Most longtime Portlanders have logged countless laps through the free-samples line at the Tillamook Cheese Factory—by some estimates, the biggest tourist attraction in the state. There's much to be said about the joy of spearing squeaky curds. But if you assumed that cheese, ice cream and the pungent aroma of cow waste were all this area had to offer, then you're missing out on what might just be our coast's ultimate rugged playground.
A visit to Tillamook County comes with seclusion—the trails, roads and docks aren't clogged with out-of-towners. In these parts, you're much more likely to find yourself ordering oyster shooters at a fresh seafood bar next to a local clad in camouflage rather than lined up for taffy. Additionally, the variety of recreational opportunities here is unmatched.
Sure, the sting of manure may linger in your nostrils. And the highway can sometimes look like a monster-truck show, with locals roaring past you in rigs jacked up so high they could clear a cow. But eventually the rough edges of Tillamook County become what set it delightfully apart.
Stroll to a city's grave
Tillamook Bay is surrounded by towns that never much cared about tourists because their economies centered on industries like farming, fishing and timber. A century ago, there was a grand attempt to create "the Atlantic City of the West" on a narrow strip of land just across the water from Bay City. Nature itself shunned man's plans, as erosion prevented development of Bayocean.
While the last structures in Bayocean slipped into the sea in the 1960s, the spit remains. There's a 7.5 mile loop around the spit, to the ruins. If you're pressed for time or simply want a short journey before dinner, several paths cut across the middle of the spit, creating a ladder of trails.
Begin bayside down a wide dirt road, where there's a view across the water to inland cities that look a whole lot smaller next to the Coast Range rising in the distance. During low tide, clammers will be bent at the waist, assessing the mud flats at their feet. For a walk that lasts about an hour, take the second path on the left marked by a wooden stake pointing the way toward spiky scotch broom and scrubby spruce. Before reaching the beach, you'll stumble upon a clearing where a simple wooden sign serves as a grave marker for the town site. After paying your respects to poor municipal planning, head toward the dune covered in shaggy yellowed grass. You'll spill out onto the ocean side of the spit, a lonely, debris-strewn beach with a view of Cape Meares and Haystack Rock.
There's a reason why De Garde Brewing (6000 Blimp Blvd., Tillamook, 503-815-1635, degardebrewing.com) is tucked away near pastures and farmland a good 10 minutes or so from downtown Tillamook: It all has to do with the air. Wild yeast thrives in the temperate climate, the strains gathering unique character thanks to a bacterial blend from the grazing cows, the flowing estuaries and the winds blowing in from the Pacific. Turns out De Garde's Trevor and Linsey Rogers found the perfect place in which to spontaneously ferment beer in an open-top vessel called a coolship. A map stuck with pins from around the world testifies to the spot's popularity with beer geeks.
Shellfish shots on the bay
The best bay-to-table experience in the Tillamook area doesn't come packaged in a traditional chophouse. Instead, catch-of-the-day fish—with chips or in tacos—can be found in a little restaurant sandwiched between a deli-style counter and oyster-processing facility. You know you're in the right place when you spot the mountain of shells just off U.S. Highway 101. This marks the entrance to The Fish Peddler (5150 Hayes Oyster Drive, Bay City, 503-377-2323, fishpeddler-baycity.com), which shares a building with Pacific Oyster Company on a lot crisscrossed by forklifts. Start with oyster shooters featuring a dab of sinus-clearing horseradish and squeeze of lemon. Return before noon another day for a front-row seat to the art of shucking. A window-lined back wall offers a view of workers showing their mastery with muscles and knives.
Power ballads and people-watching
On Friday night, every local who's looking to drink, date or lose a few dollars to a video-poker machine is at Ghost Hole Public House (409 Garibaldi Ave., Garibaldi, 503-322-2733). The joint keeps things rocking until 2:30 am seven days a week. The music is loud, the beer is cold and the dance floor stays busy.
Inside this time machine, the hits are hair metal, the tap handles are big domestics and most people, including the DJ, need frequent cigarette breaks.
