Mention that you're planning an escape to the coastal hamlet of Florence and you might just raise a few eyebrows. It's not that an unusual a reaction. Situated along the Siuslaw River, about half-way between Coos Bay and Newport, Florence seems to be one of those towns that everyone has heard of but no one knows anything about. Even to the number of folks who cruise along Oregon's awe-inspiring coastline, the town itself is somewhat of a mystery.
Why, then, go to Florence?
Truth be told, it's not so much the town itself that lures visitors here, it's what lies just to the south: sand dunes. Specifically, the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area, the largest expanse of coastal dunes in the United States. Running some 50 miles down to Coos Bay, the area is constantly revamped and reshaped by winds and ocean tides. Beach lovers and outdoor junkies will find plenty to do here—dune buggy tours, camping, fishing, and days' worth of dunes to scramble over.
Far from lifeless, the dunes are, in fact, home to a variety of ecosystems, from small patches of forest to isolated marshland. Sharp eyes may spot such feathered residents as the snowy plover, osprey, and sanderling. In the spring and summer, you can often find wild strawberries, blackberries, and elderberries ripe for the picking. At adjacent Honeyman State Park, two freshwater lakes cater to the aquatic pursuits of swimmers and boaters.
Head north of Florence and you'll encounter the Devil's Churn, a rocky spot where visitors strong of heart can watch waves splash 30 to 40 feet in the air at high tide. Or stop by Cape Perpetua, a short hop off Highway 101, where the vertigo-free can enjoy one of the best views on the coast. Hikers will find many trails into the lush, wooded hills overlooking the sea. The quarter mile Whispering Spruce Trail loop is an easy walk and has especially nail-biting views.
Also north of town is Heceta Head Lighthouse, purportedly the most photographed lighthouse in the United States. Built in 1894 and perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, it merits attention. The fully restored Keeper's House, also built in 1894 and replete with a white picket fence, serves as an interpretive center and a year-round bed and breakfast.
On the way back into town, don't miss the Sea Lion Caves. The price of admission gets you to cliffside walkways overlooking the Pacific, spotted with quarter-operated telescopes for gray whale watching. An elevator descent through 208 feet of solid rock leads into what is thought to be the world's largest sea cave, where sea lions flop and bellow to the entertainment of tourists. The viewing is best in fall and winter, as the sea lions like to be out and about when it's sunny.
As for Florence itself—don't be fooled. Originally a fishing and logging town, Florence was settled by Anglo-Americans in the latter half of the 19th century on land that had belonged to the Siuslaw Indians. Visitors strolling down Bay Street in historic Old Town will get a sense of that pioneer fishing village. Locals are pleasant and the charming storefronts offer all manner of goodies, with a special eye toward Oregon crafts and merchandise. Check out the living beehive in Incredible & Edible Oregon, watch glass blowers practice their craft at the Raindrop Factory, and get your picture taken in pioneer threads at Flashback. Or take a ride on an old-fashioned 1850's sternwheeler, the Westward Ho!, which plies the river waters from April through October.
If you like clam chowder—I mean really like it—then this is your kind of town. Check out the very local Beachcomber Tavern. Two tables out front allow for people watching, and the beers on tap will delight any microbrew fan. The chowder's tasty and the vegetarian burrito (ask for Jim Beam hot sauce on the side) will more than satisfy the non-clam-eating set. For family dining, there's no beating Mo's, a restaurant specializing in—you guessed it—clam chowder, with locations along the Oregon coast. The Florence Mo's is in Old Town, right on the Siuslaw River, and offers a plentiful kids' menu. Be sure to try the bouillabaisse and the slumgullion (clam chowder with shrimp). For a cure to the morning java jones, seek treatment at Siuslaw River Coffee Roasters, which offers 14 varieties of gourmet coffee.
Coastal visitors generally fall into two groups—those looking for a few days of serenity and those with a carload of frisky children.
For the first group, there's the Johnson House. Built in 1892, the house is fully restored and filled with period antiques. The one-room cottage off the back garden is a guest favorite.
If you happen to have brought a few squirming dependents, check out the Driftwood Shores, a spacious resort right on the coast. All rooms provide a front row view of the ocean and most feature a full kitchen.
April showers bring May flowers, and for Florence that means rhododendrons. In May, wild rhododendrons festoon the nearby hills as the city celebrates its annual Rhododendron Festival. First held in 1908, the festival has blossomed into one of the coast's most popular events, attracting crowds of more than 30,000. Festivities include a carnival, floral displays, 5K and 10K runs, and a Grand Floral Parade complete with a Rhododendron Queen.
If creepy flora is more your speed, check out Darlingtonia State Natural Site. Here you'll find a sea of hundreds of carnivorous, cobralike plants. Native to southwest Oregon and Northern California, darlingtonia also bloom in May, though Florence has yet to throw the sinister foliage a festival in its honor.
Maybe next year.
Planning Your Trip
All numbers are 541 area code unless noted. Pick up AAA's Oregon/Washington TourBook and map. For more information on Florence, contact the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce, 997-3128, (800) 524-4864, www.florencechamber.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Driftwood Shores Resort, 88416 First Ave., 997-8264, (800) 422-5091, www.driftwoodshores.com. One hundred twenty-eight rooms. Rates from $90 to $275.
Heceta Head Lighthouse, 13 miles north of Florence on Hwy.101 South, 547-3696, www.hecetalighthouse.com. Three rooms in an historic lighthouse. Rates from $135 to $190.
Jessie M. Honeyman State Park, three miles south of Florence on U.S. 101, (800) 452-5687, www.oregonstateparks.org. Three hundred fifty-six campsites plus 10 yurts. Rates from $16 to $21.
Johnson House, 216 Maple St., 997-8000, www.johnsonriverhouse.com. Rates from $95 to $125.
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, (877) 444-6777,www.fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw/oregondunes. Thirteen camp grounds along the coast. Rates from $12 to $13, plus $7 vehicle fee.
WHERE TO EAT
Beachcomber Tavern, 1355 Bay St., 997-6357.
Mo's, 1436 Bay St., 997-2185.
Siuslaw River Coffee Roasters, 1240 Bay St., 997-3443.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Cape Perpetua Interpretive Center, 10 miles north of Florence on Hwy. 101, 547-3289.
Darlingtonia State Natural Site, five miles north of Florence on Mercer Lake Rd., (800) 551-6949, www.oregonstateparks.org.
Heceta Head Lighthouse, 13 miles north of Florence on U.S. 101, (800) 551-6949, www.oregonstateparks.org.
Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park, three miles south of Florence on U.S. 101, 997-3641, www.oregonstateparks.org.
Ocean Dunes Golf Course, 3345 Munsel Lake Rd., 997-3232, (800) 468-4833.
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, 271-3495, (800) 247-2155. Visitor center located on Hwy. 101 in Reedsport.
Sand Dunes Frontier, 83960 Hwy. 101, 997-3544. Dune buggy rentals and tours.
Sandpines Golf Resort, 1201 35th St., 997-1940, (800) 917-4653, www.sandpines.com.
Sea Lion Caves, 11 miles north of Florence on U.S. 101, 547-3111, www.sealioncaves.com.
Westward Ho! Sternwheeler, 997-9691. Half- and one-hour scenic tours and dinner cruises on the Siuslaw River, April-October.
Rhododendron Festival, May 18-20. 997-3128.
Chowder, Blues & Brews, food and music festival, September 21-23. 997-3128.
Photography by Greg Vaughn
This article was first published in May 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.