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Oregon's Three Capes Scenic Route


One of the most scenic drives along the Oregon Coast is the Three Capes Scenic Route, located in Tillamook County, Oregon. Named for the three capes along the ocean that it passes by, Cape Kiwanda, Cape Lookout, and Cape Meares, it is a fun 39-mile drive filled with majestic views of the Pacific Ocean, Sitka spruce trees, twisty roads, and a few oceanfront towns along the way. It is also known as the Three Capes Scenic Drive or the Three Capes Scenic Loop. Situated in one of the few areas of Oregon where US 101 veers inland from the ocean, the Three Capes Scenic Route offers a classic coastal alternative to the main highway of the Oregon Coast between the Nestucca River and Tillamook. But at least the southern part of the scenic route was proposed to become part of US 101 at one time, only for the proposal to be struck down due to public opposition. Instead of speeding along the coast, the Three Capes Scenic Drive has been built and preserved for you to enjoy the views along the road at your own pace. I first became familiar with the Three Capes Scenic Route from a book that I had bought on scenic drives in Oregon some years back, and made my first trip down this incredible scenic byway in 2008, with a few return trips since that original journey.

The entire drive along the Three Capes Scenic Route can take you a couple of hours, or it can take you a couple of days or even more. It's what you make of it. If you start your journey at the southern end of the scenic byway in Pacific City, you can peel off of US 101 and take in Cape Kiwanda or Bob Straub State Park. Named for the late Oregon Secretary of the Treasury, Bob Straub, the state park at Nestucca Spit was at one time planned to be the site of a relocated US 101 closer to the Pacific Ocean, which would have altered the Three Capes Scenic Drive between Pacific City and Sandlake. The effort to stop the relocation of US 101 through the Nestucca Spit and Pacific City deserves a backstory of its own.

In 1964, during a time when the Oregon State Highway Commission was modernizing US 101, one of the plans was to relocate the highway from Beaver to Neskowin in southern Tillamook County. There were three proposed routes, but an alignment involving a 90-foot-tall bridge over Nestucca Spit and through Pacific City was approved in March 1965 after a series of public hearings. The Nestucca Spit highway was in effect a done deal. Funds were allocated for its construction, engineering designs were completed and the right of way was acquired, just waiting for ground to be broken on the project. However, as Bob Straub caught wind of this proposal, he poured a huge effort into stopping the construction as it would destroy the quiet nature of the beach for outdoor recreation. In 1966, as Straub was running for Oregon governor, he started a separate campaign to stop the realignment of US 101 across the Nestucca Spit and through part of the Three Capes Scenic Route. He wrote letters to officials, organized marches, and collected signatures. In August 1967, the United States Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall instructed the Bureau of Land Management to disapprove the application of the Oregon State Highway engineer Glenn Jackson for a variance to permit highway construction through the Nestucca Sandspit area in Pacific City, Oregon, as it would affect Bureau of Land Management acreage that was vested to the State of Oregon exclusively for outdoor recreational purposes. After some revisions to the highway proposal, in 1968, it was officially dead. The beach around Nestucca Spit was named in honor of Bob Straub in 1987. On a scenic drive level, the Three Capes Scenic Route and US 101 go around Nestucca Spit to this day, and the Three Capes Scenic Route maintains a quiet nature where one can enjoy the outdoors around them as they continue on their way. 

Continuing north through Pacific City, the Three Capes Scenic Route passes by Cape Kiwanda. The smallest of the three capes along this scenic drive still offers much to see. At Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area, you will find a sandstone headland that presents one of the best viewpoints on the Oregon Coast for observing the raw power of the Pacific Ocean. There is a steep climb up the towering dune where you are rewarded with scenes of waves pummeling rugged, twisting rocks and crevices, including that of Haystack Rock, which is roughly 340 feet tall. The fragile nature of the sandstone at Cape Kiwanda demonstrates that the ocean is constantly eroding and reshaping the landscape. The headland gives views of the beach at Pacific City, which is the home port to more than 300 traditional fishing vessels known as dory boats.

North from Cape Kiwanda, the road passes by Sitka Sedge and Whalen Island State Parks as it kisses the coastline on the way to Sandlake. You can find a nice view of the Pacific as the Three Capes Scenic Route descends into the seaside community of Tierra Del Mar. But this is also a land of marshes, forests, and farmland, more noticeably so as you work your way northbound. Just beyond the community of Sandlake, the Three Capes Scenic Route veers left and goes through sand dunes, aptly named Sand Lake. Just beyond the dunes is the second cape that lends its name to this scenic byway - Cape Lookout.

