The Waterfront Depot was packed. Dinner guests shouldering through the narrow entry could glimpse into the tiny kitchen — a blur of hands chopping, stirring and sautéing. The host wound his way calmly through the cheerful throng of crowded tables, and the sociable bartender never stopped moving. Even the busboy managed to look charming under a heavy load of dishes as he waited patiently for a party of four to make their way past.
It all felt more like a wonderful house party than a restaurant, one you discovered by accident and that turned out to be so much more fun than whatever you might have planned in the first place. It occurred to me that’s how I might characterize our entire trip to Florence: a series of unexpected and delightful discoveries in this little town at the northern gateway to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
I’m not going to pretend we were escaping some hectic life in the city. Instead, my husband, Brendan, and I live in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, where in a single day you might find yourself forced to choose between kiteboarding, mountain biking, road biking or mountaineering. It’s a life of constant adventure, but sometimes you need to slow things down. This was one such occasion. I convinced Brendan we needed to spend some quality downtime on the Coast. Think of how much the puppy will love it, I said, which seemed to do the trick. The three of us loaded up our camper van and hit the road.
River Town Rambling
Located at the mouth of the Siuslaw River, where OR 126 winds down out of the Siuslaw National Forest from Eugene, Florence is marked like many an Oregon coastal town by a Conde McCullough bridge spanning the river mouth, this one from 1936. Florence began its life as a lumber town spurred by the California Gold Rush. Today the picturesque Old Town, with restored buildings hailing from the early 1900s, offered us the chance to stretch our legs and browse the riverfront — a romantic setting to kick-start the weekend.
We stopped for coffee at Siuslaw River Coffee Roasters, which roasts beans in-house and offers a slate of specialty drinks. A walk along Bay Street with the pup revealed Old Town Park tucked away on the water, and an overlook of the old ferry landing offered a quiet spot for viewing birds and watching fishing boats bob in the river. At the east end of downtown, near the classic Mo’s Restaurant, we found a charming little marina full of pretty boats. This street includes a number of small art galleries, such as Resto-Arts, which sells the work of local artists made from vintage and salvage items, and the Blue Heron Gallery. Home chefs will delight in the offerings at Kitchen Klutter, and Books ’n’ Bears has a nice selection of books and toys.
Sunset in the Dunes
After exploring Old Town, we drove across the bridge to the South Jetty Recreation Area for our first look at the famous sand dunes. At the gateway to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, a 40-mile stretch of sand that peters out in the south near the Coos River, Florence is often mentioned in relation to the high-adrenaline activities that many enjoy in these rolling dunes: ATVs, dune buggies and sand boards.
But just as planned, our visit to the South Jetty was decidedly low adrenaline. From the parking area, we climbed a short, steep stretch of dune, our feet slipping and cuffs of our pants filling with sand. The puppy tore ahead of us toward the growing roar of the surf. As we popped through a tuft of poky beach grass, we were delivered over the other side into a gorgeous sweep of empty beach, which stretched for 5 miles to the north.
We walked for hours, our little canine sprinting to the waterline and back again, listening to the low roar of the surf and our own conversation as it unspooled into the afternoon. At sunset we sat at the top of the dune with a couple of beers and watched a red sun drop out of the bottom of a fog bank, slip into the ocean and disappear.
Dinner found us at the Waterfront Depot, without reservations (not a recommended move at this place, which is always packed) but with enough luck to capture a pair of seats at the bar. The building was once the railway depot in the nearby town of Mapleton, and with its high ceilings, broad wooden floors and tiny ticket office turned kitchen, it draws locals and visitors alike. The bartender, who hadn’t set eyes on us in months, somehow remembered that we hailed from Hood River and managed to keep up a conversation throughout our meal.
We settled in with crab-stuffed mushrooms and two glasses of tempranillo. For dinner I ordered the house special, crab-encrusted halibut in a sweet chili cream sauce with a garlicky Caesar salad. Brendan’s arroz com marisco Portuguese was swimming with seafood and flavor. The tres leches cake, another signature dish, proved impossible to resist, in part because we could see it from our vantage point at the bar during the entire meal. A cup of tea, a coffee with hazelnut liqueur and we couldn’t have been more content.
Paddling the Siltcoos
The next morning, after breakfast at the Beachcomber Pub, we picked up a picnic of deli sandwiches on freshly baked bread from Le Bouchon Provisions. From there we headed southeast to Siltcoos Lake Resort, where we rented kayaks for a 6-mile round-trip paddle on the Siltcoos River Canoe Trail, which terminates at the Pacific Ocean. The route draws paddlers from all over the world for its unique characteristic of cramming three ecological zones — rain forest, estuary and dune — into one short stretch.
Lunch stowed and life jackets buckled, we launched from the boat dock into the still waters of the Siltcoos River. At the game suggestion of the resort owner, we brought along the puppy. She was less enthusiastic about the idea, but after a wet start, we all paddled off together.
We slid silently through the dark, flat waters of the Siltcoos River, a graveyard of submerged stumps with living trees leaning out from the bank overhead. We portaged at a little dam and, at mile 2, passed under a small bridge and entered the estuary zone — the nesting area of the endangered snowy plover.
The muffled roar of the surf grew louder as we rounded the last curve, an incoming tide creating discernible wave sets. The ocean was wild and loud here where the dunes bunched up on either side of the river mouth. We beached the boats, freed the ecstatic pup and enjoyed our lunch in the sunshine with our backs against a driftwood log.
The paddle back revealed a wealth of birdlife. Around the first curve, we spotted a pair of egrets perched in a small tree in the middle of the river and were nearly face to face with the birds before they flew out of the narrow channel. We paddled to the rapid-fire cries of kingfishers, their white-ringed necks bright in the sunlight. In one shadowed corner, a blue heron exploded into flight with a squawk that startled us all and nearly landed the pup back in the water. A bald eagle swooped in and landed above us as we portaged the bridge, craning its head to get a good look.
Back at the boat dock, we stowed our gear and headed home, taking on Highway 101 North. At sunset we pulled over at a viewpoint and watched the sky bleed over the darkening waters of the ocean. Just to the north, the light from Heceta Head Lighthouse swept the beach and the ocean with an arm of golden light, which brightened as the night fell. It was like the metronome of the Coast, a reminder to slow the pace, to stop and listen — to the natural world and to each other. We drove home, that slower tempo within us, as evening fell over the land of sand, sea and Siuslaw.