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Northern Coast of Oregon

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

It was the easiest decision, but it was the hardest decision to make! With so many different options and opportunities for our first trip to Oregon, we made the easy decision to begin our trip by exploring the northern coast. But the hard decision was deciding which of the beach communities to call home during our 4-day stay. As usual, Dave solved the problem by finding a unique Airbnb in Netarts, a small unincorporated community that was centrally located for exploring the coast.

Fort Clatsop Lewis and Clarks National Historical Park

On the drive from Seattle to Netarts, we made an unplanned stop at Fort Clatsop Lewis and Clarks National Historical Park located outside of Astoria, Oregon.

What is a national historic park? Click here for an article that describes the range of titles in the National Park system: national park, national monument, national preserve, national historic park, national recreation area, national battlefield, and many others.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase from France. In return for fifteen million dollars, the US acquired a total of 828,000 square miles nearly doubling the size of the country. Jefferson soon commissioned an expedition to be led by Meriwether Lewis with William Clark. Their goals were to:

  • explore and map the newly acquired territory,

  • find a practical water route across the western half of the continent, and

  • establish an American presence in the Oregon Country territory before European powers attempted to establish claims in the region.

At the time, the grey areas outlined in the map were claimed by Britain, Russia, Spain and the US.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, began its journey westward in May 1804. During the late summer/early fall of 1805, Lewis and Clark had traveled to the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase and entered Oregon Country. The expedition finally sighted the Pacific Ocean for the first time during November 1805. Facing the second bitter winter of their journey, the Corps decided to set up camp on the Columbia River and began constructing Fort Clatsop.

They built the encampment not just for shelter and protection, but also to officially establish the American presence here and fly the American flag flying over the fort. Nothing remains of the original fort, but this 2006 replica is based on details from Clark's journal.

The 33 members of the expedition spent four rainy months (December - March) waiting out the winter before beginning their return to St Louis, Missouri.

Lewis and Clark met the primary objectives of their mission by reaching the Pacific, mapping the territory, and establishing their presence for a legal claim to the land. In addition, they established diplomatic relations and trade with at least two dozen indigenous nations. However, they did not find the mythic water route to the Pacific Ocean that Jefferson so desired.

Since we were out of the car, we took the opportunity to walk some of the Park trails. This was our introduction to Oregon forests and the countless shades of green that bombard your eyes.


Our Airbnb in Netarts (red marker in the map below) was located in a secluded section along the eastern shore of Netarts Bay. This photo of the house was taken during low tide when we could walk out on the exposed bay.

Netarts Bay is approximately 5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide. A sand spit on the west side protects the bay from ocean storms and forms an estuary where freshwater from streams and creeks emanating from the surrounding hills mix with salt water from the ocean. Only 40% of the bay is permanently submerged; the remaining 60% is intertidal lands. Changes in the tides range from 5-9 feet, which is why we could see clear across the bay at low tide. In this photo, in the distance you can see the higher forested areas of the sand spit and the exposed intertidal lands between. What views to wake up to each morning!

While driving back to the Airbnb one stormy afternoon, we captured this photo which shows the narrow sandy spit that separates the ocean from Netarts Bay (top right of center).

It was a short 15 minute walk from the Airbnb to the Jacobsen Salt Company. Founded in 2011, Jacobsen Salt Co. is the first company to harvest salt in the Pacific Northwest since the 1800s. Since then, it has transformed from a local, small business to a nationally recognized brand as America’s leading salt maker. Unfortunately, the shop was closed due to COVID concerns, but we were later able to buy Jacobsen Pure Flake Sea Salt at the Tillamook Creamery Store.

During our 4-day stay along the coast, we explored a number of beaches, small communities, and hiking trails. Each of the stops are identified in the following map.

A: Cannon Beach

B: Acadia Beach

C: Oceanside Beach - Tunnel Beach

D: Cape Lookout State Park Hike (separate blog)

E: McPhillips Beach

F: God Thumb Hike (separate blog)

Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach is one of the most popular coastal Oregon tourist destinations. It's most famous for Haystack Rock, a 235 ft sea stack that juts out along the coast. In 2013, National Geographic listed it as "one of the world’s 100 most beautiful places.” Along with the designation comes the hordes of travelers who travel to see Haystack making it the most photographed landmarks in Oregon.

