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.

About the Dunes

The first Oregon dunes were formed between 12 and 26 million years ago by the weathering of inland mountain ranges, but it was not until about 7,000 years ago, after the massive eruption of Mount Mazama (today’s Crater Lake), that they reached their current size and shape. That volcanic eruption emptied out the entire molten-rock contents of Mount Mazama, and in the process created the caldera that became Crater Lake, the deepest lake in the U.S.

Due to water currents and winds, the dunes are in constant flux. Currents move the sand particles north each winter and south each summer, while constant winds off the Pacific Ocean blow the sand eastward, piling it up into dunes. Over thousands of years, the advancing dunes have swallowed up whole sections of forests, isolating some groves as remnant tree islands, turning others into parched patches of skeleton forest.

Freshwater trapped behind the dunes formed numerous freshwater lakes, many of which are now ringed by campgrounds and vacation homes. These lakes are popular for fishing, swimming, and boating. Lakes within the recreation area include Cleawox Lake, Carter Lake, Beale Lake, and Horsfall Lake.

European beach grass is changing the natural dynamics of this unusual ecosystem. Introduced to anchor sand dunes and prevent them from inundating roads and river channels, the beach grass has been much more effective than anyone ever imagined. Able to survive even when buried under several feet of sand, the plant has covered many acres of land and formed dunes that effectively block sand from blowing inland off the beach. As Pacific winds blow sand off the dunes into wet, low-lying areas, more vegetation takes hold. The result is that, today, only 20% of the dunes are open sand (the figure was once 80%). It is predicted that within 50 years, the Oregon dunes will be completely covered with vegetation and will no longer be the barren, windswept expanses of sand seen today.

Exploring the Dunes

There are numerous ways to explore and enjoy the dunes and surrounding area.

Camping & Water SportsJessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park  (www.oregon.gov/oprd/parks; tel. 541/997-3641), 3 miles south of Florence, is a unique spot with a beautiful forest-bordered lake and towering sand dunes. The park offers camping, picnicking, hiking trails, and access to Cleawox and Woahink lakes. On Cleawox Lake, there is a swimming area and a boat-rental facility. The dunes adjacent to Cleawox Lake are used by off-road vehicles.

Umpqua Lighthouse State Park (www.oregon.gov/oprd/parks; tel. 541/271-4118), near the Umpqua River Lighthouse  , is the site of 500-foot-tall sand dunes that are the tallest in the United States. The park offers picnicking, hiking, and camping amid forests and sand dunes.

Elk Viewing: One mile east of Reedsport on Ore. 38, at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area , you can spot 100 or more elk grazing on meadows that have been set aside as a preserve. In summer the elk tend to stay in the forest, where it’s cooler.

Golf: The 18-hole Sandpines Golf Links, 1201 35th St. (www.sandpines.com tel. 800/917-4653), plays through dunes and pine forest and is one of Oregon’s most popular courses. During the summer, you’ll pay $79 for 18 holes. Alternatively, try the 18-hole Ocean Dunes Golf Links, 3345 Munsel Lake Rd. (www.oceandunesgolf.com; tel. 800/468-4833 or 541/997-3232), which also plays through the dunes and charges $25 to $42 for 18 holes during the summer.

Hiking: There are several places to wander among these sand dunes. If you have time only for a quick walk, head to Carter Lake Campground, where you can continue on from the Taylor Dunes viewing platform. The beach is less than a mile beyond the viewing platform, and roughly half this distance is through dunes. From this same campground, you can hike the Carter Dunes Trail. The beach is 1  1/2 miles away through dunes, forest, and meadows known as a deflation plain. A 3.5-mile loop trail leads from the Oregon Dunes Overlook out to the beach by way of Tahkenitch Creek, a meandering stream that flows through the dunes and out to the ocean. Another mile south of the Oregon Dunes Overlook, you’ll find the Tahkenitch Creek Trail Head, which accesses an 8-mile network of little-used trails that wander through dunes, forest, marshes, and meadows. However, for truly impressive dunes, the best route is the John Dellenback Dunes Trail , which has its trail head a half-mile south of Eel Creek Campground (11 miles south of Reedsport). This 5.4-mile round-trip trail leads through an area of dunes 2 miles wide by 4 miles long.

Horseback Riding: C&M Stables, 90241 U.S. 101 N. (www.oregonhorsebackriding.com; tel. 541/997-7540), located 8 miles north of Florence, offers rides on the beach and through the dunes. A 1-hour dune ride costs $40 to $45, and a 2-hour ride on the beach costs $60 to $65.

Off-Road Vehicles: About 30% of the sand dunes are open to off-road vehicles (ORVs), which are also known as ATVs (all-terrain vehicles), and throngs of people flock to this area to roar up and down the dunes. If you’d like to do a little off-roading, you can rent a miniature dune buggy or ATV from Sand Dunes Frontier, 83960 U.S. 101 S. (www.sanddunesfrontier.com; tel. 541/997-5363), 4 miles south of Florence. Guided tours of the dunes are offered by Sand Dunes Frontier and Sandland Adventures, 85366 U.S. 101 S. (tel. 541/997-8087; www.sandland.com), 1 mile south of Florence (this company has a little amusement park as well). The tours cost about $12 to $50. One-person dune buggies and ATVs rent for about $45 per hour. Down at the southern end of the recreation area, you can rent vehicles from Spinreel Dune Buggy Rentals, 67045 Spinreel Rd., North Bend (www.ridetheoregondunes.com; tel. 541/759-3313), located just off U.S. 101, about 9 miles south of Reedsport.

