Exploring the Three Capes Scenic Loop
The road from Tillamook takes you along the shore of Tillamook Bay and around the north side of Cape Meares. Just around the tip of the cape, you’ll come to Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint , the site of the Cape Meares Lighthouse (open daily Apr–Oct 11am–4pm). The views from atop this rocky headland are superb.
Continuing south around the cape, you come to the residential community of Oceanside, with its white-sand beach and offshore monoliths known as the Three Arch Rocks. At the north end of the beach, a pedestrian tunnel leads through a headland to a secluded beach.
Three miles south of Oceanside, you’ll come to Netarts Bay, famous for its excellent clamming and crabbing.
Continuing south, the scenic byway leads to Cape Lookout State Park (www.oregon.gov/oprd/parks; tel. 503/842-4981), where you’ll find a campground, picnic areas, beaches, and several miles of hiking trails. The most breathtaking trail leads 2 1/2 miles out to the end of Cape Lookout, several hundred feet above the ocean. There is a $5 day-use fee here.
Cape Kiwanda , just north of Pacific City, is preserved as Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area. At the foot of the cape’s sandstone cliffs, it’s possible to scramble up a huge sand dune to the top of the cape for dramatic views of this rugged piece of shoreline. The base of the cape is the staging area for Pacific City’s dory fleet. These flat-bottomed commercial fishing boats are launched from the beach and plow through crashing breakers to get out to calmer waters beyond. When the day’s fishing is done, the dories roar into shore at full throttle and come to a grinding stop as high up on the beach as they can. This is Oregon’s only such fishing fleet, and it’s celebrated each year on the third weekend in July with the annual Dory Days Festival. If you’d like to go out in one of these dories and fish for salmon, ling cod, or albacore tuna, contact Haystack Fishing(www.haystackfishing.com; tel. 866/965-7555 or 503/965-7555; $180 per person, two-person minimum). Trips are offered June through September.
Heading up Cascade Head
Rising 1,770 feet above sea level, Cascade Head is one of the highest headlands on the coast. The headland—with lush coastal rainforest of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir covering its lower flanks and treeless, windswept meadows above—juts out into the sea between the small community of Neskowin (10 miles south of Pacific City on U.S. 101) and the larger town of Lincoln City. On its south side, this rare example of a maritime prairie rises above the Salmon River estuary, and the entire headland is home to native grasses and wildflowers as well as elk, deer, bald eagles, falcons, and great horned owls. The area around Cascade Head is so unique that it has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. From a trail head on its south side, the 6-mile Nature Conservancy Cascade Head Trail climbs up the side and over the top of this magnificent headland all the way to Neskowin. The trail provides spectacular vistas of the Salmon River, the Coast Range, and the Pacific. To reach the trail head, turn west from U.S. 101 onto Three Rocks Road (just north of the Salmon River) and follow it about 2 1/2 miles to Knight County Park at the end. Park there and walk back to Savage Road, where you’ll find a half-mile boardwalk trail that takes you to the trail head. There’s an initial 1,000-foot elevation gain, after which the trail becomes relatively easy. This is a fragile ecosystem, so stay on the trail. No dogs or bikes are allowed. The Nature Conservancy’s preserve has been set aside primarily to protect the habitat of the rare Oregon silverspot butterfly.
Lighting the Way: Historic Lighthouses on the Oregon Coast
Of the nine original lighthouses on the Oregon Coast, seven are open to the public and most are still active. If you time it right, you’ll get to go inside, take a tour, maybe go up the stairs to the watch room or even higher to the lantern room. (There are also two privately built lighthouses, but neither is open to the public.) The nine original beacons are wave-and-wind-lashed repositories of Oregon’s rich coastal history, and among the more interesting buildings you’ll see as you travel along the Oregon coast. Here’s a quick run-down of where they are, from north to south.
- Tillamook Rock Lighthouse: Built on a rocky island 1.2 miles offshore of Tillamook Head, lit in 1880, decommissioned 1957. The lighthouse can be seen from Ecola State Park and from Highway 101 south of Cannon Beach; not open to the public.
- Cape Meares Lighthouse: The shortest lighthouse on the coast is accessible from Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, the most northerly cape of the Three Capes Scenic Loop.
- Yaquina Head Lighthouse: At 93 feet high, it’s the tallest lighthouse on the Oregon coast and part of the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area.
