Explore Oregon’s Three Capes Scenic Drive

written by Peter Murphy | photos by Mark McInnis

How Oregonian are you? Willing to brave gale-force winds and hard-driving rain to visit the Coast? Willing to spend a night with hearty people who are accustomed to coastal flooding? Ok with drives through murky woods?

Sometimes that’s what you get here. Despite these hardships, the elements of nature on the Oregon Coast create quite the impressionism painting. On this tour, lashing rain came down in sheets and the wind propelled the drops like hail. There were many places to visit but few to clearly see in the rain.

mark mcinnis, coast

The jump-off point to the Three Capes Scenic Drive is essentially Tillamook, the lush green dairy capital that’s the home of Tillamook Cheese Factory. There’s also the Blue Heron French Cheese Company, just north of Tillamook. Taste Blue Heron’s locally made brie, sample Oregon wines, and treat yourself to jams and jellies. This is a great place to start your Three Capes outing.

Tillamook lies at the intersection of Highway 101 and Route 6. From there, Route 131 departs westbound from the confluence of those two highways to a quintessential Oregon natural area via the Three Capes Scenic Drive. You’ll cross two rivers on the way to the scenic drive: the Tillamook, known for salmon and steelhead, and the Trask, teeming with fall Chinook. Then it’s out 131 to the Coast. Cape Meares, Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda await, with a few more gems to see and savor along the way.

mark mcinnis, cape kiwanda, coast

At the intersection of 131 and Netarts Highway, you’ll have your choice of turning north or south. To the north is the road to Oceanside with its prominent Three Arch Rocks and National Wildlife Refuge, and the venerable Cape Meares Lighthouse, with a path to the State Scenic Viewpoint close at hand.

Just thirty-eight feet tall, Cape Meares Lighthouse is Oregon’s shortest. Nevertheless, its light can be seen twenty-one miles out to sea. It once protected mariners from the rocky point jutting to the north at Tillamook Bay. The lighthouse was commissioned in 1890 and served as a lighthouse for more than a hundred years. Today, it’s a state park that is open year-round with the lighthouse open from April through October.

mark mcinnis, cape lookout, coast

Three Arch Rocks is one of the more prominent Oregon Coast icons. It was Theodore Roosevelt, the outdoorsy president, who signed the bill into law creating the Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge in 1907. Today it is home to one of America’s smallest wilderness areas and protects seabirds and sea lions from predators, including man.

Roadside Must-dos

Tillamook Cheese Factory
If weather is inclement, take a tour of the famed cheese and ice cream factory.

Cape Meares Lighthouse
This is the shortest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast, but is nonetheless impressive in its architecture and longevity.

Cape Lookout State Park
Reserve a yurt or simply stake out a place to watch whale migration.

Driving south along a curtain of fir trees that line Whiskey Creek Road—the name may change, but it’s always the scenic drive—you’ll be on your way to the second cape that gives this road its name. Cape Lookout State Park lies on a spit of sand between Netarts Bay and the Pacific Ocean. There may be no better place on the Oregon Coast to taste and smell where the sea meets the sand. There are campgrounds, old growth forest trails, and miles of beach where many a glass float has been found. During their migration season in the winter and summer, you might catch sight of gray whales making their way up or down the Coast from here.

mark mcinnis, three arches cape, coast

A bit farther south is the Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area and the third of the capes. It’s reportedly one of the best places to watch wave action along the coast. Exposed sandstone meets basalt to form an oceanside promontory. The soft golden-hued layers of sandstone topped with basalt have survived the eons, protected by Haystack Rock just offshore. (There are two Haystack Rocks in Oregon, the other at Cannon Beach.) You can walk out the trail to the Cape Kiwanda Viewpoint. Nearby, peruse the rock shop or take coastal horse rides.

At the southern portal, there’s Pacific City, where you can stop for some award-winning beers, including Doryman’s Ale, and the fine pub food at Pelican Brewing Company. “We use our beer ingredients to create specialty Pacific Northwest dishes, such as pale malt-crusted salmon,” said Ken Henson, general manager. In addition to a beer pilgrimage, people are willing to trek to the remote town of Pacific City for surfing, paddleboarding and to get away. “Taking the time to get here means it’s still undiscovered,” Henson said.

mark mcinnis, cape meares lighthouse, coast

It’s in Pacific City that the dorymen fishing fleet is making its last stand against the sea. Fishermen of the fleet can be seen taking their flat bottom boats out to sea and back to shore when the salmon and tuna are running. They brave the sea in their small boats to bring back the fresh bounty that makes its way into our restaurants and onto our plates.

A day later, the weather cleared up a little, at least by Oregon Coast standards—overcast, cool and breezy. Though I missed the break in the weather, sometimes it’s better to brave the coast as a native would.

Road Stats


Number of miles that Cape Meares Lighthouse can be seen at sea.


Number of feet tall the lighthouse stands.


Number of years Cape Meares Lighthouse had been in commission.


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