Escape To The Cape: Oregon’s Cape Lookout

Cape Lookout is a massive rock outcropping on the northcentral Oregon Coast about an hour and a half west of Portland. Along with Cape Kiwanda and Cape Meares, it provides the focal point for the Three Capes Scenic Drive just outside the town of Tillamook. Tillamook, renowned for its cheese and ice cream factory, is at the junction of coastal Highway 101 and State Route 6.

Sally O’Neal Coates

The cape itself is 2.5 miles long, a mile wide, and about 500 feet high, jutting into the Pacific like the prow of a great ocean liner.

Camping At The Cape
A wide variety of terrain and visual features make Cape Lookout Campground deservedly popular. Massive trees and thickly wooded areas give way to open beach; campsites are available in both the forested and the oceanfront areas. The forested sites are, predictably, more protected from the elements and generally larger, but you can’t beat the views from the beach sites. A few dozen RV sites and several yurts (canvas-walled, wood-floored frame tents) are available, but the bulk of the campground is devoted to tent sites. Fees range from $12 to $16 for a tent site and $16 to $20 for an RV site with hookups; yurts are $27 and accommodate five. All campers have access to hot showers and flush toilets. Reservations can be made through the park system via http://www.oregonstateparks.org/park_186.php or 1-800-452-5687. During the October through May off-season, a block of sites is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Cape Trail
While the Cape Lookout area includes over eight miles of hiking trails, the 2.4-mile (each way) Cape Trail is the most dramatic, taking you along a gently rolling route to the very tip of the cape. The trailhead is a 2.6-mile drive from the campground, or the route between the campground and Cape Trail trailhead can be hiked via the North Trail. This connecting hike adds about 2.6 miles (each way), doubling the length of your outing and adding a steep climb. Those who are not camping will find the clearly marked trailhead parking lot about 13 miles outside of Tillamook on Three Capes Drive.

Ferns to the left of me, dropoffs to the right: The Cape Trail.

From the Cape Trail trailhead, hikers have a choice of three routes: the aforementioned 2.6-mile trek to the north toward the campground, a 1.8-mile drop down the south side of the cape to an expansive beach, or straight ahead along the crown of the cape to the tip, the latter being the Cape Trail.

I most recently walked the trail on a rainy Saturday in October and encountered only three other hiking parties. Spring and summer bring more activity. Whale watching is popular from late December through May, when thousands of gray whales move right past the cape on their annual migration north. Summer brings birdwatchers, flower fans, and the usual assortment of tourist families.

Autumn On The Cape
The hike in autumn is peaceful, green, and wet. Ferns are thick along the coastal hillsides, and hardy Western hemlock, red cedar, and spruce tower overhead. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow, dipping from deep green “forest primeval” out onto open sections with breathtaking cliffs and stunning views, then back again to forest. It traverses the cape so that views are afforded on both sides along the way. Even when the mist (that’s Oregonian for “rain”) obscures the distant landmarks, the beaches and crashing waves below make for impressive vistas. What autumn might lack in wildflowers, it makes up for in an incredible variety of colorful mushrooms.

Those who like a little history with their hike should keep their eyes peeled for the bronze marker about half a mile from the trailhead commemorating the crash of a B-17 bomber against the cape during World War II.

Tip Of The Cape
When you arrive at trail’s end, you’ll see that Cape Lookout is aptly named. From this windswept promontory, you look out onto a 200-plus-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. Given the strong winds that often blow here and the sheer dropoffs, perhaps the name should be pronounced, “Cape LookOUT!” The fence is there for a reason.

Sweeping panoramas; looking southeast from the tip of Cape Lookout.

The tip of the cape is breathtaking in every sense of the word, and a fitting reward for your efforts. But it’s one of those places that don’t photograph well — more of a sweeping openness than a Kodak moment. To the north, lies the sandy stretch of Netarts Spit, where the Cape Lookout campground is located. Beyond the Spit, the next headland to the north is Cape Meares. To the south, in the distance, but visible on a clear day, is Haystack Rock and Cape Kiwanda. So much coastal beauty in both directions; with proper raingear, fall is a great time to see it all.

Sally O’Neal Coates is a rainy-day hiker and longtime lover of the Oregon Coast. Her travel guidebooks include “Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the Central Cascades,” which describes hikes in Oregon’s inland Cascade Mountains from Mt. Hood to the Three Sisters. She writes a weekly column for sportsmansguide.com.

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