Best Beaches: Ocean's 10

10 Essential Oregon Beaches, North to South

White sand, wild surf, and, yes, even warm sun: the height of summer is prime time to explore Oregon’s beloved, rugged, completely public coast. These superlative beaches top our list.

By Ramona DeNies Published in the August 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

From Clatsop Spit to the southerly Oregon Islands, our state’s entire shoreline is a ribbon of rocky, sandy sublimity. And thanks to our 1967 Beach Bill, it’s yours. On the 50th anniversary of this landmark legislation, we celebrate 10 beaches you must experience to really know the coast.

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Clockwise from top left: A rocky overhang just south of Hug Point; the point itself; a treeline sunset above nearby Fall Creek

Hug Point, Arch Cape

Waterfalls. Caves. Misty headland forests. The dramatic traces of a stagecoach path, curving into the base of these sandstone cliffs—seawalls that, in the right light, look etched in gold. At Hug Point State Recreation Site, all of these marvels fit within a petite, 42-acre park just 90 minutes from Portland. Stand on the scallop of flat sand just north of Adair Point and consider our luck that in Oregon, access to beaches like this is a public right (read more on how that happened). Take care with that privilege: last spring, the Coast Guard was called in to airlift a hiker who neglected his tide charts and became stranded, literally hugging Hug Point as the Pacific licked his boots.
Day Use Fee: No
Overnight camping: No
ADA access: Picnicking
Side trip: Come early fall, razor clamming season starts at Gearhart Ocean State Park, 16 miles north of Arch Cape.
TRAVEL TIPS: Eat, stay, and drink in Gearhart and Manzanita, the first two stops in our coastal road trip

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Clockwise from top left: Hiking Cape Kiwanda—albeit on the wrong side of the fence line; Pacific City’s Haystack Rock; a private beachfront home south of Cape Kiwanda; beach kiting

Cape Kiwanda, Pacific City

Oregon may boast three Haystack Rocks. But only Pacific City’s colossal sea stack—327 feet high and a mile offshore—can be viewed from the singular Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area: a breathtaking promontory between stretches of flat, sandy beach. Eons of waves sculpted this naturally shielded sandstone monolith, revealing layers of yellow and orange stone pocked with caves, arches, and tide pools. The golden rule: look but don’t touch. These crumbling, unstable cliffs—and the churning waves below—have claimed seven lives since 2009. And in 2016, witnesses filmed mouth-breathing vandals destroying the Duckbill rock, the formation’s spectacular selfie spot. Don’t be that guy. Respect the fences as you scale the six-story “Great Dune” that connects the cape with the shore, and safely take in that splendiferous view. —Marty Patail
Day Use Fee: Most nearby public parking requires a $10 day-use pass, good at all Tillamook County Parks and Pacific City Parking Management facilities
Overnight camping: No
ADA access: Beach access by motor vehicle, though only in certain areas 
Side trip: Nine miles south of Pacific City, find the Neskowin Ghost Foreststumps of 2,000-year-old Sitka spruces, ravaged by an ancient tsunami, that were uncovered by an epic storm in the late ’90s.
TRAVEL TIPS: Eat, stay, and drink in Pacific City, the third stop in our coastal road trip

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Clockwise from top: Yaquina Head Lighthouse viewed from Cobble Beach at low tide; the pebbles that make up Cobble Beach; just before Cobble Beach, Yaquina Head’s Quarry Cove is a former mining site reclaimed by marine wildlife

Cobble Beach, Newport

The whole of this one-mile thumb into the Pacific is special, from the lush drive off Highway 101 to its marine gardens just offshore. In 1979, Congress protected the promontory, and its teeming wildlife, as the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. The solitary grandeur of the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, in operation since 1873, is one reason why; another, accessed by a cliff-hugging staircase, is “black pebble” Cobble Beach just below. Visit the beach at low tide to see the sea stars and pink urchins that thrive here. At high tide, the beach offers different magic: the sound—distant fireworks? symphony hall applause? gravel driveway crunch?—of waves receding over thousands of smooth basalt stones the size of your heart.
Day Use Fee: $7/vehicle, good for three days
Overnight camping: No
ADA access: Observation deck, lighthouse trail 
Side trip: Sightseeing spots abound between Yaquina Head, 130 miles from Portland, and scenic Otter Crest Loop 10 miles north near Depoe Bay. Among them: churning Devil’s Punchbowl, whale watching at Cape Foulweather, and supremely comfortable camping at Beverly Beach State Park.

