Exploring the Pacific Northwest

By Brewer, Stephen | American Heritage, July-August 1996 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Pacific Northwest


Brewer, Stephen, American Heritage


Towering stands of timber. Majestic mountains, snowcapped the year round. Rushing rivers teeming with trout and salmon, and fertile valleys where deer roam. These are the natural wonders that drew trappers, explorers, and then settlers to the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century, and the land of plenty that greeted these intrepid travelers continues to inspire awe in today's visitors.

While the pioneers endured the hardships of snowbound mountain passes and seemingly endless expanses of emptiness, you can explore this land of beauty and history on highways and back roads that follow many of the original wagon tracks. With the ease of modern travel and the sheer pleasure of touring in a Chrysler LHS, with its cab-forward design and smooth ride, you can take your time and follow a more meandering and less arduous route than the original explorers did.

Almost as soon as you pull the Chrysler LHS onto U.S. Highway 101 at Brookings, a little Oregon coastal town just across the California border, and begin the spectacular drive up the coast, you will be tempted to stop to enjoy the scenery. You may, for instance, want to pull over at one of the many scenic viewpoints and watch the Pacific as it crashes against rocky headlands. Or, you may want to park the LHS and wander along forest paths ablaze with wildflowers. Distractions such as these will greet you at every bend in the road in the Northwest.

At Coos Bay, 106 miles north of Brookings, on 101, you may want to leave the coast behind you for a day and make a long detour east on Highway 42 for the 85-mile trip through the coast mountains to Roseburg. From there follow the Umpqua River along Highway 138 for a 108-mile drive through gorgeous wilderness to Crater Lake National Park. This startling sea of sapphire blue reaches depths of almost 2,000 feet, making it the deepest lake in the United States.

Back on the coast, U.S. Highway 101 continues north from Coos Bay into the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where tawny, undulating dunes, some of them 500 feet high, stretch for more than 40 miles all the way to the tranquil coastal village of Florence. It's only 11 miles north to Sea Lion Caves, where visitors make a 208-foot descent by elevator into one of the world's largest sea caves, home to hundreds of roaring, bellowing, barking sea lions.

Keiko, the orca whale and star of the Free Willy movies, now makes his home at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, 40 miles north. The colorful fisherman's quarter of Newport is a good place to sample fresh local seafood and watch trawlers unload the day's catch. The lighthouse at Yaquina Head, just north of the harbor, is Oregon's oldest, built in 1874, and a fine place to observe the seals, cormorants, puffins, and sea lions that congregate on the rocks below.

As you continue north on 101, the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, the oldest permanent U.S. settlement west of the Mississippi. This colorful city of Victorian houses marks the end of the route of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who in 1803 set out from St. Louis in search of a route west. Eventually they rafted down the Columbia and spent the winter of 1805 - 1806 here. Visit their encampment, now a national memorial known as Fort Clatsop, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum in town, which traces the rich history of the second-largest river in the United States.

It is now time to point the electronic compass of the Chrysler LHS east and follow winding Highway 30 along the Columbia River for the 105-mile trip inland to Portland. This is a pleasant place to spend a day or two, wandering through the city's famed public rose gardens and enjoying its cosmopolitan attractions and small-town feeling.

When its time to move on, continue east along the Columbia River on l-84. Leave this scenic interstate about 16 miles east of Portland to travel at a more leisurely pace along the Historic Columbia River Highway, where you will wind through lush forests past magnificent waterfalls.

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