Spectacular Side Trips
By Gary Hayes
Published: 09/26/2014  Updated: 08/16/2019
Rocky spires on the beach in Bandon Oregon
Cape Lookout State Park  Gary Hayes
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Three Capes Scenic Route

The Three Capes Scenic Route follows a stretch of coastline along the North Oregon Coast between Tillamook and Pacific City.

Between Tillamook and Pacific City, Highway 101 runs inland, but the Three Capes Scenic Route wends along the coastline revealing countless views as you cross capes, skirt serene Netarts Bay and drive through the dunescape of Sand Lake. The three capes; Cape Meares, Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda are the main attractions.

Cape Meares tops the list for its ease of access and rewarding panoramic views. It’s a forested promontory overlooking a large expanse of the coast and it’s home to the Oregon Coast’s shortest lighthouse. The Cape Meares Lighthouse doesn’t have to be tall. It stands at the edge of the cape, over 200 feet above the ocean and its original light could be seen by mariners from a distance of over 20 miles. The cape’s vantage points offer views of the coastline, both north and south, including the offshore Three Arch Rocks formation. Bring your binoculars for bird watching or lace on your hiking boots to explore three miles of hiking trails that lead you to Oregon’s largest Sitka Spruce tree and the uniquely shaped “Octopus Tree.” The road north of Cape Meares is closed, so visitors must approach the park from the south through the town
of Netarts.

Returning south from Cape Meares, there is beach access at the base of the Maxwell Point at the Oceanside Beach State Recreation Site. The small parking area lies on the oceanfront below the small, cliffside clinging town of Oceanside. On the beach just steps to the north, a tunnel has been carved through the rocky point, leading to secluded beaches known for great agate hunting. The tunnel can be an eerie experience for some and care must be taken regarding tides, slippery rocks and the low rocky ceiling.

The route south then follows Netarts Bay Drive, skirting the edge of the bay its entire length. Just past the south end of Netarts Bay is the entrance to Cape Lookout State Park. The park offers access to a long expanse of beach, picnic areas and several miles of walking and hiking trails. Plan on this being your picnic spot or make time for a hike. A day use fee is required for the picnic area and beach access, though hikers can continue driving 2.6 miles from the park entrance to the top of the cape where there is trailhead parking for the 2.4 mile trail to the tip of the cape.

On the south side of Cape Lookout, the scenery changes quickly as you pass through a landscape of sand dunes and beach grass interspersed with shore pines. The sand dunes of the Sand Lake Recreation Area extend from the Sand Lake estuary to the northeast about 3.5 miles. Turn right on Sandlake Road to continue to Cape Kiwanda or visit Sand Lake. Much of Sand Lake is set aside for ATV recreation, so the best stop for casual sightseers is the Clay Myers State Natural Area at Whalen Island, a serene estuarine ecosystem with a 2.5-mile loop trail.

Cape Kiwanda is just under five miles south of the turnoff to Whalen Island. The striking sandstone cape is sculpted smooth by surging waves and sandblasting winds, creating interesting rock formations. The south flank of the cape is a giant sand dune. Climb to the top to enjoy more of the uniquely sculpted cape or watch waves crash on the sheer cliffs to the north. Of course, you can always choose to sit inside the Pelican Pub and Brewery at the Cape Kiwanda wayside and just take in the views of the cape and the offshore Haystack Rock with a refreshing pint of house-made brew. Cheers!

Total distance: 40 miles
Driving time: 1:15
Must stops: Cape Meares & Cape Kiwanda
Top Tip: Cape Lookout offers great picnic areas with amazing views
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Spectacular Side Trips