Ecola State Park
Just north of Cannon Beach, a mile south of the junction between US-101 and US-26 from Portland, the rainforested access road through Ecola State Park (503/436-2844, day use only, $5 per car) leads to one of the most photographed views on the coast: Looking south you can see Haystack Rock and Cannon Beach with Neahkahnie Mountain looming above them. Out to sea, the sight of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse to the northwest is also striking. Operational from 1881 to 1957, the lighthouse is now used as a repository for the ashes of people who’ve been cremated.
The rest of Ecola State Park protects a series of rugged headlands stretching for nine miles along the coast, with many forested hiking trails, including some of the most scenic portions of the Oregon Coast Trail system. The park also marks the southernmost extent of Lewis and Clark’s cross-country expedition. Clark and a few other members of the Corps of Discovery expedition traversed the area in search of supplements to their diet of hardtack and dried salmon. The word ecola means “whale” in the Chinookan tongue and was affixed to this region by the Lewis and Clark expedition, who found one of these leviathans washed up on a beach. They happily bought 300 pounds of tangy whale blubber from local Native Americans, but these days you’d better bring your own lunch to picnic atop bluffs with sweeping views of the rock-strewn Pacific.
The view from the top of Tillamook Head, which rises 1,200 feet above the sea at the heart of the park, was memorialized by explorer William Clark as “the grandest and most pleasing prospect” he had ever beheld.
Unlike many Oregon coast towns, Cannon Beach (pop. 1,690) is hidden from the highway, but it’s one place you won’t want to miss. Though it’s little more than a stone’s throw south of boisterous Seaside, Cannon Beach has long been known as an artists’ colony, and while it has grown considerably in recent years thanks to its popularity as a weekend escape from Portland, it retains a peaceful, rustic atmosphere.
Every summer, Cannon Beach hosts one of the largest and most enjoyable sand castle competitions on the West Coast, with some 10,000 spectators and as many as 1,000 participants turning out with their buckets and spades. In terms of traditional tourist attractions, there’s not a lot to do, but Cannon Beach is an unbeatable place in which to stop and unwind, or to take long walks along the nine-mile strand and then retreat indoors to the many good galleries, cafés, and restaurants.
For breakfast or brunch, fill up on eggs Benedict at The Lazy Susan Café (126 N. Hemlock St., 503/436-2816, Wed.-Mon.); it also serves a stupendous array of ice cream at its “scoop shop” up the street. Another great casual gourmet place to eat is Ecola Seafoods (208 N. Spruce St., 503/436-9130), a market and restaurant selling and serving locally caught fish and shellfish—including tempura-battered chinook salmon, grilled halibut, smoked mussels, and an excellent $5 chowder.
Reasonably priced rooms near the beach and town can be found at the oceanfront Sea Sprite at Haystack Rock (280 S. Nebesna St., 503/436-2266, $129 and up).
South of Cannon Beach, the beach loop runs along a spectacular grouping of volcanic basalt plugs, notably 235-foot-high Haystack Rock. Elsewhere along the Oregon coast, there are at least two more geological outcrops called Haystack Rock, a bigger one off Cape Kiwanda and another down near Bandon.
Neahkahnie Mountain and Oswald West State Park
Leaving Cannon Beach southbound, US-101 rises high above the Pacific. Nowhere else along the Oregon coast does the roadbed offer such a sweeping ocean view. Soaring another thousand feet above the highway is Neahkahnie Mountain, which offers unsurpassed views up and down the coast.
About 10 miles south of Cannon Beach at Oswald West State Park (503/368-3575), a half-mile trail winds beneath the highway through an ancient forest to driftwood-laden (and surfer-friendly) Short Sands Beach and the tide pools of Smuggler’s Cove. Named for an early governor of Oregon who successfully proposed preserving and protecting the beaches of Oregon as state (rather than private) property, Oswald West State Park is a good start for longer hikes, to weather-beaten Cape Falcon or across US-101 to the summit of Neahkahnie Mountain.
South of Neahkahnie Mountain, and thus spared much of the stormy coastal weather (annual rainfall hereabouts averages more than 80 inches), is the upscale resort town of Manzanita. Nearby Nehalem Bay State Park (503/368-5154) has a large campground with hundreds of sites and plenty of hot showers. US-101 continues through a series of small towns before winding inland past the sloughs and dairy country along Tillamook Bay.