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Oregon Coast: Choose Your Adventure

Oregon Coast: Choose Your Adventure Featured

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Fall is the best time of the year on the coast, and you have plenty of airports to pick from. 

Welcome to the (Oregon) coast. 

First things first: if you want to try to blend in, even as a temporary interloper, it’s “the coast.” Yes, I know, elsewhere you may take trips to the beach, to the shore, to the oceanside, to the waterfront… but here in Oregon, it’s not any of these, or anything other than simply the coast. 

The Oregon coast is 363 miles long, bordered to the north by the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, where Lewis and Clark first sighted the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. At the southernmost end of the coast, you’ll find the redwood forests of northern California. In between is some of the most beautiful, wild shoreline in the Lower 48, with attractions and outdoor-centric activities to appeal to just about everyone. 

Perhaps you’ll build a sandcastle, fly a kite and take a hike through the dunes, or maybe you’re after no activities at all. The Oregon coast is a great place to grab a well-loved book, a warm cup of cider and a blanket next to a roaring fire. 

A drive to the coast from Oregon’s inland population centers of Portland, Salem or Eugene takes around 90 minutes. Two-lane highways wind slowly up through Douglas fir forests, then over low Coast Range mountain passes before following sparkling rivers down to the sea. 

For those of us who are blessed with the gift of flight, our airplanes can spirit us to the ocean’s edge in 30 minutes or less. From any of the inland cities, it’s only around 50 nm to the Pacific as the Piper flies.

When you begin your descent toward the ocean, you’ll have your choice of 15 airports, evenly spaced along the coast. Your pick will no doubt be guided by your aircraft, your skill, your intended ground destination and the weather. 

It’s time to choose your adventure.

Pacific City: Weekend getaway

Despite its name, Pacific City isn’t a big place. Around 1,000 people call the town home year-round. Pacific City used to be a quiet backwater with a small fishing fleet and a few dairy farms. Things have changed in the past two decades; it’s now a trendy destination in the summer tourist season and the beach can get quite busy (by Oregon standards). 

Fly in to Pacific City in March or November, and you’d never suspect all that hubbub. You might well have the place to yourself.

Activities and amenities at Pacific City are centered around Cape Kiwanda and its signature offshore sea stack, Chief Kiawanda Rock. (Not a typo; the cape and the rock have different spellings.) Chief Kiawanda Rock is hard to miss from the air and even harder to miss from the ground. 

To get to Cape Kiwanda from the airport, walk a few blocks to the west toward the sound of the waves, turn right and stroll up the beach. It’s about a 20-minute walk over the sand to the cape. 

The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive is the funny-looking boats on the beach and the boat trailers backed into the surf. The Pacific City dory boat fleet launches directly off the beach to chase salmon, tuna and rockfish just a few miles offshore. You can charter a boat from one of several operators; to arrange a charter, ask the captains at the beach a day or two before you want to fish. (See Resources for a brief video showing how a dory boat is launched. —Ed.)

Cape Kiwanda is a protected natural area and marine life fills the tidepools. The rocks and pools just to the north of the boat launch give children and adults alike up-close views of sea stars, anemones and crabs. 

Feeling up for a workout? Grab a kayak from Nestucca Adventures and head off into the winding Nestucca Bay estuary. Birdwatching is especially good in the fall. 

If conditions are right, surfers play in the beach break just south of Cape Kiwanda or the point break to the north. Information, rentals and lessons are available from Moment Surf Company. 

If you see surfers here, you’ll notice they wear wetsuits—the Pacific Ocean is cold year-round. Peak water temperatures in the summer rarely exceed 60 F. 

Strong waves, cold water and lack of lifeguards make swimming here (and anywhere else on the Oregon coast) a poor and possibly dangerous idea. Wading is fine, but keep your eye toward the ocean. Occasional large waves have surprised many a beachgoer.

After you’ve explored the beach at
Pacific City, there’s no need to head elsewhere for lunch or dinner. Grab a cold Northwest IPA, a glass of wine—or an iced tea, if you’re flying out soon—and watch the people and boats come and go from a comfortable perch at Pelican Brewing’s beachfront taproom. 

Meridian Restaurant & Bar, just to the north of Pelican, offers upscale dining with locally sourced ingredients and a fantastic view. You’ll want reservations during the high season and on holidays.

