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Florence, Ore.: Whale Time

Florence makes a perfect base for whale-watching and other Oregon Coast adventures.

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  • seafood in piquant broth at Spice, image
    Photo caption
    Warm your belly with Spice's shellfish in a broth of lemongrass and white wine.
  • Siuslaw River Bridge in Florence Oregon, image
    Photo caption
    The Siuslaw River Bridge opened in 1936.
  • Heceta Head lightkeeper house at Cape Cove, image
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    The Heceta Head lightkeeper's house overlooks Cape Cove.
  • Fred Jensen stands in front of the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum, image
    Photo caption
    Area native Fred Jensen welcomes visitors to the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum.
  • West Shelter at Cape Perpetua, image
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    Whale-watch from the historic West Shelter at Cape Perpetua.
  • Cobra lilies at Darlingtonia, image
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    Find rare cobra lilies at the Darlingtonia State Natural Site.
  • rippling sands at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, image
    Photo caption
    Hike up the rippling sands at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

 

Nearly 45 years ago, Oregon State Highway Division workers were dispatched to the beach south of Florence’s sleepy Old Town to manage what soon became a behemoth of a problem. The plan to dynamite the carcass of a 45-foot sperm whale went awry when the powerful blast rained bits upon onlookers—including a television crew that captured the event and made it national news.

These days, the coastline surrounding Florence is better known for happier whale tales. During the area’s twice-annual Whale Watching Week (March 21–28 this spring), volunteer field guides stationed at designated sites along the coast help visitors track gray whales during peak migration. Last spring, observers spotted the silvery backs and spouts of more than 1,200 of the giant mammals. Standing on Florence’s rocky South Jetty near the infamous whale-blast site, gazing out over the 40 miles of sand that make up the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, it’s easy to see why whales aren’t the coast’s only repeat visitors. Just a short drive from rainy Eugene and the Willamette Valley, Florence’s environs are often sunny in spring, much to the pleasure of travelers from grayer climes.

The area around the jetties, packed with families clambering over the rocks, is Florence’s playground. At the edge of the beach, off-highway vehicles zip over the ever-shifting dunes fringed with waving beach grass. In March and April, fishermen and crabbers try their hands at battling the sea, keeping watch for surprisingly large sneaker waves and unstable logs.

Florence’s Old Town makes for a rewarding afternoon foray. Its main artery, Bay Street, sits alongside the Siuslaw River and boasts stunning views of the art deco bridge that spans it. While strolling through the historic neighborhood, pop into the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum, where artifacts include the midcentury Florence telephone switchboard and a scale model of a steampowered Oregon lumber mill.

Across the street from the museum, a converted garage houses the Homegrown Public House, serving up Oregon microbrews, foraged-mushroom specialties, and an epic burger made with three types of beef: brisket, short rib, and chuck. After exploring life along the coast, you may crave the crab-encrusted halibut fillet at the Waterfront Depot, some local catch from the Krab Kettle seafood market, or a bowl of shellfish in a broth of lemongrass and white wine at Spice.

Heading north out of Florence, as the coast-hugging Highway 101 swerves and turns along the cliffs, you come to the oft photographed Heceta Head Lighthouse. Nearby sits the Sea Lion Caves overlook, a gorgeous point where visitors spot migrating whales and a rookery of frolicking sea lions. A central coast attraction since 1932, the small visitor center lets you descend to a viewing area in a cove among the volcanic rocks. It’s not to be missed in the spring when great whiskery males—sometimes three times the size of the females—cluster on the rocks amid their families.

A short stroll through the nearby Darlingtonia State Natural Site makes a refreshing break on the drive back to town. The boardwalk at this forested botanical park leads you to an otherworldly vista of a bog filled with rare cobra lilies, Darlingtonia californica. In the spring these carnivorous plants unfurl pitcher-shaped leaves of lime green with red spots.

Photography by Nik Wheeler/Corbis (lightkeeper’s house); Shawn Linehan (museum and Spice); Ron Yue/Alamy (dunes); Greg Vaughn/Alamy (Cape Perpetua); courtesy of Cacophony/Wikimedia (Suislaw River Bridge); NoahElhardt/Wikipedia (cobra lilies)

This article was first published in March 2015. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.