Sandboarding: Sandboarding is basically snowboarding in the sand, and at Sand Master Park,87542 U.S. 101 N., Florence (www.sandmasterpark.com; tel. 541/997-6006), you (or your teenage kids) will find 40 acres of sculpted sand dunes designed to mimic a wintertime snowboard park (lots of jumps and rails). June through mid-September, the park is open daily from 9am to 6:30pm; other months, it’s open Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and Sunday noon to 5pm. The park is closed from mid-January through February. Sand boards rent for $10 to $25.

Umpqua River LighthouseIn Winchester Bay, you can visit the historic Umpqua River Lighthouse . The original lighthouse was at the mouth of the Umpqua River and was the first lighthouse on the Oregon coast. It fell into the Umpqua River in 1861 and was replaced in 1894 by the current lighthouse. Adjacent to the lighthouse is the Visitors Center & Museum, 1020 Lighthouse Rd. (tel. 541/271-4631), a former Coast Guard station with historical exhibits and an information center. At the museum, you can arrange to join a tour of the lighthouse. Tours are offered May through October daily between 10am and 4pm and cost $3 for adults and $2 for children 6 to 16. Across the street from the lighthouse is a whale-viewing platform; the best viewing months are November through June.

ViewpointsThe easiest place to get an overview of the dunes is at the Oregon Dunes Overlook, 10 miles south of Florence. Here you’ll find viewing platforms high atop a forested sand dune that overlooks a vast expanse of bare sand. Another easy place from which to view the dunes is the viewing platform on the Taylor Dunes Trail, which begins at the Carter Lake Campground, 7 1/2 miles south of Florence. It is an easy 1/2-mile walk to the viewing platform.

Cape Arago Highway

Coos Bay tries hard, but it simply is not the sort of Oregon coast town that I would recommend to visitors. South of Coos Bay, however, you’ll find three state parks and a protected marine estuary that preserve some of the most breathtaking shoreline on the entire south coast.

U.S. 101 begins a 50-mile inland stretch at Coos Bay, not reaching the ocean again until Bandon, so start your exploration of this beautiful stretch of coast by heading southwest from Coos Bay on the Cape Arago Highway.

Sunset Bay State Park

In 12 miles you’ll come to Sunset Bay State Park (www.oregon.gov/oprd/parks; tel. 800/551-6949 or 541/888-4902), with one of the few beaches in Oregon where the water actually gets warm enough for swimming (although folks from warm-water regions may not agree). Sunset Bay is almost completely surrounded by sandstone cliffs, and the entrance to the bay is quite narrow, which means the waters here stay fairly calm. Picnicking and camping are available, and there are lots of tide pools to explore.

Shore Acres State Park

Continuing on another 3 miles brings you to Shore Acres State Park (www.oregon.gov/oprd/parks; tel. 800/551-6949or 541/888-4902), once the estate of local shipping tycoon Louis J. Simpson, who spent years developing his gardens. His ships would bring him unusual plants from all over the world, and eventually the gardens grew to include a formal English garden and a Japanese garden with a lily pond. His enormous mansion was demolished long ago, but the formal gardens and sunken lily pond built atop the cliffs overlooking the Pacific remain, and are a rare and wondrous sight in coastal Oregon. From the gardens, you can walk down to a tiny cove with rock walls, sculpted by the waves into unusual shapes, rising up from the water. The water off the park is often a striking shade of blue, and Simpson Beach, in the little cove, just might be the prettiest beach in Oregon. There is a $5 day-use fee here.

Cape Arago State Park

Cape Arago State Park (www.oregon.gov/oprd/parks; tel. 800/551-6949) is the third of this trio of parks. Just offshore from the rugged cape lie the rocks and small islands of Simpson Reef, which provide sunbathing spots for hundreds of seals (including elephant seals) and sea lions. The barking of the sea lions can be heard from hundreds of yards away, and though you can’t get very close, with a pair of binoculars you can see the seals and sea lions quite well. The best viewing point is at Simpson Reef Viewpoint. On either side of the cape are coves with quiet beaches (the beaches are closed from March to June to protect young seal pups). Tide pools along these beaches offer hours of fascinating exploration during other months.

South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

Four miles down Seven Devils Road from Charleston, you’ll find the remarkably beautiful South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve  (www.southsloughestuary.org; tel. 541/888-5558). In 1972, the South Slough inlet of the Coos River became the first federally protected estuary in the U.S., and once you see it, you’ll understand why these 5,000 acres of tidal flats, vast marshes, and meandering channels are so important to the health of the coastal ecosystem. Stop in at the Interpretive Center for a map and directions to the 1.75-mile trail that takes you through the characteristic estuarine habitats. It’s an easy hike, and the pristine coastal scenery is absolutely glorious.

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.