US 26 and OR 18 form two sides of a triangle from Portland, with bustling Seaside and Cannon Beach at one corner and Lincoln City and its swarmed casino at another. But that third side, along US 101 and the Three Capes detour, makes for a rich day or weekend of exploring.
Just south of surf spot Short Sands, part of Oswald West State Park, the town of Manzanita sits on seven miles of pristine beach at the foot of Neahkanie Mountain. Kite flyers stake their claims, kids clamber on the grassy dunes, driftwood forts rise and fall. You can hike the nearby, two-mile Nehalem Jetty Trail right down the spit, strolling along the gorse-lined path with the ocean in your ears before emerging right at the mouth of the Nehalem River. For something a little more challenging but infinitely worth it, head straight up Neahkahnie Mountain, past glorious wildflowers if you time things right, and through forests of Sitka spruce before emerging at the 1,600-foot peak to spectacular views of the bay below.
Snag a tee time nearby at Manzanita Links, where you can polish off the nine-hole course in about two hours. Bed down at the plush-yet-unfussy lofts, cabins, and oceanfront homes managed by Coast Cabins—some with private hot tubs, saunas, and serene, Japanese-influenced gardens—and then wake up for brunch at Yolk, with eggs prepped in all manner of delicious ways and an unusual grilled cornmeal. (The wait can be long, so go early.)
Sunset is best caught from the upper deck at The Winery at Manzanita, which offers flights of wines made right on the premises and truffle popcorn in bucket-size portions. If you're staying at a vacation rental, hit up The Little Apple market for supplies and a jar of the house-made kimchi. Drive a few miles inland to Nehalem for the Riverside Fish & Chips food truck, which is generally parked next to beloved pit stop Buttercup with elevated ice cream (rhubarb orange blossom or coconut ube) and adventurous chowders—clam, yes, but also Malaysian laksa chowder with a soy marinated egg on top. Find another dinner option in Wheeler at The Salmonberry, which in the pandemic traded its coastal pub grub menu for handmade pizza and pasta, white clam pie to nettle agnolotti.
Back in Manzanita, the smallest shoppers converge at Toylandia, where you can pick up a plushy Tillamook cow or rainy-day puzzle or at the gloriously Willy Wonka-esque sugar shangri-la that is Manzanita Sweets; stylistas should beeline to chic home goods store Finnesterre—think candles, bright throws, and the oyster shuckers you never knew you needed. For the rest, there's Unfurl Clothing for your essential Oregon Coast hoodie and bamboo water bottle, and the delightful Cloud and Leaf bookstore for solid beach-read recommendations and typewriter porn. Honestly, we defy you to stroll up and down Laneda Avenue without emptying your wallet at one or all of the gorgeously curated and bargain-tastic retail delights.
Canny travelers know that Rockaway Beach has the best fireworks show on the North Coast; if you’re headed that way, it’s impossible to miss Kelly’s Brighton Marina and Campground on Nehalem Bay. The giant dock there is a rolling party, all summer long—they’re happy to clean and cook any Dungeness crabs you’re able to catch and will rent you the boat to do so, or you can buy some from their well-stocked storefront. Those who do not eat fish should make tracks immediately for The Original Pronto Pup, the landmark, high-kitsch hot dog stand in Rockaway Beach proper, built in 2016 as a shrine to the town’s (disputed) claim as the birthplace of the corn dog.
From here, Highway 101 winds lazily around the wide wash of Tillamook Bay—don’t miss the snug Garibaldi Portside Bistro’s smoked ribs, available Friday nights and Saturdays until they run out—before running inland to the town of Tillamook proper. Tillamook might be famous for its cheese factory (its high school sports teams are the Cheesemakers), but it's also the best place on the North Coast for peaceful river kayaking; as you paddle, see if you can spot the “quilt blocks” affixed to buildings and farms around your route. Beachcombers should detour west to the Three Capes Loop and the hamlets of Oceanside and Netarts, two and a half miles apart. At the north end of Oceanside, Maxwell Point tunnel offers a low-tide passage to Tunnel Beach, where starfish cling to the rock faces and tidal pools offer up their treasures. Just over three miles north, Cape Meares National Wildlife Refuge offers up fern-filled, forested hiking with spectacular views along the way, as well as the option to visit Cape Meares Lighthouse.
Farther south along the bay, don't be fooled by the ramshackle appearance of Nevør Shellfish Farms: this is the place for oysters by the dozen, and look for octopus skewers and honest-to-goodness barnacles on its rotating menu. If you'd rather catch things yourself, Netarts Bay boasts Dungeness and red rock crabs, as well as all manner of clams and some shrimp, too, with boat rentals available from the Big Spruce RV Park.)
Continue south to check off the rest of the loop's three capes: Lookout and Kiwanda. The latter towers over another seastack called Haystack Rock and quaint Pacific City, which is certainly not Oregon's answer to Atlantic City. No casinos here, but other pleasures await. Enjoy a cold beer while watching the waves at Pelican Brewing, or watching the game at Sportman's Pub N Grub, across the Nestucca River. For an overnight, go luxe at Headlands, or try its quirky trailer sibling Hart's Camp, with fixed-up Airstreams for rent. We're partial to no. 2, the Kumbaya, a 1971 Land Yacht Sovereign model with groovy wallpaper and a fire pit.
Top image of Pacific City's Haystack Rock and Cape Kiwanda courtesy NashCo Photo