Pacific Northwest Travel

Three Capes Scenic Loop: A Unique North Oregon Coast Road Trip

November 29, 2021

The Three Capes Scenic Loop is an often overlooked spot on the North Oregon Coast. Tucked in between Tillamook and the Pacific Ocean, the Three Capes Loop includes Cape Meares to the North, Cape Lookout in the center, and Cape Kiwanda to the south. And with most of this route off busy [Hwy] 101, it can feel like you’ve stumbled across a hidden part of the Oregon coast. But make no mistake, all three of these capes are Oregon state parks and can get super crowded in the summer time! However, not everyone is doing this route as a loop! Here’s how to explore the 3 Capes Scenic Loop! Jump Ahead:

Cape Meares Things to Do & Places to See

Cape Meares is Oregon’s shortest lighthouse. Built in 1890’s it has a unique red hue from the Fresnel lens – made in Paris. The Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint park is a national wildlife refuge high up on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific in a Sitka spruce forest – also home to the Octopus Tree. With beautiful views looking south toward Three Arch Rocks, Short Beach and Lost Boy Beach. And the northern viewpoint looks out on the cliffs overlooking Pillar Rock.

Cape Meares lighthouse - Three Capes Scenic Loop
Cape Meares Lighthouse

Cape Meares Lighthouse is currently only accessible by Bayshore Drive via Oceanside (which is a scenic drive in itself). There is a road closure – due to mud slide – right after the parks entrance. So the Bayocean Peninsula is only accessible via Bayocean Road NW out of Tillamook.

Octopus Tree at Cape Meares
Octopus Tree at Cape Meares State Park
Short Beach near Cape Meares

Bayocean Peninsula

The Bayocean Peninsula has a pretty wild history. This 5 mile long ocean spit between the Pacific and Tillamook bay is now a quiet spot to walk and explore. You would never know that a vibrant little ocean city occupied this area in the 1910’s – built to be the “Atlantic City of the West Coast”. It’s now remembered as the city that fell into the sea, and its ultimate demise was both nature and construction of the jetties for the Tillamook Bay. Learn more about Bayocean’s history.

North Oregon Coast sunset
Short Beach

Oceanside

Oceanside is one of those small beach towns that have that old school vacation vibe. Forget the “big” coastal towns with stop lights and outlets, Oceanside has a few stop signs, a couple cafes, fish and chip shop, and views from just about any angle in town. Built on a cliffside overlooking Three Arch Rocks, the small town streets are switchbacks up the hillside. And with a beach that stretches the length of town, there’s plenty to explore – including an old tunnel through Maxwell Point to a more secluded beach – Agate Beach (or Tunnel Beach). And depending on the time of year, during low low tide you can make it even further north to other secret coves and beaches.

Three Arch Rocks from Agate Tunnel Beach in Oceanside Oregon
View of Three Arch Rocks from Agate Beach in Oceanside through the tunnel
Maxwell point tunnel
Maxwell Point tunnel in Oceanside

Netarts & the Netarts Bay

Netarts has gotten more exposure in the last decade from Jacobsen Salt Co. bringing extra attention to the area. Netarts is located right at the opening of Netarts Bay, and has a few great restaurants. The bay is known for clams, so this is your spot for seafood – clam chowder, Oregon dungeness crab, fish and chips and more. Jacobson Salt Co. now have a shop off Whiskey Creek Rd on the south side of Netarts Bay.

Netarts area was originally home to Tillamook Indians, including the long spit on the west side of the bay.

Cape Lookout

Cape Lookout Trail hike viewpoint
Cape Lookout Trail views

The second cape in the three capes scenic route is Cape Lookout. This is one of Oregon’s best state parks. Cape Lookout State Park offers camping, yurts, cabins and great views of the Pacific on the Cape Lookout Trail. Capes are often a great whale watching spot since they jut so far out into the sea. Cape Lookout Trail is a 4.7 mile out and back hike (The North Trail is currently closed).

Sand Lake

Sand Lake is the place for ATV adventures. If you don’t like the sound of ATVs at all hours, best to find a different campground! Also near Sand Lake, is Whalen Island and the Sitka Sedge State Natural Area.

Cape Kiwanda

Cape Kiwanda at Pacific City
Cape Kiwanda

Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area is a sandstone headland north of Pacific City. And home to Oregon’s “other Haystack Rock”. The giant sand dune and state natural area is constantly eroding due to the soft sandstone. While it was also once known for the iconic “duckbill rock” which was a carefully balanced sandstone rock up on a pedestal, it was vandalized and toppled in 2016. File under: Leave No Trace and #thisiswhywecanthavenicethings.