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Pet-friendly South Beach offers miles of sunny white sand, and lots of company

South Beach, Newport

Short of the Oregon Dunes, few state beaches can rival South Beach State Park, just below Newport on Highway 101, for its luxurious crests of pillow-soft sand. That largesse is due to the jetty that forms the park’s northern border: a barrier that for more than 135 years has battled silt-creep into the Yaquina Bay harbor. Each year, the trapped sand piles higher. It’s already swallowing up an ADA-accessible boardwalk built in 2006 and perhaps, one day, might creep over the jetty itself. Till then, this 498-acre park is a prime vacation spot, with miles of paved hiking, biking, and birding trails, amenity-rich camping, and (thanks to all that warm sand) vistas that are almost Caribbean.
Day Use Fee: No
Overnight camping: Yes
Cabins/yurts: Yes
ADA access: Boardwalk (provided it’s been recently cleared), paved trails, picnicking, camping, yurts 
Side trip: In the piers lining Newport’s Historic Bayfront, madly barking sea lions can outnumber the pleasure strollers above. Watch this salty Shakespearean drama unfold from the waterfront balcony at Clearwater Restaurant or, a few blocks down SE Bay Boulevard, the upper-level bar at sustainably minded Local Ocean.

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Clockwise from top: Elephant Rock; Seal Rock beach trail; a harbor seal

Seal Rock, Waldport

A massive basalt sill on a sandstone base, Elephant Rock is by far the largest volcanic remnant in the 14-million-year-old archipelago of sea stacks that frame Seal Rock State Recreation Site. An ADA-accessible trail and observation deck offer magnificent views on high, or follow a partially paved half-mile path down to the beachfront. From here, waves crash in towering plumes around these shards of ancient lava. Look (and listen) for the area’s namesake harbor seals, and above them, hundreds of migrating surfbirds that make late-summer stopovers atop these striated monoliths.
Day Use Fee: No 
Overnight camping: No
ADA access: Trail to observation deck, picnicking
Side trip: Kayak with the faintest of ripples past kingfishers, herons, and otters on two-mile Beaver Creek—a virtually currentless wetland waterway bookended by Brian Booth State Park five miles north of Seal Rock.

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Stonefield Beach is pocket-size and, if you're lucky, people-free.

Image: Ramona DeNies

Stonefield Beach, Yachats

It’s easy to miss this pocket beach a jig south of Yachats’s tied-arch bridge over Tenmile Creek. But nab one of the few parking spots at tiny Stonefield Beach State Recreation Site and your beach towel snap might come with the extra satisfaction of having this secluded driftwood-and pebble-ringed beach to yourself. Time it right, and not even the hum of Highway 101 traffic, surprisingly well muffled by a thick fringe of salal, will intrude on a late afternoon of beach reading alchemized by a glorious champagne sunset.
Day Use Fee: No 
Overnight camping: No
ADA access: No 
Side trip: If you skip a trip to the Sea Lion Caves, 15 miles south of Yachats right off Highway 101, know that you’re bypassing the nation’s largest ocean cavern. (And dizzying cliffside views from this privately owned wildlife refuge.)
TRAVEL TIPS: The parking lot might be closed in stormy weather, when sand and debris some wash into it with the tides, but that usually doesn't mean the park itself is closed. Eat, stay, and drink in nearby Yachats, the fourth stop in our coastal road trip

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A stretch of dune between the day use area and Tahkenitch Campground three miles south

Oregon Dunes Day Use Area, Dunes City

Like a grand playfort for adults, the weathered wood observation deck leading from the Oregon Dunes Day Use Area overlook, located between Florence and Reedsport some 200 miles from Portland, is a suitably mythic portal into the landscape that inspired writer Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune. From the south deck, tiered landings drop visitors into a sea of fine-spun sand dotted with gorse and shore pine; the mile-long trail to the beach, marked only by wayfinding posts half-buried in drifts, feels like a journey on Arrakis itself. (Note: beach access can limited in spring and summer to protect western snowy plovers during their nesting season.)
Day Use Fee: $5/vehicle
Overnight camping: No
ADA access: Central observation deck, picnicking
Side trip: The boardwalks that wind through Darlingtonia State Natural Site, five miles north of Florence off Highway 101, protect the carnivorous cobra lily (Darlingtonia californica)—the only species of pitcher plant native to Oregon.

