Located halfway between Lincoln City and Tillamook on the northern Oregon coast, Pacific City sits on one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in North America. You really don’t need more reason than that to pay a visit to Cape Kiwanda and Pacific City.
But this little town of only 1,000 residents has so much more.
There are no casinos, no aquariums, precious few art galleries. That said, we have compiled a list of seven terrific reasons to visit. And we didn’t even include such nearby natural attractions as Bob Straub State Park, immediately south of town, nor the Clay Myers State Natural Area at Whalen Island, just north on Sand Lake.
Can a luxury hotel be inconspicuous? If any hotel on the Oregon coast has succeeded at that trick, it’s Headlands. Opened at the start of 2018, the 33-room inn nestles against a hillside beside windswept Cape Kiwanda, Oregon’s highest dune.
Every room here has a Pacific view, overlooking dramatic, 330-foot Haystack Rock and a popular surfing beach from which fishermen launch wooden oar boats called dories. The Tidepools spa highlights an outdoor hot tub, massage and treatment rooms, and a fitness center complete with yoga room and online connected Peloton bikes.
The Meridian restaurant offers gourmet Pacific Northwest cuisine, including local seafood (black cod, rockfish, razor clams), from chef Andrew Garrison, formerly of the Allison Inn and the Salishan Resort.
And perhaps best of all, with no need for an urban concierge, the hotel has an “adventure team” that not only helps guests make arrangements for outdoor activities, but actually joins them in their exploits.
“It’s a pretty amazing piece of ground,” said co-owner Jeff Schons, who settled here in 1990 with his wife and co-owner, Mary J. Jones, in 1990. “We had a creaky little fishing cabin, with pots and pans catching the leaks from the rain, and we just never left.” They invested in a subdivision with a view of the Nestucca River mouth, and slowly added a second subdivision, then the Inn at Cape Kiwanda, oceanview cottages and the Pelican Pub & Brewery.
But one piece remained undone: “How were we going to build something that stood up to this view?” Jones pondered. “It was kind of intimidating.”
A team of architects, headed by the late Kelly Edwards and interior designer Jennifer Johanson, helped make it happen. By the time of Headlands’ soft opening in late December, Schons and Jones knew they had something special — a space of open, rustic sensibility that attracts a modern, adventure-loving clientele.
Twice daily, in morning and early evening, the adventure guides from Headlands Lodge lead hikes up the 240-foot-high (and half-mile-long) dune of Cape Kiwanda. It’s a worthy walk up sliding sands to a crest of the dune, which was named for a 19th-century Indian chief.
Panoramic views extend south along Nestucca Bay and north along the Three Capes Scenic Route toward Cape Lookout. During their migratory seasons, you might also see humpback and gray whales cruising down the coast. Hang gliders find the air currents sweeping off the Pacific to be ideal for long northward rides toward sandy Tierra del Mar.
Those same breezes are natural artists. They fashion hypnotizing ripple patterns on level areas of the dune’s brow, twist summit shore pines into tortuous bends, and carve the sandstone promontory with steep cliffs, hoodoos and natural bridges. At low tides, a hike down the north side of the dune yields tidepools where colonies of sea stars, anemones and other invertebrate life put on an impressive show.
The biggest events on the local calendar are the Blessing of the Fleet in mid-June and the Dory Days Festival every July. And on any given morning from June to September, you will see a handful of fishermen backing their trailers into the surf, releasing their wooden boats, then heading out through the crashing waves to test themselves against the seas.
Joe Hay was the first dory skipper to be licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard, and he’s still a rarity. When Hay established his business in 1997, his Haystack Fishing Club was the only licensed dory charter in the world. He’s been joined now by a couple of others here and in northern California. But whenever weather and ocean conditions cooperate, he’s still in the waves, more than two decades later.
I’ve been out with Hay twice. Dressed warmly and wearing rubber boots, we pushed his 21-foot dory into the surf, clambered over the gunwale, and pointed our nose seaward through 12-foot swells. When we returned to shore four hours later, our hold was filled with ling cod and sea bass, here more commonly called black rockfish, along with two vermilion rockfish and a quillback.
