Sea mist, views, and fish and chips on the Oregon Coast

Fog hangs in a “marine layer” off Cape Perpetua on midcoast Oregon, the warm air from Willamette Valley cooled by the Pacific Ocean. The moisture takes another form in the forest mist of the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area.
Fog hangs in a “marine layer” off Cape Perpetua on midcoast Oregon, the warm air from Willamette Valley cooled by the Pacific Ocean. The moisture takes another form in the forest mist of the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area.
photos by leo schumann for the boston globe

YACHATS, Ore. — Everyone told us it was spectacular. But as we drove down the Oregon coast after crossing over the wide Columbia River, “spectacular” was hard to find. It always seemed just out of sight — maybe somewhere behind those gray buildings or down that road on the right toward the ocean.

“Go to Cannon Beach,” several people recommended when we asked for advice. So we exited Route 101, the Oregon Coast Highway, and drove to the town of Cannon Beach, where a mob of tourists thronged the sidewalks and circled around town in their cars looking for parking spots. After finding one, we walked past restaurants, espresso shops, and stores that sold T-shirts and crafts, past beachside hotels and rentals. All of us in search of “spectacular” walked on the wide sand beach to Haystack Rock, one of the most photographed sights on the coast. We saw it, photographed it, and walked back along the sidewalks crowded with people, among them a young man, bent over his smartphone, who said — whether to a friend or his phone, I’m not sure — “Where’s the rock?”

We drove on down the highway, bypassing beach towns that looked as if at some point they had dreamed of becoming Cannon Beach and now had many shuttered restaurants and hotels with vacancies. We drove through the Tillamook Valley, full of cows grazing in the golden evening light, past the towns of Lincoln City, Newport, and Waldport. It was almost 9 p.m. when we and the fog arrived at Deane’s Oceanfront Lodge north of Yachats (pronounced YAH-hots), midway to the California border.

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“I turned up the heat for you in your room,” the receptionist said as we checked in. “Should be cozy now.”

And it was. The room’s front door, off the parking lot, opened to a warm room with whitewashed wooden paneling, blue curtains, and photographs of seagulls in the surf. The back door opened onto a lawn spreading to the edge of a sandstone bluff, where wooden stairs led down to the beach, the developing fog, and the constant roar of the Pacific surf.

By early morning the fog was so thick, I could not see the ocean when I descended to the beach. If anyone else was walking there, I didn’t see them. A few seagulls padded by. Crows eyed me, then returned to jabbing the sand with their beaks. Cold clouds of fog drifted past.

“Around here they say, ‘Give it 10,’ ” said Katherine Aukstik-alnis, co-owner with her husband, Glen, of Deane’s, when we went to the lobby to grab coffee, juice, and doughnuts. “The weather will change if you wait 10 minutes or drive 10 miles.”

I wanted the fog to linger because I wanted to see the nearby temperate rain forest in the mist. But Aukstikalnis was right. Even as we drove through the center of Yachats, 3 miles down the road, we could see patches of brilliant blue sky.

Just a few miles south of the town is the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, part of Siuslaw National Forest. There, Route 101 hugs the coastline and provides frequent outlooks where one can pull over and gaze at the ocean. At the Devil’s Churn stop, we watched the ocean rush into a chasm and boom as it crashed into crevices. A short trail led us through Sitka spruce that had been shaped by the wind, and purple nettles, Queen Anne’s lace, and horsetails to a beach covered in silvered driftwood and tide pools on the rocks. By the time we made it to the Cape Perpetua visitors center to begin our hike through old-growth forest, the fog was merely wisps floating among the trees.

We climbed up on the Cook’s Ridge Trail, gaping at the astonishing height and girth of the trees and the carpets of ferns and veils of lichen and moss. We remarked on how well-maintained the trails were and how few people we met on the 6½-mile loop. (Eleven.)

One of them, a woman who introduced herself as Sandy, became our trail companion for a while. A resident of coastal Oregon and a frequent hiker on its trails, Sandy knew the names of many of the trees and plants. She was looking for red huckleberries and told us about salmonberries and thimbleberries and salal, fruits I did not know existed.

“Miner’s lettuce,” she said, pointing to a low, small-leafed ground cover. “They call these ‘mice in the hole,’ ” she said as she showed us a Sitka spruce pinecone with its seeds tucked between its scales. And the fog we saw as a thick line out over the Pacific she told us was called the “marine layer,” and it forms when the hot air of the Willamette Valley meets the cold ocean. She told us she had moved here from Brooklyn, N.Y., years ago. “What brought you out here?” I asked. “This,” she said, looking up at the trees and sweeping her arm in a wide arc that encompassed all of it.

We returned to Yachats at about 2 p.m., starving after our hike. It pays to attend to opening days and hours in a town like Yachats, and in these travel days of omnipresent smartphones, it’s easy enough to do. But we hadn’t. One restaurant was closed that day; at another we met a couple exiting who told us the cafe closed at 2 and was no longer serving.

Yachats is not a big town. Its permanent population is about 700, and it doesn’t take long to wander the streets. We walked 50 feet behind the couple until they entered a pub. We walked on and ended up at the place that should have been obvious all along: Luna Sea Fish House, a tiny, colorful, bustling place right on Route 101. Inside there were about 10 tables packed with late lunchers. “You’ll have to wait,” a waitress said, “or sit outside.”

“We’ll sit outside,” we said. Off to the side of the restaurant was an outdoor seating area ringed with stacks of round crab traps filled with coiled ropes and buoys. We ordered albacore tuna and chips, scallops and chips, and a bean burrito.

The wandering couple sat down near us.

“We tried to eat at the pub,” said the man. “First we ordered a burger, and they didn’t have meat. Then we ordered a ham sandwich, and they didn’t have ham. So we drank a beer and left. I looked on Yelp, and someone had written, ‘Don’t go there if you like food.’ ”

Do go to Luna Sea Fish House if you like the sort of food that is simple, served in baskets lined with red and white checked paper, and as close to “fresh-off-the-boat” seafood as you can find.

On a hike up the St. Perpetua Trail to an overlook described as the “Best View on the Oregon Coast,” we walked up those beautifully maintained trails through the enormous trees and were again overwhelmed by the lush greenness of it all. Salal berries were ripe and in abundance along the trail. They were deep purple and pithy.

A road goes up to the overlook, and a number of people had driven up for the view. We joined them in looking out over the Cape Perpetua coastline, the surf crashing on the shore, wafts of mist billowing over the wooded headlands farther south.

“It’s the Grand Canyon of the ocean,” I overheard a woman say.

It is spectacular.