Pacific City

Haystack Rock in Pacific City and Cape Kiwanda - the third Cape of the Three Capes Scenic Loop
The “other” Haystack Rock

Pacific City – home of the “other Haystack Rock” – is one of this loops busiest towns. It’s a coast vacation spot all in itself and still one of my favorite spots on the Oregon coast! Known for surfing, sand dunes, miles of beaches, and the infamous Pelican Brewing. If you’re looking for solitude, this is not your town. But Pacific City still feels small and kind of like a one-stop shop Oregon coast town with great amenities! Plus, Pacific City has a ton of lodging options. While you’ll find Airbnbs up and down the coast, Pacific City is little town with hotels and vacation rentals as well.

Nestucca Bay, just south of Pacific City, is where the three capes scenic route finally reconnects with 101.

Three Capes Scenic Loop Map

This loop is about 60 miles of driving, as a loop and then a short out and back from Netarts up to Cape Meares. And if you’re planning to drive the Three Capes Scenic Loop in the summer or on a weekend, know that the 30 miles north to south will usually take much longer than Google maps thinks it will, so plan accordingly. Here are the driving directions and extra stops in the embedded map below.

Three Capes Scenic Loop Map

Pro tip: We call Hwy 101 just “101”, in Oregon. If you’re from California, you probably refer to it as “THE 101”, which you’re entitled to continue using. Just know, you’ll get friendlier locals if you try to use the Oregon name. ;)

Where to Stay on the Three Capes Scenic Loop

The Three Capes Scenic Loop is, as the name states – scenic. You won’t find many big hotels and chain lodging options. But there are more hotel options on the southern end of the loop at Pacific City. And if you really want to get that charming coastal town feel – check out a vacation rental on Airbnb or VRBO. And for the really scenic route – camp your way down the coast. You can of course do part of this loop as a day trip from Portland, but it’s most enjoyable as an overnight or two, with some time to explore and relax between driving.

Camping:

  • Cape Lookout State Park – tent sites, RVs, yurts, and cabins
  • Sand Lake Recreation Area – Sandbeach campground (US Forest Service Siuslaw National Forest)

Hotels & Airbnbs:

  • Airbnbs – Oceanside, Netarts, Pacific City all have plenty of unique homes!
  • Inn at Cape Kiwanda – from $170/night (all rooms have views of Haystack Rock)
  • Harts Camp Airstream Hotel & RV park – from $152/night (2 night minimum)

Things to Do & Eat:

  • Whale watching – While the central coast is well-known for whale watching, capes are an excellent spot as well. Since capes jut out further into the ocean than the rest of the coastline, they are great places to see grey whales during their seasonal migration in winter (mid-December to mid-January southbound) and spring (late March to May).
  • Hikes – There are so many great trails with amazing viewpoints on the Three Capes Scenic Loop – from easy to moderate. Check out a few highlights below.
  • Rocks, shells, and tide pool exploring – with miles of coastline, and lower foot traffic than some of the busier spots off 101, this area of the North Coast is one of the best for rock hounds and exploring. Tidepooling is easiest at Maxwell Point in Oceanside or Cape Kiwanda.
  • Eat seafood! From clam chowder to oysters fresh from Netarts Bay to fish and chips and Dungeness crab – there’s no shortage of fresh seafood on the Three Capes Scenic Loop. The only tough part about dining on this section of coast is many restaurants and food trucks are seasonal or have limited hours! So call ahead or stop by, but don’t expect everything to be open according to what Google Maps is telling you. Restaurants are located in Oceanside, Netarts, Pacific City, and of course Tillamook.
  • Tillamook ice cream – Since you’ll be passing through Tillamook at some point, you may as well stop for some Tillamook ice cream and cheese!
  • Beer with a view at Pelican Brewing – Pelican is one of the Oregon coasts oldest craft brewers. They’ve been brewing since 1996 and now have breweries up and down the coast.
  • Go surfing – Cape Kiwanda is a popular spot for surfing.
Cape Meares Lookout viewpoint

Three Capes Scenic Loop Hikes

  • Cape Lookout Trail Hike – 4.7 miles, 800′ elevation (moderate hike) AllTrails
  • Cape Meares Viewpoint & Octopus Tree loop – 3 miles, 662′ elevation (easy hike) AllTrails
  • Short Beach Hike – 1.4 miles, 95′ elevation (easy hike) OregonHikers
  • Netarts Spit Trail – 10.5 miles, 78′ elevation (easy hike) AllTrails
  • Sitka Sedge Natural Area Loop Hike – 3.5 miles, 98′ elevation (easy hike) AllTrails

And remember, the Oregon coast is a popular travel spot in the summer. So my favorite time to see a lot of these spots is in shoulder season or off season. Where you can have these spots almost to yourselves.

I hope you enjoy this look at driving the Three Capes Scenic Loop! And please remember that to keep Oregon beautiful and green, we all need to do our part when traveling – respect nature, respect local residents, and leave things as or better than you found them. Happy travels!

Three Capes Scenic Loop Road trip