Cape Kiwanda in Pacific City, Oregon has all of the Pacific Northwest vibes you dream of- soaring sand dunes, towering sea stacks, and dramatic ocean cliffs.
There’s so much to see and do in this little slice of heaven, so for some fun in the sun (or, let’s be real, since we’re talking about Oregon, perhaps some moody clouds), pack up your car for a coastal road trip and try these 10 amazing things to do in Cape Kiwanda.
This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission, for which we are extremely grateful, at no extra cost to you.
Table of Contents
- What is Cape Kiwanda?
- How do I get to Cape Kiwanda?
- What is there to do in Cape Kiwanda?
- When should I visit Cape Kiwanda?
- What should I pack for Cape Kiwanda?
- Where should I stay when visiting Cape Kiwanda?
Pssst… are you planning a northern Oregon coast road trip? I’m jealous- it’s one of the most stunning places on the planet! We have some other posts you may want to check out:
- 11 Incredible Things to Do in Cannon Beach
- 10 Amazing Hikes Near Cannon Beach: Oregon Coast’s Playground for Adults
- Cape Falcon Trail: Hike to this Ancient Lava Headland
- Drift Creek Falls Trail: The Oregon Coast’s Best Waterfall Hike (+ A Suspension Bridge!)
We also have a ton on of content about Oregon (what can I say, I love my neighboring state!), which you can check out here.
What is Cape Kiwanda?
Cape Kiwanda is an Oregon State Natural Area, featuring a sandstone headland that juts dramatically into the Pacific Ocean and is one of three similar landmarks in the area (along with Cape Meares and Cape Lookout).
The cape consists of towering sand dunes, almost 250 feet high, that brave souls can trudge up to reveal spectacular views of the waves crashing below and, in the distance, the monolith that is Haystack Rock. Cape Kiwanda is flanked both to the north and the south by wide stretches of sandy beaches that are perfect for long strolls or taking in the breathtaking Pacific Ocean views.
How do I get to Cape Kiwanda?
Cape Kiwanda is located along the northern Oregon coast, located just under two hours from Portland or about five hours from Seattle. If you plan on flying in, I’d recommend coming into Portland, so you have less of a drive and, if you have time, you can explore the charming neighborhoods of Portland (so much good food and beer!).
Since Portland has a pretty small airport, airfare can be a bit steep; to snag the best airfare, I swear by Skyscanner (you can set flight alerts, compare rates, and even occasionally score some pretty great flight and hotel deals). While you can theoretically get from Portland to Cape Kiwanda via public transit, it would take anywhere from five to eight hours and includes lots of transfers- so I’d strongly recommend renting a car instead. Plus, the coastline is full of cute little towns, like Cannon Beach or Manzanita, and beautiful, tucked-away state parks, waiting to be explored, and thus, perfect for an Oregon road trip.
When visiting Cape Kiwanda, there’s a parking lot right by the Pacific City Beach, which has a $10 day fee. Be forewarned- during the busy summer season, parking here can be quite competitive (especially on weekends or holidays), so I’d recommend getting there on the early side to be sure you can snag a spot!
What is there to do in Cape Kiwanda?
So what are these epic things to do in Cape Kiwanda? Let’s get into it!
1. Climb up to the top of the dune
Let’s get this obvious one out of the way- while you’re at Cape Kiwanda, you obviously have to climb up that aforementioned 250-foot tall sand dune! Located on the north side of Pacific City Beach, the hill itself may not look too scary from below, but hiking up a steep hill of sand is more challenging than it looks (really, it kind of more feels like you’re fighting with the sand at times- you basically sink a bit with each step you take!).
Nevertheless, the butt-kicking climb is totally worth it, providing stunning views of McPhillips Beach to the north, Haystack Rock and the pounding ocean below, and the lush coastal forests of Bob Straub State Park to the south. Just remember to take a lot of water with you!
There are some really epic views from the dune’s cliffs, but be sure to heed fences and caution signs posted along its edges. The headland is constantly eroding and changing and people have unfortunately fallen to their deaths after not paying attention to safety barriers, when the fragile sandstone cliffs have crumbled away. Don’t get too close to the edge and you’ll be fine!
2. Explore the Cape Kiwanda Natural Scenic Area
From either walking down the north side of the dune onto McPhillips Beach or, if you don’t want to have to hike back up and over the dune, alternatively parking at McPhillips Beach and walking all the way south, you can explore the sandstone rock arches and cliffs in the Cape Kiwanda Natural Scenic Area. The rocks, which have been carved by millions of years of wind and water, are stunning against the Pacific Ocean and provide some of the most quintessential Oregon Coast views imaginable.
