Drive the northern Oregon coast: Haystack rocks, giant dunes and fresh seafood

One round-trip ticket to Portland. One rental car, pointed west. And one tank of gas.

Start with these elements, then stretch them across four days and three nights in the shape of a 270-mile triangle.

The result? A road trip to the northern Oregon coast, as far south as Pacific City, as far north as Cannon Beach.


You’ll be sidestepping Portland proper and Astoria — and every other city with a population of more than 10,000 — so you can take a little time in towns such as Tillamook, Manzanita, Nehalem and Netarts — and in the landscape between them.

Along the way — mostly two-lane highways — you’ll find enough rugged-shoreline panoramas to choke your iPhone, along with tall trees, beach grass, bike tracks in damp sand, wave-lashed rocks and plates of homegrown greens, local oysters and (you knew this was coming, right?) Tillamook cheese.

If you happen to catch a few sunny days, as I did during my May visit, that’s your cue to grab at the outdoor options with both hands.

Climb the great dune at Cape Kiwanda. Take the Cape Lookout hike in Cape Lookout State Park. Stand on the wet sand beneath Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock and watch it become a whale-shaped silhouette at sunset.

Like Haystack Rock, some of these stops are time-honored Oregon destinations. But not all. The midpoint of my trip was North Fork 53, a farmhouse B&B that opened in October with a staff of hip, young farmers and servers who run an organic farm and stylish little farm store.

It sits about 15 minutes inland in the deep green Nehalem River Valley, which makes a nice contrast to the region’s many beach towns.

But let’s get you to those beach towns first. This itinerary begins with a 108-mile drive from Portland International Airport west along U.S. 26 and Oregon 6, then south on U.S. 101 to Cape Kiwanda at Pacific City.

Travel writer Christopher Reynolds takes a scenic spin on the Oregon coast: four days, three nights, one tank of gas, one big sand dune, one killer coastal hike, one cheese factory, one organic farm B&B, and one bonfire in the shadow of Haystack Roc

It’s a strange cape.

Beside a gorgeous sandstone finger of land that reaches out into the ocean, you confront a 200-foot-high sand dune. Yes, you can and should climb it. (In early morning, there’s less wind at the top.)

From the top you can look down on the cape and out at 327-foot-high Haystack Rock, which is not to be confused with a more famous (but smaller) Haystack Rock that you’ll encounter later.

About descending: If you run straight down the dune, you may feel as though you’ve slipped into a weightless slo-mo dream sequence. I recommend this. Just don’t fall.

After the dune, you could head a few miles north to Whalen Island County Park, where a handful of enormous driftwood tree trunks is scattered on sand like the Jolly Green Giant’s forgotten beach toys.

Or you could forget the island and walk straight from the dune into the Pelican Pub & Brewery, which has stood at the edge of the sand since 1996.

Pacific City is sleepy, only about 1,000 residents, but the Pelican stays busy. I gobbled one of the burgers and slept across the street at the Inn at Cape Kiwanda in a second-floor room looking down on the sea, the pub and the big rock.

Now, if I had gone straight from Cape Kiwanda to my next destination — the North Fork 53 B&B, near Nehalem — that would have been a 50-mile dash, most of it on U.S. 101.

Instead, I tried a few detours on the way north.

The first and best, 12 miles north of Pacific City, was the cliff-top, fern-lined trail out to Cape Lookout, a 4.6-mile round-trip hike within Cape Lookout State Park. It was fairly flat but plenty dramatic.

“The views make you feel like you’re doing some sort of extreme hike, but you’re not,” said Evelyn Hunsberger, a 20-year-old student I met on the trail.

Next I’d recommend lunch on the sun-splashed patio of the Schooner Restaurant & Lounge, eight miles north of Cape Lookout State Park on Netarts Bay. In the afternoon, you could continue north to wander around the lighthouse and coastal panoramas at Cape Meares or head east to taste cheese and ice cream ($3 a scoop) at the Tillamook Cheese Factory. I did both.

You need not get lost and waste an hour on an old gravel logging road along the Kilchis River, as I did. Instead, to get to North Fork 53 from Tillamook, just take U.S. 101 up to Nehalem and follow North Fork Road for about five miles along the north fork of the Nehalem River until you spot the bright-colored sign, barn and 1930s farmhouse that belong to the B&B. (Of the four guest rooms — $105-$125 nightly — three share baths.)

