweet, and renting one for a long weekend road trip is the height of summer goals.

The first thing I learned about traveling in a fancy camper van is that people will want to talk to you about it. In the short four days I spent driving along the Oregon Coast, I got waves, a school bus driver opened his side door to ask me about my rig, and a gas station guy wanted to talk tires.

It makes sense: Van life is sweet, and renting one for a long weekend road trip is the height of summer goals.

With that in mind, I nabbed a 21-foot Winnebago Solis PX for a Thursday through Monday jaunt from Nomad Vans NW (5923 S Hood Ave., 503-849-9712, nomadvansnw.com), a new, local company with a fleet of high-end, family-friendly vans. Inside the vehicle was everything I needed for my journey, including bedding, towels, special toilet paper for the flush system, a shower, pots and pans, and silverware.

I chose to travel solo, to take a trip where I was on no one’s schedule but my own. However, with a pop-top queen-sized bed and a Murphy bed on the “main floor,” you can sleep four comfortably in the model I drove.

The costs, not including gas and required insurance, for the slightly longer Winnebago Solis PX run $240 in the winter and $265 in summer, while the Winnebago Solis P model ranges from $220 to $250.

The benefits are countless. You can save money by doing what the cool van people call “boondocking,” parking for free overnight, or spending a few bucks on a campsite. Nomad’s vans have a decent-sized sink, mini fridge, two very efficient built-in propane burners, and an outdoor grill, so you’re all set up to cook every meal if you want to avoid eating out. Plus, you’re the master of your own travel destiny: You can stop any place at any time.

With that in mind, I planned a four-night adventure that took me down the coastline for some quality nature time in Newport, to the Florence area for an epic beach walk, to Coos Bay to check out a new luxury camping destination, and to Eugene for my final night for good measure. Here’s how to #VanLife through part of our state in style:

Thursday Morning

Destination: Newport

Plan for a 30-minute walk-through when you collect your van. Nomad Vans NW owner Matt Ransel spent that time showing me how to turn on the propane for the stove, use the shower, and flip on the lights, along with a few dozen other things I’d need to know, while also assuring me directions were collected in a binder tucked into the passenger-side door.

I hopped into the driver’s seat and started to carefully pull out using my backup camera, when Ransel’s “Whoaaaa!” alerted me to the fact that I had almost sideswiped a parked car. Not an auspicious start, but Ransel was super supportive and helped me get on the road. Still, I vowed to avoid putting this thing in reverse ever again. (Spoiler: I did, indeed, have to reverse again.)

Thursday Night

After dodging a late afternoon meeting, I put all my supplies into the van and headed toward Newport. I found myself going below the speed limit and being hyper-careful about switching lanes, even though the van will start beeping to alert you to another vehicle in your blind spot. Even though I was going slow in the right lane, a fellow van-dweller passed me by and waved hello.

Following a little more than two hours on the road, I met up with a friend for a late dinner at The Barge Inn Tavern (358 SW Bay Blvd., Newport, 541-265-8051, bargeinntavern.com), where the slogan is “Home of the Winos, Dingbats and Riff Raff since 1935,” and a solid smash-style bacon burger and curly fries will run you all of $9.

I didn’t have a set plan where to park that night, but Ransel recommended The Dyrt app for tips on which nearby spots might be safe and suitable for boondocking. I won’t disclose where I parked so as not to blow up the location, but the online resource did help me out, and I avoided getting “the knock,” that dreaded tap-tap-tap from a neighbor telling you to move along.

The van comes outfitted with pillows, sheets, a duvet and towels, so I had nothing to do before going to sleep besides brush my teeth and perform my elaborate skin care routine.

Friday Morning

Destination: Florence

The van’s two propane burners started without a problem, and I rummaged through the provided pots and pans and found a tiny teapot and a little French press. I sipped my coffee and took in the sea air, along with a hard-boiled egg and some yogurt from the mini fridge. Life was good.