The story of Haystack Rock began nearly 15 million years ago when volcanic lava flowed from eastern Oregon along the route of the Columbia River. When this lava reached the sea, it descended into the soft ocean floor, pooled in spots, and pushed to the surface to form sea stacks.

Unfortunately, the day we visited Haystack Rock the beach was shrouded in fog; a typical Oregon summer beach day. However, we have plenty of time to plan a return trip since geologists estimate the iconic rock will not erode completely for another 3,000 years.

The poor weather made for good selfies conditions.

Arcadia Beach

As the fog lifted, we could see a number of secluded beaches along the rocky coastline and were determined to find our way on to one of them. The northern Oregon coast is characterized by large prominent headlands separated by coves with sandy or rocky beaches. A headland refers to a point of land, usually high with intense erosion and a sheer drop that extends out into a body of water. The headlands are separated by coves comprised of marine sediments and softer sandstone that is more easily eroded than the basalt headlands. Four well-defined headlands and their coves are visible in this photo.

We succeeded! Nestled between two of those headlands we found Arcadia Beach. The first thing we noticed walking on to the beach was the imposing Humbug Point. This headland was once underwater but geologically speaking was recently (about 25 million years) uplifted. The pressures exerted by the uplift are especially evident in the upward tilt and twisted patterns of the orange-brown layer of sandstone.

Why is there uplift along the Oregon coast and does it continue today? The answer involves an area located about 70-75 miles off shore. The Cascadia Subduction Zone includes a 600-mile fault that runs from northern California up to British Columbia where the Juan de Fuca Plate is sliding underneath the North American plate. As the oceanic plate subsides beneath the continental plate it exerts upward pressure.

On a local level, the immense pressure caused the sandstone distortions pictured above. On a more grand scale the uplift contributed to the formation of the Oregon Coast Mountain Range located 20 miles inland.

Being this close subduction zone is the reason why everywhere we traveled along the coast we saw sign about entering or leaving a tsunami zone. The Cascadia Subduction Zone has been building up strain for over 300 years, so the next great earthquake could happen at any time. Reduced to simple odds, the chances that an earthquake as large as magnitude 9.0 will occur along the zone within the next 50 years are about one in ten.

We were fortunate to visit during low tide when Lion Rock was accessible. This sea stack was originally part of Humbug Point but after 15+ million years of erosion the two rock formations have been separated.

When exploring along the coast, you need to always kept an eye on the ocean and know if the tide is coming in or going out. There are countless news stories published every year about tourists having to be rescued from fast incoming tides. Don’t be part of this storyline; check tide schedules before exploring the beaches.

Humbug Point is one of the more difficult headlands to navigate with dry feet. At high tide this area could be waist deep. In the distance, Haystack Rock looms ever present so you never forget which sea stack is King in the area.

This beach is the perfect getaway if you are looking to distance yourself from the crowds at Cannon Beach.

While walking along the beach, we were treated to a pair of Bald Eagles soaring overhead. Though once threatened with extinction, Bald Eagles now thrive in abundance in the Pacific Northwest. They are one of the largest birds of prey with wingspans that can exceed seven feet. Their eyesight is so good they can spot a fish from more than a mile away, and they are fast, able to swoop down at 100 miles an hour to snatch a fish from just below the water's surface. Welcome to Oregon!

Oceanside Beach - Tunnel Beach

The town of Oceanside stays true to its name: it is built on a steep hillside right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. New homes, old homes, and renovated homes all with million dollar views.

To the north, this inviting stretch of beach is shielded from the wind by the headland called Maxwell Point. This basalt headland that soars a couple hundred feet above the beach was formed during the Miocene epoch, about 5 to 23 million years ago. To the south, there are three miles of sandy beach leading straight to Netarts Bay.