The most thrilling moments were the takeoff and landing. Departure required that we hit several onrushing waves head-on, allowing them to wash across our prow, which rose steeply before dropping into the well behind the waves. On the return, with the surf at our backs, we accelerated right up to the beach, hit the sand with a thump and skidded up the shore.
For many longtime Pacific City visitors, the true landmark at Cape Kiwanda is the Pelican Pub & Brewery. Opened in 1996 after the rebuilding of a ramshackle hut just above the high-tide mark, facing the breaking waves, it grew to become a leader in the worldwide craft-beer movement. Three times, for instance, it’s been honored with “brewpub of the year” awards from the Great American Beer Festival.
The menu is far better than brewpub aficionados have reason to expect. Wild-caught salmon, fresh shellfish cioppino, crab-crusted mahimahi and 14-hour-smoked tri-tip are a few highlights. The company has recent expanded north, up the coast, with additional brewpubs in Tillamook and Cannon Beach. And the outdoor patio is a great place to keep an eye on the surf scene. Indeed, shells and pebbles wash with the tides right up to the edge of the raised deck.
The Surfing Scene
Pacific City may be the purest and least-commercial surf town on the Oregon coast. From spring through autumn, at the break of dawn, you can count upon seeing a handful of hardy surfers, warmly clad in skin-tight wetsuits, already paddling through the eternal surf rolling past Haystack Rock.
“The waves break year-round,” said international surfing icon Gerry Lopez, who has lived in Oregon since 1992 after moving his family from Maui. “The water is, in a word, freezing-ass cold. I guess that’s three words.”
Pacific City is Lopez’s Oregon beach of choice — in part because it’s nearest to his Bend home. “Surfing is, before any of its many hooks, a sport of convenience,” he said. “The surf is no more special than any of the other spots along the coast, but like everywhere, it does have its epic moments.”
Seven Surfboards, Pacific City’s leading surf shop, stands nearby on Cape Kiwanda Drive. It’s not a big store, but owner Bryan Bates, who spends most of his time building and shaping boards, offers everything an aspiring surfer might want. Not only does he have custom surfboards and wetsuits; he also provides rentals and lessons to newbies. You don’t need to travel to Hawaii or Southern California to immerse yourself in the waves.
Aleutian Cackling Geese
If you’re a birdwatcher, Pacific City may offer your best chance to see a rare subspecies of Canada goose, the Semidi Islands Aleutian Cackling Goose. Distinguished by a white ring at the base of its black neck, this goose (recorded by the Lewis and Clark Expedition) has recovered from near-extinction in the 1950s to resume seasonal migration to select locations on the Oregon and northern California coasts.
They’re sometimes seen as they take off and return to their roost on Haystack Rock in Cape Kiwanda, but larger flocks gather in the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge north and south of the main town, off Brooten Road.
Grateful Bread wasn’t named to pay homage to the iconic jam band of the 1960s and ‘70s, but its attraction was perhaps unavoidable. When devotees of the Grateful Dead began to leave memorabilia from Jerry Garcia and his band mates, proprietor Robyn Barcroft (the owner since 2001) embraced the theme, outfitting her staff in tie-dyed shirts and playing a nonstop stream of Dead songs.
The bakery is open daily for breakfast and lunch. Many morning scrambles are named for Dead songs (“Friend of the Devil,” “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain,” for instance), while midday meals feature cod and tuna caught by local dory fishermen. Barb says they offer the best scones she has ever tasted.
The wildlife refuge on Broken Road is said to be one of the best places to birdwatch. From bald eagles to double crested comerants and great herons, the area brings birdwatchers from far and wide.
Note from Barb: “Pacific City may be my favorite place on the Oregon Coast. That’s partly because of its beauty and the wonderful Headlands Lodge, but also because it’s like a small town. I have an affinity for small towns and places where we travel and get to meet the real people, not just the big tourist businesses.”