Whenever I see a packed tourist attraction, I can’t help but ask “Is it worth it?” After all, who wants to stand in line and be in a queue along with hundreds of other people?
As we drove down the coast on our “no plan” summer adventure to Fort Bragg, California, this is exactly the question I proposed as we passed the very packed Sea Lion Caves.
Located a short 15-minute drive north of the small town of Florence, Oregon, the cave is the largest sea cave in America and home to wild Steller sea lions. Makes you want to visit, doesn’t it?
We also headed west to spend the day in Florence and tour the sites along the coast. What I discovered is that the Sea Lion Caves are worth stopping for as well as other popular stops, like Heceta Head Lighthouse and Cape Perpetua Headland.
In this post, I’ll share my tips for exploring these tourist attractions, and for dining and drinking in Florence.
I’ll also include extra stops, like the Oregon Coast Military Museum, which has a wonderful military collection (including trench art artillery shells from WWI) and the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum.
Weather along the Oregon coast can vary, and a good rule of thumb is to pack layers and be ready for sunshine and rain!
The Best Things to Do in Florence, OR
Look miles out onto the sea at Cape Perpetua.
Even if you are pressed for time, Cape Perpetua Headland is a stop you’ll not want to miss.
The overlook is 800 feet above sea level, and on a clear day, you can see 70 miles up the coast and 37 miles out to sea!
It is the highest drivable point along the Oregon Coast, and the views are stunning.
If you aren’t into making the 1.2-mile trek to the viewpoint, take the 2-mile drive to the top. If driving, you’ll want to park in the Day Use Area (see roads noted on the map).
After you’ve parked, the 0.2 mile loop called Whispering Spruce Trail will guide you to the overlook. There is another viewpoint at a Civilian Conservation Corps shelter built in the 1930s. Bring a picnic lunch or snack and chill.
Travel tip: Cape Perpetua Overlook is a 36-minute drive from Florence. Be sure to have cash handy for the parking fee. If you plan to visit more Oregon State Park during your trip, the 12-month day-use parking permit might be more economical.
Insider Tip: If you have time, take the trail Trail of Restless Waters to Devil’s Churn, but don’t get too close to the edge as you might get soaked by waves.
Check out one of the most beautiful lighthouses in Oregon.
I love lighthouses, and Heceta Lighthouse State Scenic Park is one of the most photographed lighthouses in Oregon!
The 1894 lighthouse has a 56-foot tower and is 205-feet above sea level, and it’s absolutely stunning.
I suggest coinciding your visit with a tour, which happens from 11 am to 3 pm in summer, and from 11 am to 2 pm in the winter. (Note that weather and staffing might affect the programs.)
Lighthouse visitors will need to park in the parking lot near the beach. From there, take the trail up to the lighthouse (approx. 10-15 minutes).
Stay the night in a lighthouse.
Another cool thing to do in Florence is stay overnight in a B&B at the lighthouse!
The former lightkeeper’s home is now The Heceta Lighthouse B&B. I haven’t stayed here yet, but I’ve heard nothing but good things.
Some of the highlights besides the fantastic view is an afternoon wine and cheese social, a seven-course breakfast, and midnight strolls to the lighthouse.
Travel tip: Heceta Head Lighthouse is a 17-minute drive from Florence.
Travel tip: In spring and winter, migrating gray whales can be seen as they make their annual migration to and from Alaska.
Visit America’s largest sea cave (and its resident sea lions!)
At Sea Lion Caves, the adorable sea lions are free to come and go as they please.
This is very intentional as it has been a wildlife preserve and bird sanctuary since 1932, and it is a big part of the reason that Florence is considered one of the best coastal towns in Oregon.
If you are a traveler that is all about ethical interaction with animals, this tourist attraction fits the bill.
As I mentioned, I was a bit skeptical about Sea Lion Caves, but I ended up enjoying this attraction as you get to see seals in their natural habitat in a spot hidden from view.
To get to the caves, you follow a walkway along the bluff to an elevator, which goes down 200 feet down.
Once you leave the elevator, there are more steps to the viewing area, an exhibit area, and an additional viewing area. One viewing area overlooks the seals and is screened so no one can disturb the seals.
Because of this, you might find seals lounging reasonably close! Another overlooks a rocky bluff with Heceta Head Lighthouse in the distance.
It’s important to note that the cave is wet, so watch your step and wear sturdy shoes. Also, it has a powerful odor, so be prepared for a little smell-o-vision along with your wildlife experience!
To be honest, I’m not sure I would not have enjoyed the caves as much if it had been a super busy day. The viewing quarters are small, as the majority of the room goes to the seals, and rightly so. If you are like me and not a fan of crowds, plan for midweek or offseason.
Travel tip: Sea Lion Caves is a 15-minute drive from Florence. The attraction is open daily, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. However, it may be closed during inclement weather.
Hours: 9 am to 5 pm.
Price: adults, $14; child ages 5 to 12, $8; senior, $13; children 4 and under free.
Play in the dunes at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
One of the most fun things to do near Florence is visit Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, about a 25-minute drive away from Florence.
This natural sand dunes are absolutely a blast to run around and play in, especially if you’re traveling with kids (of the two-legged or four-legged variety!).
Check out the bizarrely beautiful cobra lilies.
Visiting the beautiful Darlingtonia State Natural Site is one of the most unusual things to do in Florence, OR!
Dedicated to protecting the carnivorous cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica), the site has a boardwalk that leads visitors safely through the bog where the plant thrives.
The walk is easy and doesn’t take very long. If you want to see them in bloom, plan for stopping by late spring through early summer.
Check out the Oregon Coast Military Museum.
Ever since I saw a trench art shell on an episode of Antiques Roadshow, I’ve wanted to see one in real life. You can at the Oregon Coast Military Museum!
If you are unfamiliar with artillery shell trench art, soldiers took the shell casings and etched them with their own designs.
They are unique and not only a symbol of wartime, but of the emotional state of the men and their stories. The museum also has several large diorama exhibits and historical items on display.
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, from 12 pm to 4 pm.
Admission: For adults, $5; children 12 and under are free.
Learn about pioneer history in Oregon.
The Siuslaw Pioneer Museum is the place to go to learn more about the history of the area.
Some of the historical items I found interesting included a flute brought over by an Irish born homesteader named Patrick Menroe, and a giant forge bellow used in a blacksmith shop!
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, from 12 pm to 4 pm.
Admission: Adults, $4; children 16 and under are free if accompanied by an adult.
Insider Tip: If you dine at Homegrown Public House (more on that below!), the museum is right across the street.
Dine your way through Florence’s food scene.
Tucked along the Siuslaw River, Florence is a quaint riverside town with a very walkable downtown (Old Town Florence is on the east side of Highway 101).
During our Oregon day trip, we dined at Homegrown Public House, which focuses on locally sourced foods and offers gluten-free and vegan options, and the Waterfront Depot Restaurant, which serves elevated coastal cuisine.
Both I would recommend, but if you have time for only one meal, I suggest the Waterfront Depot. Reserve a table near the window.
Across the street is another option, Bridgewater Ocean Fresh Fish House and Zebra Bar.
Where to Stay in Florence
I stayed at the Oval Door Bed & Breakfast, which unfortunately is no longer in operation.