Five Scenic Hikes on the Oregon Coast
A dramatic landscape where the forest and mountains meet the sea, the Oregon coast is lined with beaches, volcanic headlands and sea stacks, and backed by the Coastal Mountain Range.
The general public was forever given free access to the entire 363-mile Oregon coastline in the state’s landmark 1967 Beach Bill. And that access is made easier by Highway 101, which runs parallel to the coastline, at times twisting and turning right next to the shore. Hikes along the coast include trails up to mountain summits, along capes, across headlands, and on beaches.
The North Coast includes scenic Ecola State Park near the arty community of Cannon Beach and Cape Lookout State Park near the town of Tillamook, famous for it’s cheese and ice cream company of the same name. Some of the largest remaining tracts of old-growth coastal forest are found along the Central Coast’s Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, with plenty of trails to explore them. The Southern Oregon Coast is more remote and isolated, and features the Oregon Dunes near the town of Florence and the some of the coast’s most scenic vistas along the Samuel Boardman Scenic Corridor.
Coast Range temperate rain forests are filled with Sitka spruce, western hemlock, western red cedar, and Douglas fir, while the understory is often completely covered in ferns and salal. The coast receives 60-80 inches of rain each year, most of which falls from October to May. Due to this, the forests are mossy and green all year long.
Hiking at the Oregon Coast
Not long after to moving to Portland a decade ago, I planned a vacation that involved sightseeing along the entire Oregon Coast. Attempting to cram all 360+ miles into one trip proved to be less than an ideal way to enjoy all that this incredibly scenic coast has to offer. Instead, we decided to visit different sections of the coast every year: annual camping trips at Cape Lookout, weekend trips to Newport and Yachats, long drives along the coastline to Brookings for several days of camping and hiking, and regular visits to Cannon Beach for day hikes.
The five hikes listed here are my favorites on the Oregon Coast, including trails to secluded beaches, through coastal rainforests, to summits with panoramic views, and along the coastline with tidepools, spouting horns, and if you are lucky, views of migrating whales.
All of these hikes are covered in my I Heart Oregon’s Seven Wonders hiking book.
Crescent Beach is one of the most photographed places in Oregon. Bounded on the north by Ecola Point and on the south by Chapman Point, this secluded beach is only accessible via the 1.2 mile hike down a steep and often muddy trail, making it more isolated than most beaches on the northern coast. Park at Ecola Point and look for the trailhead near the restrooms. Several sections of steps lead towards the park’s entry road. The trail continues alongside the road for a very short distance, then heads towards the ocean, with fantastic views at the top of the cliffs above the beach. The rest of the hike is through coastal rainforest, crossing a small creek that makes its way to the ocean via a waterfall on the beach. Continue up and over a small headland to a trail junction. Turn right and take several long and steep switchbacks down to the beach. This beach is best visited during low tide, giving you a lot more beach to explore, as well as sea caves on the north end of the beach.
Distance: 4.2 miles (round trip)
Elevation gain: 1,300 ft.
Location: Oswald West State Park
Nearest town: Manzanita
The views from Neahkahnie Mountain (1,680 ft.) are some of the best in the north Oregon coast. With two trailheads, it is possible to do this as a one-way hike, but it would require either a car shuttle or a 1.5 mile walk along busy 101 highway. To hike from the more scenic north trailhead, park at a small pullout on the highway on the north side of the mountain and cross the highway. The beginning section of the trail switchbacks up the slope of the mountain through a tunnel-like path of salal, ferns and berry shrubs, with occasional views of the ocean, Cape Falcon and Smuggler’s Cove. After a short distance, the trail then enters the forest and continues up the north side of the mountain through varying types of forest, mostly with an undergrowth of ferns and salal. Coming around the west side of the mountain, the trail drops to a small saddle, then begins climbing to the south summit area. The views to the south suddenly open in a rocky area of the trail, and there is a steep scramble up the rock to the summit, but it’s much easier to reach the top if you continue a short distance until a sharp turn in the trail leads to a hillside of tree roots that provide steps up the slope and lead to a small rocky spine to the top. At the summit, take in the views looking directly down at the town of Manzanita and Nehalem Bay, and on a clear day, all the way to Cape Lookout.
NOTE: The trails at Cape Lookout are closed (and will be for several years) due to massive storm damage.
