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A dinosaur theme park. A 350-year-old rainforest. Secret surf spots. Beautiful trails. Why the southern Oregon Coast should be your next road trip

The pandemic got families back in the car to explore. And it's made for the best yearly visitor numbers for 66-year-old dinosaur theme park Prehistoric Gardens.

PORT ORFORD, Ore. — The Pacific Coast Scenic Byway. Highway 101. It's beautiful in this part of southern Oregon. Maybe that's why there's a saying you'll hear from locals: there's "No Hurry in Curry." Curry County that is. And let me tell you, things do move slow.

Credit: Nina Mehlhaf, KGW
A clock with the county's slogan hangs on a wall of a restaurant in Port Orford, Ore.

Hiking and surfing

Like hiking the Oregon Coast Trail, a 360-mile trek. It winds through Port Orford's Cape Blanco State Park, where you have 180-degree views of the Pacific.

After you park in the lookout point, it's a little bit of a walk to the Cape Blanco lighthouse. It's the most southern lighthouse in the state, and the most westerly one, jutting out into the Pacific, in all of Oregon.

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"No Hurry in Curry" meant it was closed on a day when it should be open, so call ahead. But normally in non-pandemic times, there's a tour and a gift shop.

Farther south, you can drive right along the beaches. And stop to see craggy headlands and rock formations.

Even a hidden surf spot or two to pull off and race across the highway, through high grass and catch a wave with the locals. Shhh, it's called Hubbard Creek.

Credit: Nina Mehlhaf/KGW
Hubbard Creek surf beach is along Highway 101, just south of Port Orford, Ore.

Prehistoric Gardens

Now to something fun for the kids and everyone who likes a little bit of nostalgia. Prehistoric Gardens, the life-size dinosaur theme park, has been on Highway 101, between Port Orford and Gold Beach, since it opened in 1955. 

Enter the "Land of Long Ago" as the signs say, where giant pink triceratops roam. Yellow-winged pteranodons, a brontosaurus reaching to the sky, and huge lizards of all kinds.

"I love dinosaurs and this was a must-stop, must-see, so we had to come," said Neysa Dulin, from Boise, Idaho, on a family RV road trip along the west coast.

Credit: Nina Mehlhaf/KGW
The pink triceratops at Prehistoric Gardens in Port Orford, Ore.

At the admissions window, you'll hear Kiki McGrath tell each visitor, "You're entering into an old growth rain forest; some of our trees out there are well over 350 years old."

She and her sister run the place. Her grandfather, Ernie Nelson, a former accountant, built Prehistoric Gardens out of his childhood obsession of dinosaurs.

Credit: Nina Mehlhaf/KGW
Old articles hang in the gift shop of Prehistoric Gardens, featuring the founder and builder Ernie Nelson, who built the park in 1955.

All 21 dinosaurs were built in the early 1950s and some of the big ones took years to build. They started with a steel frame, put metal lath over the top, then added layers and layers of concrete.

Now in its 66th year, 200 people a day visit the park. For the most part, visitors come in the spring and summer. There are thousands of names of people from so many states who have signed this year's guestbook with comments like:

  • "This place should be on the history registry, very cool!"
  • "Absolutely amazing!"
  • "Lived up to the hype!"
  • "Magical"
  • "Great works of art and history"

"My grandfather and grandmother would be thrilled to hear the comments now days," McGrath said.

Credit: Nina Mehlhaf, KGW
In addition to dinosaurs, Prehistoric Gardens features birds, fish and other mammals that lived during the Triassic and Jurassic periods.

Barney Peterson was 9 years old when she came here with her family the year it opened. Now, the retired teacher from Seattle is back at 76, on a road trip with her grandson.

"And it's outdoors and more families need to be outdoors, doing things outdoors that have their kids asking questions," Peterson said.

The future of homemade roadside attractions like this are uncertain. For all the pain the pandemic brought, it did get families back in the car together for short sightseeing adventures. McGrath said it's been their strongest year for visitors.

"My hope is that it continues," McGrath said. "It needs to continue and be what is is, a family amusement park for generations and generations to come."

Credit: Nina Mehlhaf, KGW
McGrath's family has some of the original brochures for the theme park displayed in the gift shop.
Credit: Nina Mehlhaf, KGW