Just north of Lincoln City's sandy beaches, Cascade Head rises high above the ocean. This mostly-forested promontory holds a 270-acre preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. Part of the Cascade Head Experimental Forest, this preserve is home to a variety of creatures, including the rare Oregon silverspot butterfly.
One of our favorites, the 2.5-mile Lower Trail is the only year-round route into the preserve. To protect habitat, the trail is closed to bicycles and dogs. It begins beside the Salmon River and leads through dense woodland to two high, panoramic viewpoints. To find the trailhead, drive north from Lincoln City, or take Highway 18 to the coast and turn north on Highway 101. Soon you will cross the Salmon River. You will know if the fish are running; the area around the bridge will be crammed with parked vehicles. Drive along a level, marshy lowland and turn left onto Three Rocks Road. This road is winding but well-paved all the way to Knight Park, where there is free parking for passenger vehicles as well as boat trailers. This small park on the riverbank offers restrooms and the opportunity for a riverside picnic with views across the estuary. There is a good boat ramp and a wooden dock. Powerboaters should be aware that the water is shallow in many areas. This is a great area for paddlers, as well, with access to the wetlands and excellent birdwatching. Note that flows can be high following heavy rains, however, and the whole lower river is very tide-affected. Know your skill level, assess what the water is doing, and stay safe.
The trail begins at the northeast corner of the parking lot. Look for a dirt track alongside the road, then cross Three Rocks Road and follow the trail as it parallels Savage Road. In just under half a mile you will find yourself at the old trailhead, tucked into deep woods at a bend in the paved road. The trail immediately begins to ascend Cascade Head. Often muddy, the path here climbs a series of steps and rooty snarls. This is classic Oregon Coast forest, sheltered by Sitka spruce and Western hemlock with an understory of vine maple. Continue climbing, then eventually emerge into a south-facing meadow high above the Pacific. You may not see a silverspot butterfly, but you are likely to find a variety of songbirds, and deer make an occasional appearance. The river snakes along far below. On a clear day, the views only get better as you follow the path through the meadow to the first viewpoint, looking south along the coastline. The second, higher viewpoint is about half a mile further.
When the sun is shining, this hike's wide-open scenery is breathtaking. This is autumn on the Oregon coast, though. If clouds and fog roll in, the hike can turn moody and grey in a moment, with the hillside seemingly dropping away into nothingness. Seagulls appear suddenly in the mist, and the rumble of the ocean is muffled by clouds below. Standing on the upper viewpoint, it is easy to imagine that you are the only person on Earth. A very wet, cold person. In any case, return the way you came. If necessary, coffee and hot soup are available in nearby Lincoln City.
Don't give in to the temptation to continue along Three Rocks Road. It narrows, turns to gravel, and ends in someone's yard; there is no beach access here. To find the beach, combine this trip with a stop in Lincoln City, or head over to Devil's Lake to take a boat out or try for a few fish. Whether you end up paddling on calm waters or storm watching from the window of a cozy cafe, autumn is a great time to visit the Oregon coast.