My friend and I headed to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area (blm.gov/learn/interpretive-centers/yaquina), located a few miles north of Newport. There’s a $7 admission fee per vehicle, and you’ll get those few dollars back in spades. Look up the tide chart ahead of time, and make sure you swing by the Cobble Beach tide pools, which are teeming with anenomes and other aquatic friends. Then make the short walk to Quarry Cove, where harbor seals are known to gather to play and rest on the beach and rocks. Finally, head up to the interpretive center and Yaquina Head, the state’s tallest lighthouse, built in 1872 and maintained by a keeper until 1966, when it was automated.

Friday Afternoon

No trip to Newport is complete without a stop at one of the best restaurants on the Oregon Coast: Local Ocean Seafoods (213 SE Bay Blvd., Newport, 541-574-7959, localocean.net). Founded in 2005, the bayfront space is both a restaurant and a fish market, serving spot prawns pulled straight from the Pacific as well as plump Chinook fillets.

My friend and I each got a cup of razor clam chowder—generous servings of thick, salty soup with potato and bacon—and split a sandwich of medium-rare salmon. Topped with prosciutto, mozzarella, tomato, baby kale and onion, it sounds like a lot for the fish to stand up to, but the grilled smokiness of the protein played with everything perfectly.

After lunch, I headed south on Highway 101, again with no set destination except to be somewhere in the Florence area by nightfall. As I navigated the sharp curves around Devil’s Churn and Cape Perpetua, I noticed I was starting to feel a lot more confident behind the wheel of the Winnebago.

Friday Night

Just before 5 pm, I pulled into Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park (541-547-3416, stateparks.oregon.gov), located in the Siuslaw National Forest just north of Florence. I picked a particularly lush spot surrounded by mossy trees to park, but in order to access the electric hookup, I had to back in.

This time, I popped the Winnie into “R,” gave myself a pep talk, and watched the backup cam like a hawk even though it offered very little spatial awareness or depth perception. And yet, I was in, no problem. I opened a celebratory bottle of gamay (thankfully, there were multiple corkscrews onboard), and realized I had no cell reception.

For dinner, I used the kitchen to jazz up a box of Annie’s Mac & Cheese with sautéed kale and mushrooms, drank my wine, and read 200 pages of a new book while sitting at the little table behind the driver’s seat, eventually falling asleep to the sound of rain pattering on the roof.

Saturday Morning

Destination: Coos Bay

I slept in; the van’s bed was surprisingly comfortable, and after you put the privacy shades over the windows and close all the curtains, it becomes a dark little cocoon. After some coffee, I wandered down to the north end of the campground, where a half-mile trail through trees dripping with green lichen followed a stream under Highway 101 before spilling out onto an open beach. Washburne State Park is also only about a mile away from the beloved Hobbit Trail, a delightful short hike through a tunnel formed by trees and bushes that’s a must-do. I watched sandpipers run and rooted around for agates, covering more than 3 miles before realizing I should head to my next destination.

Saturday Afternoon

After another pleasant drive south on 101 through North Bend and Coos Bay, I headed straight for Shore Acres State Park (541-888-3732, stateparks.oregon.gov), which is one of my favorite, relatively unknown Oregon Coast destinations.

Perched above the Pacific, it was once the estate of timber baron Louis J. Simpson, featuring both some of the best wild wave-watching views along with fully landscaped gardens. Before I did anything else, I toasted a bagel on the stove and made a sandwich in the parking lot, listening to the Beatles while I sat with my door open and ate.

After taking in the sea crashing against the jagged rocks, I walked over to the gardens, which include a gorgeous rose garden, a Japanese garden, and rhododendrons so tall they put some maple trees to shame.

You can park at nearby Sunset Bay State Park (541-888-3778, stateparks.oregon.gov) for the night, but I went a few miles back up the road to stay at Bay Point Landing (92443 Cape Arago Highway, Coos Bay, 541-351-9160, baypointlanding.com) for a bit of luxury. The 2-year-old resort has reservable cabins and Airstream trailers, plus dozens of RV and van campsites, including some that are right on the waterfront. Staff will deliver items from the General Store ordered via text to your abode, and there are other amenities, including a heated, indoor saltwater pool, clubhouse, gym, laundry facilities, and a food truck on weekends.