- Yaquina Bay Lighthouse: The oldest surviving wooden lighthouse on the Oregon coast was built in 1871 and stands on the southern end of Newport, just north of the Yaquina Bay Bridge.
- Heceta Head Lighthouse: The most photographed lighthouse on the Pacific Coast is located off Highway 101 about 12 miles north of Florence.
- Umpqua River Lighthouse: Almost identical to Heceta Head (they were built from the same plans), this lighthouse was built on the bluffs overlooking the beach in what is now Umpqua Lighthouse State Park.
- Cape Arago Lighthouse: This lighthouse, built in 1907, is located about 4 miles south of Charleston between Sunset Bay State Park and Shore Acres State Park on the Cape Arago Highway southwest of Coos Bay.
- Coquille River Lighthouse: Built on a rocky islet in 1896 and unique, with its cylindrical tower attached to the east side of an elongated, octagonal room, this lighthouse was active until 1939; located in Bullards Beach State Park (about 2 miles north of Bandon.
- Cape Blanco Lighthouse: Towering above the westernmost point in Oregon, Cape Blanco Lighthouse sits 245 feet above the ocean and is the oldest continuously operating light in Oregon (built in 1870); located in Cape Blanco State Park about 4 1/2 miles north of Port Orford.
Watching the Whales
Every spring and winter, gray whales migrate along the Oregon coast, often passing within easy viewing distance. Though whalers nearly harpooned them to extinction, these 50-foot-long, 30-ton leviathans recovered following government protection. Now, approximately 18,000 whales ply the 6,000-mile route between the Bering Sea and Mexico, the longest-known migration of any mammal. Southbound whales pass the Oregon coast from early December to early February, peaking at about 30 whales per hour in the last half of December. Northbound whales are less concentrated, passing from March through June and peaking in late March. Several hundred gray whales live along the Oregon coast year-round. If you want to whale-watch, bring binoculars and try to position yourself on high ground so you can see the “blow,” the steamy exhalation whales make when they surface. Whale-watching excursions are available in Depoe Bay.
The Central Coast
Easy access from Portland and I-5 through the Coast Range gives the Central Coast a leg-up in popularity. Lincoln City is one of the coast’s most-visited and family-friendly destinations, and Newport, home the excellent Oregon Coast Aquarium, two lighthouses, and the historic neighborhood of Nye Beach, is the most interesting town along this part of the coast. Whale-watching expeditions leave from the tiny harbor at Depoe Bay, and the old town of Florence, along the Siuslaw River, has some real historic character. Yachats, with its exceptionally beautiful beach, is one of the more affluent communities along the Central Coast.
The South Coast
Oregon’s South Coast begins just about where the Oregon Dunes do. You could use Florence as the starting point for the South Coast, but more typically Reedsport is considered where this special section of the coast begins, extending all the way down to Brookings on the northern California border. This stretch of coastline isn’t exactly remote, but it’s away from major inland cities and doesn’t have many highways that cut through the coastal mountains and connect it to I-5. Once you get here, trusty U.S. 101 continues down the coast, taking you to Bandon, Gold Beach, Brookings, and into California.
Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area starts just south of Florence and stretches for almost 50 miles. Recreation is the key word here; the dunes are magnets for all kinds of outdoor activities. Within this vast area of shifting sands—the largest sand dunes on the West Coast—there are numerous lakes, popular sports fishing and water-skiing destinations, but there are also places set aside for racing dune buggies, dirt bikes, and other off-road vehicles (ORVs) through the sand dunes.
The Umpqua River divides the national recreation area roughly at its midway point. Along the banks of the river are the little towns of Gardiner, Reedsport, and Winchester Bay. Gardiner was founded in 1841 when a Boston merchant’s fur-trading ship wrecked near here. An important mill town in the 19th century, Gardiner has several stately Victorian homes. Reedsport is the largest of these three communities, and the town of Winchester Bay is known for its large fleet of charter-fishing boats. If you want a dunes experience, I would recommend that you explore the dunes on day trips.
Getting There: The dunes can be accessed at marked turn-offs all along Highway 101 between Florence and Coos Bay.
Visitor Information: For more information on the dunes, contact the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area Visitor Center, 855 U.S. 101, Reedsport, OR 97467 (www.fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw; tel. 541/271-6000). From mid-May to mid-September, this visitor center is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm; other months, it is closed on Saturday and Sunday.
There is a $5-per-car day-use fee within the recreation area.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.