Lodging books up quickly, as there are only a few boutique hotels and inns in Pacific City. Airbnb options are usually a better bet on short notice, and if you’re lucky, you may be able to snag one of the units adjacent to the airport.

As for Pacific City State Airport (KPFC), it’s a handful. The runway is a mere 1,860 feet long by 30 feet wide, and there are several buildings and trees near the runway. The runway is at only 5 feet msl and is adjacent to the Nestucca River. The runway occasionally floods. Heed the FAA Chart Supplement’s suggestion to call the Oregon Department of Aviation at 503-378-4880 before using KPFC, especially during the winter. 

Make sure your aircraft and personal skills are suited for operations here. Though the airport is challenging, it also serves to keep the crowds down; I have only once seen the six transient tiedowns full. Other than tiedowns, there aren’t any aviation services at KPFC.

The nearest fuel is at Tillamook (KTMK), which also makes a good alternate. KTMK has longer and wider runways, AWOS-3 weather reporting and a GPS approach with 750-1 minimums. Since it’s inland about 6 miles, Tillamook usually has calmer winds than Pacific City and other airports nearer to the beach. You can rent a car at Tillamook and make the 30-minute drive to Pacific City. If you’re there already, it’s tempting to take a quick detour and stop by the Tillamook Air Museum’s huge blimp hangar, or the Tillamook Creamery for a free tasting and tour.

 

Newport: Family-friendly fun

Roughly halfway down the Oregon coast, the bustling town of Newport sits on the north shore of Yaquina (pronounced “Ya-kee-nah”) Bay. 

Newport has been an escape for Oregon families since the early 1900s; the Nye Beach historic district was, and is, especially popular. Visitors can browse through art galleries, antique shops or simply just sip a cup of coffee with brunch (the best on the coast) at the Nye Beach Café. The sounds of the ocean are never far away. I’ve always found Nye Beach to be a comfortable, quiet area to stay the night; there are numerous lodging options here and throughout town.

The Bayfront District has a decidedly different feel (and occasionally, an unusual smell). Yaquina Bay is home to Oregon’s second-largest commercial fishing fleet and the Bayfront is very much a working waterfront. The fishing fleet processes most of its catch here, much to the delight of the hundreds of sea lions that inhabit the Bayfront docks. 

The sea lions are easily seen and photographed at the docks next to Mariner Square on Southwest Bay Blvd. If you’re having trouble finding them, just listen for their barks.

You could choose to battle these 1,000-pound pinnipeds for fish scraps, but it’s a safer bet to go to one of several fish markets nearby. I like Fish Peddler’s Market; they have fresh-off-the-boat seafood for cooking at home, and also do an excellent grab-and-go fish ‘n chips. 

Mo’s Seafood and Chowder is an Oregon institution and was a staple of my childhood trips to the coast. There are now several locations on the coast and the original location is in Newport. However, I think there’s better seafood at Local Ocean Seafoods. Beer hounds love Rogue Ales and Spirits’ three Newport locations. 

Newport’s premier attraction is, perhaps unsurprisingly, ocean-oriented. Oregon Coast Aquarium is open daily, both summer and winter. Its mission is “to create unique and engaging experiences that connect you to the Oregon coast and inspire ocean conservation.” 

The museum grounds cover several acres. You can easily spend a full afternoon visiting all the exhibits. My favorite is the Passages of the Deep exhibit, where visitors pass through a series of underwater walkways covering the three different ecosystems (reef, shelf, offshore) present in the nearby Pacific Ocean. For intrepid younger explorers, you can even book an overnight stay in the exhibit. To be honest, I’m not sure how well I’d sleep while surrounded by sharks.

For offseason travelers, the Newport Seafood and Wine Festival features hundreds of Northwest wines and seafood offerings from up and down the coast. The 2019 festival is February 21–24. 

Newport offers some of the most accessible whale-watching on the Oregon coast. Gray whales migrate along the coast in the early winter and again in the late spring. Several charter operators run whale-watching tours from the Bayfront District. A two-hour family-friendly “Sea Life” cruise with Marine Discovery Tours costs $42 for adults and $28 for children. 

