The Best Hikes Along the Northern Oregon Coast

Take a hike up to expansive views, out to craggy coastline and through lush gullies of fern.

Saddle Mountain

Distance: 5 miles

About 90 minutes from Portland: Follow U.S. 26 west and turn right at the "State Park" sign for Saddle Mountain. Take Saddle Mountain Road 7 miles to the trailhead parking lot.

From the docks in Astoria, Saddle Mountain looks like Everest. The tallest peak in Clatsop County juts conspicuously into the sky above U.S. Route 26. On a clear day, you feel like you can see Japan from the bald summit.

How prominent is the peak? Well, you can spot it from the pinnacles of a few hikes in the Gorge—an entire mountain range away, with the entire Portland metro area in between. As they sailed down the Columbia River, Lewis and Clark even made note of it in their journals.

Given Saddle Mountain's prominence, you know from the trailhead that a killer view awaits. But will your legs or lungs give out before you get there? Much of the trail is challenging and steep, climbing 1,600 feet in 2.5 miles. Happily, there's enough scenic variation along the way, including wide swaths of vibrant wildflowers in late spring and early summer to provide much-needed distraction from the pain of your ascent.

This hike is well-known, which means the chances you'll be rolling solo into the wild are slim. Like the promenade in Seaside, it attracts an assorted cast of characters, including trail-clogging 5-year-olds, old men with walking sticks, and people who seemingly took a wrong turn on their way to the Pig 'n Pancake as they wobble along the rocky route in heeled boots and jeans. Some of these folks will drop off about a quarter-mile down the trail, where there's a side trail to a viewpoint. But most will press on toward the top, 3,200 feet above sea level.

The first half-mile or so is a gentle climb through stately Douglas firs and alder trees, the path slicing through an emerald carpet of ferns and wood sorrel. But the trail soon becomes less forgiving, with sharper inclines and switchbacks. At one of the curves, a picnic table beckons your burning thighs. Sit for a minute and enjoy the fact you weren't the U.S. Forest Service grunt who hauled up this furniture.

You'll soon shed the forest and pop out into a wildly different environment. If it's blossom season, the transition isn't unlike opening the door to a Technicolor Oz—the exposed hillside explodes with colorful flowers in a grassy meadow. Only a few stands of trees dot the mountain from here on out.

One fun fact overheard while taking a breather near a trio of aging hippies, who were not only discussing plant life but also smoking it, was that much of Saddle Mountain is a botanical island, with flowers left over from the last ice age that can't be readily found elsewhere. Saddle Mountain is a living museum of botany.

Negotiating slides of eroding rock is one of the trickier parts of the trail. Some of the crumbling peak has been covered in metal grating to keep you from sliding, but that also makes the last several hundred feet of a grueling hike feel like you're repeatedly smashing your feet onto chain-link fencing. However, once you reach this section you're nearing the saddle between the humps. After a brief downhill break, one final vigorous burst of strength will push you to the summit.

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Take some time to enjoy the afterglow—the ocean stretches out before you, with Astoria's landmark column to the north. Turn around, and the mighty Cascades arise on the horizon. On a clear day, you can soak up the scenery of an entire region. And while that might not be the same as standing on Everest, it kinda feels like it.

Clatsop Spit

Distance: About 4.5 miles

Two hours from Portland: Follow U.S. 26 west and merge onto U.S. 101 north. Travel 13.5 miles, then turn left onto OR 104 north, turn left onto Southwest 18th Street, then merge onto Northwest Ridge Road. Turn left onto Jetty Road and turn right to reach parking lot D.

You'll venture to the very tip of Oregon with this hike. In a way, it's where the state's sidewalk slips into the sea—a jetty of jagged stones protrudes into the Pacific as if reaching out to its twin on the Washington side. To get to the highlight of Clatsop Spit, where the ocean slams against the mouth of the Columbia River, you're going to begin at one of the lesser-used portions of Fort Stevens State Park.

Beach access parking lot D doesn't have the cool, old shipwreck or eerie remains of a military battery like you'll find elsewhere in this park. Instead, the first feature you'll run into is a concrete bunker sprouting grass from its roof. It's likely housing binocular-toting birders, so tiptoe past them and head toward a lagoon surrounded by wind-blown reeds. In the distance, the wooden legs of a trestle still stand years after they were built for trains to move equipment during jetty construction. Continue counter-clockwise, following the river as it gently laps the shoreline.