The famous Tillamook Cheese Factory (4175 N U.S. Highway 101, Tillamook, 503-815-1300, tillamook.com) is undergoing a remodel, but the interim location has more informative exhibits along with corrals advertising the arrival of future cows. There's still an ice cream counter, full food menu and, of course, the ever-popular cheese-sampling station.
Tillamook Country Smoker (8335 N U.S. Highway 101, Bay City, 503-377-2222, tcsjerky.com) has no factory tours. However, it does offer a wide variety of meat, including 2-foot pepperoni sticks for just $1 each.
A few miles south lies Blue Heron French Cheese Company (2001 Blue Heron Road, Tillamook, 503-842-8281, blueheronoregon.com). Finding the free cheese in the shabby-chic, country-style gift store is a bit of a challenge, though—cut through the clutter of kitchen towels adorned with food puns and head straight to the back, where samples of Brie are rationed by an apron-clad employee, then get a taste of farm life at the outside petting zoo. During our visit, a parading albino peacock and sweet, scruffy sheep that loved to be petted like a dog were part of the misfit collection of animals on display.
Catch some dinner
Kayak Tillamook County (many tour locations, 503-866-4808, kayaktillamook.com) offers a number of water excursions, such as a clamming trip that includes a free dinner ($65 per person). For this trip, Kayak Tillamook County provides the boat, life vest, digging gear and a brief lesson—all you'll need is a $9 day fishing license, which can be picked up at Barview Jetty Store and Deli (15530 N U.S. Highway 101, Rockaway Beach, 503-322-2644). Clamming shovel strapped to kayak, you'll shove off and glide through Nehalem Bay before fighting through some choppy currents while crossing into the Nehalem River. After about 20 minutes, you'll reach a small patch of land that'll only be solid until the tide comes in. Start scouring the sand for holes about the size of a marble—these are "clam shows," which sometimes squirt water into the air like a miniature geyser when you pierce the ground with your shovel. From there, the race is on—these mollusks can dig faster than you can, and your first few efforts will probably result in nothing but fistfuls of sand. It's not uncommon to hear the whoops and screams of fellow clammers who've dropped to their knees to sift through the muck and finally snagged a shell.
Lunch at the marina
With your haul of clams on ice, head back to Garibaldi to refuel at
Fisherman's Korner Restaurant (corner of Mooring Drive and Commercial Street, Garibaldi, 503-332-2033).
You'll quickly discover how the humble diner got its name: There are fishermen on the adjacent corner. As you munch on a fresh catch slathered in tangy housemade tartar sauce ($13.95, with potato chips), you can watch guys in waders and sweatshirts with sayings like "Master Baiters Club" yell at each other and transport giant garbage bins filled with crabs. After eating, take a walk on what's supposedly Oregon's longest pier.
See the tallest falls
Waterfall hikes usually involve several hours of trekking toward a refreshing cloud of mist that sticks to your clammy skin. But the tallest plunging water in the Coast Range, Munson Creek Falls, is just a quick, 1-mile creekside jaunt that won't have you breaking a sweat. The trailhead is approximately south of Tillamook, off U.S. Highway 101. Once on the path, you quickly slip into a small gorge, and then to the top of a 319-foot waterfall framed by twisted trees blanketed in long strands of moss. To get to the trailhead from Tillamook, travel south on U.S. Highway 101 for about 9 miles before turning left on Munson Creek Road. You'll dead-end at the parking lot in approximately 1.5 miles. The final stretch is pockmarked with huge potholes that must be gingerly negotiated in a car.
Drive Fury Road
If it's a typical summer weekend at Sand Lake, an unfortunate ATV rider is being airlifted to the hospital about now. On our way to rent quads, we drove by the Life Flight chopper landing and began to second-guess our choice to spend an afternoon racing around the dunes. But once you mount your four-wheeler and sail over that first little bump, it's easy to embrace the danger.
