The Road Less Traveled: Exploring the Three Capes Scenic Route
By Allen Cox
Published: 09/10/2012  Updated: 08/08/2019
Photo by Gary Hayes

Take your time, pack a lunch, stop frequently and bring extra batteries for your camera on this scenic road less traveled on the Oregon Coast.

NOTE: Due to imminent danger of a landslide, Cape Meares Loop was closed in January 2013 from Milepost 1.0 to Milepost 2.5 for an indefinite amount of time. Cape Meares State Park is still open, however, traffic is directed to use Highway 131 to Oceanside and turn onto Cape Meares Loop traveling north to the state park.

Three Capes Scenic Drive is a gratifying alternative to U.S. 101 along Oregon's North Coast. Approaching from the north, the route departs Hwy 101 at Tillamook for 37 miles of coastal back roads. Take your time, pack a lunch, stop frequently and bring extra batteries for your camera. Your destinations will be Cape Meares, Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda, with many points of interest in between.

Cape Meares
As you leave Tillamook, the road traces a five-river estuary system that empties into Oregon's second largest bay—Tillamook Bay. Soon, you'll reach Bayocean Peninsula County Park. This day-use park borders both ocean and bay, and is great spot for a short hike, wildlife spotting and birding.

From here, the route turns south to Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint. With its antique lighthouse, a natural oddity dubbed the "Octopus Tree," hiking trails and views that will cause you to contemplate infinity, Cape Meares is an Oregon Coast experience you shouldn't miss.

Between Cape Meares and Cape Lookout, you'll drive through two seaside villages—Oceanside and Netarts—and spot Three Arch Rocks offshore, a National Wildlife Refuge that's breeding grounds for Tufted Puffins and Common Murres. Follow the Netarts Bay shoreline until you reach the second cape.

Cape Lookout
Cape Lookout State Park is a microcosm of the Oregon Coast. This nearly two-mile headland reaching into the Pacific encapsulates much of the coast's geology, flora, fauna and ecosystems. Here, you can spend an afternoon beachcombing, or hike to the tip of Cape Lookout for the view from the edge of the continent.

The road heads inland and approaches the coast again at Sand Lake Recreation Area, a vast estuary bordered by more than 1,000 acres of coastal dunes. The estuary is perfect for paddling. If estuarine ecosystems and wildlife inspire you, walk the trail at Clay Myers State Natural Area at Whalen Island adjacent to Sand Lake Recreation Area. Or you can treat your inner adventurer to a thrill by renting an off-road vehicle and exploring the dunes' peaks and valleys. (Know the regulations and obtain a permit:

Cape Kiwanda
Next stop on the drive south is Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area. Immediately south of the cape is the launch site for the Pacific Dory Fleet, where these seaworthy vessels wrestle their way out to sea over the unforgiving surf. Cap your three capes trip with a climb to the top of Cape Kiwanda for unforgettable views of the massive Haystack Rock offshore. Then, continue the route through Pacific City to reconnect with U.S. 101.
The Road Less Traveled: Exploring the Three Capes Scenic Route