Lying north of Pacific City, the Sand Lake area offers a wide variety of activities for visitors: ATV enthusiasts ride the dunes on the north side, and campers and paddlers watch the tide fill and empty the "lake" at Whalen Island. The newest section, Sitka Sedge State Natural Area, opened in 2018, giving hikers and birders access to the southern part of this varied land of forests, mud flats, wetlands, and dunes.
Once home to part of the Tillamook tribe, this boggy land was later farmed for many years until someone decided that it would make an excellent golf course. The idea eventually dissolved, though, and the land was eventually purchased by the state of Oregon.
This hike is in the 244 acres lying west of Sand Lake Road. The parking lot is somewhat nondescript, and it's easy to drive right by, but it offers restrooms and good signage (cell service is limited here, so you might want to download the trail map ahead of time, or just snap a picture of the sign). You will note that parts of the beach are closed for the snowy plover nesting season, but don't be dissuaded if you happen to be hiking during those times; there is plenty to see here any time of year.
Begin by hiking the half-mile ADA accessible section. This alone is worth a quick stop; the trail passes along a dike built in the 1920s that closed out the tide and allowed Farmer Beltz to graze cattle here. The dike is slowly deteriorating, though, which permits some water to sneak through and makes for excellent birdwatching; the richly varied wetlands on the left contrast vividly with the tidal flats on the right. Watch for salal and evergreen huckleberries in season, as well as wild roses, which flourish here.
Swing right and follow the edge of Sand Lake; from here, there are two loops to hike. Turn right at an intersection to follow the Estuary View Trail, within earshot of the growl and purr of the ATVs scrambling over the dunes to the north. The path passes through lush coastal forest until it reaches a viewpoint over Sand Lake. At low tide, you will see mudflats with a few channels, but at high tide water fills the basin. This rich estuary is popular with herons, egrets, kingfishers, and ospreys, as well as boaters. Crabs, flounders, and sand shrimp populate the muddy sand, and schools of fish follow the tide in search of food. Continue along the loop, where a side trail on the right leads to a beach of Sand Lake (part of this is closed seasonally for the plovers, with clear signage to denote those areas). Now the trail heads south through a forest of shore pine and Sitka spruce, paralleling the Pacific. An informal trail over a foredune offers a view of the ocean beach, with Cape Lookout to the north and Haystack Rock to the south.
The trail junctions in this area can be a bit confusing, but a left turn is a tie trail that completes this part of the loop, leading back to the dike and parking lot. To continue the hike, resume heading south along the sandy forest trail of the Kinnikinnik Woods Loop. This section runs closer to the beach, and a short trail on the right leads to the ocean sands. Head south a little further and follow the trail as it swings to the left; if you go straight at this point, you will reach the beach again further south. This is actually part of the Oregon Coast Trail on its way through Tierra del Mar to Cape Kiwanda.
Loop back northward on the Kinnikinnik Trail and watch on your right for Elk Knoll, a small rise topped with a bench. Pause here to look out over the wetland, home to dozens of species of birds. Then continue through dense forest, keep right at an intersection, and turn right over the dike to return to your car.
All told, the trails officially stretch for 3.5 easy, mostly level miles. This is a great hike for kids, with little climbing and a chance to stop at the beach, as well as the opportunity to customize the length by only walking one of the loops (we recommend the northern Estuary View Loop for its views over Sand Lake). It is also a great stop for folks with mobility limitations who would enjoy a hike through a peaceful wetland; the half-mile trail on the dike is as flat and smooth as a roadway.
One of Oregon's gems, the Three Capes Scenic Loop provides travelers with stunning views and a wealth of activities. This short hike from a modest parking lot offers a peaceful interlude, a chance to connect with the gentle beauty of sand, estuary, forest, and freshwater wetland. The next time you drive the Loop, leave time to pause and find the south side of Sand Lake.
|Sand Lake from the Estuary View Loop
|One of several beach access points
|Kinnikinnik Woods Loop
|Migratory egrets flocking up for winter
|The somewhat confusing intersection of the two loops and a beach access
|Back on Beltz Dike
|Note the old fence posts from the park's past life