History of Oregon by Oregon Historical Society
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Subtopic : Introduction: The Natural Setting

Themes: People and the Environment

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Waves Crash against Rocks
Boiler Bay
Oregon State Highway Collection
OL 422-8-22-7138

The Oregon coast is a sliver of land between the mountains and the sea, almost three hundred miles long and about fifty miles wide on the average, measured from the high-tide mark to the crest of the Coast Range. The landscape feels rough and unfinished, perhaps because its geological story is still being told. The Pacific Northwest is one of the most geologically active regions on earth, with earthquakes, volcanoes, and rising young mountains still shaping the land.

The roughness is palpable in the shape of the mountains, relatively low but steep, rugged, and dissected with river canyons. The coastal area falls into two physiographic regions: the Oregon Coast Range, stretching between the Columbia and Coquille rivers, and the Klamath Mountains, south from the town of Bandon to the California border.

The Oregon coast is legendary for its copious rain, which is interrupted in the summer by three months of relatively dry weather. During the rest of the year, moisture is brought inshore by Pacific storms, and softer mists and fogs drift in to add to the dampness. Coastal rivers carry the water down from the mountains and back out to sea in an endless cycle. With the exception of the more leisurely Columbia, these rivers race down their conifer-studded canyons and then slow a bit, settling into lower-lying channels lined with cottonwoods, alders, willows, and deciduous shrubs. Near the ocean they widen and wend their way through grassy river bottoms. Some flow into broad estuaries; others empty more or less directly into the sea.

The Columbia, largest by far of the coastal rivers, flows into the ocean at Oregon’s northern border. About thirty miles to the south, the Tillamook River and four others empty into the sock-shaped Tillamook estuary. From there it is about forty miles to the next major river, the Siletz, which enters at Gleneden Beach. Twenty miles farther down, the Yaquina forms a good-sized estuary at Newport.

Another twenty miles down, the Alsea empties into a smaller bay at Waldport. Then the coastline rises to a series of headlands, beginning with Cape Perpetua, which juts into the ocean a few miles south of Yachats.

From Cape Perpetua to Florence the coastline traverses a series of east-west ridges drained by small creeks. The Siuslaw River enters Florence’s small estuary, and the Smith and Umpqua rivers form a larger estuary at Reedsport before bisecting the forty-mile-long strip of sand dunes that stretches from Florence to North Bend.

The largest estuary south of the Columbia River is Coos Bay, formed by the Coos River and its several inlets and sloughs. South of the mouth of the Coquille River at Bandon, the Klamath Mountains begin to press up closer against the coastline, and the rivers flow straight into the ocean without making much of a bay. The Coquille flows in at Bandon, and the Sixes and Elk rivers at Port Orford. In between is Cape Blanco, the westernmost point in Oregon.

The Rogue River flows in at Gold Beach and the Chetco at Brookings. Along this southern stretch the climate is slightly warmer, the harbors smaller, and the communities more isolated from one another than is the case farther north.

The Oregon coast is a land of mild temperatures, lush vegetation, and abundant terrestrial and sea life. Apart from the Columbia’s, coastal river valleys are mostly narrow, and so there is little arable land amid a mountainous and forested landscape. While farming has been important in the Euro-American settlement of the coast, it has nearly always played a secondary role to timber, historically the area’s major economic engine.

© Gail Wells, 2006.

Themes: People and the Environment

Regions: Oregon Coast

Date: Present

Author: Gail Wells

The Oregon coast is a sliver of land between the mountains and the sea, a land of mild temperatures, lush vegetation, and abundant terrestrial and sea life.

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