Saturday Night

For dinner, I cracked an Underwood pinot noir from Bay Point’s General Store and pulled out some Umi Organic noodles and other goodies I’d packed to whip up a stir-fry in a van-friendly-sized pot while listening to a podcast. While all the vehicle sites have fire pits, it was a drizzly night, so I opted to make my classic camping dessert inside. However, while toasting an espresso marshmallow from a fancy 1927 S’Mores Company kit (also from the General Store) over the propane stove, I managed to set off the van’s smoke detector. Worth it.

Bay Point’s pool, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the bay, is open until 10 pm, which is a godsend, because throughout much of the day, you’ll find plenty of kids cannonballing into the water (a plus if you’re traveling with children, a minus if you’re a solo, cranky old like me who just wants to float in peace).

Since those kiddos do have a bedtime that’s earlier than mine, I found myself all alone, blissfully bobbing about in the saltwater from 9 pm onward. After showering off, I wandered back to the van, ready for some restful sleep. That was mostly achieved until a squall blew in with gusts so strong the van shook me awake. After listening to the storm for a bit, I drifted off once again.

Sunday Morning

Destination: Eugene

After the midnight gale, I needed a bit of extra rest, so I rose at 9:30 am to a refreshed and sunny world. I threw open my back doors and took in the view of a tugboat pulling a barge across the bay while some herons picked at the low-tide sands. I considered joining them—Bay Point will loan you clamming supplies, including boots—but I had to check out by 11 am, so instead I took a short stroll.

A bit burnt out with my morning coffee-egg-yogurt routine, I pulled up the online menu for the food cart, which is open for brunch on Sundays. A nice teenage boy in a golf cart arrived with a solid egg, bacon and cheese sandwich with hash brown patties and complimented my van.

Since I was planning to head to Eugene next, where I was going to be parking at my mom’s house, I took this opportunity to tackle some, ahem, van administration; aka, emptying my own pee out of a spigot. After consulting the manual, I opened the portal on the outside of the van, grabbed the tank, complete with wheels, and rolled it over to the sewer connection for RVs at my site. Carefully, OH SO CAREFULLY, I unscrewed the top, and poured it all into the hole. (While you can definitely do a No. 2 in the van as well, I went out of my way to take care of that business only when full plumbing was available.)

Sunday Afternoon

This was the longest stretch of the road trip—it took about two and a half hours to get from Coos Bay to Eugene. I put on a playlist my BF made me and cruised back north to Florence before heading west to my hometown. To me, this is the golden hour of solo road trips. If I can belt out a song, maybe even cry a little, and take in the sights, that’s simply perfection.

Sunday Night

Eugene has so many ridiculously good restaurants these days, but my mom and I were feeling the Legend of Szechuan (207 E 5th Ave., Eugene, 541-246-8691, legendofszechuaneugene.com). We feasted on spicy dumplings, dry-fried green beans and popcorn chicken buried in mala peppers before returning to her house, where I got her hooked on Hulu’s What We Do in the Shadows.

Those without family in town would be well advised to consult The Dyrt for an overnight spot, and also to spend time wandering downtown, perhaps even taking in a movie at the Broadway Metro indie cinema (888 Willamette St., Eugene, 541-686-2458, broadwaymetro.com) before bedding down.

Monday Morning

Destination: Portland

I made my way to local favorite Wandering Goat Coffee (628 Madison St., Eugene, 541-344-5161, wanderinggoat.com) in the Whiteaker neighborhood to grab a cup of coffee, brewed fresh every 20 minutes, and a gigantic cinnamon roll. I lingered over a copy of Eugene Weekly long enough to feel fortified for those last two hours north on Interstate 5 to Portland. I fueled up before returning the van, shocked that my total fuel bill for my nearly 500 miles of driving came out to just about $150.