As you round the northern curve of the spit, Astoria and the pistachio-colored Astoria-Megler Bridge come into view behind you. You know you're getting close to the jetties when the waves in the distance grow violent. This is the infamous Columbia River Bar, whose treacherous conditions are known for swallowing many a ship.

Scramble up the rocks of the jetty for a front-row seat to watch hulking freighters pass through with the assistance of Columbia River Bar Pilots. For one last viewpoint, follow the jetty inland past jumbled driftwood to a platform that rises above the rock barrier. To complete the loop, walk through an adjacent parking lot and head down the road. Turn left at the junction to return to parking lot D. This portion of the trek is dull and buggy, so you could simply return the way you came for another opportunity to gawk at river traffic.

Oregon Coast, Hikes (Hilary Sander)

Neahkahnie Mountain

Distance: About 7 miles

About 1 hour, 45 minutes from Portland: Follow U.S. 26 west and merge onto U.S. 101 south. Continue on U.S. 101 for 13.4 miles and park at Oswald West State Park.

It's said that the word "Neahkahnie" means "home of the supreme god." If the almighty decided to call Her shots from a perch along the Pacific, there are worse options.

Being that you're a mere mortal, getting to the divine pinnacle won't be easy. Embrace the pain and take the longer route that actually begins at the beach instead of the official trailhead off U.S. 101 in Oswald West State Park. Look for signs to reach Short Sands Beach and take the Necarney Creek Trail, bounding across a short, wooden-plank suspension bridge that bounces as you go. Veer onto the Elk Flats Trail, which rises steadily through a forest of ruddy cedars and king-sized Sitkas—including one that straddles the path with an alcove-shaped opening to pass.

About a mile in, the branches clear and you're under wide-open sky wading through a green shag rug of grasses and ferns. Before continuing toward U.S. 101, hang a right for a quick detour down toward to an ocean overlook, where water churns and spits in Devil's Cauldron. This boiling cove will be your last place of solace on the route, because the uphill slog only gets tougher after crossing the road.

Push up narrow, salal-lined switchbacks for a little more than a half-mile, the sprawling Smugglers Cove and the cliffs surrounding it coming into full view the higher you go. The trail then ducks into a dense forest, twisting farther up and around the mountain's south side. A fog pushes in during your ascent, sending a thick, white cloud pouring through the trees. This normally clears at the summit—an opening with a rocky bluff that you can clamber up—but it's not necessary for a divine view.

University Falls

Distance: 6 miles

About one hour from Portland: Follow U.S. 26 west and bear left onto OR 6 west and drive for 19 miles. Turn left at the Rogers Camp Trailhead and Browns Camp. Make another left onto a gravel road for the Rogers Camp parking lot.

When it's 90 degrees in Portland, you want a hike with a waterfall. Out of habit, you hop in the car and head toward the Gorge. But before you end up wasting 45 minutes at choked trailheads that morph into monster-truck arenas at the first sign of the sun, drive toward the Coast Range.

Nestled deep in the Tillamook State Forest is some impressive falling water without the crowds. The turnaround point of the relatively flat Gravelle Brothers Trail features University Falls, which cascades 80 feet down basalt rock that's some 15 million years old.

The gateway to this hike looks dreary in comparison, but don't let that deter you. In fact, it may help keep the throngs of nature lovers at bay. The trail is tucked behind an Oregon Department of Transportation yard lined with concrete barriers at Rogers Camp, where you may also hear the incessant drone of ATVs along with occasional gunfire. Rest assured, the noise fades once you enter the forest.

Skinny, white alders crowd around Elliot Creek, which accompanies you much of the way to the falls. Near a horse-hitching area you'll spot a sign with an artist's rendering of the water feature—you're almost there. While there's not a lot of space to spread out in front of the cooling mist, you shouldn't have to worry about that. Most of the suckers went to the Gorge.

Oregon Dunes Loop

Distance: About 5 miles

About three hours from Portland: Follow I-5 south and take exit 195 toward OR 569 west. Keep right to merge onto OR 569, then continue on OR 126 west for 55 miles. Turn left on U.S. 101 south and drive for 10.5 miles. Turn right into the Oregon Dunes Day Use parking lot.

Walking toward the beach in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area feels like you've suddenly stepped out of the state and into a bizarro version of the Sahara.

