Portland Area Hikes

Cascade Head
By Paul Gerald
  |  Gorp.com
Page 3 of 4   |  
Key Info
Length : 5.4 miles round-trip to Harts Cove; 2 to 3.4 miles round-trip to the Nature Preserve
Configuration : Out-and-back
Difficulty : Moderate, with an easy option
Scenery : Old-growth forest, waterfalls, sea cliffs, wildflowers, and wildlife
Exposure : In the forest at first, then open
Traffic : Use is heavy on summer weekends but moderate otherwise.
Trail Surface : Packed dirt with some roots
Hiking Time : 3 hours to Harts Cove; 1 to 1.5 hours for the Nature Preserve
Season : The upper trailheads are open July 16 through December 31. The lower trailhead is open year-round.
Access : No fees or permits needed.
Maps : USGS Neskowin
Facilities : No facilities; no water on the trail

In Brief
Imagine standing high atop a windswept, flower-covered prairie, with the sea and the coast spread out below you and not a tree to block the view. Or imagine peeking into a hidden cove where sea lions bark, a waterfall plunges, and waves crash. Well, you don't have to imagine either scene: you can go to Cascade Head and make it happen.

From Downtown Portland on I-5, drive three miles south and take Exit 294/Tigard/Newberg. Bear right onto OR 99 West and follow it 22 miles. Just before the town of McMinnville, turn left onto OR 18 (following signs for the coast) and follow it for 51 miles to its intersection with US 101. Turn right (north) on US 101. Driving time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

For the lower, year-round trailhead to the Nature Preserve, go one mile north and turn left onto Three Rocks Road. Follow this for two miles, turn left, and park at Knight Park. To reach the trailhead, follow a trail along the road.

For the two upper trailheads, go 3.8 miles north of OR 18 on US 101 and turn left onto unsigned FS 1861, just before the top of a hill on US 101. Stay left at 2.4 miles, still on FS 1861. The upper Nature Preserve trailhead is 0.8 miles after this turn, on the left. The Harts Cove trailhead is at the end of the road, one mile later.

First, the Harts Cove Trail. When it starts out, you might think you've got it made, because it's all downhill and steep—it loses about 500 feet in the first half a mile. Too bad you have to walk back up that at the end of the hike. The forest here is a young one of mostly sitka spruce; notice how only the tops of trees are green? That's because these lower portions don't get any sun, not because they're unhealthy. Notice, also, the very large stumps around; there's one right on the side of the trail that you can get on top of and measure for yourself.

After 0.7 miles you'll cross Cliff Creek and walk into a different world. Here you can find out what a sitka spruce looks like after about 300 years. You'll also get to hear what hundreds of sea lions sound like—they're to the left, and you might get to see some of them later. Now the hiking gets flatter, as you go out to the end of the ridge to a bench with a view of Harts Cove ahead. Then you'll wrap back around to the right, through the drainage of Chitwood Creek. Half a mile after the bench, you'll walk under a massive blown-down spruce and then out into the meadows on top of the bluff—yet another world visited on this hike.

It's important to stay on the trails here; this area is fragile. If you come in August, you'll be wading through a view that looks like it was lifted from the upper reaches of Mount Hood: look for goldenrod, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and violets. Follow the trail that aims at some trees on the left; there's a wonderful spot to sit down there, and it has a front-row view into Harts Cove. The waterfall you see is that of Chitwood Creek, which you just crossed. As for the sea lions, louder than ever, they are mostly around the point to the south, but if you have binoculars you might be able to see some of them lounging on rocks or the far beach.

There's no real beach access here, but you can get close to the water. From the trees, walk west and stay to the left. There's a steep trail there, almost a slide in spots, that you can take down to the rocky shore. This rock, and all of Cascade Head in fact, is lava that flowed up through the water. If you make your way to the right 100 yards or so on the rock, you'll have a fabulous view of the headland and north to Cape Kiwanda and, farther off, Cape Lookout.

Now, for the Cascade Head Nature Preserve. If the upper road is open, start up there. The trail, actually an old roadbed, goes flat for one mile through a young and unexciting forest to the main-attraction meadow.

Over 30 years ago this meadow was slated to become a housing development, but conservation-minded folks banded together, bought it, and donated it to the Nature Conservancy. Now also designated as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, it's protected as the home of the Oregon silverspot butterfly, whose caterpillar will eat only a rare violet that lives in these meadows. That's why FS 1861 and the upper part of the trail is closed from January 1 through July 15.

Once you're out in the meadow, you can go as far as you want. It's 1.7 miles down (and 1,200 feet of elevation loss) to the lower trailhead; just remember that you will have to walk back up. But you should go as far as a clifftop viewpoint that's just below the tree line in front of you. From there, you can see down to a secluded beach where the surf pounds and sea lions might be lounging.

If you started at the lower trailhead, you'll go through forest for just over a mile before coming out in the meadow. The top of the meadow (where the upper trail comes out of the woods) is 0.6 miles above you.

For more information, contact the Nature Conservancy at (503) 230-1221 or the Hebo Ranger District office at (503) 392-3161.

Nearby Activities
Back on OR 18, a mile before you came to US 101, you went through the town of Otis. You might not have noticed it (it only has about a dozen buildings), but it's the home of an Oregon coast tradition, the Otis Café. It's got 28 seats, a line outside, and the biggest portions this side of a logging camp. They're famous for sourdough pancakes and whole-wheat molasses toast. If you're interested, the whole town of Otis is for sale—for $3 million.

Published: 24 May 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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