The stretch of the Oregon Coast due west of McMinnville feels especially wild, a jumble of high capes, sandy spits and rivers flowing into protected bays. Even US-101 has to curve inland here. That leaves Pacific City off the beaten path, a slightly sleepy beachfront town where sand drifts across parking lots and fishing dories surf in on a curl of wave — in other words, pretty much perfect for outdoor fun.
Cape Crusader: If you’re coming from the north, treat yourself to an extra-attractive approach to Pacific City. Hop off US-101 at Tillamook and follow OR-131, part of the Three Capes Scenic Drive. (It used to be a loop, until landslides closed a stretch of the road.) Follow OR-131 north past Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge — a favorite among photographers — to the blinking lighthouse atop the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint. Then backtrack down the Coast along Netarts Bay, its waters protected by a 5-mile-long sand spit extending from Cape Lookout State Park. You’ll find camping, long beaches and plenty of trails here, including a dramatic 2.5-mile hike out atop the cliff-edged cape.
From Cape Lookout, the scenic loop drifts downhill and into a landscape of sandy pine barrens. All-terrain vehicles romp on the dunes and on specially designated trails at the Sand Lake Recreation Area, which includes a campground with ample trailer parking for extra-easy access. Across Sand Lake — which is actually an estuary opening to the Pacific Ocean — visitors can hike and explore the quiet, bird-filled waters at Sitka Sedge State Natural Area, Oregon’s newest state park. Continuing south, the rocky monolith of Haystack Rock comes into view, along with cape number three, the sandy headland of Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area.
Pacific City’s Beachfront: Most visitors can’t resist the challenging trudge up the 200-foot-high dunes of Cape Kiwanda, past wind-sculpted sand formations to sweeping viewpoints. (Be sure to obey all closures and signage; the cape’s edges are extremely unstable and dangerous.) Low tide exposes some critter-filled tide pools at its base.
Cape Kiwanda and Haystack Rock form a natural breakwater that shelters Pacific City’s beach and provides fishermen with the safest route out to sea. Using special shallow-draft boats called dories, they launch straight into the surf; on the way back in, they sound a loud horn and surf right back onto the beach. You can join the century-old tradition of Pacific City’s dory fleet by fishing with a licensed dory boat captain like Mark Lytle of Pacific City Fishing.
Those sheltered waves makes Pacific City’s beach a favorite spot for surfing, stand-up paddleboarding and surf kayaking too. You probably won’t be the only one scarfing a breakfast burrito from Ben & Jeff’s before pulling on a wetsuit. And after surfing, fishing, hiking or beachcombing, it seems almost mandatory to cap off the day at Pelican Pub and Brewery, with a wall of windows and a sunny deck overlooking the action.
Nestucca River and Bay: The Nestucca River makes a big horseshoe bend at Pacific City, where it broadens into Nestucca Bay and empties into the Pacific Ocean. Between bay and ocean, Bob Straub State Park preserves Nestucca Spit. It’s about a 2.5-mile beach walk to the tip of the spit, a spot popular with anglers and playful seals. Pick up clamming, crabbing and fishing gear at Nestucca Adventures, right on the river a half-mile north of downtown.
Nestucca Adventures also rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to explore the river, which flows gently through forest and farmland. The quiet banks can be especially rewarding for bird-watching — including the chance to spot the endangered Semidi Islands cackling goose, an Alaskan bird that has taken to wintering here. The Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers more great birding, with protected lands along the bay and a high grassy bluff.