by Hank Leukart
May 14, 2009

Buggying and boogying to a new life

Traveling over sand dunes and on a remote logging road on Pacific Coast Highway.

A traveler pilots a Yamaha Rhino across a sand dune in southern Oregon.

A traveler pilots a Yamaha Rhino across a sand dune in southern Oregon. (view all Pacific Coast Highway photos)

This is the second of three essays about three road trips I took on Pacific Coast Highway over the past seven years in 2002, 2006, and last week, in 2009. Start with the first essay to get a recap of the beginning of the three trips.

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OLD BEACH, Oregon — After Erin and I left Seattle for our Pacific Coast Highway road trip last week, we sped quickly to the Oregon coast, enjoying ocean views and the enormous 500-foot sand dunes that make up the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America. For some reason, road trips always inspire me to crave tasty pie, so we stopped for tart blueberry-rhubarb pie and ice cream at The Historic Wells Creek Inn in Scottsburg. For lunch, we learned the importance of eating Hawaiian BBQ only in its native land after a taste of the almost inedible food at Springfield’s Kona Café Hawaiiian BBQ. After filling our stomachs, we drove on to Spinreel, a dune buggy rental company that we had seen advertised at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area Information Center. After an excruciatingly long safety video and orientation briefing — reminding us (wink, wink) never to exceed 15 miles per hour and (wink, wink) never to drive on narrow forest trails or wet sand — we put on our helmets and found ourselves piloting a Yamaha Rhino 700 up and down a network of towering dunes.

At first, our safety briefing seemed totally superfluous as our own survival instincts kept us driving slowly on mostly level sand. The tiny vehicle felt like it might tip over at any moment on steep dunes or tight curves. But we quickly learned to push the vehicle’s limits and found ourselves driving 40 miles per hour on the beach down the Oregon coastline and powering our way up dunes with 80-degree slopes. We felt pretty adventurous until we saw some rugged guys in a dune buggy gang — they may have time traveled to 2009 from a 1950s beach flick using my magical Seattle condo — popping wheelies as they whizzed by us in a cloud of sand. We half-expected them to challenge us to a dance-off or a surfing competition with Beach Boys songs blaring from their radios, but they left us far behind.

After driving off the sand dunes without popping a single wheelie, Erin and I arrived in Gold Beach, Oregon, covered in sand and dirt. Lured by the promise of a room for two and “ocean spas” for only $48 per night at the Gold Beach Inn, we checked in and splashed into their outdoor hot tubs, with an intoxicating, salty ocean breeze blowing through our hair.

“Enveloped by old-growth Oregon wilderness, we wiggled our butts and showed off our hot moves to each other, dancing the Running Man, the Macarena, and the Moon Walk in a unique, four-person, backwoods dance party.”

In 2006, Brian, Brad, Beatrice, and I wanted to return to the coast quickly after our visit to Crater Lake. After breakfast we decided to take a “shortcut” on an obscure logging road called Bear Camp Road through the Klamath Mountains on the way to Gold Beach. The one-lane road, made up of extreme switchbacks through the mountain range, turned out to be quite an adventure. Enormous logging trucks and trailers with boats and rafts barreled by us as we navigated our way toward the Pacific Ocean. Unbeknownst to us, about two months after our trip, technology journalist James Kim and his family would become stranded in their station wagon after snowstorms rendered Bear Camp Road impassible. Though rescuers would eventually save Kim’s family, Kim himself would die tragically of hypothermia while hiking over 16 miles in the snow trying to find help.

Fortunately for us, the sunny summer day made snow nonexistent as we drove through the mountains. About halfway to the coast, feeling restless after having been in the car for so many hours and nauseated due to the road’s tight curves and elevation changes, we took a break from driving at the top of a steep hill. The four of us jumped out of the car and inhaled the strong pine scent of the Rogue River-Sikiyou National Forest.

Happy to be outside our vehicular bubbles, we turned up the car’s stereo. Enveloped by old-growth Oregon wilderness, we wiggled our butts and showed off our hot moves to each other, dancing the Running Man, the Macarena, and the Moon Walk in a unique, four-person, backwoods dance party.

After our disco ball stopped turning and our bartenders announced last call, we jumped back into the car, and after almost four hours on the treacherous road, we made it back to PCH and the beautiful overcast skies of Gold Beach.