Rick at Sandlake Tsunami ATV Rental (22955 Sandlake Road, Cloverdale, 503-965-6572, sandlaketsunamiatvrental.com) could sense we were a little nervous and walked us through the basics. After we signed waivers and safety checklists, Rick helped us tie down two vehicles (prices begin at $115 for two hours, helmet and gloves included) on a flatbed hitched to an SUV ($35, also rented). Once you're in the parking lot, it's the noise that hits you first—the constant buzzing and revving comes at you from all angles as contraptions rumble and growl at deafening levels. Then there's the sheer spectacle of it all.
Buggies and bikes and battle wagons with swollen tires look like they came straight from the set of Mad Max: Fury Road as they shoot over the dunes. Once you figure out how to get going, the fear quickly fades as you tear across the sand. It helps to start like you're a teenager learning to drive in an empty parking lot—circle the perimeter of the flats a few times before charging toward mounds for a little stomach-flipping bounce.
Unplug and unwind
After a busy day, it's nice to slip into a slower pace. Oceanside is Tillamook County's best place to disconnect and find bliss in simply watching the expanse of sea before you. There's no cell service, so you're forced to take a break from technology and focus on the moment at hand. Grab a pint and play some Scrabble at the coffee/gift shop on the ground floor of Three Arch Inn (1505 Pacific Ave., Oceanside, 888-406-8795, threearchinn.com). With six taps—all local breweries or cider makers—this is the only "bar" in town, so get a growler filled here if you're staying overnight. The menu at Roseanna's Cafe (1490 Pacific Ave., Oceanside, 503-842-7351, roseannascafe.com) is always shifting with the seasons, but local seafood is a mainstay and could show up in the form of Dungeness crab cakes atop a bed of greens and remoulade sauce or Willapa bay clams steamed in lemon-herb butter.
Eggs and agates
Fuel up for your morning mission of agate hunting at Oceanside's other eatery, which takes its name from the semiprecious stones commonly found on a nearby beach. Blue Agate Cafe (1610 Pacific Ave., Oceanside, 503-815-2596) serves an array of filling breakfast dishes in a cheery dining room bathed in natural light with black-and-white photos of the city framed on the walls.
The Breakfast Sandy, stuffed with scrambled eggs, diced avocado, tomato, cheddar, and bacon or sausage, is a steal at $8. For $1.50 more, the Beachcomber is a more traditional plate with two eggs, any style; the option of long, thick strips of bacon; country-style potatoes and your choice of toast or a housemade biscuit.
Find your precious
From a window seat at Blue Agate Cafe, you can see a little doorway in the side of a hulking cliff that bulges into the ocean. At low tide, you can walk around the outcropping called Maxwell Point. This spot was blasted out by a miner hired by two brothers in the 1920s who had hoped to improve visitor access to land on the other side. The straight edges of the human-crafted concrete quickly give way to a cave of jagged rock. Make your way across the uneven ground with care—the only light is the glow from the opening on the other side. People with buckets hope to come away with a generous load of agates and natural jade, including one woman who was overheard enlisting her kid for assistance: "You want to help Mommy make some money? Look for rocks like these."
Beehive light and tentacle tree
Between Oceanside and Bayocean Spit lies the majestic Cape Meares. At an elevation of 249 feet, the perch was a perfect site for a lighthouse (3500 Cape Meares Loop, Tillamook, 503-842-2244, capemeareslighthouse.org) to help ensure ships could always spot a flashing beam along the Oregon Coast.
A short walk will bring you to the the stubby structure, which began operating in 1890 and was decommissioned in 1963. It's a bit surprising how small the lighthouse is once it comes into full view. At 38 feet, the building is the shortest of all the Oregon Coast lighthouses. The beehive-shaped Fresnel crystal prisms were hand-ground in France and shipped around Cape Horn. Before leaving, explore the system of trails and look sharp for bald eagles, nesting seabirds and migrating whales. On the opposite side of the parking lot, press on through a stand of stately old-growth spruce. In a clearing there, you'll find the behemoth Octopus Tree, which has six giant trunks melted together at its base.