For dinner, you’ll want to head into nearby Nehalem or Manzanita. But don’t miss the North Fork 53 breakfast. The eggs, greens, carrots, potatoes — just about everything was grown within five acres of the table.

Lily Strauss, who tends fields at the North Fork 53 farm and bed & breakfast in Nehalem, Ore., samples some of the farm’s kale.
Lily Strauss, who tends fields at the North Fork 53 farm and bed & breakfast in Nehalem, Ore., samples some of the farm’s kale.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )

As if that weren’t enough, after breakfast, innkeeper Ana Tkacik and farmer Lily Strauss took me out to the fields and picked some Lacinato kale and arugula flowers that we ate on the spot. (Other visitors, if they’re 21 or older, might prefer one of North Fork 53’s marijuana-related packages, billed as “Oregon’s first fully integrated cannabis lodging experience.”)

For the last night of this trip, I suggest two ideas an Oregonian might expect and a Californian might not: First, drive 24 more miles up the coast up to enjoy the shoreline and driftwood at Ecola State Park. (Yes, in the era of Ebola and E. coli, the park has an ominous-sounding name. But it’s an old native word. Learn to love it.)

The park’s Indian Beach and cliff-top picnic area both have screen-saver-worthy views. But be warned: Winter landslides have shut down one popular viewing platform near the picnic tables.

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Ore.
Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, Ore.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )

Then find a hotel on the sand at Cannon Beach so you can spend the sunset wandering around another Haystack Rock, this one 235 feet tall and surrounded by swooping gulls, puffins, murres, cormorants and, sometimes, bald eagles. (If you stay at the Surfsand Resort, bear in mind the beach campfire that Surfsand staffers set up on nights when weather permits. They even supply marshmallows and skewers.)

Cannon Beach, by the way, is no secret to the trendy set in Portland. The population may be 1,700 or so, but it’s been a well-known quantity since at least 1806, when Capt. William Clark (Meriwether Lewis’ partner in northwestern exploration) found a 108-foot-long whale here, beached on the shore near Ecola Creek.

Today Portlanders seek out scores of hotels, rental houses, galleries and restaurants, most with shingled walls, New England-style, on Hemlock Street. (Try Lazy Susan Café for breakfast and bring cash. It doesn’t take plastic.)

The town’s popularity with Portlanders means things can be pricey, but its location is undeniably handy. Once you hop back into your rental car, it’s just 91 miles along U.S. 26 to the Portland airport and your flight home.


Tips for visitors

Getting around: Oregon has 363 miles of coast and U.S. 101 runs close to most of it. My trip from Portland airport to Pacific City to Cannon Beach to Portland airport again covered just 68 miles of coastline, mostly along 101.

Best time to visit: May through October, when high temperatures are typically 59 to 65 degrees at Cannon Beach. Oregon’s coast gets about 15 degrees cooler in late fall and winter, and much wetter — more than 10 inches of rain per month in November, December and January.

Accessibility: Cars can legally drive onto the beach by way of a ramp at Pacific City, giving easy access to the sand if you have the right kind of wheelchair. The Tillamook cheese factory is wheelchair accessible.

Sleep: Inn at Cape Kiwanda, 33105 Cape Kiwanda Drive, Pacific City, Ore.; (503) 965-7001. Rooms for two: $179 and up, depending on season.

North Fork 53, 77282 Oregon Route 53, Nehalem, Ore.; (503) 368-5382. Four rooms (three with shared baths, one with private bath) in a ’30s farmhouse. Rooms for two: $110-$125, breakfast included.

Surfsand Resort, 148 Gower St., Cannon Beach, Ore.; (855) 761-9065. rooms for two: $199 and up, depending on season.

Eat: Pelican Pub & Brewery, 33180 Cape Kiwanda Drive, Pacific City; (503) 965-7007. Good burgers. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Entrees $13.99-$30.

The Schooner Restaurant & Lounge, 2065 Boat Basin Road, Netarts, Oregon; (503) 815-9900. Seafood-y; dining room and patio by the water. Lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch. Lunches $12.50-$18.

Lazy Susan Café, Coaster Square, Cannon Beach, Oregon; (503) 436-2816. Breakfast and lunch, cash only. Everything $13.25 and under.

More info: Travel Oregon, Visit the Oregon Coast, Tillamook Coast, Cannon Beach.