Cape Meares is the northernmost cape of Three Capes Scenic Route, above Cape Lookout and Cape Kiwanda. We took an abbreviated loop (about 20 miles), driving out to Cape Meares from Tillamook on Bayocean Road, and returning via Oceanside and Netarts, on Netarts Highway. Bayocean Road takes you right along the south edge of Tillamook Bay, with a few houses and cabins on shore, and log pilings offshore.
As the road curves south, it’s high up enough to view the five-mile-long, finger-like Bayocean Spit pointing north. Between 1910 and the 1930’s, Bayocean was a bustling resort, the intended "Atlantic City of the West", with two hotels, a natatorium, dance hall, and 1600 lots sold for homes. The Depression and Oregon’s fierce winter storms were too much for Bayocean. In the 1950s, most of the crumbling buildings were burned and bulldozed. Today, not a trace of it remains.
We took the turnoff to Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint and National Wildlife Refuge. In the covered welcome kiosk next to the parking lot, you can learn some of the reasons Cape Meares is so special. The diverse habitat of old growth forest adjacent to ocean makes it a precious haven for wildlife, birds, and plants. And then of course there’s the lighthouse.
Off the parking lot and along the path to the lighthouse are fully accessible wildlife refuge overlooks. Be sure to bring your binoculars. The steep rocky cliffs with small grassy ledges are nesting areas for the once endangered but now thriving peregrine falcon. Black orange-beaked oystercatchers can be viewed feeding on mussels, crabs and other mollusks along the rocky shoreline. Curiously, they are misnamed; they don’t eat oysters at all. Offshore, rocks are thick with common murre colonies.
Just as the path drops off, the very top of Cape Meares Lighthouse looks like you could walk right into the tower containing Fresnel lens, glowing red with afternoon sun. Standing at 217 feet above sea level, the lighthouse only needed to be 38 feet tall, the shortest lighthouse on the Oregon coast. Built in one year of iron, sheet metal, and locally made clay bricks, it’s eye a Paris-built First Order Fresnel lens shipped around the horn, Cape Meares Lighthouse began operating on New Years Day, 1890. Three keepers kept the kerosene lamps burning from sunset to sunrise every day. Keepers and their families lived isolated, self-sufficient lives. Tillamook was a 7 hour buckboard ride away, or an entire day by boat at high tide only.
With an automated beacon placed nearby, Cape Meares Lighthouse was decommissioned and closed in 1963. Soon afterwards, it was heavily vandalized and almost demolished, but area residents banded together to save it, and it became a state park in 1968. In 2003, the tower was fully repaired and reconstructed. Adjoining the lighthouse is an interpretive and souvenir shop, replica of the old workroom, which closes at 4 PM. You can’t help rooting for this spunky little lighthouse, so short and squat but determined to survive against great odds.
We returned to the parking lot via the southern path, which offers stunning views of Three Arch Rocks in the ocean and Short Beach, above which homes are perched on the cliffs. Three Arch Rocks is a group of picturesque rocks and islets rich in birds and a stellar sea lion colony. Birdlife includes common murres and puffins, guillemots, and three different kinds of cormorants. A popular sport on Sundays at the turn of the century was chartering a boat to shoot nesting seabirds on Three Arch Rocks. Naturalist photographers William Finley and Herman Bohlman were instrumental in getting legislation passed that stopped this slaughter and led to the establishment of Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, these rocks support the largest nesting colony of murres south of Alaska, and sea lions use the rocks as a breeding ground. No humans allowed!
Yet another wonder of nature grows a short hike southeast of the parking lot: the Octopus Tree. Held sacred by local indigenous peoples, this unusual Sitka spruce did not put its growth energy into a straight single trunk, but instead sent six limbs out symmetrically sideways and upwards to grow candelabra-like. (Sextopus Tree? I think not.) Each limb-trunk is at least 12 feet around, and the base of the entire tree has a 50 foot circumference. The scientific explanation for this phenomenon holds that the combination of strong coastal winds and sheltered hollow of its location caused this type of growth. Many old Sitka spruce share similar weather and wind conditions to this, but still grow single trunks. I choose to believe the tree is indeed sacred. Lucky enough to walk around it alone, it really does have a magical feel and strong presence.