While this area is well-known to the dune-buggy demographic, hikers can enjoy their own patch of sand in virtual isolation. A paved path bends around to a sand flat surrounded by rolling dunes. Head straight to the short, scrubby trees, and the trail becomes overgrown with grass before eventually giving way to muddy marshland.

Vegetation comes to a halt several feet in front of the final dune before the beach, except for some yellowing grass clinging to the side of the crest. For the next mile and a half, it might be just you and the crab carcasses on this lonely stretch of coast. That also makes for prime shell-picking from a dazzling mosaic scattered across the ground.

With your loot of whole sand dollars in hand, head inland at the brown trail sign and wander back through a savannah punctuated with stubby, twisted pines. The trail brushes past the stagnant Tahkenitch Creek several times as you tromp into deeper and wider sections of sand.

During the final portion of this loop, tiny pools of water dot the landscape. During the right time of year, you can spot tiny tadpoles darting through the reeds.

(Rachael Renee' Levasseur) (Rachael Renee’ Levasseur)

Drift Creek Falls

Distance: 3-3.5 miles

About two hours from Portland: Follow I-5 south and take exit 291 toward Carmen Drive/King City. Turn right onto Southwest Upper Boones Ferry Road, turn left to stay on Upper Boones Ferry, turn right onto Southwest Durham Road, then turn left onto OR 99 west. Continue on OR 99 for 18 miles, turning left on OR 18 west. Stay on OR 18 for 47.6 miles and turn left onto North Bear Creek Road, which becomes Forest Service Road 17. Continue straight for Bureau of Land Management Road 1770, where you'll reach the parking lot in a half-mile.

If you ever dreamed of fighting off attackers on a treacherously high rope bridge like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, this hike will get you pretty close. The Drift Creek Falls suspension bridge can't be cut in half with a sword, but you can swing it from side to side to enhance the sense of danger.

Most impressive is the view—not just from the bridge, but of the 240-foot-long bridge from the canyon floor 100 feet below.

The hike to reach the span is easy and takes you through a forest thick with towering alder and maple trees that provide shade for most of the route. Giant ferns blanket the floor, and a stream winds near the path from time to time.

To add some excitement, and a moderate climb, take the North Loop Trail when you reach the fork. During the half-mile trek, you'll be surrounded by dense foliage, with plants starting to grow over the trail in some areas. This side trip can serve as a respite from crowds on busier days. Once you've completed the loop, you're almost to the bridge. Cross it and continue down to the water, where hikers lounge on rocks or wade through the creek below the bridge and a 75-foot waterfall.

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When you return to the bridge's entrance, look for a plaque honoring Scott Paul, a Forest Service construction foreman. He died in a rigging accident in 1993 while working on the bridge, and one of his associates stepped in to finish the project as a tribute.

Cape Falcon

Distance: 5 miles

About 1 hour, 45 minutes from Portland: Follow U.S. 26 west and merge onto U.S. 101 south. Continue on U.S. 101 for 13.4 miles and park at Oswald West State Park.

[BUSHWHACKING] A hike on the coast usually involves a decision: Do you ramble under the branches of an old-growth forest or walk to the rhythm of the ocean's waves? Well, Cape Falcon has both.

From the northernmost parking lot in Oswald West State Park, follow the signs and slip into the woods darkened by heavy vegetation. Slits in the trees allow sunlight to peer through, casting an ethereal glow on the forest floor. The trail follows a moss-coated ridge that's sidekick to Short Sand Creek before veering inland. You'll gently bob and weave through gnarled Sitkas and over two more creeks, climbing at times but never for very long.

Before reaching the top, there's a suggestion of a trail after the second creek-crossing that tends to get overwhelmed with plants as the summer months march on. From there, you may be able to see the source of Blumenthal Falls before it spills over several tiers to reach Short Sand Beach. However, if it's late summer, skip the offshoot—you'll waste your time looking for a waterfall that's become a mud flat.

Press on through imposing salal shrubs that might make you feel like you're working your way through a hedge maze. Park workers have cleared a path, but late in the season overgrown shoots will claw your arms. The trail eventually splits, but either route shoots you out onto exposed bluffs with the shimmering ocean below.

The lack of strenuous inclines can make the first cliff-top vista rather surprising, because you'd normally end up peeling your pack off a sweat-soaked back to reach a view that expands north to Cannon Beach and all the way south to the Three Capes area near Pacific City.


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