For the do-it-yourselfer, drive just a few miles north to Agate Beach and Yaquina Head Lighthouse. You don’t have to climb the lighthouse to spot whales, but you certainly can if you’ve arranged a tour in advance. 

Newport Municipal Airport (KONP) is about 3 miles south of the Bayfront District. The airport is one of the best on the Oregon coast, with two good runways (the larger of the two measures 5,398 feet by 100 feet). KONP has several instrument approaches; two VOR approaches, a VOR-A approach, two GPS approaches and an ILS approach. The ILS and GPS approaches to Runway 16 have minimums of 250-3/4. 

Fuel is competitively priced at $5.00/gal for self-serve 100LL and $3.90/gal for full-service Jet A. The City of Newport runs the FBO and offers a courtesy vehicle during business hours (maximum two hours). For longer stays, you’ll need to call a cab or rent a car. Tiedowns are always available. If you show up on a Saturday in the summer, there’s a free barbecue at noon to welcome visiting pilots! 

 

Manzanita/Nehalem Bay: “Roughing it”

Nehalem Bay State Airport (3S7) is a treasure for visiting pilots. Touch down, then taxi off the paved runway and onto the grass. Pull into the clearly-marked tiedown area and shut down. Unpack and pitch your tent in one of the several campsites nestled in the trees, just a few hundred yards from the beach. You’re home for the night at Nehalem Bay.

The Oregon Department of Aviation and Oregon State Parks have made six fly-in camping spots available exclusively for the aviating public. In Oregon, standard campsites at state parks are by reservation only and are often booked several months in advance. That’s not the case at Nehalem Bay’s fly-in campground. The sites are first-come, first-served and are seldom full, even on the busiest summer weekends, though you might want to come in on Thursday to guarantee a spot. 

Camping is $11 per night, per plane. That gets you access to the park facilities, including water and hot showers. For a few bucks, you can pick up a bundle of firewood from the camp host. During the summer, rangers present nightly interpretive programs about local history and wildlife at the park’s amphitheater. Pack an inflatable kayak and you can launch it right off the end of the runway to explore the bay.

The beach is about a 10-minute walk to the west through the trees; those with more energy can hike to the Nehalem Bay Jetty, a 5-mile roundtrip from the campground. Walking a mile to the north will have you in downtown Manzanita. To get to town you can also take the scenic route, via the beach.

Nehalem Bay is a straightforward small airport (the runway is 2,350 feet by 50 feet) when conditions are benign. You’ll fly your downwind over the ocean, turn base and cross over the sand spit, and then turn north on final. Final puts you over Nehalem Bay; the runway threshold is only a few feet from the water. 

Here’s the catch: when it gets windy, Nehalem Bay will bite you. There’s high terrain to the north of the airport, and on summer afternoons, strong winds can spill over and cause all sorts of unpleasantness at the surface at Nehalem Bay. Be ready to go around and/or divert if the conditions exceed your comfort level. 

Nehalem Bay has no aviation services, but Tillamook (17 nm to the south) has fuel and can serve as a diversion.

 

Planning your flight

You’ll want to keep an eye out for forest fire TFRs in the summer and fall. Fire TFRs often affect routes to and from the inland population hubs. Smoke can also affect in-flight visibility.

All but one of the airports along the Oregon coast are non-towered. Fourteen coastal airports share three radio frequencies: 122.7, 122.8 and 122.9. Make sure you’re on the right frequency and announce your position as well as the relevant airport. En route, I like to monitor 122.9; it’s an unofficial frequency for low-level traffic along the beach. 

Several MOAs overlie the Oregon coast and nearshore waters. I have never seen military traffic in any of these MOAs, but you should nonetheless check notams for current status.

Many of the rocks, islands and reefs near the coast are part of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge system. These refuges are marked on VFR sectional charts. Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum of 2,000 agl above these refuges. Low flights that disturb wildlife are a violation. 

Flying over the beach and out over the water is part of the adventure and allure of flying along the coast. Prudent pilots will maintain an altitude that allows for a safe emergency landing ashore should an unexpected loss of power occur. Beaches are usually the best option for forced landings. 

Much of the land along the coast is rocky or tree-covered. Still, land is likely a better bet than an offshore ditching in the ice-cold Pacific. For extended routes over water (as found on IFR T-route T257), you will want to bring a life raft, life vests and an extremely reliable engine (or better yet, bring a twin). 