Cape Lookout juts out into the Pacific Ocean like the sharp end of a pushpin. It gets its name from a misidentification, as the name Cape Lookout was given to Cape Meares up the coast, but early nautical navigation maps put Cape Lookout on the spot it is today. The cape is one of the most prominent landmarks on the Oregon Coast and is a long spit of volcanic rock that stretches about two miles into the Pacific Ocean, with sheer cliffs plunging 400 feet to the ocean below. The cape was formed from massive lava flows from about 15 million years ago when Grand Ronde Basalt from eastern Oregon worked its way a few hundred miles west to the Pacific Ocean. Today, Cape Lookout has hiking to scenic views and also to a memorial for a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber crash that took place during a training missing on August 2, 1943. Of the 10 men who were aboard the bomber, there was one survivor, who was found by a blimp about 36 hours after the crash. I find that you can get sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and Netarts Spit from the Anderson View Point at Cape Lookout, or you can go to the beach or go camping and see Cape Lookout from a different angle.

Beyond Cape Lookout, the Three Capes Scenic Route follows the shoreline of Netarts Bay through the community of Netarts on the way to Oceanside. A number of shellfish farms dot the landscape, and in the distance, you can make out the sea stacks that comprise the Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge. The wildlife refuge is the oldest National Wildlife Refuge west of the Mississippi and was formed by the same lava flows that formed Cape Lookout. But you can get a much closer look at the Three Arch Rocks, which have names like Finley, Middle, and Shag Rocks, once you arrive in Oceanside, beyond where the Three Capes Scenic Route intersects with OR 131. Oceanside itself is a bit of a seaside resort town, with vacation homes built along the hillside. But it also sets the stage for the next act of the Three Capes Scenic Route.

North of Oceanside, the Three Capes Scenic Route passes by a few beach stops along the way, namely Tunnel Beach and Short Beach. Plus you do get to catch a few glimpses of the ocean as you get to the next stop at Cape Meares, the third cape that gives this scenic drive its name. Cape Meares was originally named Cape Lookout by explorer Captain John Meares in 1788, but nautical charts produced during the 1850s mistakenly put the name on another cape about ten miles to the south. To end any confusion, in 1857 it was renamed as Cape Meares. There are some contrasts to be found at Cape Meares. The unusual and large Octopus Tree is a Sitka spruce tree that can be found within the friendly confines of the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint. But perched above the dramatic cliffs towering over the Pacific Ocean is the iconic Cape Meares Lighthouse. Completed at the end of 1889, it is the shortest of the historic lighthouses along the Oregon Coast at 38 feet tall. But the shorter height of the lighthouse made it effective for shining light through the fog.

The northern stretch of the Three Capes Scenic Route goes from Cape Meares, past the ghost resort town of Bayocean, and over to Tillamook, where the scenic route meets up with US 101 once again. However, these last miles of the Three Cape Scenic Route have been cursed with a shifting landscape. Just beyond the turnoff for the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, the road has been closed due to a large landslide that happened in 2012 along with continued slide activity along the road that prompted the closure of 1.5 miles of the Cape Meares Loop Road portion of the Three Capes Scenic Route. According to a 2018 grant application for the project, the road has continued to move since the road closed, shifting more than 15 feet since it was closed. However, the Cape Meares Road Relocation project will add 1.7 miles of new roadway over the cape at an estimated cost of $22 million, reestablishing a through connection, especially with landslides also closing nearby OR 131 during short periods. Facing a similar fate from Mother Nature, nearby Bayocean was once a resort town known as the "Atlantic City of the West". Bayocean was accessed by a three-day steamship voyage from Portland. A grand resort was built at Bayocean during the early 20th Century, and a jetty was built at Tillamook Bay to make the trip by sea easier. But as the ocean washed away the sand at the spit that makes up Bayocean, the resort community fell into despair as the land was being reclaimed by the sea, and by 1971, the town was no more. Today, there is a park where Bayocean once stood, ripe for exploration.

The final push of the Three Capes Scenic Route takes us back over to OR 131 along the Trees to Sea Scenic Byway and over the Hoquarton Slough to Tillamook. Home to the famed Tillamook Creamery, it is a tasty place to cap off a tremendous journey along one of Oregon's finest scenic drives. From Tillamook, you can continue on US 101 north towards Cannon Beach and Astoria, or go east on OR 6 through the Tillamook State Forest and over to Portland. The Oregon Coast is filled with great drives and picturesque scenery, and the Three Capes Scenic Drive may be among my favorite stretches of road to travel in Oregon.

The Three Capes Scenic Route starts (and ends) at US 101. But we start this journey at the south end of the Three Capes Scenic Route in Pacific City, Oregon.

Pacific City, Oregon. You can get to plenty of places from there, but not many gas stations dot the scenic route.

The Haystack Rock of Cape Kiwanda as seen from the beach at Bob Straub State Park. This is probably the second most famous Haystack Rock on the Oregon Coast, as there is a well known Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Oregon as well.  

Looking at Cape Kiwanda from Bob Straub State Park.

Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area is great to check out at any time.

A walk up the dunes to the cliffs atop Cape Kiwanda is a great way to witness firsthand the awesome raw power of the Pacific Ocean.

Cape Kiwanda with Haystack Rock in the background. There's a few trails that allow you safe passage to different parts of the cape.

Cape Kiwanda and Haystack Rock.

A look towards Pacific City, Neskowin and Cascade Head from the dunes at Cape Kiwanda.