About one-half mile offshore are the massive basalt sea stacks called the Three Arch Rocks. These stacks and other sea rocks as well as the surrounding headlands, are composed of Columbia River basalts that erupted from volcanic fissures in northeastern Oregon 15 to 17 million years ago and flowed all the way to the coast.

In 1907, the Arches were designated as the first National Wildlife Refuge west of the Mississippi River. The Wilderness area consists of three large and six smaller rocks totaling only 15 acres making it one of the smallest designated Wilderness Areas in the country. Today, it protects over a quarter million nesting seabirds and is a favorite hangout site for marine mammals. These rocks provide habitat for Oregon's largest breeding colony of tufted puffins and the largest common murre colony south of Alaska. It is also the only northern Oregon pupping site for the threatened Steller sea lion. For perspective, the middle stack (Finley Rock) is the highest of the three at over 300 feet tall.

However, what makes this beach really unique is an opening located at the base of Maxwell Point. A tunnel carved through the cliff was excavated by the Rosenberg family, the founders of Oceanside, in 1926. Landslides closed the tunnel in 1979, but concrete extensions opened it up again and a March 1999 storm cleaned debris out of the tunnel so thoroughly that it looked like it did back in the 1930s.

Venture past the well-formed concrete opening and the tunnel changes to rough rocky walls with a boulder covered floor. The tunnel is only about 125 feet long so light from the exit is visible almost immediately.

By adding the tunnel, the Rosenberg family believed they could create one of the finest beach resorts on the Pacific coast. The new tunnel gave visitors easy access to view California the sea lions, harbor seals, puffins, common murres and rare six-rayed starfish that inhabited the beach, rocks and caves on the other side of Maxwell Point. On the other side of the tunnel sits the stunning Tunnel Beach also known as Isolation Beach.

Tunnel Beach is a cobblestone beach that is about 300 yards long, framed by Maxwell Point on one end....

and Hatbox Rock on the opposite end. Traveling beyond Hatbox is possible during negative low tides but check the tide schedules if you want to explore further.

In addition to these stunning headlands, Tunnel Beach also has its own weirdly shaped sea stacks located just offshore.

Squeaky Oregon Sand

Walking along the beach, we noticed that the sand squeaks when you walk on it. After a lot research I've discovered their is a scientific reason for 'squeaky sand'. The sound is created by friction from sand grains rubbing against each other as we compress the grains with each step we take. However, certain conditions must exist to generate that squeaking sound.

  1. The type of sand must be a silicate, a feldspar, or a carbonate;

  2. The grains must be rounded (no sharp corners or edges);

  3. The grains should be around 300 micrometers in diameter; and

  4. The sand should be dry since moisture on the grains acts as a lubricant, decreasing the friction and the sound.

So now you know the science behind the squeaky Oregon beach sand.

Tillamook Creamery

No trip to northern Oregon would be complete without a visit to Tillamook Creamery. Dave was introduced to Tillamook ice cream back in 2019 and the brand has become one of his favorites. So there was no way we were going to miss out getting an ice cream direct from the creamery.

In 1909, several small creameries join forces as the Tillamook County Creamery Association to ensure that all cheese made in the Tillamook Valley would be the same high quality. But it wasn't until 1947 that they began making ice cream as an experiment. The experiment was a success and Tillamook claims their ice cream tastes creamier than all others because it's made with more cream and less air. In fact, they state a carton of Tillamook Ice Cream weights a whole half pound more than the FDA standard.

Oh, they also produce and package a ton of cheese. After seeing all that cheese, we couldn't resist buying two takeout containers of their macaroni and cheese for supper that night.

McPhillips Beach

We had planned on driving the ‘Three Capes Scenic Drive‘ but the route heading to Cape Meares had been closed for quite some time and since we had already spent time at Cape Lookout we changed plans and drove directly to Cape Kiwanda. The weather didn't look promising as we approached the Cape with low lying clouds hovering over the hills.

In an interesting turn of events for the day, we turned down a small unmarked road before we reached Cape Kiwanda State Park and found ourselves at an amazing looking beach - McPhillips Beach on the northern end of the State Park. Low clouds continued clinging to the coast but that just made the beach walk more inviting.

