Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, near Yachats on the Oregon Coast, offers natural wonders that will help you shake off the winter blues.
The first time I visited Cape Perpetua on the Oregon Coast, I’d just graduated from high school and was in a dark, grumbling mood, not prepared for what came next. My mother, freshly divorced from my dad, thought this the perfect time to load me and my two younger brothers into her sports coupe for a family-bonding vacation. I thought this was a bad idea, all the way to the coast.
My perpetual grump lasted all the way to Cape Perpetua, where — at least for a while — it magically died.
I’ve been back at least a dozen times in the nearly two decades since. Mom, happily remarried, owns a vacation home in Yachats, just north of the cape. This is where we go when we want our relaxation guaranteed.
We’ve introduced our friends to it, too, and make them the same guarantee: You will relax here.
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We can let go because while we’re there, we do what the human body and mind were meant to do. We wander. And since a Northwest winter can put anybody into a funk, this is a good time to visit — and let whales, storms, big waves and devilish caldrons of churning sea help you escape the blues.
The cape itself is a tall, steep bluff that rises 800 feet above the coast, making it a particularly good spot for gazing upon miles of craggy shoreline, bristling forest and golden sand dunes. But your first stop should be the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area visitor center, located just off Highway 101 (well, your very first stop should be at one of the coast’s bakeries or cafes to load up on carbs). Friendly staffers, many of them volunteers, can give you the scoop on trails and sights.
History is here, too, in the form of Civilian Conservation Corps buildings from the 1930s. Going even further back, the Coastal Indians fished and gathered food in the cape’s shadow — and ate here, as evidenced along the shore by the ancient shell middens visible from the half-mile-long paved Captain Cook Trail, named after Englishman James Cook, who named the cape during explorations of this coast.
On my family’s first visit, the first order of business was to summit the cape via the St. Perpetua Trail. When we reached the top, we came upon a parking lot and realized there’s a road to it that starts near the visitor center. No matter; the short (1.3 miles one way), steep set of exposed switchbacks comes in handy if you need to get blood pumping. Whether you drive or hike, ascending the cape is one of the area’s must-dos, with views of up to 70 miles up and down the coast and up to 35 miles out to sea. It’s no wonder that the rough-hewed rock shelter at the top, another CCC relic, was a watch station during World War II.
On the sea side
With its wide views, the cape makes an ideal whale-watching spot, and winter — late December through January — is prime time, especially for the gray whales that make their way past this part of the coast in December and early January, then return in March on the trip northward.
It’s a good idea to check a tide chart before your visit. Bigger waves in winter mean more spectacular water shows along the craggy coast. At high tide, waves slam into a narrow slot in the rocks, Cook’s Chasm, and whoosh up into a booming vertical plume of seawater and mist at the Spouting Horn. The same waves make for boiling, roiling surf in nearby Devils Churn. Visitors venture all the way out onto the tough, tide-beaten volcanic rocks. Those with young kids, creaky knees or disabilities can also see the horn and churn via a wheelchair-accessible trail to a viewpoint above.
At low tide, take the Captain Cook Trail to tide pools teeming with dime-sized crabs among purple sea urchins, green anemones and orange sea stars. Wear sturdy shoes and remember to watch for sneaker waves.
In the forest
The tide pools educate us about the plants and animals of the sea, but the rest of Cape Perpetua’s trails teach us a thing or two about those on land. Most of the scenic area’s 26 miles of trails head away from the water and into a lush forest that carpets the valleys and hillsides. Among the forest’s giants is a “Heritage Tree,” a 185-foot-tall spruce with a 40-foot diameter. Reach it via the flat one-mile Giant Spruce Trail, an easy jaunt from the visitor center or adjacent campground.
As with any popular natural area, crowds diminish quickly once you get past the first mile or so. One of the longest trails starting at the visitor center is the Cummins Creek Trail, 6.2 miles one way. It starts out along an old logging road and climbs through the only old-growth Sitka spruce forest in the Oregon wilderness-area system, the Cummins Creek Wilderness, and into old-growth Douglas fir. Make a big loop and avoid backtracking by combining it with Cook’s Ridge Trail (4.3 miles) for a satisfying day-hike adventure amid giant trees, mosses, ferns, mushrooms and delicious evergreen-scented air.
Seattle freelancer Christy Karras is the author of four travel and history books, including “Motorcycle Touring in the Pacific Northwest.”