In 2002, on a mostly undeveloped section of Oregon coastline, the orange almost-out-of-gas light illuminated on the car’s dashboard as my girlfriend and I drove from Brookings to Gold Beach. We had spent the day driving through Northern California, after spending the night in the beautiful Presidio park in San Francisco and taking endearing self-portraits together with a Golden Gate Bridge backdrop. I informed her of our impending doom by lack of gasoline, but we both assumed we would find a gas station imminently. Ten miles later, we still hadn’t seen a gas station, and the gas gauge’s needle pointed below “E.” Dusk fell as we drove another 15 miles on the lonely coastline without seeing signs of civilization. We began imagining a long hike in the dark, searching for a gas can. As tensions rose, my girlfriend wondered aloud why I couldn’t manage to keep my eye on the gauge.

But just as we were sure the car didn’t have enough gas to move another inch, we rolled into a Gold Beach gas station. After filling the car, we walked together down a misty beach with golden streaks of the setting sun illuminating the cloudy horizon.

Despite steep sand dunes, remote logging roads, and gasolineless coastline, we were halfway to our new lives.

In the last essay in this three-part series, three PCH road trips come to an end after visits to Redwood State Park, San Francisco, and Hearst Castle.

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The Historic Wells Creek Inn in Scottsburg, Oregon

The Historic Wells Creek Inn in Scottsburg, Oregon

A Yamaha Rhino sits on a beach in southern Oregon.

A Yamaha Rhino sits on a beach in southern Oregon.

Horseback riders near Gold Beach, Oregon

Horseback riders near Gold Beach, Oregon

How to Take a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

  • One of the most picturesque cities in the United States, Seattle is best seen from a kayak on Lake Union or Lake Washington and from the top of the Space Needle. Nearby Mount Rainier National Park offers beautiful hiking below the massive peak of Rainier.
  • Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park have stunning beach hiking, temperate rain forests, and glacier-capped mountains. If you have time, do the three-day backpacking trip from Ozette to Rialto Beach.
  • While passing through Portland, Oregon, visit famous Powell’s Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world. You can also visit the beautiful and fragrant Portland Rose Garden and the Pittock Mansion, situated 1,000 feet above the city’s skyline.
  • Crater Lake, though not on Pacific Coast Highway, is the deepest lake in the US and one of the bluest lakes in the world. Stay overnight in Prospect, Oregon and grab breakfast at the Prospect Cafe and Trophy Room.
  • In the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area in southern Oregon, you can stop and gaze at the dunes, go hiking, or even rent a dune buggy from Spinreel.
  • Quaint beach towns Reedsport, Coos Bay, Bandon, Gold Beach, and Brookings dot the southern Oregon coast. Be sure to stop in a couple to enjoy beaches and local cuisine, such as the excellent seafood at Wild Rose Bistro in Bandon and the tasty pancakes at Mattie’s Pancake House in Brookings.
  • In northern California, Redwood National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park provide lots of opportunity for hiking trips and seeing gorgeous, old-growth Redwood trees. If you only plan on driving through, it’s worth a detour on the remarkable Avenue of the Giants to see the trees from the comfort of your car. It’s here that you can drive through the base of a Redwood tree.
  • Between these two parks in California’s Humboldt Country sits charming Eureka, a city that played a role in the California Gold Rush and lumber industry. It’s worth a stop at Carson Mansion in Eureka, a quintessential example of Queen Anne Style Architecture.
  • San Francisco is a city too large to appreciate during a short road trip, but if you have some time, go see the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and Union Square. The Dim Sum at Cold Mountain in Chinatown is notably authentic and tasty. Charming Palo Alto, home of Stanford, is also a fun stop. If you visit, don’t miss the pie at the Palo Alto Creamery.
  • Visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to check out the oldest seaside amusement park on the West Coast and tons of hippie college students. There’s always a long line at Tacos Moreno, but the tacos are tasty and bona fide Mexican.
  • See classic costal scenery with cypress trees in Monterey and on the 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Peach.
  • Big Sur is home to California’s most beautiful coastline. If you can handle the hairpin turns, the drive on Highway 1 through this area is a must. There is ample opportunity for excellent beach and forest hiking in Andrew Molera State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Take a three-hour tour of the Point Sur Light Station for the engrossing view. If you want to stay overnight, the Big Sur Lodge has reasonably priced, isolated rooms with hiking, whale watching, and bird watching opportunities.
  • San Simeon marks the south end of Big Sur, and it has plenty of viewpoints worth checking out. The San Simeon Pier on William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach is worth a photo. The Experience Tour at Hearst Castle will let you see the beautiful estate, though some tour guides are better than others.
  • Take the beautiful drive on PCH through Malibu, and visit a beach there, such as Zuma Beach near Pepperdine University, which is a great place to sit and read or take a swim. The tuna melt at The Beachcomber on Malibu Pier is one of the best in Los Angeles and the restaurant is romantic to boot.