Hike Distance: 5.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 813 feet
With some much to do and see on the north coast are of Oregon, we had to make sure the hike we chose would be as memorable as our other coastal adventures. Not to give the surprise away early, but we chose wisely! The Cape Lookout Trail is arguably one of the most picturesque of Oregon’s northern coast hikes. It has everything you would want and expect: new growth forest, old growth forest, massive Sitka spruce trees, towering hemlocks, cliff-edge trails, and panoramic views.
Fog surrounded us from the moment we got in the car until we parked the car at the trailhead parking lot. Advection fog occurs along the coast when warmer more humid air coming from inland is cooled and moistened the air above it. The cooler air can't hold as much moisture as warm air so the moisture condenses into fog. Fog is something we'd gotten used to and have embraced during this trip. Of course the night before this hike I did research how to take 'good' pictures under foggy conditions.
There are three trails from the parking lot. The Cape Trail which was the trail we followed; the South Trail leads to a secluded beach, and the North Trail ambles along the bluffs. Back in September 2020, this entire area of the coast was hit by a devastating wind storm that caused massive damage to trails. Fortunately, the Cape Lookout Trail reopened in June 2021. However, the North Trail remains closed due to downed tree and other debris. Restoring trail access will require removing downed and dangerous trees by helicopter within 200 feet on either side of the trails. Once the trees/debris are removed, ground crews are expected to begin rebuilding the path; a process that’s expected to take a year. This means the earliest anyone may be able to head out on the North Trail is spring of 2023.
The clearly defined trail started out with a gradual descent through a new growth forest.
The dense cover of ferns on the forest floor provides shade and protection for smaller plants and holds moisture in the soil.The life and death of ferns and the plants nurtured under their broad leaves enrich the soil and help sustain the roots of the spruce and hemlocks.
Moss clings to nearly every surface. The cool, cloudy, wet weather along the coast is ideal for the growth of these plants.
After a short distance we entered a dense lush forest of Sitka spruce and hemlock trees. An amateur arborist I’m not! My ability to identify trees along the trail is nonexistent, but whether we were walking among hemlock or spruce trees, they were impressive.
Together, Sitka spruce and western hemlock dominate the coastal forest of the Pacific Northwest. These maritime conifers grow only in a narrow strip on the Pacific Coast from Alaska to southern Oregon in the cool, moist maritime climate and are rarely found more than 50 miles inland.
The relationship between these two trees and their presence in this forest is like the story of the tortoise and the hare. Spruce grow quickly and need considerable sunshine while hemlocks grow slowly and are shade tolerant.
This conifer is the largest of the spruce species and the third-largest tree in the world after the coastal redwood and Douglas fir. They average 125-180 feet tall and three to five feet in diameter. Mature hemlock are not much smaller averaging four feet in diameter.
On August 1, 1943, in the middle of World War II, a B-17 bomber was headed north up the coast on a routine patrol flight. The plane was tasked with flying to Cape Disappointment on the Oregon Coast. Due to extremely overcast conditions, the plane was flying at about 50-150 feet above the water. Deciding that the risk was too great, the crew began to climb back up into the overcast. Unfortunately, the plane crashed into the side of Cape Lookout at about 900 feet in elevation.
About 0.6 miles into the hike is a bronze plaque set in a boulder along the trail records the event.
Despite the trail being cleared after the September 2020 wind storm, there were still several uprooted trees. Sitka spruce have a shallow root systems with long lateral roots and few branchings. This structure makes them susceptible to being toppled by storms.
Boardwalks were strategically placed to deal with the worst of the muddy sections on the trail.
For most of the hike, the trail hugs the south side of the Cape but after 1.5 miles the trail switches to the northern side where an opening provides views toward Cape Meares. Unfortunately with the lingering fog, visibility was extremely limited.
Directly below us was the steep-sided Wells Cove that cuts deeply into the terrain leaving only a narrow finger of land along the southern side.
We needed to navigate over or around massive roots balls that lie tangled on the floor of the trail. Stepping around and over these eroded sections was a little tricky with the muddy conditions.
As the trail weaved back to the south, we were briefly greeted by the spectacular expanse of the Pacific and the near 400-foot drop to the sea.
After this small opening, the trail turned back into the forest. It was tremendously overgrown but still easy to follow.
We found a nice Sitka 'bench' to relax on for a few minutes.
Less than a half mile later, the trail emerged onto a cabled-off cliff area. Damn, it was a long drop straight into the ocean from here.
This last section of the trail made plodding through the ankle-deep muddy sections worth it. Just off to our left the land dropped 400 feet to the ocean and to our right there were 100-foot tall Sitka spruce. It’s easy to see why this is such a popular hike.
Cable fencing lined the final uneven rocky section of trail. The fog lifted just enough to give us views of the sandy beaches to the south.
We were expecting panoramic views at the lookout but trees and fog obstructed our views to the north, east, and west. But what a feeling being at the end of the promontory even under low visibility conditions. Due to the conditions, we probably encountered less than 20 people on the trail that day
There were only two other people at the outlook when we arrived but a sparrow joined us later to snack on the berries.
Usually I don't take many photos on the return side of an out and back trail, but today was different. After we left the outlook, the weather to turn. The wind picked up driving heavy fog inland and it began to rain off and on. It made for some different photos.
The Cape Lookout Trail is definitely one of the hikes to consider if you are short on time and need to get the biggest bang for the buck. Here's a great aerial shot of Cape Lookout.