By Adam Sawyer
Aside from geographical proximity to the ocean, what constitutes a coast hike in the Pacific Northwest? And what are some of the best? We only ask because due to the extensive variety of environments found from southern Oregon to British Columbia, the answers might not be as straightforward as they would seem. Sure, there are some resplendent beach strolls to be had, but there are also otherworldly stretches of rock formations as well as haunting old-growth forests on the coast. And the views vary from endless ocean or island channels to “put that on the wall, please” stretches of shoreline and lighthouses onshore and off, not to mention wildlife viewing. So let’s explore some of that variety—from bottom to top, here are just a few favorites.
Cape Arago-Shore Acres, Coos Bay
Perhaps the premier spot on the Oregon Coast for storm watching, the Cape Arago / Shore Acres State Park area has much more going for it than crashing waves, a scenic coastline, and a top-tier botanical garden. As if that weren’t enough, a stunning little loop hike showcases all of the above attributes as well as some gorgeous coastal forest.
The path begins by leading directly to a cliff-edge view of the bay before bending back into the forest. This pattern continues as the trail meanders towards Shore Acres, delivering a number of postcard-worthy views. The trail skirts around some of what remains from the old Louis Simpson mansion, along a very explorable piece of waterfront before arriving at the observation building at Shore Acres State Park and its magnificent garden. The Oregon Coast trail continues from the far end of the garden, eventually meeting up with the Pack Trail which visits an old WWII bunker, or simply loop back to the beginning.
Plan your trip at oregonsadventurecoast.com.
Cape Lookout, Tillamook
For outdoor lovers, Cape Lookout State Park is without a doubt one of the crown jewels of Tillamook County. The park is a well-known haven for camping, fishing, beach strolling and even hang gliding. But the headliner of this show is the forested hike that journeys the length of the cape itself, reaching two miles out into the Pacific Ocean.
During spring and fall migrating gray whales make their way up and down the Oregon Coast. There are many places to catch a glimpse of the majestic creatures as they come up for air and occasionally breach. But because the cape affords an unencumbered view two miles from the shore, one could argue that Cape Lookout is the best spot on the coast for observing the whale’s annual pilgrimage.
Plan your trip at tillamookcoast.com.
Clatsop Loop, Cannon Beach
There are a handful of Oregon State Parks that regularly draw visitors from around the globe, and Ecola State Park is one of them. The Clatsop Loop exhibits a lot of the reasons for that draw in a simple hike that includes a view of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, also known as “Terrible Tilly,” post-hike tidepool access, the chance to visit a World War II bunker site, as well as the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Captain William Clark and the Corps of Discovery.
Enjoy spectacular old-growth spruce trees on the way out, and viewpoint after viewpoint on the way back in—including Neahkahnie Mountain to the south, Indian Beach and Sea Lion Rock. In fact, this section of trail is so inspirational that Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition famously noted that looking south from Tillamook Head was the “grandest and most pleasing prospect” he had ever surveyed. That’s some pretty high praise from a man who had just crossed the continent.
Plan your trip at cannonbeach.org.
Point Defiance Park, Tacoma
The 760-acre Point Defiance Park in Tacoma is arguably one of the finest urban parks in the Northwest. It boasts a zoo and aquarium, a Rose Garden, Rhododendron Garden, Japanese Garden, beaches, miles of trails, a boardwalk, a boathouse, a Washington State Ferries dock, a historic Fort (Nisqually), an off-leash dog park and even a stand of old-growth forest.
The well-marked trail system of the park skirts cliffs that afford sweeping views of Vashon Island, Dalco Passage, Gig Harbor and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It’s a justifiably popular spot for hikers, joggers and bicyclists. So you’ll likely not have the park to yourself. But being as vast as it is, it’s just as likely you won’t feel surrounded, and will more often than not have long stretches of trail solitude.
Plan your trip at traveltacoma.com.
Hole-in-the-Wall from Rialto Beach, La Push
No list of headlining coastal hikes would be complete without an entry from Washington’s spectacularly scenic Olympic Coast. The trail from Rialto Beach to Hole-in-the-Wall is the beach itself, with a new attention-grabber presenting itself seemingly every few steps. To the south are the forested James and Little James islands, and a set of towering, omnipresent sea stacks just offshore.
Keep an eye out for wildlife along the way, including whales, sea lions and otters offshore, with a litany of avian friends including bald eagles patrolling from the sky. Sturdy footwear is recommended for this little adventure as there is a creek crossing and the possibility of a log crossing as well. Another pro tip is to take this hike at or around low tide as you’ll be able to explore the Hole-in-the-Wall arch and its adjacent tide pools if you do so. Don’t worry if your timing doesn’t align with the tides as there are other trails, such as the Overland Trail above the arch, which provide panoramic views of the whole spectacular scene below. Plan your trip at nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/visiting-mora-and-rialto.htm.
Young Hill Trail, San Juan Island
The hike to the top of Young Hill on San Juan Island might not be the longest outing, but its bang-for-the-buckness makes it a favorite across all the San Juan Islands. There’s a nice bit of history there as well for those that enjoy hikes with a deeper meaning. Though for most, it’s the expansive views from the top of Young Hill that claim the number one spot on the list of reasons to enjoy it.
The trail starts at the historic English Camp and begins ascending immediately, gaining elevation more greedily as it goes. The unique forest of the islands is highlighted by smooth-barked Pacific madronas and gnarled Garry oaks. A signed path leads to the English Camp cemetery, a memorial for seven Royal Marines who died on the island in the 1860s. After the side trip to the cemetery, the main trail continues onto the summit, where, weather permitting, almost endless views out across the Salish Sea to neighboring islands, the Olympic Peninsula and even the Canadian Gulf islands are your reward.
Plan your trip at visitsanjuans.com.
Stanley Park Loop, Vancouver
Another urban attraction, Stanley Park takes up the entire northwest half of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula. This is another park with a laundry list of attractions including a zoo, aquarium, miniature train, totem poles, a lighthouse and miles of forests. Perhaps the biggest draw for hikers, joggers and bicyclists, is the spectacular 5.8-mile Seawall Loop. Easily the most popular outdoor attraction in the city.
However, if you’re not the biggest fan of hiking on pavement, explore the interior of the park. A network of trails crisscrosses the land mass allowing visitors to tailor their outing accordingly. But if time allows, the 5-mile inner loop of the park is a classic.
Plan your trip at destinationvancouver.com.
Smuggler Cove, Sunshine Coast
The Sunshine Coast is a 110-mile stretch of idyllic coastline that resides in the southwest corner of mainland British Columbia. It’s an area only accessible by ferry, boat or plane. But if you’ve ever had the opportunity to spend time in a similarly limited-access corner of the world, you know that’s where magic lives. The Smuggler Cove Marine Provincial Park is home to some of that magic.
The park offers striking coastal views of the cove and shoreline along the Strait of Georgia. The hike begins with a descending trail beset by a beautiful forest. The trail then gives way to a number of boardwalks and bridges. Soon, glimpses of Smuggler Cove and the Strait of Georgia appear through the trees. The path then climbs up to a high point above the entrance to Smugglers Cove. The views along this stretch are what you came for. And when atmospheric conditions are right, the pristine waters of the cove show off with hues of translucent blues and greens.
Plan your trip at sunshinecoastcanada.com.