Cape Lookout was formed 15 million years ago when massive lava floods flowed down the Columbia River and fanned out down the coastline, hardening into basalt headlands. At the trailhead, take the Cape Trail for 2.5 miles as it juts westward into the Pacific ocean. Since this part of the Oregon coast receives about 100 inches of rain each year, the trail is often wet and mucky, so plan on getting your boots or shoes muddy. Heading through a dense forest of old-growth Sitka spruce with an understory of ferns, salal, and salmonberry, openings in the trees offer views to the south of a secluded beach accessible via the South Trail junction at the beginning of the hike. At about .6 miles in, a marker commemorates a WW II B-17 bomber that crashed nearby. At 1.2 miles in, a railed overlook provides views to the north, showing the waves crashing below at the edge of the cape. A couple of sections of the trail are along open cliffs with 400 feet drop-offs, so be careful to watch your step here. Openings in the dense forest offer views to the north of Cape Meares, Three Arch Rocks, Netarts Spit, and the campground at Cape Lookout State Park. The end of the cape is railed, with views to the north obstructed by trees, but the views of the ocean stretch out endlessly westward, and to the south look out toward Cape Kiwanda and Cascade Head.
CAPTAIN COOK + RESTLESS WATERS TRAILS
Distance: 1.9 miles (round trip)
Elevation gain: 120 ft.
COOKS RIDGE + GWYNN CREEK LOOP
Distance: 6.4 miles
Elevation gain: 1,200 ft.
Located two miles south of Yachats, Oregon (pronounced Yaw-Hots), the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area includes a campground with trails linked to a Visitors Center, so it’s easy to spend several days exploring everything this area has to offer. The Visitors Center includes a ranger station, a small gift shop, and interpretive displays about the region’s history and ecology. Do a loop on the Cooks Ridge and Gwynn Creek Trails for a moderate hike (6.4 miles with 1,200 ft. gain) with some of the best remaining old-growth coastal rain forest. A short drive to the top of Cape Perpetua offers outstanding coastline views from a 800’ high promontory, also accessible via a hike from the base of the cape.
Captain Cook Trail: From the Visitors Center, take the trail that goes under the highway to reach the rocky coastline. Turn left for Thor’s Well, Spouting Horn, and the best tide pooling. Spouting Horn and Thor’s Well are best seen at high tide or during winter storms. During a low tide, this area is filled with sea anemones, sea urchins, and other tide pool dwellers.
Restless Water Trail: From the Visitors Center, take the trail that goes under the highway to reach the rocky coastline. Turn right and continue on this path along the highway for almost a half mile. The trail switchbacks down a hillside next to the ocean. Devil’s Churn is the rocky chute at the end of the bluff, with water slamming into the rock and spraying straight up into the air. Best viewed at high tide or during winter storms, make sure to keep your eye on the ocean since sneaker waves can surge in without warning at any time.
Cooks Ridge & Gwynn Creek loop hike: From the Visitors Center, take the trail from the upper parking lot. Begin in a dense forest with Douglas fir and spruce trees, with a section of old-growth Sitka spruce near a trail junction for the Discovery Loop. Continue on the left trail, gradually ascending the ridge for 1.6 miles to a trail junction. Take the Gwynn Creek trail to the right for the loop hike. The Gwynn Creek trail slowly descends, meandering around several small creeks, and a thick undergrowth of ferns lends special beauty to this coastal rain forest. Gwynn Creek is occasionally visible from the trail as you get closer to the coastline. The trail ends at a junction with the Oregon Coast Trail. Take a short detour to the left to a bridge over Gwynn Creek. Turn around and continue on the Oregon Coast Trail all the way to the Visitors Center. With the highway directly below, there are several good views of the ocean through the trees in this section.
Samuel Boardman Corridor
Distance: about 2 miles (round trip)
Elevation gain: 250 ft.
Location: Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor
Nearest town: Brookings
Located between Brookings and Gold Beach along Highway 101, the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor is 12 miles long with numerous pullouts designed to help explore the area. The Oregon Coast Trail runs the length of the corridor, with 27 miles of trails meandering through coastal forests that feature up to 300 year-old Sitka spruce. My favorite sections are the short hikes to Thunder Rock Cove and Indian Sands, although I would recommend stopping at as many of the pullouts as you have time for – all of southern Oregon coast is incredibly scenic.
Thunder Rock Cove (highway 101 milepost 345.8) is accessed via a one-mile loop that leads to a partially wooded grassy headland with fantastic views of rocky islands, cliffs, and secluded beaches.
Indian Sands (highway 101 milepost 348.6) is a unique section of the Boardman Corridor, with sculpted sandstone formations and dunes, wildflower meadows and a basalt sea arch. From the trailhead, a steep trail drops 200 feet to a junction with a side trail to the dunes (go right on the side trail, then left at a large opening to reach the dunes).