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Going through the portal near haystack rocks near Oceanside, Ore. (Doug Conarroe, The Denver Post)
IF YOU GO

Getting there: From Portland, it s about 90 miles to Tillamook. From there, follow the signs to Netarts, and then head north on the Cape Meares Loop Road to Oceanside. Keep an eye on the gas gauge; not every town has a gas station.

Fly: SeaPort airlines flies three times daily between Portland and Newport. From there, you can rent a car and head south to Yachats.

Stay: There are plenty of choices for every budget, from swanky cliff-side mansions to funky cabins and full-service hotels. A week in a small surf-side house is also an option.

OCEANSIDE, Ore.

Sometimes the best vacation to-do list holds next to nothing - and the funky little towns that break up the staggering views of Oregon's ancient forests falling off into moody Pacific beaches are fine places to get it done.

Stretching 360 miles from California to Washington, Oregon's coastline is punctuated by dozens of beach towns, a few tuned up and happening enough for tourists to feel like they're still hobnobbing at the fringes of big-city brethren Seattle and Portland.

Whether you're a day-tripper or a destination traveler, take a chance on these tiny towns instead - some of them no more than wide spots along U.S. 101. These little villages all but demand that you take a deep breath of salt spray and sulky sky and exhale the remnants of the busy life that brought you.

During a recent crammed-full trip to Portland, we decamped to the coast, equipped with only a map pointing us 90 miles west along the Wilson River and the idea that a walk on the beach would do us good.

Our stop was Oceanside, a no-frills town - a fine restaurant, a few places to stay, no gas station - on the Three Capes Scenic Loop near Tillamook, and our lucky find was Three Arch Rocks Wildlife Refuge.

The pounding surf drew us in quickly from the parking lot for Oceanside Beach State Recreation Area.


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We ambled along the wide beach and then picked our way through a dark, unmarked tunnel to a cove on the north side of a cliff that jutted too far into the ocean to walk around.

From the cove, we had a front-row view of the three huge sea stacks a half-mile offshore that are the core of the refuge, the oldest west of the Mississippi.

These big rocks, protected by federal law and turbulent seas, serve as pupping grounds for the threatened Steller sea lion and host large breeding colonies of tufted puffins and common murres. Cormorants and storm-petrels, too, call the refuge home.

On the beach we practiced patience, waiting for the too-cold-to-wade-in water to drop back enough to allow quick examination of rocks mortared tight with indigo mussels, orange and purple starfish and pale green anemone before having to dash to the far edge of the crashing waves.

We were only day-trippers, but friendly locals walking their dogs seemed happy to share the joy of discovering what we had not expected to see. They explained the hierarchy of the sea lions sprawled out on the rocks - big males up top, females and pups closer to the sea spray - and helped us identify some of the thousands of dusky birds preening above our heads and in the distance.

As the roiling clouds let loose a serious shower, we took cover beneath the soaring cliffs and just took it all in. We felt welcome there - to move as quick as the sea, or as slow as the starfish, to just be.

It's that come-as-you-are feeling that compels Elisabeth Stade and her family back to the central coast town of Yachats again and again.

Each summer, Stade, her husband and two sons rent a house - as close to the surf line as possible - and settle in, content to sit on the deck and feel the mists of the rising tide move closer and closer, and happy for the make-your-own fun a week at the beach presents.

"It has a real sense of place," Stade says of Yachats, a town as beloved for its proximity to Cape Perpetua Scenic Area as for the campy film "The Ghoul From the Tide Pool," produced by and starring its residents. "Not like someone invented it."

During her trips to the coast, the days are filled with easy fun for kids and adults.

One day may involve a journey to Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, to gawk at the Devil's Churn or the Spouting Horn, two stunning spots where the power of the ocean is affirmed in huge plumes of spray and sea foam.

Another might be spent at Yaquina Bay State Park, where the last wooden lighthouse on the Oregon coast is open for exploration.

Some days, they rent crab pots in Waldport and let the kids try their luck. Another afternoon could be spent plucking mussels for dinner.

Now and then, they'll join knots of people on the beaches near Newport, squinting at the sand looking for the glint of a bit of agate. The serious hunters approach fields of damp stones with hoes and the hope of finding something truly valuable, like an agatized clamshell.

The first time out, the regulars were glad to help Stade's boys hunt like experts for red, blue and amber stones, polished smooth by the sea.

"If you stay for a week, people start to treat you like a local," she says.