Heceta Head Lighthouse on the Oregon coast. (Photo: iStock/Thinkstock)
Driving down the Oregon and California coasts it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road — the scenery is that spectacular. Highways 101 and 1 hug rugged oceanfront cliffs, roll past pastoral farmland, and weave through redwood forests, vineyards, and beach communities.
And yet, epic scenes aren’t the only attention grabbers: Animals constantly vied for my attention. And I’m not talking about the wander-into-the-middle-of-the-road-and-force-you-to-jam-the-brakes kind either. Here, amid large expanses of natural settings, where I might be the only car for miles and miles, I found myself consistently pulling over to watch sheep grazing, birds migrating and cows… well, being cows.
Beyond these quiet observations, unique opportunities abounded to get up close with the region’s awesome animals, like whales and sea lions. Here’s eight of the best — including at least one of the extinct variety.
Depoe Bay, Oregon: Gray Whales
The self-proclaimed “Whale Watching Capital of the Oregon Coast,” Depoe Bay welcomes pods of gray whales from March through December. Visitors can observe these gentle giants spouting in open water from the Whale Watch Center. For me, however, binoculars wouldn’t cut it. For $18, I joined a one-hour boat ride with Tradewinds Charters and got the thrill of a lifetime when several whales spouted right in front of me.
A gray whale tail off the coast of Depoe Bay (Photo: OCVA/Flickr)
Newport, Oregon: Sea Lions
You hear them before you see them. While strolling the resort town of Newport, I followed the loud honking to a tiny pier dominated by sea lions. Sea lions are scattered up and down the west coast shoreline, but this is the closest that I got to them. And here’s the kicker: I think some of them actually posed for my camera, in between barking, growling and, snuggling with one another.
Sea lions hang out on the rocks (Photo: Pat Knight/Flickr)
Port Orford, Oregon: Dinosaurs
I was the oldest visitor without a child to journey back in time at Prehistoric Gardens — but I didn’t care. The seven-year-old girl in me who used to be obsessed with dinosaurs was happy to pay the $10 admission and traverse remote forest trails where giant (albeit cartoonish) dinosaurs lurk.
(Photo: Michael Hanscom/Flickr)
Klamath, California: Babe the Blue Ox
He’s the stuff of legend. And at 35 feet tall, he’s hard to miss from Highway 101. The loyal companion to Paul Bunyan, Babe guards the Redwood attraction “Trees of Mystery” and is always camera-ready.
Monterey, California: Sea Otters
While I spotted sea otters a few times along Monterey County’s shoreline, the most intimate encounter came at the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. I really wanted to take one home — especially after coming face-to-face with resident sea otters as they performed underwater gymnastics behind a giant glass enclosure flanked by mesmerized, cooing humans.
A sea otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (Photo: Donna Sutton/Flickr)
Monterey, California: Sea gulls
These birds aren’t exactly exotic nor are they rare, but they made lovely evening companions as I sipped wine at sunset at A Taste of Monterey.
A sea gull perched near the beach (Photo: Terrence Yim/Flickr)
San Simeon, California: Elephant Seals
There are so many elephant seals scattered about at Piedras Blancas rookery, it’s easy to mistake it for a rocky beach. Nearly 17,000 call this spot home. Be sure to stick to the Elephant Seal Boardwalk overlooking the beach, as elephant seals can get aggressive, especially if you try mimicking their mating call.
Elephant seals on the beach (Photo: John Lodder/Flickr)
Solvang, California: Ostriches
These eight-foot-tall birds aren’t indigenous to California, but a visit to OstrichLand USA put me face-to-face with the flightless creatures. For $5 (admission plus a bowl of food), I got to feed the flock. Just don’t let their long eyelashes fool you: These birds are aggressive and attack the food tin with gusto — hold on tight!
(Photo: Justin Ennis/Flickr)
Erica Bray is a travel marketing consultant, writer and yoga teacher based in Chicago. She does a handstand everywhere she travels, a tradition she’s been honoring since the age of 19 – even risking arrest in some cases.