Five Amazing Oregon Coast Ecosystems You Must See to Believe
By Jenna Boyle Feehan
Published: 06/08/2012  Updated: 08/15/2019
Photos by Gary Hayes

On the Oregon Coast, dunes, rainforests, rivers, bays and headlands abound, providing recreation for every variety of explorer. We've highlighted some of our favorite spots for enjoying the wonderfully diverse environments on the Northwest coast.

Dunes, rainforests, rivers, bays and headlands abound, providing recreation opportunities for every variety of explorer. We've highlighted some of our favorite spots for enjoying the wonderfully diverse environments on the Northwest coast.


Coastal sand dunes present an ever-shifting landscape. Animals such as deer, elk, raccoons and small rodents move among grasses & low-lying plants adapted to life in the sand. Recreation opportunities include off-highway vehicles (where allowed), sandboarding, hiking (in that take-one-step-forward-slide-half-a-step-back sort of way) and animal tracking.

Where to go
Sand Lake Recreation Area: A popular OHV site, this area south of Tillamook includes 1,076 acres of Siuslaw National Forest. If you'd prefer to avoid motorized activity, head to the enormous dune at Cape Kiwanda, immediately south of Sand Lake.
Honeyman State Park: Found three miles south of Florence, this park offers camping, two natural freshwater lakes and five "tree islands" among the dunes. The area is known for South Jetty Hill, aka "Show-off Hill" by OHV buffs.
Umpqua Dunes: The John Dellenback Dunes Trail about 10 miles south of Reedsport offers dune access and hiking in one of the few OHV-free areas on the Oregon Coast. Hikers can traverse nearly three miles of dunes to the beach.


One of the most exceptional ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest is the lush temperate rainforest. Enormous coniferous trees like Western red cedar, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock tower over dense understory of ferns, shrubs, mosses and lichen. Fauna include slugs, newts, frogs, deer, elk, raccoons, bears, bobcats, owls and numerous songbirds. Enjoy hiking, birding, mountain biking (where allowed) and falling over backward trying to glimpse the treetops.

Where to go
Ecola State Park: Who doesn't love a magical old-growth forest...that you can drive through? Access via the north end of Cannon Beach.
Oswald West State Park: Ten miles south of Cannon Beach lies a park that seems to have it all: Cape Falcon, Neahkahnie Mountain, Short Sands Beach, some of the largest and oldest conifers on the coast and legendary buried treasure!
Cape Perpetua Scenic Area: Just two miles south of Yachats, this 2700-acre old-growth forest offers 26 miles of interconnected hiking trails. As its name suggests, the area includes a magnificent bluff overlooking the ocean, inviting you to mix headland activities with your forest fun.
Alfred A. Loeb State Park: Oregon redwoods! Nestled among 200-year-old myrtlewoods you'll find the only redwood grove in the state. Camping and cabin rental are available.

Enjoy boating, fishing, rafting & birding on one of the Northwest's many extraordinary rivers. The crisp waters of the Coast Range support numerous species of fish, heron, osprey and eagles. When the waters meet the ocean they become salty-brackish, attracting seals, sea lions and seabirds.

Where to go
Columbia River: The largest river in the Pacific Northwest can be enjoyed from the docks in Astoria, from either side of its mouth (at Cape Disappointment & Fort Stevens Parks) or from innumerable places along its banks
Nehalem River: Just south of Manzanita, the picturesque Nehalem River provides Class III rafting, fishing and camping. It spills into Nehalem Bay before finding the ocean, so bay activities can be enjoyed nearby.
Rogue River: Known for its salmon runs and whitewater rafting, the Rogue runs over 200 miles, dumping itself into the Pacific at magnificent Gold Beach.

Coastal bays provide open, brackish waters for shorebirds, pelicans, herons, osprey, eagles, seals and sea lions. Clamming, fishing and Dungeness-crabbing are absolutely premium, allowing you to procure your dinner as you recreate.

Where to go
Nehalem Bay: Separated from the ocean by Nehalem Bay State Park, the east side of the bay is home to marinas offering fishing and crabbing.
Depoe Bay: A resident pod of Gray Whales makes Depoe Bay its home for most of the year, so whale watching is a major attraction. The Depoe Bay Whale Center provides observation decks as well as information about these amazing mammals.
Alsea Bay: Interested in crabbing, clamming or fishing, but don't know what you're doing? The Alsea Bay Historic Interpretive Center provides demonstrations for all of the above, and gear and supplies are available nearby.

Popular with photographers, hikers and naturalists, elevated capes and headlands offer the most expansive views of the ocean, its coastline and migrating whales. Of course, visibility is weather dependent, but standing hundreds of feet above the ocean in fog or rain has a mystical quality that can be equally enjoyable.

Where to go
Ecola Point: Found at the north end of Cannon Beach, this exceptional promontory provides sweeping views complete with Haystack Rock. Elk commonly graze the meadow while murres gather garrulously on rocks below.
Cape Lookout: Eight miles of hiking trails through old growth forest, an historic lighthouse and excellent camping facilities make this state park a popular (but not too popular) destination. Nesting murres, Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcon provide an avian bonus.
Cape Arago & Shore Acres State Parks: Southwest of Coos Bay, these parks include spectacular viewpoints for spotting migrating whales and, during high surf, some of the most fantastic waves-smashing-into-rocks you can imagine. Shore Acres also boasts extensive botanical gardens and a view of the historic Cape Arago lighthouse.
Five Amazing Oregon Coast Ecosystems You Must See to Believe