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Sunset Bay's pocket cove—perfect for young paddlers

Sunset Bay (Cape Arago), Charleston

If Oregon paved a road to paradise, it might look like Cape Arago Highway. This 24-mile scenic route splits from Highway 101 in Coos Bay and winds southwesterly with one purpose: to thread a series of lushly forested state parks. The real beauty starts just past the fishing hamlet of Charleston and stretches all the way to the winsome vistas at Cape Arago, as soundtracked by sea lions and spouting gray whales. First in this string of parks is family-friendly Sunset Bay State Park, with gentle waves for little padddlers and a bite-size beach for sandy treasure hunts. 
Day Use Fee: No 
Overnight camping: Yes
Cabins/yurts: Yes 
ADA access: Camping, yurts, picnicking, beach access
Side trip: A century ago, timber king Louis Simpson lived like royalty on the cliffs of Shore Acres, a mile south of Sunset Bay. Fire and financial ruin took his estate, but his botanical gardens still bloom: an ADA-accessible living museum ringed in old growth.

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From left: A Floras Lake windsurfing outfitter; agates stud the ocean beach bordering Floras Lake

Floras Lake Beach, Denmark

Not many places along the Oregon coast feel secret, but this thin ribbon of nutmeg-brown, agate-flecked dune—all that separates freshwater Floras Lake from the surging Pacific—is a true hidden gem. Highway 101 briefly dips inland as it enters Oregon’s southern coast just past Bandon, meaning you’ll take a three-mile detour west through farmland to reach Floras Lake State Natural Area. Natural borders enhance the beach’s feeling of isolation: from the buttery, uninterrupted sandstone cliffs that stretch nearly two miles between Floras Lake and Blacklock Point to the shore-hugging course of the New River just north. Protected snowy plovers nest here, as do (human) windsurfers drawn to Floras Lake by the aggressive breezes that rip around nearby Cape Blanco, Oregon’s westernmost point.
Day Use Fee: No
Overnight camping: Yes (at Boice Cope County Park)
Cabins/yurts: No
ADA access: No
Side trip: Tiny Port Orford, 11 miles south of Denmark, is a scrappy fishing town without a harbor. Rather, the port boasts the West Coast’s only working dolly dock, which levers each boat in and out of the churning Pacific by crane. 
TRAVEL TIPS: Eat, stay, and drink in Port Orford, the fifth and final stop in our coastal road trip

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Clockwise from top left: Harris Beach; the “Keyhole” at Harris Beach—one of several natural arches along Oregon’s southern coast; sea stacks at Secret Beach on the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor; beach kiting

Harris Beach, Brookings

Six miles from the California border, the shore that surrounds sleepy Brookings feels part Mediterranean, part misty, dramatic Middle-earth. Harris Beach State Park, just north of town and right off Highway 101, is the spot to soak up the contrast. From the parking lot, a handsome sloping ramp leads down to a secluded beach. Dig your toes into sand as fine as the winds are fierce, battering sea stacks scattered like dinosaur bones. You’re close enough to America’s northernmost stand of coastal redwoods, found along the banks of the Chetco River 11 miles east, to catch a whiff of that sunbaked ancient bark. The magic here is sonic as well as scenic: listen for storm petrels, auklets, and cormorants roosting right offshore on Bird Island. (At 21 acres, it’s Oregon’s largest coastal island, and protected as a national wildlife sanctuary.)
Day Use Fee: No
Overnight camping: Yes
Cabins/yurts: Yes
ADA access: Camping, yurts, picnicking, beach access
Side trip: North of Brookings along the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor (12 miles by car, 27 miles if you care to hike along the Oregon Coast Trail), find an embarrassment of gawk-worthy geology, from Natural Bridges to Arch Rock to the sea stacks at Secret Beach.

Top Image: The view from Cape Kiwanda (Photograph courtesy Shutterstock/Tusharkoley)

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