Roadside Rarities
By Allen Cox
Published: 09/18/2013  Updated: 08/08/2019
Photo by Gary Hayes

Four Northwest coastal attractions have mesmerized travelers since our grandparents' generation and still draw large crowds today. A visit to the oldest roadside attractions on the coast will reveal why that still fascinate.

Some things stand the test of time. From the Southern Oregon Coast up to Washington's Long Beach Peninsula, four unique attractions have fascinated generations of travelers and still manage to bring in curiosity-seekers today. Despite their age (or maybe because of it), Prehistoric Gardens, Sea Lion Caves, Seaside Aquarium and Marsh's Free Museum manage to reel in the crowds just as they did when they first opened their doors. To our grandparents or their parents, they were oddities, mysteries, things they marveled at. For us, they are that and more - an authentic glimpse into a very curious past.

Prehistoric Gardens
This attraction hatched from the mind of a dinosaur enthusiast who dreamed of creating scientifically correct models of prehistoric creatures for public view. In 1955, his dream became a reality when he opened Prehistoric Gardens in a primeval coastal rainforest. What family on vacation driving Highway 101 wouldn't be compelled to stop, at their kids' insistence, to visit life-size replicas of dinosaurs? Today, families still walk the trail and kids still get chills at the sight of the dinosaurs in the forest. Prehistoric Gardens, 36848 Highway 101 South, Port Orford, Oregon; (541) 332-4463; Prehistoric Gardens

Sea Lion Caves
Sea Lion Caves brings travelers face to face with Steller Sea Lions in their natural habitat. Opened in 1932, it's one of the most famous and visited attractions on the Oregon Coast. Visitors descend 200 feet by elevator into the country's largest sea cave to observe hundreds of sea lions in their daily rituals. Naturalists are on-hand to guide groups and answer questions. Educational displays and videos provide insight into the lives of these wild animals. It's an unforgettable experience that keeps people coming back again and again. Sea Lion Caves, 91560 Hwy. 101 North, Florence, Oregon; (541) 547-3111; Sea Lion Caves

Seaside Aquarium
A big decade for Oregon Coast attractions was the 1930s. Not only did Sea Lion Caves open to the public, but, 160 miles to the north, Seaside Aquarium opened its doors in '37. Originally a natatorium (look it up, kids), it's one of the oldest aquariums on the West Coast. Today, it remains in its original vintage building on Seaside's historic Promenade. But that in no way negates the staff's passion for the animals' well being and marine conservation. A visit to the Seaside Aquarium is truly a step into the past—and, besides the marine life, that's part of what attracts visitors today. A squeal-inducing daily activity at the aquarium, especially when kids participate, is the feeding of the seals. Visitors toss fish and typically get doused by very enthusiastic seals at close range. Fun in 1937, fun today! Seaside Aquarium, 200 North Prom, Seaside, Oregon; (503) 738-6211; Seaside Aquarium

Marsh's Free Museum
The Great Depression was a time when curiosity-seekers just couldn't get enough. In 1935, Long Beach, a short distance over the Oregon border in Washington, welcomed Marsh's Free Museum. Marsh's is part gift shop, part carnival sideshow. The star of the show is Jake the Alligator Man; as the name implies, Jake is a mummified creature that's allegedly half gator-half man. Other oddities include a bowl made from human skin, petrified dinosaur dung and the world's largest glass float collection—and that's just scratching the surface. Kitschy? Absolutely! Irresistible? You bet. You can shop at Marsh's too, but the venerated Jake isn't for sale. Marsh's Free Museum, 409 Pacific Avenue, Long Beach, WA; (360) 642-2188; Marsh's Free Museum
Roadside Rarities