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Originally published Sunday, August 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Driving the Oregon coast

Oregon's coast is still wild enough to be an uncrowded, windy wonder and surprisingly affordable. The coastal highway — Highway 101...

The Associated Press

If you go

Oregon coast

Tourist information

The state tourism office, www.traveloregon.com or 800-547-7842, offers visitor information. Also see the Web sites of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, www.visittheoregoncoast.comor 888-OCVA-101 and the Central Oregon Coast Association, www.coastvisitor.com or 800-767-2064.

Oregon State Parks

For details on Oregon parks and campgrounds along the coast: www.oregon.gov/OPRD/PARKS/ or 800-452-5687 (campsite reservations).

The Seattle Times

Oregon's coast is still wild enough to be an uncrowded, windy wonder and surprisingly affordable. The coastal highway — Highway 101 — didn't go in until the 1930s, many state parks dot the coast and all beaches are public with access guaranteed by state law. That's combined to keep much of the Oregon coast relatively free of commercial development.

Along the coast you can look for agates, watch whales, deep-sea fish, go crabbing, surf, play golf, explore shipwrecks, visit a world-class aquarium and a family-oriented marine-science center, try your luck at tribal casinos, poke around for a legendary buried treasure or just take a stroll along the beach and watch the surf pound the rocks.

The 363-mile coast is dotted with small settlements plus a few medium-sized towns that by and large still are blue-collar fishing towns and seaports, not yet tarted up for tourism.

Take time to poke around and find your own favorite place. Reasonable, if not ritzy, motel rooms can be found in the $75 range. But you can pay much, much more especially in summer and at upscale inns. For a cheaper way to stay, many state parks have campsites (some also rent yurts). The downside of the Oregon coast? It might rain in the summer. It will rain in the winter.

Start at Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River. A steep hillside of Victorian-era houses looms over a riverside main street lined with small, family-owned businesses. Not to miss: the Columbia River Maritime Museum, open daily. You will learn why the nearby river's mouth is called the "Pacific Graveyard."

In the nearby Fort Stevens State Park are the diminishing remains of the Peter Iredale, a four-masted ship that ran aground in 1906.

Also near Astoria is Fort Clatsop where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the soggy winter of 1805-06. It's part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which includes sites in both Oregon and Washington. Fort Clatsop has a replica of the explorers' tiny log fort and an interpretive center.

Continue southward to the community of Manzanita at the base of Nea-Kah-Nie mountain, where Indian legend has it that sailors came ashore, probably in the 1700s, and buried a chest, leaving the body of one of their members slumped over it.

It's plausible. Spanish sailing ships carrying beeswax from the Philippines to Mexico wrecked on that part of the coast and chunks of the wax still turn up, much less often now. The best collection probably is at the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. While in Tillamook, visit the Tillamook cheese factory, which offers free self-guided tours.

Farther south in the town of Newport, the historic waterfront district still keeps at least some of its old aura. Shops feature work of regional artisans. Nearby is the highly rated Oregon Coast Aquarium. and Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center, with exhibits and displays of coastal marine life.

There are nine 19th-century lighthouses along the coast, some open to the public and many working, although automated. One lighthouse that's open to visitors is the Yaquina Head Lighthouse near Newport.

Between Newport and Florence, about 50 miles south, is some of the more spectacular scenery on the coast. South of Florence is the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, 40 miles of desert-like sand mountains where dune buggies and other off-road vehicles zip around some areas. Jessie Honeyman State Park just south of Florence has a very popular campground and sand dunes where off-road vehicles zip around.

The southern end of the coast, too, is spectacular, if more isolated, and small towns such as Bandon (where the Bandon Dunes course lures golfers) and Port Orford recall a calmer era.

Many visitors to Gold Beach on the southern Oregon coast take the daylong Rogue River jet-boat trip upriver to Agness and back. Boats have been taking mail to the isolated region since 1895. Today, two companies (Jerry's Rogue Jets and Mail Boat Hydro-Jet) offer jet-boat trips up the river, usually from May to October.

Kristin Jackson of Seattle Times Travel contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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