Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain fascinated me as a child. That weighty peak, often shrouded in clouds, seemed mystical and important, highlighted by the legend of buried treasure. Every time I’d venture to this less-traveled part of the North Coast, I’d stare long and hard at that mountain, trying to envision likely spots for pirates to bury a treasure chest, yet wonder, “How the heck did they get up there?”
The logistics didn’t fit my young brain and I was sure that when I grew up I’d go looking for that treasure. I never did. But Nehalem Bay and the mountain still hold their allure. Perhaps you will find some of that appeal on this road trip.
A few miles south on Oregon Coast Highway 101 from the Manzanita junction, you’ll find yourself in the little charmer, Nehalem. You can’t miss it, since a stop sign halts you smack dab in the middle of town. And if lucky, you might be surprised to find a sudden respite with patches of sun, even though the beaches you’ve left behind are enveloped in mist or fog. Aptly, the indigenous Tillamook people, who inhabited this enchanted landscape for thousands of years, called their area surrounding Nehalem Bay, “Hole in the Sky.”
Perched on the banks of the Nehalem River, the town saw its first white emigrants in the late 1800s, and like its neighbor, Wheeler, it swiftly became a hub for exploitation of the area’s rich natural resources with logging, farming and fishing.
Stopping here for a bite and a bit of shopping could include Wanda’s Café and Bakery, one of the best eateries on the coast. Wanda’s offers take-out only now, but you can enjoy your meal at a few tables in the front, or stroll down to the public dock where you will find riverside benches. On Seventh Street (that’s the highway through town), you’ll find shops and The Pizza Garden (pastas too) ready for take-out and indoor limited seating, with outdoor deck tables overlooking the river. Also, on the river, BayWay Tavern, famous for its broasted chicken and jojos, has take-out and limited indoor seating. Then, there’s the Nehalem Riverside Trading Company with its food cart, Riverside Fish & Chips, both of which are located, um, riverside.
Back on the road for a scant three miles to Wheeler, you’ll cross, and then follow, the Nehalem River into the expansive terrain of its wetlands, low islands and estuaries feeding into the bay. This is terrific birding territory. Keep an eye out for hawks and American kestrels perched on power lines, herons wading in the marshy reeds and osprey and eagles soaring above. With no stoplights to slow your pace on the highway, you could breeze through Wheeler before you know it. A marina on your right and cluster of shops on your left should catch your eye, so watch for the parking lot in front of the adorable railroad station hut.
Overnight lodging is available at the historic Old Wheeler Hotel located above the row of shops, or down the highway a pace at the family-friendly Wheeler on the Bay Lodge. Coronavirus precautions for guests are taken seriously at both establishments, the former distancing adjoining rooms and at the latter, a motor inn style lodging with private parking and separate room entries. Both offer hand-sanitizers and masks, but alas, neither is providing breakfast fare at this time. As a guest, you’ll be free to use Wheeler on the Bay’s private dock to tie up your own boat, watch for birds and wildlife, use the picnic tables, or use the kayaks. A special atmosphere envelops guests amid the meticulously chosen antiques and vintage décor at the Old Wheeler Hotel. Front-facing rooms provide a grand view of Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain and overlook the water and endless sky that change in color and tone from morn to night — a front-row seat to a stunning watercolor come to life.
You can get your coffee or tea fix, as well as breakfast, pastries and lunch items, at Handy Creek Bakery & Café, offering take-out only for now, or The Roost, which has take-out and limited seating in its cozy space. You can obtain beer, wine, spirits, or other legal recreational substances at Bay Liquor and More.
In the evening, it’s a must for anyone traveling the coast, or for that matter, all of the Northwest, to dine at the Rising Star Café. You’ll find delicious locally sourced fresh seafood, meat and produce, as well as pastas and soups, served with delectable style. Oh, and desserts to die for. Even with more tables available in their outdoor gazebo, reservations are necessary.
Once you’ve settled in, go ahead and wander the nooks and crannies of Wheeler Treasures and Wheeler Station, emporiums crammed to the rafters with all sorts of wonderful stuff. Whether it’s Fiestaware, the toy truck you envied as a kid, the deco earrings you have to have, that wall-sized Elvis poster, a vintage Flying A sign, or furniture (look up – chairs hanging from the ceiling), or that popcorn machine. There are delights in every corner, and true finds for keen eyes. If it’s unique apparel you crave, or even if you forgot to pack your sweatshirt, Pelican & Piper’s imaginatively designed items should make you happy.
Yearning to get out on the water? Kayaks, paddleboards and boats are available to rent at Wheeler Marina. Spend a morning or afternoon exploring the languid Nehalem River meandering through miles and miles of lush farmland, where you might spot some elk and will no doubt see cows ambling in pastures. It’s no wonder that dairy farming was so enticing to early settlers, the river making cheese and milk transport easy to Wheeler and the once-busy railroad. For those wanting to do a little fishing or crabbing, gear can be had at the marina, along with friendly advice and know-how.
Hiking trails and bay and ocean beaches can be accessed at Oswald West State Park and Nehalem Bay State Park, both of which are currently day-use only with reduced services. Be sure to bring your own water, and, to be on the safe side, toilet paper. Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain is bliss for hikers. And no, you cannot dig for treasure. Disturbing the natural beauty of the mountain and bay environs is illegal. Besides, the mountain is sacred for the Tillamook Indians, its name derived from their language: Ne, meaning “place of,” and Ekahnie, “supreme deity.” Enjoy and tread lightly. Starting near Short Sand Beach (surfing here) at Oswald West, the three-mile moderate trail winds through old-growth Sitka spruce and hemlock, across wildflower meadows, to its apex at 1,600 feet, revealing spectacular views of Nehalem Bay and the Pacific coastline. Watch for elk. They like these lovely coastal meadows, too.
You may find, as I have, that just a weekend here is not enough. Okay, so, stay a little longer. Or like me, head back again and again and again.