Journey

Oregon Coast in Fall or Spring

7-Day RV Camping Trip Along Highway 101

Writer Brian J. Cantwell and his wife share their experience touring park campgrounds along Oregon’s sublime shoreline during shoulder season — the slower period between the peak summer months and the winter off-season.

Drivers rarely run­­ windshield wipers on high in the drizzly Northwest. But as my wife and I cruised U.S. Highway 101 near Yachats, Oregon, a Pacific squall drenched us in full firehose mode.

I flicked our rented RV’s wipers to the max. They sluiced the glass with the speed of twin fly swatters as I peered to see what a highway sign recommended as a safe speed for the next bend in this serpentine road lined by wind-sculpted spruces.

That’s one of the first things to learn when renting a motor home for a coastal vacation: While not everyone in an SUV strictly heeds those speed advisories, caution signs on sharp curves definitely apply to you when you’re piloting a lumbering RV full of rattling kitchenware, a goody-packed fridge and all the gear for a fun beach outing.

Another lesson learned on this October 2019 road trip on the Oregon Coast: Don’t get all Eeyore-ish about rain. When we checked in that afternoon at Newport’s South Beach State Park, the clouds had vanished, typical of the coast’s changeable spring and fall weather, which runs the gamut from sun-drenched beach walks to wild-and-wavy storm watching.

The best part: If it was still raining, what did we care? No clammy tent for us.

Traveling the coast in an RV. Photo courtesy of Brian Cantwell.

Seven Days on 101

This was the second time in 10 years that my wife and I indulged in a motor home rental for a week’s tour of state park campgrounds along Oregon’s sublime shoreline during shoulder season, the slower period between the peak summer months and the winter off-season.

It’s almost 350 miles tailor-made for a camping road trip, with more than 60 state park viewpoints, picnic sites or beach pullouts along the Highway 101 corridor, plus 16 state park campgrounds.

In the north we could drive our RV within a stroll of Fort Stevens State Park’s 114-year-old shipwreck, the Peter Iredale, or take a break in Seaside for arcade games such as Funland Arcade’s perfect-for-the-seashore Whale Racing. (Ask about RV parking at the visitors bureau, 7 N. Roosevelt Drive.)

On the central coast, we enjoyed a 7-mile scenic drive from Newport’s historic bayfront to the upper reaches of Yaquina Bay ­— like an atmospheric little slice of bayou country — to buy fresh from Oregon Oyster Farms. Founded in 1907, the business has an RV-friendly turnaround.

The southern coast is all about soaring sand dunes south of Florence; sheep farms and cranberry bogs around Bandon; and, nearing California, endless sea stacks like gargantuan shark fins of rock guarding beaches from Cape Blanco to Brookings.

A decade ago, my wife and I — both Seattle-born, longtime tent campers — found two advantages in a shoulder-season rental: dramatically lower rental costs combined with a carefree choice of uncrowded campgrounds with no booking ahead.

Rates still favor off-peak renters, but otherwise the equation has tipped. This time, when we checked the Oregon parks reservation website a few months before our October trip, many RV campsites were already booked for our dates, from September’s end into October’s first week. Full campgrounds were rarer midweek, but other RVers echoed the need to book ahead.

“Reservations are my No. 1 tip,” says Rob Greenwood. “We learned our lesson.”

We met Rob and his wife, Mary, at Beachside State Recreation Site near Waldport as they sat in beach chairs edging sun-warmed sand and tried to calm their cat, Betsy, who was unaccustomed to surf. They were park-hopping to California.

We traded tips on herding cats, because we had brought along our two felines, Galley Cat and Bosun. The whiskered friends contentedly curled up on the bed as we drove our 25-foot RV and were welcome knee-warmers on chilly nights. We rented from Cruise America, which welcomes pets at no extra cost as long as the motor home is clean and free of pet hair when returned.

The Greenwoods tucked Betsy into a cat backpack when they shopped in Cannon Beach. We leashed ours and let them nose about campsites while they tried to munch ferns.

“Just be sure to bring their regular food and litter, because cats can get fussy,” Mary says.

Paraglider at Cape Lookout State Park. Photo courtesy of Brian Cantwell.

Evolving Camping Customs

Spring and fall are definite growth seasons for Oregon campground bookings, says Oregon State Parks spokesman Chris Havel. But a pleasurable shoulder-season RV vacation on the coast can still be yours if you plan ahead. You’ll dodge the crush of summer, when campgrounds are near capacity. And you might cherry-pick bargains: In fall 2019, Oregon wooed RVers with discounts at selected parks. Campers may reserve as far as nine months ahead.

“Some people do the nine-month reservations — they set their alarm for midnight” to book as soon as sites are available, Havel says. “But three to five months in advance is more common.”

Spring RV bookings at Oregon’s coastal campgrounds jumped by almost half from 2012 to 2018, while autumn bookings were up about a third, and that was even before the pandemic gave camping a boost. Reasons? Perhaps look to the hundreds of thousands of new residents moving to the Pacific Northwest, retiring baby boomers taking to RVs, or a younger crowd’s growing interest in camper vans and tiny trailers.

Rental options continue to diversify, from rent-from-owner apps such as RVshare.com to websites such as Harvest Hosts, Hipcamp and Boondockers Welcome that match campers with private sites like wineries and ranches. There are also specialists like Seattle rental startup Cabana, which offers Ford Transit High Roof camper vans with queen-width beds, indoor and outdoor showers, toilets and a AAA member discount.

At Cape Blanco State Park, newlyweds Layne and Laura Geck occupied a site with an electrical hookup, but proudly noted that they rarely need plug-ins for the solar-powered teardrop trailer they were towing on a six-month honeymoon across the West.

“It’s been quite the adventure, teaching us to live more simply, get back to nature and go with the flow,” Laura says.

Their teardrop weighed in at more than 1,100 pounds, a fraction of the weight of a fully loaded 10,000-pound Airstream Classic and light enough to pull behind their old Ford Ranger. Our RV, wallowing along at 10 mpg on U.S. 101, was a behemoth by comparison, but its amenities — floor-level double bed, roomy shower, fridge with freezer — suited a couple in our 60s.

Bigger can be better. We’ve rented Cruise America’s 19- and 25-footers. The latter, typically $10-$12 more per day, offered significantly more comfort (a real shower!) and much more storage, with marginal tradeoffs in mileage and maneuverability. When picking up your rental RV, don’t rush checkout. Try every system — heater, stove, fridge, hot water, etc. — before departure. A broken heater is a downer on chilly nights.

At Tillamook Creamery, a popular stop for cheese-making tours and ice cream, I met Nebraskan Bruce Carr, driving the coast with six family members in a rented 30-footer.

His tip for first-timers?

“Go slow,” he says. “Until you get used to it.”

Yes, enjoy views of spouting whales, thrashing surf and lighthouses. But mind those 25-mph curves.

–Written by Brian J. Cantwell, who retired in 2018 as travel and outdoors editor at the Seattle Times and lives in Washington’s San Juan Islands.

Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.

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