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A beach vacation to Gearhart, OR that's a step back in time

Lovely Gearhart, OR in the summertime.

Photo: Ralph Arvesen/Flickr


Perched on grassy dunes overlooking the Pacific, tiny Gearhart is one of the first beach towns on the Oregon coast, just three and a half hours south of Seattle.
Its wide, unspoiled beaches and rolling blocks of gray-shingled beach houses have been a well-kept secret of well-to-do Portlanders since the first train service arrived here in the 1890s. 

To spend a beach vacation here is to step back to a simpler time, when the natural wonders of sea and surf were the main attraction. Gearhart's the only place our family has ever vacationed where we feel completely safe letting our elementary school-aged kids bike into town on their own. 
“We'll meet you at the dune grass park in a half hour,” my fourth grade daughter will say confidently, her little sister pedaling fast behind her. A little later, we'll find their bikes leaning against benches overlooking the ocean at the end of Pacific Way, where short-eared owls and northern harriers nest. Nearby, they'll be chewing on Tootsie Rolls and braiding the tall beach grass into ropes.

“A lot of people in Gearhart don't even lock their doors at night,” said Cynthia Taft, owner of Pop's Sweet Shop, an old-fashioned taffy and ice cream parlor that displays grainy photos of the town looking a century ago pretty much as it does today. “It's maintained its original character.”

At the wide intersection of Pacific Way and Cottage Avenue, “town” consists of a well-stocked grocery, the sweet shop, a restaurant, bakery, art gallery, a few high-end antique and home shops, a post office, a fire station and a barber. 

But what most makes this town of 1,400 seem timeless is the fact that it's surrounded by nature on all sides. To the west are a quarter mile of sea-grass covered dunes stretching out to a sandy beach rich with driftwood and sand dollars. 

To the south, buffering Gearhart from the rowdier, boardwalk town of Seaside, is Little Beach, a treasured tidal estuary packed with pelicans, clams and the occasional herd of elk. To the east is Neacoxie Creek, a centuries-old pathway for Northwest Indians who set up seasonal fishing camps at Little Beach. And to the north is Gearhart Links, the Northwest's oldest golf course, ringed with a wide bike and running path.

Gearhart's weather is always unpredictable. Of course, there's nothing better than a cloudless summer day here. But there's beauty, too, in watching the towers of frothy waves roll in after a storm as we did over Spring Break, finding lost buoys and tangles of uprooted sea kelp on the beach. Bring a swimsuit, a rain jacket and pair of Crocs for everyone, and you will be prepared for any mood Gearhart delivers. 


Where to stay

Gearhart Ocean Inn. Twelve crisply renovated cottages, some with full kitchens, are blocks from the beach, along with tennis courts and a playground. Guests can borrow adult beach cruisers, clam guns and kites. 67 N Cottage Ave 

Rent a beach house: Search oregonbeachvacations.com for worthy house rentals.

Gearhart by the Sea Resort. One- and two-bedroom beachfront apartments with kitchens and fireplaces in mid-rise complexes across from the golf course. 1157 N Marion Ave


What to eat

Pacific Way Café and Bakery. This intimate cottage restaurant serves fine seafood and pasta. Its extensive take-out menu, with generous pizzas and salads, may be a better bet for families with small children. Everyone can relax at the bakery, with enormous cinnamon rolls, lattes and to-go sandwiches.  601 Pacific Way

McMenamin's Sand Trap Bar and GrillThis relaxed restaurant in the clubhouse overlooking the golf course has a kids' menu and ales on tap. 1157 N Marion


What to do with kids

Picnic or hike to Little Beach. From the south end of Marion, follow the trail down to a glorious estuary that is a stop for shore birds migrating from South America to the Arctic. Stand on the sandy bank as the tide comes in and your kids will shriek with delight as it peels away beneath their feet. Don't miss the driftwood fort in the dunes. 

Tidepools at Ecola State ParkPick up a tide chart and some tuna sandwiches from the Gearhart Grocery and visit at low tide. Walk to the rock formation at the south end of Indian Beach and discover sea stars, crabs and urchins.

Astoria Aquatic Center. Your kids will never forget a few hours spent on the two water slides and in the lazy river at this fabulous indoor community pool. 1997 Marine Dr

Fire Trucks & the ridge path: If the bay doors are open, kids are welcome to climb on the fire trucks. Just behind the station on Pacific Way, explore the old Indian Path.

Fort Clatsop: This National Park Service replica of the fort where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wintered includes an interpretive center with artifacts and a 32-minute film recreating the famous journey.

Heath Foster is a Seattle-based writer and mother of three beach-loving kids.

Editor's note: This updated article was originally published in May of 2010.

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