Where Land Meets Water: Oregon Coast Highway

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

18. Three Capes Scenic Loop About nine miles north of Neskowin, travel west on the first turn-off in Pacific City to Cape Kiwanda State Park. Photographers love the place for its gorgeous red-and-yellow sandstone cliffs; hang-gliding enthusiasts come to launch from its massive dunes; and surf watchers thrill at the sight of magnificent waves crashing against cliffs and caves. At nearby Pacific City—one of the only places on the coast where dories (flat-bottom fishing boats with high sides) are launched directly into the surf; fishermen sell just-caught seasonal fish all year long.

Cape Lookout, the second stop on the loop, was formed by several ancient lava flows and truly lives up to its name; it juts so far out into the ocean that it affords views of Tillamook Head, 42 miles to the north, and Cape Foulweather, 39 miles to the south. Atop this rocky headland you’ll find Cape Lookout State Park, its 2,000 acres laced with miles of trails that meander through coastal rain forest and along sandy shores. One of the beaches runs along Netarts Spit, a five-mile finger of sand pointing north. A stopover on the Pacific flyway, the cape and adjoining waters attract more than 150 species of birds, including blue herons, murres, and oystercatchers.

The last stop on the loop is Cape Meares State Park, where a lighthouse over 100 years old (surrounded in spring and summer by wild roses) offers clifftop views of a sea lion rookery below and offshore rocks and reefs. But perhaps the most unforgettable sight here is a giant Sitka spruce that is located near the lighthouse parking lot. Nicknamed the Octopus Tree, this odd-looking creation of nature has six candelabra-like limbs (the product of furious coastal winds and abundant rainfall) that reach out horizontally as far as 30 feet before turning skyward.

The Fine Art of Whale Watching More than 20 species of whales parade past the Oregon coast, but only a few come close enough to shore to be seen. The most common of these, gray whales, migrate 6,000 miles to the nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic between February and June and then return, from November until January, to the warm lagoons off the coast of Mexico to breed. About 400 “resident whales”—gray whales that do not migrate—can be seen offshore year-round. But the best chance of spotting these 40-ton mammals is from mid-December through mid-January, when as many as 30 whales per hour cruise by the coast.

To spot whales from the shore, wait for a calm, overcast day and perch yourself on a tall, outlying cliff during the early-morning hours. Scan the horizon for a “blow” (a white puff of water vapor), then look for periodic spouts. If you’re lucky, you may even see a whale breach—spring above the surface before splash diving—like the humpback shown above. 19. Oswald West State Park Legend has it that a fortune in Spanish doubloons is buried somewhere in the side of Neahkahnie Mountain, a former volcano that erupted under the ocean over 13 million years ago. But the greatest treasure to be found here lies at the mountain’s base—a 2,500-acre park in a rain forest of soaring spruce and cedar trees. The park offers 12 miles of hiking trails and exhilarating ocean views.

20. Cannon Beach On the way to Cannon Beach, take time out to enjoy the dazzling ocean views visible from lookout points along the road. One mile east of town you can see a replica of the ship cannon that washed ashore here in 1896 and gave this tiny artists colony its name.

Towering over the beach is 235-foot-tall Haystack Rock, a bullet-shaped monolith that is one of the most-photographed sights on the coast. Nearby are two recreation areas: Ecola State Park, which offers glorious views of the coast through fog-shrouded firs, and less-crowded Indian Beach, one of the state’s few rocky beaches.

As you leave Cannon Beach and continue north on Rte. 101, you’ll pass Seaside, Oregon. It is the oldest coastal destination resort community in Oregon, the Pacific endpoint of the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the site of a 1.8-mile-long oceanfront promenade with outstanding views of the ocean. Visit its historic aquarium.

21. Fort Clatsop National Memorial “Great joy … we are in view of the ocean … which we [have] been so long anxious to see.” So wrote the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their journal on November 7, 1805—19 months and 4,000 miles after their party of 33 had begun its epic journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean. But before long a taste of winter in the Northwest turned their glee into gloom. “O! How horriable is the day … waves brakeing with great violence against the shore … all wet and confined to our shelters.”

Lewis and Clark built their log cabins and stockade, known as Fort Clatsop, beside a river that now bears their names. In 1955 these structures were faithfully re-created near the original site—a damp, sun-dappled forest of spruce and hemlock. Also re-created here are the daily crafts that were practiced in the early 19th century. On summer days, interpreters dressed in period garb demonstrate such skills as candle making, canoe building, and firing a muzzle-loader musket. 22. Astoria It seems only fitting that the drive should end at the bustling seaport of Astoria, for it was here, in 1811, that John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading company established a post that became the first permanent American settlement in the Pacific Northwest. There are over 600 historic homes in Astoria. The most famous is Flavel House, a splendid Victorian mansion erected in 1885 by Captain George Flavel, who is believed to have been Astoria’s first millionaire.

On Coxcomb Hill, 12-story-high Astoria Column provides a panoramic view of the town below, Saddle Mountain to the south, and to the north, the graceful span of the Astoria Bridge, which crosses the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

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