Strange Trees and Secret Beaches: Cape Meares State Park
We spent the first two weeks of September exploring the fabulous Oregon Coast with all of its state parks, lighthouses, sea stacks, and public beaches. There are 95 state parks on the Oregon Coast, and Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint was one of our favorites. While Tilamook, Oregon might be most famous for its cheese, Cape Meares is also well worth a visit while in the area.
Cape Meares Lighthouse
Cape Meares like many Oregon Coast state parks has a beautifully preserved historic lighthouse. The black and white brick lighthouse was originally built in 1890 and has a really neat octagonal shape. You can tour the lighthouse for free without a reservation and walk up the spiral staircase to see the original Fresnel lens at the top of the tower. Although the bulls eye of the lens was stolen in the 1960s, three of the four stolen bulls eyes have been recovered. The lens was create in Paris in 1888 and to reach Oregon it had to be sailed around the tip of South America. The lighthouses of Oregon are really interesting because many of them have really knowledgeable volunteers who can tell you so much about the history, construction, and operation of the lighthouses.
The lighthouse is located on a small headland and you can get great views of the ocean from the park. There are tons of sea birds that roost on the rocks off the shore. In fact, Cape Meares has one of the largest colonies of nesting sea birds in North America. You also might see sea lions or seals lounging on the rocks. Before we left we even saw a pod of gray whales that were feeding and breaching fairly close to shore! Don’t forget to bring your binoculars for watching wildlife.
The Octopus Tree
Just a short walk from the lighthouse is a very oddly shaped tree called the Octopus Tree. We always add giant or old trees to our travel agenda, and this one really is one of the quirkiest we’ve seen. The tree is a 250 to 300-year-old Sitka spruce. Instead of having one trunk, the Octopus Tree has multiple trunks that branch out from a nearly 50-foot central trunk. The multiple trunks look like the tentacles of an octopus giving the tree its name. The tree may have gotten its shape from extreme weather on the coast, or it may have been trained early in its growth by the Tilamook tribe for ceremonial purposes. The young branches would have been trained down when the tree was young, until they became trunks that today stretch over 100 feet tall and reach about 16 feet outward.
I went for a run while at Cape Meares. The park has three miles of trails that are good for running, but another lovely place to run is the nearby Bayshore Drive that has been closed to vehicles. Bayshore Drive north of Cape Meares is washed out and abandoned, so about a mile of it has been closed off. Nature is overtaking the asphalt, and it was a really peaceful place for a run or a stroll. It was mid-September so the road was blanketed with yellow leaves. While running I saw people picking tons of blackberries along this road.
Cape Meares Beach Trail
If you want to get away from the crowds and off the beaten path at Cape Meares, hike the trail down to the beach. The headland is 200 feet above the water and through a series of switchbacks, this trail winds its way down to a beach tucked against the headland. The trail begins by leading you through a verdant forest of Sitka spruce. The trail was not super well maintained. In some places you have to scramble over fallen logs and in other places the trail has been reduced to a green tunnel you have to duck through. This makes it feel like you have discovered a secret trail to a secret beach. No one else was using the trail while I was running on it. Be careful because the clay surface is really slippery in wet weather—so almost all the time. (While I was running on the trail, I fell three times!)
After 1.4 miles, you emerge suddenly from the forest onto a sandy bank above the beach by a small stream running into the ocean. There is a knotted rope you can use to help you get down the sandy bank to the beach. (I also fell down this as well…) Part of the beach is rocky and tucked against a rocky cliff, and further to the north the beach is sandy. If you’re not up for a walk on an overgrown slippery trail, you can also access this beach much more easily from the sleepy little village of Cape Meares.
Free Camping Nearby: After visiting Cape Meares, we camped for the night about 30 miles south on the Oregon Coast Highway at the Winema Wayside. It’s a nice spot on an overlook above the ocean. There are no signs prohibiting camping, and we actually slept here two separate nights and saw lots of other vans an RVs stopping here without issue. There are many pull-offs along Highway 101, and unless they have signs prohibiting camping, they seem to be fair game. Waysides are never the best camping spots, but they are a good free option for an Oregon Coast road trip.
If you’re looking for a shower, Cape Lookout State Park has a huge campground and a shower house with private showers. A $30 State Park Pass will get you into the Oregon State Parks all year long. We just parked in the day-use area and walked over to the campground to take a shower. Plus the park has a nice walking trail along the ocean.