Learn about everything that's ever happened in Tillamook
If you've ever driven through downtown Tillamook, chances are good you passed by a three-story time capsule. The Tillamook County Pioneer Museum (2106 2nd St., Tillamook, 503-842-4553, tcpm.org) in the old county courthouse offers a gallery of artifacts and information about pretty much everything that's ever happened in the area. For a mere $4, you can marvel at the detailed beadwork on preserved Native American satchels, gloves and belts from the area's first resident, stare at portraits of settlers' dour faces hung in the Pioneer Gallery, or examine a re-creation of the average apartment locals called home in the 1800s. Various rooms pay tribute to the county's trades, the evolution of appliances and the slew of plane crashes and boat wrecks just off this rugged coastline. The top floor is dominated by taxidermied animals—some indigenous, others exotic.
WHERE TO STAY
Sheltered Nook on Tillamook Bay
7860 Warren St., Bay City, 503-805-5526, shelterednook.com
Get the communal benefits of a bed-and-breakfast while retreating to privacy when you need it by staying in a village of tiny houses. Sheltered Nook on Tillamook Bay features five 385-square-foot dwellings circled around a fire pit and outdoor seating area. Dee and Hank Harguth previously hosted travelers in their home thanks to a love of shared meals and stories, but began installing the diminutive cottages last year after discovering people were excited to explore pint-sized properties.
There's a surprising amount of comfort and amenities packed in the tiny houses without their ever looking cluttered, including three queen-sized beds (one in the master, two in a loft), a fully equipped kitchen, a shower, a TV and even an itty-bitty gas fireplace. Outside, you can play disc golf among roaming chickens in the nearby field. Look for a general store and growler-fill station to open this year.
The Garibaldi House Inn & Suites
502 Garibaldi Ave., Garibaldi, 503-322-3338, garibaldihouse.com
You might not expect a gritty fishing town to have accommodations with book-lined shelves and leather sofas arranged in front of a brick fireplace, but that's the tableau that greets you in the lobby of The Garibaldi House Inn & Suites. Not far from the complimentary bourgeois cheese, meat and fruit tray at check-in are displayed reminders of why most visitors are overnighting here—charts on Oregon-crab and bay-clam identification occupy wall space along with posters about fish species bag limits. Since many anglers are up early and out the door, the hotel provides sack meals for a fee. There's also an impressively large breakfast buffet with everything from fruit-covered waffles to biscuits and gravy. Rates start at $129 per night—no need to spring for the room with a "view" unless you find comfort in the soft glow of the Deli Mart sign.
Three Arch Inn
1505 Pacific Ave., Oceanside, 888-406-8795, threearchinn.com
It's all about the view in Oceanside, because when the town shuts down at 8 pm, there's not much else to do—or look at—so gazing at the trio of rocks in the Pacific becomes undeniably satisfying. All five units at Three Arch Inn have at least one wall dominated by a window, and you'll find two oversized chairs you can sink into to absorb the scenery. If you're lucky enough to snag the third-story Oceanside Room, you'll be treated to a true panorama thanks to extra panes of glass leading up to the vaulted ceiling. Hardwood floors, espresso-colored furniture and brushed-nickel accents add to a modern interior. An oversized soaking tub awaits. Rates start at $118; be sure to borrow a board game and a growler to fill with beer or cider from one of Three Arch's six taps.
13000 Whiskey Creek Road, Tillamook, 800-551-6949, reserveamerica.com
If you're trying to ease into camping or want a rustic overnight stay with a private toilet and shower, then the collection of six deluxe cabins at Cape Lookout are your best option. The tidy three-room buildings have a futon and bunk beds covered in spill-proof vinyl, but it sure beats curling up in your sleeping bag on a chilly forest floor. The kitchen comes equipped with a fridge, microwave and sink—pack cooking utensils, plates and hot dogs to warm on the gas barbecue or blister over an open fire. When the sun finally sets and the flames turn to embers, you can retire indoors to watch a DVD. After all, it wouldn't deserve the label "deluxe" without a TV. Rates start at $88.