On the craggy Oregon Coast, a “headland” is a giant chunk of rock that juts out into the ocean, formed over millennia from volcanic lava flows followed by constant water erosion. Some of the larger ones are called “capes”. The coast is dotted with them, all up and down from Indian Point to Cape Ferrelo. Many are protected as state parks or natural areas, but only a few have trails that beckon you to traverse the length of the promontory on foot with the feeling that with every step, you’re walking off the edge of a continent. Hiking the 2.5 miles to the tip of Cape Lookout feels about like that.
Cape Lookout State Park is a scenic 90-minute drive west from Portland (see map / directions). It’s located on the northern Oregon Coast just south of Netarts, Oceanside and Tillamook. In addition to the steep-cliffed basalt promontory that shares its name, the park features one of the coast’s best sand spits for beachcombing, Netarts Spit, that juts out nearly two miles into the Pacific Ocean and shelters the brackish waters of Netarts Bay.
Why Go: This is the wild beach in all its glory. Swarms of people come here for beachcombing the spit in the summer months, looking for glass floats and other sea-worthy treasures. While you’re searching for treasures in the sand, be sure to look up once in awhile and you might catch a passing whale, or a colorful para-glider. Bring binoculars to spot birds in the park’s variety of habitats. When you tire of the beach, more than eight miles of hiking trails take you through lush old-growth coastal forest.
The Hikes: The premiere hike here is the Cape Lookout Trail (5 miles RT, about 450 feet of gentle elevation gain), which starts from the parking area off Cape Lookout Road, just under three miles south of the entrance to the campground. Two trails depart from here, one leads to the right down to the campground; the other is the one you want, the trail to the cape’s tip. Right away you’ll pass a junction on your left for a 2-mile trail down to the beach (the Cape Lookout Beach Trail); skip it for now. The Cape Lookout Trail is a pleasant, undulating path (mostly losing elevation in this direction, which you’ll gain again on the way back) through towering giants like Sitka Spruce and Western Red Cedar. Along the way you’ll enjoy peak-a-boo viewpoints to the north (over Netarts Spit to Cape Meares) and the south (to Cascade Head) and you’ll even pass the memorial plaque for a 1943 plane crash. As you make your way to the tip of the cape, hold on to the hands of kiddos as there are some steep drop offs. The trail terminates at a rocky point with exhilarating views in every direction, and the perfect perch from which to spot migrating whales (the biggest numbers of whales will be observed in January, or March-April). Note: to park a car and hike this trail requires an annual Oregon state parks permit or $5 daily fee.
If you’re camping overnight, you’ll have more time for more hikes! The Cape Lookout Beach Trail (4 miles RT, 840 feet gain on the way back) departs from the same parking area as the lookout trail above, descending on switchbacks to the south base of the cape. From the campground, the short .25-mile Cape Lookout Nature Trail is a perfect jaunt for small children or people just looking for a quick escape into some pretty forest. North of the campground, miles of beachcombing are to be had in the tall grass and sand dunes of Netarts Spit.
The Camping: Cape Lookout State Park’s campground is very large and very popular, so reservations are essential in summer. There are 173 tent campsites, 38 full hookup sites for trailers or RVs up to 60 feet. There is a dedicated camping area for hikers and bicyclists. Picnic tables and fire grills provided. The park also has 13 yurts and 6 deluxe cabins, some pet-friendly. Rates: Tent campsites are $21, RV sites are $31-$34. Yurts are $47-$57 a night. Deluxe cabins are $91 – $101 a night. Campground reservations: (up to nine months in advance) 1-800-452-5687 | Reserve online.
photos: campsite courtesy of oregon state parks, beach at Cape Lookout by Doug Kerr via Flickr Creative Commons.