Back on the road, as we all came here to see the Three Capes Scenic Route, right? This is just north of Cape Kiwanda, heading towards Tierra Del Mar.

Three Capes Scenic Route has some fantastic ocean views.

Including this northbound view at Tierra Del Mar.

Approaching one of Oregon's newest State Parks, Sitka Sedge State Natural Area. The park features marshes, wetlands, forests, trails, and scenic views.

Checking out Sitka Sedge, which features a view of the Coast Range in the distance.

Plus ponds and marshes.

Whalen Island can also be accessed from the Three Capes Scenic Route.

Whalen Island has some nice hikes and the Clay Myers State Natural Area at Whalen Island to check out at your leisure.

The Three Capes Scenic Route goes through the small agricultural community of Sandlake.

Here, you have a choice, which works well if you only have time or see one or two of the three capes. You can turn left to stay on the Three Capes Scenic Route, or turn right to go back to US 101 near Beaver, Oregon. This is approximately where a relocated US 101 would have turned away from the Three Capes Scenic Route and back to where US 101 is currently aligned.

Going through the dunes at Sandlake. Trees and grasses have begun to dot the landscape along the dunes. 

Heading back into the forests and closer to the Pacific Ocean.

Entering the beautiful Cape Lookout State Park.

Three Capes Scenic Route through Cape Lookout State Park is rugged, twisty, and beautiful.

Anderson's Viewpoint is a scenic pulloff off of the Three Capes Scenic Route that affords great views of the Netarts Spit and north towards Cape Meares from Cape Lookout. It's also a great spot to go hang gliding from.

Anderson's Viewpoint is named in memory of Billy Anderson, a Tillamook County surveyor and engineer.

Some amazing views can be seen from Anderson's Viewpoint. It was hard to pick just one photo.

The Netarts Spit and Oceanside in the distance.

In the far distance, you can make out the Three Arch Rocks as well.

On the beach, you can see Cape Lookout jutting into the ocean.

A close-up of the Three Arch Rocks in the distance.

Three Capes Scenic Route follows Netarts Bay north from Cape Lookout.

Scenic, yet calm. You'd even think it was pacifying.

Three Capes Scenic Route continues north by turning left onto OR 131, which is the main highway between Oceanside and Tillamook.

A scenic coastal view from the Netarts Bay Lookout.

Entering Oceanside, Oregon, with the Three Arch Rocks having some prominence in the background.

Oceanside is a seaside community filled with homes and a few cafes. But the Three Capes Scenic Route bypasses the edge of town on its way to Cape Meares.

Back to forests...

And scenic oceanfront cliffs.

Short Beach is a short distance away from the Three Capes Scenic Route between Oceanside and Cape Meares.

At the time this article was written, the Three Capes Scenic Route is closed for about 1.5 miles beyond Cape Meares. The road was closed due to landslides in 2013, and there are currently plans to build a new road to go around the landslides.

But until then, you can retrace your steps back to Oceanside if you want to get to Tillamook.

Cape Meares Lighthouse is one of Oregon's smallest lighthouses, built along the side of Cape Meares.

In 1889, the first order Fresnel lens at the Cape Meares Lighthouse was built in France and shipped around Cape Horn on its way to Cape Meares.

At 38 feet tall, the lighthouse is stout, but still mighty as it protects the mariners navigating this stretch of the Pacific Coast.

The lighthouse is open seasonally for tours. During one of my visits, I toured the lighthouse and another attendee of the tour was the daughter of one of the last lighthouse keepers at Cape Meares.

Cape Meares has majestic views along with a majestic lighthouse.

On a clear day, you can get a great view of the Three Arch Rocks and Cape Lookout from Cape Meares.

Even on a cloudier day, Cape Meares is a great place to see the world beyond.

Sure, why not take another look at that Fresnel lens inside the lighthouse.

The famed Octopus Tree at Cape Meares.

Some light reading about a tree posted on a former tree.

Bayocean Peninsula and the mountains north of Tillamook Bay. I was able to get a photo of this view from my 2008 trip along the Three Capes Scenic Route, as I believe this part of the road is now closed off due to landslides.

Three Capes Scenic Route along Tillamook Bay.

I had to get another shot of the road alongside the bay.

By turning left, the Three Capes Scenic Route's final miles to Tillamook are along OR 131.

The Trees to Sea Scenic Byway is signed along this stretch of Three Capes Scenic Route. The Trees to Sea Scenic Byway runs along OR 6 and OR 131.

Bridge over the Hoquarton Slough.

Approaching Tillamook and the Coast Range.

Our story ends at US 101 and OR 6 in downtown Tillamook, along with the Three Capes Scenic Route and OR 131. I hope you enjoyed this virtual drive along one of Oregon's most scenic coastal treks as much as I do.

How to Get There:

Sources and Links:
Tillamook Headlight Herald - County, Federal Highways to restore Cape Meares Loop (January 6, 2022)
Oregon Encyclopedia - Cape Lookout


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