Sunday, May 28, 2023

Cape Lookout

Cape Lookout on the northern Oregon coast is easily seen on any map of the state, as it extends seaward like a 1.5-mile-long finger. The 2.5-mile hike to its tip can be one of the most visually stunning coastal hikes, or it can be one of the foggiest. We have hiked it both ways; the foggy version of the hike is mysterious, moody, and quite damp, so try to find a window in the coastal fog for this walk in the woods!

Part of the Three Capes Scenic Route (along with Cape Meares and Cape Kiwanda), this basalt headland was once considered for a lighthouse site, but it was decided that the towering cliffs were just too high; the light would often be hidden in the fog. Those cliffs, however, are what make this one of the most dramatic hikes on the Oregon coast. In addition, you will find miles of sandy beaches, a long, walkable spit dividing the Pacific from Nestucca Bay, and an excellent campground. 

This moderate hike is about 5 miles round-trip and can be done by most people with normal mobility, but there are a few caveats: the trail is prone to muddy areas, even in dry weather, there are some rough areas, and there are elevation gains and losses along the way. And there are cliffs. Vertiginous, abrupt, and rarely protected by any sort of fencing or rails. You will want to keep children in check and pets on a leash for this one.

The trailhead for the cape is accessed from Whiskey Creek Road, just south of, and uphill from, the Cape Lookout Campground. There is a good parking lot here, although it can fill up pretty quickly on the weekends. The State Parks system has historically charged a day-use fee here, but on our visit in May of 2023 they were not requiring a fee. 

There is more than one trail here; you will also find paths to the beach on either side, part of the Oregon Coast Trail system. Choose the trail to the cape and walk in a lush coastal forest of hemlock and Sitka spruce sheltering a thicket of salal, thimbleberries, ferns, and the usual coastal flora. From time to time the shrubbery opens for stunning views of the Pacific; these windows offer excellent opportunities to look for grey whales and sea lions in the ocean far below. A plaque on the north side of the trail commemorates the lives lost in the 1943 crash of a B-17 bomber that got disoriented in thick fog. 

About halfway through the hike you will encounter a fenced viewpoint with sweeping views to the north; sometimes you can see as far as Tillamook Head. The little town you see tucked into the cliffs is Oceanside. The scenic pause makes an excellent turnaround point for those with children. From here, the trail tends to be a bit rougher and muddier. 

Re-enter the forest and climb a root-strewn section; the forest continues to dominate the scene until shortly before the end of the hike, when the trail passes along the edge of 400-foot cliffs and the southerly and westerly views are increasingly dramatic. End at a grassy area with a (very welcome) bench. On a clear day, you can see as far as Cape Foulweather near Newport. When you are finished soaking in the views, return the way you came.

While you are in the area, be sure to check out the rest of the state park to the north of the cape. This popular area offers a long, sandy beach, a nature trail, and a path along the spit. Camping is available year-round for RVs and tents; in addition, there are 13 yurts and 5 deluxe cabins, which tend to fill up quickly during most of the year. 

The Three Capes Route is a classic Oregon drive, and Cape Lookout is arguably its finest gem. Wait for a break in the coastal fog if you can, but don't miss this opportunity to walk to the tip of this rocky finger pointing out to the sea.

Solomon's Seal

Halfway viewpoint
Trail getting rougher

Yep, that's the trail
Wood Violet

On the tip