Cape Van Go: Three Days, Three Capes
By Julie Snyder
“One last tip,” said Van Go’s former owner as he handed over the keys. “Disconnect the burglar alarm when you’re in a campground, so it’s not accidentally tripped in the middle of the night.” His wince told us that he and his wife had learned this lesson the hard way.
Regrettably, our neighbors at Cape Lookout State Park—four high school boys—hadn’t heeded the same advice. When their car alarm blasted us awake at one a.m., the quartet was partying on the beach. A long twenty minutes later, the cacophony ceased. We had pillows over our heads, so aren’t sure if the owner returned or the car gave up on its own.
In the morning, the boys slumbered a few yards from our rear wheels, colorful cocoons on top of a flattened tent (they’d forgotten the poles). We resisted the urge to slam doors, bang the coffeepot, and otherwise intrude on their sleep. Camping brings out our kinder, gentler selves.
Cape Lookout is one of three promontories along a thirty-mile stretch of the northern Oregon Coast between Tillamook and Pacific City. The Three Capes Scenic Route—as it’s known in tourist-speak—is a fetching jumble of dunes, dairy farms, quirky beach towns, lush forest, and long, lovely stretches of sand.
One bright summer morning, coveted campsite reservations in hand, we meandered along backroads from Portland to Pacific City. There we lunched at Pelican Brewing, the only beachfront brewpub in the Pacific Northwest. Steps from the sand, our patio perch took in Cape Kiwanda, the smallest of the three capes but arresting in its own right.
This sandstone escarpment juts a half-mile into the Pacific as if pointing at Haystack Rock another half-mile out to sea. On the shore, a massive dune two-hundred-and-forty feet high towers behind the cape. From our vantage point, hikers climbing the dune in single file were reminiscent of Gold Rush prospectors trudging up Chilcoot Pass in Skagway, Alaska.
(A side note about Haystack Rock. Or should I say “rocks?” Oregon is home to three. The most famous in Cannon City, sixty-five miles north, is so close to the shore that you can walk up to it at low tide. In Bandon on the southern coast, a third Haystack Rock neighbors other sea stacks, rocks, and islets collectively called the Bandon Needles.)
On the way north to our campground, we paused briefly at Sitka Sedge State Natural Area to look for birds on the estuary. A marvel of tidal flats, marshes, and forested wetlands, the site was tapped for an elite golf course, but environmental groups waged and won a ten-year war. The three-hundred-sixty-five-acre site opened to the public for hiking, picnicking, and bird-watching in 2018.
“Where did you hide the binoculars?” asked Joe, knowing that there was little logic—at least not for him—to my filling of Van Go’s nooks and crannies. “Hmmm.” I thought for a moment. “I think they’re still in the closet at home. Oops.” We did spy the familiar white head of a soaring eagle. All was not lost.
By contrast to sandy, scrubby Cape Kiwanda, Cape Lookout is forested with hemlock and spruce and bulges two miles into the ocean. The headland’s basalt rock dates back fifteen million years when lava from Eastern Oregon flowed into the Columbia River. That bit of trivia sent my mind spinning. As did the fact that up to twenty-thousand gray whales migrate along this coast from Alaska to Mexico between December and June. If only we’d had binoculars.
The Cape Lookout campground sprawls behind a protective man-made dune that is stabilized—at least for the moment—by a fifty-foot-wide cobblestone revetment. Our tree-shaded campsite in B Loop was steps away from one of just three designated paths through the dune to the beach.
Nature is having its way with this beautiful beach. At least that was the word among fellow campers on B Loop. For confirmation, we waved down a ranger peddling firewood from an ATV. Tragically, it’s true. Our campsite and those around us are living on borrowed time.
Back in the 1960s, a seawall was erected on the Cape Lookout beach to fend off wild winter waves. By the end of the century, both the wall and the natural dune behind it had been swept away. And the artificial dune erected in 2000 is eroding. As the seas rise, B Loop and adjoining A Loop may be abandoned to return to nature, and the campground expanded on land safely inland.
Sobered by the probable demise of our sweet campsite, we took a quiet stroll on the beach, then nestled up against a sun-warmed dune amid the seagrass. Cocktail hour was upon us when we returned. From the comfort of our camp chairs, wine in hand, we watched two women across the way spend nearly half an hour attempting to erect their tent.
Were Joe less evolved, he might have moseyed over to “mansplain” what they were doing wrong. However, he was far too comfortable in the fantastic new chair I had bought—and he also knew I’d stick out my foot and trip him if he made a move in their direction. Kinder, gentler campers.
And so we settled in for several lazy days. Walks, naps, reading, chatting, chilling. When it came to walking, I had a dilemma. Did I tramp the two-and-a-half-mile Cape Trail to the tip of the headland, where I might spot whales even without binoculars? Or ramble five miles north along the sand-dollar-studded beach to the end of the spit cradling Netarts Bay?
In the end, I stuck to the beach, so entranced was I with its non-stop entertainment. Spike ball games, fat-tire biking, sandcastle building, canine frisbee. Families and friends laughing and lounging and making up for time lost to Covid.
As the sun turned orange and slowly descended, we joined campers streaming onto the sands to absorb the brilliant end to blissful days. As we wandered back to Van Go, young people armed with firewood strolled by. Long into the night, bonfires snapped and crackled along the beach.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the success of our campfire cookery, with Joe manning the tongs. Carnivore feasts of tiny filets and pork ribs accompanied by baked potatoes, grilled asparagus, and mini cherry pies for dessert.
“How long are you going to cook the potatoes?” I asked on the second night, recalling the slightly crunchy spuds of the evening before. “Longer than I baked them last night,” he said. “How long was that?” I said. “Not long enough,” he said.
The last morning, after bidding goodbye to our barely roused neighbors, we drove north in search of a café for brunch. On the way, we replenished our supply of lemon-, rosemary- and pepper-infused salts at Jacobsen’s, an artisan saltworks on the shore of Netarts Bay. The pocket-size town of Netarts, where Portland friends love to go crabbing and clamming, was a no-go for food. A few miles further on at Oceanside Surf & SUP, we found serviceable waffles and a surfing show at the beach.
Traveling to our third headland, Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, involved a near sideswipe by a gravel truck crowding our uphill lane. Once we passed the quarry home of the offending vehicle, the winding, wooded road radiated a reverence–until a teenager on a skateboard zipped past on the downhill to the parking lot.
We pilgrimaged to the “Octopus Tree,” a multi-trunked Sitka Spruce that looks more like a candelabra to me. An old-growth trail led to the largest Sitka spruce in Oregon, a champion at one-hundred-forty-four feet. At the tip of the headland, stubby-but-mighty Cape Meares Lighthouse boasts a kerosene-powered lens first lit on January 1, 1890.
And the birds! Helpfully signed overlooks treated us to murres, pelagic cormorants, and pigeon guillemots at play about the steep cliffs and offshore rocks. Beyond the birds, stunning coastal views stretched for miles.
The Three Capes Route north of Cape Meares has been closed by a landslide since 2013. So we retraced our route back to Netarts and then drove on to Tillamook. At Tillamook Creamery (and cheese factory), the legendary lines were manageable, and we dipped in for ice cream (chocolate chip for Joe, salted caramel for me). It was a sweet ride home.
Three days in Three Cape country was just what we needed to break out of our routine and celebrate summer. Not even an ill-timed car alarm or a potentially doomed campsite could ruin the mood.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.