If you are an Oregonian, you will, at some point, inevitably make the drive to Newport's Yaquina Bay to gaze at the water. Like Multnomah Falls and Crater Lake, it's a stunning spectacle that beckons gawkers from across the state, along with tourists who've highlighted the spot on their travel itinerary. Though in this case, the natural beauty is augmented by some human-made majesty: a postcard-perfect arch bridge named after the bay.
The fortunate ones have been at least twice—once when the skies are clear and the water is bright, and again when the inlet is a foreboding shade of slate that bleeds into the sky.
But the yawning mouth of the Yaquina River is where most people begin and end their visit. To better acquaint yourself with a longer stretch of the nearly 60-mile waterway that twists from the Central Oregon Coast Range to the Pacific Ocean, you will need to get in a kayak and navigate it yourself.
The ideal spot to drop in is just 7 miles inland off Highway 20. The small town of Toledo is nearly burrowed into the timbered foothills, which means a boater is far more likely to glide along smooth canals even when the winds are whipping up whitecaps along the coast. Once the seat of Lincoln County, the lumber village appears frozen in time, with a sleepy Main Street, a midcentury-style diner, a bowling alley, and a pulp mill still puffing out smoke. But it does have a modern boat launch, just beyond the gable-roofed shelter modeled after the old train depot that once sat in what's now Waterfront Park.
Once you slip in, you'll curve slightly south, passing motorized vessels parked in the marina—most are smaller, intended for a morning of solo or family fishing, though there are a handful of commercial-sized rigs stamped with names like Pacific Storm and Alaska Trojan.
Soon, a unique perspective of one of Toledo's last operating mills comes into view: a massive conduit extending across the river, held in place by a series of metal trusses and wooden docks. With its slight slope, it's easy to imagine employees of Georgia-Pacific using the tube-and-slide design as a way to crawl and scoot from one side of the facility to the other like an industrial McDonald's Playland. In reality, the cylinder—known among locals as the "GP Pipe"—transports wood chips via conveyor belt before they are converted into containerboard.
Sure, paddling past smokestacks, rusting factories and water towers may not read as traditionally picturesque, but there's something to be said about taking in scenes that were never really meant for public consumption—and, sometimes, reveling in the gritty is simply delightful.
But if a mill-adjacent riverbank isn't for you, continue southeast on the Yaquina, where you'll lose the clouds of exhaust in a few minutes and head straight toward rolling hills covered in a dark green forest. Maple and pine line the river, along with frequent stands of weathered pylons—signs of civilization that went bust. Continue on for as far as you'd like, at least until you spot one stately egret or great blue heron. Chances are good you'll see many more.
As you return, though, be sure to veer north into the Olalla Slough. One of the best parts of kayaking is pushing into narrow slices of water that other vessels could never fit through. During this stretch, the vegetation closes in, making it feel as though you're floating on your own private stream.
Enjoy the seclusion while you can: Either the water level or the tight squeeze should eventually indicate when to turn around.
Kayaking the Yaquina River
Average time on the water: Approximately 2 hours
Drive time from Portland: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Directions to Toledo: From Portland, head south on Interstate 5 and take exit 228 for OR 34 toward Lebanon/Corvallis. Turn right onto OR 34 West/Corvallis-Lebanon Highway 210. After about 10 miles, turn left onto OR 34. Turn left onto US 20, and continue for 42 miles. Once you reach Toledo, turn left onto North Main Street, and Waterfront Park will be on your right.