Perpetual Appeal

Go anytime: With tide pools at its feet and deep forests at its crown, this towering headland on Oregon's central coast doesn't have an off-seaon.

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Cape Perpetua, Oregon

Gene Ahrens

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Some trips are worth repeating. Over the past 20 years, I've explored nearly every mile of the Oregon coast while writing regional hiking guides. I've gotten to know the landscape and the people. But I find myself returning to Cape Perpetua, a remarkable headland just off the Pacific Coast Highway.

My second-favorite time to visit comes right after a storm, at high tide, when surging waves assault the continent's basalt edge. They rumble like thunder and explode into saltwater geysers. The biggest storms churn water into foam that shoots into the air, then drifts down like falling snow. The water settles on grass-covered hillsides, or lodges in the needles of weather-beaten shore pines.

My favorite time to visit Cape Perpetua is the long rainy period from fall through spring, because I love to hike. With the mountain trails still snowed in and the beach too windy and wet for walking, I prefer the deep forest blanketing Cape Perpetua, which is neither icy nor very cold. Layers of the trees' canopy, hundreds of feet high, catch the drops and turn them into something more than mist but less than rain, nothing my jacket can't shake off. I head up Gwynn Creek Trail, where the forest is lush and airy and expansive and I can hike as far as I like―a quick leg-stretching break from the car or three miles to the top of Cook's Ridge.

My other favorite season here is at the ebb of an extra-low tide on a still, sunny morning in June or July. Seaweed, urchins, sea stars, and more plants and animals you can see only this time of year lie revealed, just briefly, in the pools of water lingering near the mouth of Cape Creek. Here I might look up and spy black oystercatchers with their clownish red beaks canvassing the rocks and calling out in their high, anxious cries. Once, on a tide-pooling trip, my companion and I spent an hour sitting on the shore above the pools, watching a pile of harbor seals lounging on a clump of offshore rocks. Yawning and stretching and batting at one another, the adults grunted and growled, the pups bleated like lambs.

Captain James Cook named the cape "Perpetua" as he sailed past it in early March of 1778. Slowed by spring storms, his ship seemed to take forever to move out of sight of the 800-foot headland, so the story goes. The truth, found in his journals, is more prosaic: March 7, the day he sailed past the cape, is the Catholic feast day of Saint Perpetua.

But "Perpetua" makes me think of the venerable forests, some trees hundreds of years old. The rocky shoreline, at once eternal and evolving. The old Indian middens above the beach that hold secrets of a long-lost way of life. It's timeless. And though I've been before, this place always presents reasons to return.

Cape Basics

Cape Perpetua extends from the central Oregon coast, about two miles south of the town of Yachats. Much of the cape is inside Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, a 2,700-acre preserve in the Siuslaw National Forest (fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw). It stretches from the shoreline to the forested ridges nearly three miles east, with more than 20 miles of hiking trails. The scenic area's visitor center includes a bookstore, a small theater with short interpretive films, and exhibits on local human and natural history. An annual recreation pass or a day pass ($5, available at the visitor center) is required to park at any of the scenic-area parking lots. Rain peaks in December, averaging more than 11 inches, tapering to an inch or two in the summer months. Temperatures are mild, rarely below freezing in winter and rarely above 65 in summer. No-frills camping is available in a small campground in the scenic area, and nearby Yachats has plenty of motels, many with ocean views. Get information from the chamber of commerce; 800/929-0477 or yachats.org.

Bonnie Henderson is the author of Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris (OSU Press, 2008).

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