As we emerged on the beach, small basalt structures lined the entrance. These rocks are remnants of the ancient on Columbia River lava flows that covered much of the Oregon coast 17 million years ago. However Cape Kiwanda and the surrounding hills were mostly brown and tan colored sandstone.

Off to the south, over a mile away was the iconic Cape Kiwanda headland with its towering sand dune and Haystack Rock (different from Cannon Beach's Haystack Rock) anchored less than a half mile off the coast.

The sand dunes leading out to the Cape are a popular hangout out for hang gliders. Making their way up the 100 foot high sand dune would be a challenge even without their equipment.

Cape Kiwanda is a bit of an oddity along the Oregon coast in that it's comprised of sandstone unlike the majority of the northern Oregon headlands which are basalt (the black rock that is created by ancient lava flows). The entire area around Kiwanda is considered unusual in that there is relatively little presence of the massive lava flows that covered and smothered much of the area, and created most of the major landmarks we see. Even with overcast skies, the light tan, brown and red streaks of the Cape stands out in contrast with the usual greyish-black basalt cliffs we've been exploring. And there's a weird twist in the relationship between Haystack Rock and the cape that's highlighted later in the blog.

Since our visit coincided with low tide, we were able to safely walk out along the rocks for some close up views inside the dramatic canyon-like opening where waves crash against the odd, jagged rock formations.

Here's a close-up of one of the arches inside what is essentially an oceanic canyon hiding at the tip of Cape Kiwanda. I wonder how long before these arches lose their battle against the pounding waves and crumble adding even more rubble to the canyon.

Haystack Rock off Cape Kiwanda

Located just 4/10 of a mile off the coast of Cape Kiwanda is Haystack Rock. These two features share an interesting relationship that began millions of years. Eighteen million years ago, the entire western chunk of the U.S. did not exist. The continent's western edge was closer to Idaho, and this area was ocean floor located hundreds of miles from land. Over many millions of years erosion delivered beds of sand to the ocean floor that in time were compressed and cemented together to form sandstone. This layer known as the Astoria Formation runs from central Oregon into Washington. The Astoria Formation is what we see at Cape Kiwanda today.

Fast forward to 15 million years ago, huge lava flows emanating from fissure near present day Idaho and Eastern Oregon seared their way across the region. They’re called “flood basalts” because they completely flooded the entire landscape and created the headlands that we see today. But these flows mostly missed the Kiwanda area. The map below identifies how large an area was impacted by these lava flow.

Many of the basalt floods made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean and were so strong they plunged into the softer sediment of the Astoria Formation. These lava deposits pooled and then re-erupted through thousands of feet of mud on the ocean floor. After cooling and solidifying into solid basalt rock, they remained buried until geologic uplift and changes in sea level left these irregular basalt formations above the surface of the water where erosion created these rock formations. It's believed that Haystack Rock is one of those re-eruptions and Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach might be as well.

In the meantime, land and ocean floor levels rose and fell dramatically over the next dozen million years or so, including the headlands-to-be at Kiwanda. These uplifts and plunges caused the sandstone and basalt structures to erode further whittled down into the shapes we now see.

Scientists say that Cape Kiwanda should've been gone thousands of years ago. But Haystack Rock has been its protector acting as a barrier against the worse of the severe winter storms. Eventually Haystack was whittled down by the constant pounding. This close-up taken from Pacific City beach shows the jagged and fractured edge that indicates the stack was once much larger.

Even with it's 'diminished' size, it still offers some protection for the Cape and local beaches. We should appreciate Haystack and Cape Kiwanda before one or both of these formations falls victim to the sea.

At 327 feet tall this Haystack is almost 100 feet taller than the more famous namesake at Cannon Beach. Since this Haystack is much farther offshore it usually appears smaller in photos.

Our time along the northern Oregon coastline was incredible. It was such an interesting area to explore and the trip certainly wetted our appetite to return and explore the central and southern coast. Here‘s a final picture and video to close out this blog.

Also, don't forget to check out the hikes we did along the coast:

  1. Cape Lookout Trail

  2. God's Thumb

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