In 1967, Governor Tom McCall signed the Oregon Beach Bill into law, guaranteeing Oregonians public access to each and every beach along the state’s 362-mile coastline. Today, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department manages an astounding 69 state parks, recreation sites, natural areas, and scenic viewpoints along the Oregon coast—an average of one state park for every five miles.
But with such an enormous expanse of shoreline open to public exploration, planning a trip to the Oregon coast can be a daunting proposition. Where should you make your home base? Where are the most beautiful hiking trails? And where are the most scenic beaches for wildlife watchers, surfers, and hot-blooded swimmers? You’ll find treasures aplenty between the California border and the mouth of the Columbia River, but consider narrowing this visit to northern Oregon, where the ocean beaches offer a high dose of drama—all just an easy drive from downtown Portland.
So bundle up, break out your binoculars, and don’t forget to pack your wetsuit. We’re going to the northern Oregon coast for the next three days.
I Know You’re A Cannonball
Shortly after they reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark established a winter camp at Fort Clatsop, where they would spend nearly four months before making their journey home. Prior to returning east, Captain Clark, Sacagawea, and several other members of the Corps of Discovery trekked to the headlands overlooking Cannon Beach to survey the remains of a beached whale. “From this point I beheld the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed,” Captain Clark wrote.
The Pacific Ocean may be old news by now, but Cannon Beach has lost none of its stunning appeal. This four-mile stretch of sand is best known for its 235-foot natural landmark, Haystack Rock, which is especially beautiful at sunrise, sunset, and low tide. So begin your day with a walk along the beach, stopping to search for sponges, anemones, urchins, and starfish in the tidepools along the way.
The Canyon Of The Crescent Beach
Although the hours can quickly disappear at Cannon Beach, don’t let the sun go down without visiting Ecola State Park in the neighboring bluffs to the north. One of the region’s most scenic trails—the 1.2-mile descent to Crescent Beach—departs from the Ecola Point parking area, leading to a secluded beach with a unique perspective of Haystack Rock. Back at Ecola Point, you’ll find an unrivaled sunset picnic spot, complete with a view of the abandoned Tillamook Rock Lighthouse.
Oswald The Great And Powerful
In 1913, Governor Oswald West, concerned by the creeping privatization of Oregon’s natural resources, pushed a bill through the legislature declaring the state’s coastline to be a public highway. West’s actions led to the construction of coastal Highway 101—ensuring public access to the Oregon oceanfront for years to come.
Ten miles south of Cannon Beach, the 2,484-acre Oswald West State Park pays tribute to the late governor and offers a little something for all visitors to love. Surfers, beach-goers, and picnickers will be in awe of the sheltered cove of Short Sand Beach, which is removed from the highway by a short wooded trail. Hikers—even the inexperienced—will be thrilled by the views from Cape Falcon, which is accessed by a level 2.4-mile path from the road. And more ambitious trekkers will enjoy miles upon miles of ocean vistas from the summit of Neahkahnie Mountain, the legendary site of a lost treasure buried by 16th century Spanish sailors.
And at the end of the day, drive a few miles north on Highway 101 to Hug Point State Recreation Site, where the waterfalls and sandstone caves are best enjoyed in the light of the setting sun.
The Little Apple
With seven miles of pristine sandy beach, it’s little wonder the Oregon Coast Visitors Association has dubbed the town of Manzanita “the third most photographed scenery in Oregon.” But Manzanita’s beach is user-friendly as well, with wind conditions ideal for kitesurfing, waves that break far from the shore, and mountainous sand dunes seemingly designed for hide-and-go-seek. Care to go for a walk? Stroll a few miles south on the beach to Nehalem Bay State Park, a four-mile spit of shore pines and rolling dunes that protects Nehalem Bay from the greater Pacific Ocean.
And in a region where picnicking or cooking at home is often your best bet, this small town of 600 residents is home to two local foodie favorites. For years, Bread and Ocean has lured locals and visitors alike with the promise of freshly-baked breads, quiches, and sandwiches—but it’s the sweet and tender cinnamon rolls that keep them coming back (154 Laneda Avenue, Manzanita). And just down the street is Marzano’s Pizza Pie, a wonderfully casual time-warp of a restaurant where the homemade dough and fresh ingredients make for a truly satisfying meal (60 Laneda Avenue, Manzanita).
Your Lawyer Wears A Cape?
Perhaps nowhere on the Oregon coast is the afternoon light better reflected than the sandstone slopes of Cape Kiwanda. As part of the Three Capes Scenic Route an hour’s drive south of Manzanita, Cape Kiwanda is a thrilling place to watch the waves crash, to wander the 2.2-mile path to the Great Dune, or to simply take in the sunset views of the “other” Haystack Rock off the coast. Best of all? You’re only steps away from the oceanfront Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, where you can toast this long weekend with a pint of Kiwanda Cream Ale (33180 Cape Kiwanda Drive, Pacific City).
A Few Notes
When it comes to accommodations, consider making your home base in either Cannon Beach or Manzanita, where you’ll enjoy both dramatic scenery and the benefits of nearby commerce. And while there is a wide variety of hotels and inns along this stretch of coastline, your vacation will be all the more relaxing with an entire rental home at your disposal. Care to stay out in nature? Nehalem Bay State Park also has 18 yurts available for rent, along with 265 electrical campsites with water access.
TITLE: Short Sand Beach, from the trail to Cape Falcon | FRIDAY: Cannon Beach; Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach; rock formations at Cannon Beach; the sunset view from Ecola Point; Haystack Rock, from Crescent Beach | SATURDAY: Short Sand Beach; the view from Cape Falcon | SUNDAY: The beach in Manzanita; the coast near Cape Kiwanda; the other Haystack Rock in Pacific City.