Weather considerations

You’ve probably heard it rains a lot in Oregon—you’ve heard right. It certainly does rain, in the winter and spring. The rainy season typically extends from mid-October until mid-April. Moisture-laden storm systems roll ashore every few days and drop their cargo as they ascend the slope of the Coast Range.

Even during prolonged stormy periods, the skies will often clear up long enough for a VFR flight as bands of clouds and rain pass through. Winter winds are usually more problematic than visibility and ceilings. Icing is a concern, especially when colder systems descend from the Gulf of Alaska bringing the freezing level close to the surface. 

For as much as it rains in the winter, it doesn’t rain much at all in the summer. However, the best weather on the Oregon coast is not during the height of the summer tourist season (June–August). Summertime is fog time and wind time. Coastal fog can appear in the blink of an eye. I’ve had to hasten a departure more than a few times as the fog bank approached the airport. 

Summer surface winds are nearly always out of the north and can approach 40 knots in the afternoons and early evenings. Schedule your flights to arrive and depart early in the day and winds are usually a nonissue.

In my opinion, fall is the time to go. But if you pick your days (or bring your instrument rating), there’s great flying to be had year-round.

September is the warmest month of the year along the Oregon coast. There’s usually very little wind; the fog machine slows down and there is less traffic both in the air and on the beach. 

 

VFR or IFR?

You can certainly travel the coast VFR in a VFR-only airplane—I do, quite often—but you’ll run the risk of having to divert or cancel more often than if you hold an instrument rating and fly an all-weather aircraft. 

An instrument ticket will help you get to the coast—even if you’re unable to get in to your VFR-only airport of choice, you can land elsewhere, rent a car and drive the rest of the way. That’s a big deal if you’ve got a weeklong non-refundable hotel reservation. 

Four of the coast airports have GPS approaches, and three have ILS approaches. Though these approaches won’t be of much help in winter high winds, they will certainly assist in punching through the pesky summertime 600-foot-agl marine layer.

From a smiles-per-mile perspective, do everything you can to make your flight on a clear day. You want your passengers’ noses to be pressed against the side windows, watching the ocean for whales and the treetops for bald eagles. It’s not nearly as fun to stare at the inside of a cloud.

Each one of Oregon’s 15 coastal airports has its own story and set of things to see and do nearby. Load up your family and friends, start your engine and point your trusty bird toward the ocean and all the Oregon coast has to offer. I look forward to seeing you there!


Scott Kinney is a self-described aviation geek (#avgeek), private pilot and instructor (CFI-Sport, AGI). He is associate editor for Piper Flyer. Scott and his partner Julia are based in Eugene, Oregon. They are often found buzzing around the western U.S. in their vintage airplane. Send questions or comments to .


RESOURCES >>>>>

PILOT AND AIRPORT INFORMATION
Pacific City, Nehalem Bay and
other state-owned airports
https://www.oregon.gov/aviation/Pages/State-of-Oregon-Airports.aspx

Newport Municipal Airport FBO
newportoregon.gov/dept/onp

VISITOR INFORMATION
Oregon Coast Visitors Association
visittheoregoncoast.com

Travel Oregon
traveloregon.com

PACIFIC CITY
Dory launch at Pacific City
youtu.be/Al5H_r4EZvw

Meridian Restaurant & Bar
headlandslodge.com/dining/meridian

Moment Surf Company
momentsurfco.com

Nestucca Adventures LLC
nestuccaadventures.com

Pelican Brewing Company
pelicanbrewing.com

Tillamook Air Museum
tillamookair.com

Tillamook Creamery
tillamook.com

NEHALEM BAY
Nehalem Bay State Park
oregonstateparks.org/index.cfm?do=parkPage.dsp_parkPage&parkId=142


NEWPORT
Local Ocean Seafoods
localocean.net

Marine Discovery Tours
marinediscoverytours.com

Mo’s Seafood and Chowder
moschowder.com

Newport Seafood and Wine Festival
seafoodandwine.com

Nye Beach Café
nyebeachcafe.wordpress.com

Oregon Coast Aquarium
aquarium.org

Rogue Ales and Spirits
rogue.com/meeting-halls

 

Yaquina Head Lighthouse
blm.gov/learn/interpretive-centers/yaquina


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