This area is only accessible during low tide, so be sure to time your visit with the tide table. Don’t try to climb out here during high tide. There’s several areas where you may have to scramble over rocks and around little coves and when the water is rushing in and the waves are strong, it’s easy for you to get trapped out there (which could easily turn into a dangerous situation). I promise not everything on Cape Kiwanda is designed to kill you- you just gotta respect the sea!
3. Look out for whales
Okay, here’s my last recommendation for things to do while you’re on top of the dunes- keep your eyes peeled for whales. The Oregon coast is a fantastic place to spot them, specifically gray whales, although you might get lucky and see some humpbacks or orcas.
Whale watching is a popular activity on the coast all year- during the summer, you’re more likely to see gray whales feeding closer to shore, but in the wintertime (mid-December to mid-January) and springtime (mid-March through May), a huge amount of them (20,000!) migrate from Alaska to Baja Mexico and back again.
If you’re visiting during their migration, you have a pretty good chance of catching a glimpse (sometimes up to 30 whales per hour!)- usually by seeing their spouts or, if you’re lucky, a splash of their tail- from a high vantage point, just like the Cape.
It may be a good idea to bring along some binoculars to help you get a better view (plus, binoculars have the added benefit of giving you that *distinguished sailor* look).
If you’re interested in a more active viewing experience of these school bus-sized creatures, you can travel about 45 minutes south of Pacific City to Depoe Bay, which is one of the best places to see gray whales in the world!
You can head out on a Depoe Bay whale watching tour with a company, like Whale Research Ecoexcursions, usually from mid-March through early October, where you’ll be accompanied out on the water with a real marine biologist to see these gentle giants up-close-and-personal and learn all kinds of interesting facts about them.
4. Have a beer and some fries at Pelican Brewing
After you climb up that big mountain of sand (and have all of the fun of sprinting down it), it’s time to reward yourself with a nice, cold beer. Thankfully, Pelican Brewing is literally ON Pacific City Beach, with a patio looking out on the water and a walk-up to-go window to fill all your beach beer needs.
Pelican has a pretty robust tap list, with lots of IPAs (as can be expected for the Pacific Northwest), some darker ales, and a few funkier beers, like fruited sours. If you need even more carbs, they also offer a full menu for lunch and dinner, dishing out upscale bar and comfort food.
I will mention that Pelican’s food tends to be a bit on the pricey side and the wait for a table can, at times, be pretty long (like, three hours long). At a minimum, it’s definitely worth picking up some snacks and a beer to enjoy on the beach from the to-go window- can confirm I’ve hit it more than once myself!
5. Watch the dory boats
During the second time my husband, Justin, and I visited Pacific City Beach, we were chilling in our camp chairs (drinking a Pelican, obviously), when we noticed a small boat hurtling towards the beach at extremely high speeds, incessantly honking its horn. Since there were plenty of surfers and other swimmers in the water seemingly directly in front of where the boat was headed, I thought the boat was in grave distress- why else would a propeller boat stop itself by crashing into the sandy shore, possibly hitting some surfers along the way?
Turns out this was a totally normal experience and this little vessel is called a dory boat. Dory boats are open-hulled and flat-bottomed, used for bringing in large quantities of fish despite their small size.
While dory boats are used all around North America, the ones in Pacific City are unique, given how they’re launched and landed. Because of restrictions related to Oregon’s fishing laws and the relatively calm surf around Cape Kiwanda, the dory boats started launching and landing from the shores of the Pacific City Beach in the early 1900s. It’s believed that Pacific City is the only place in the western United States where dory boats are used in this manner, which has made these little boats a kind of beloved and quirky aspect of the local history and culture.
Part of the local reverence for dory boats also stems from the challenging nature of navigating them, given their odd design and center of gravity. Only the most skilled seamen and seawomen are allowed to captain a dory boat. But word to the wise- regardless of how skilled their captains are, be sure to steer clear of them if you hear its horn while you’re swimming in the water at Pacific City Beach. Those suckers move fast!
If you’re a real dory boat enthusiast, consider visiting Cape Kiwanda during its annual Dory Days in July, which celebrates the long, storied history of dorymen and dorywomen in Pacific City. There’s usually an artisan fair, food and drink vendors, and, of course, a literal parade of dory boats!
6. Watch the surfers or try your hand at catching a wave
While the surf is calm enough for dory boats to launch, it’s also gnarly enough to make Pacific City something of a mecca for surfers. There’s a surprising amount of surfers here that, throughout the year, throw on a wetsuit and brave the chilly Pacific Northwestern waters. In fact, if you happen to be visiting in September, there’s an annual surfing competition called the Cape Kiwanda Longboard Classic which we’re hoping to see next year.
While I could just sit on the beach and watch surfers for hours, why not throw your best shaka and get out there and do it yourself? Moment Surf Company offers beginner surf lessons to teach you everything you need to know about catching your first wave on Pacific City Beach. If you’re concerned about Oregon’s cold waters, not to worry- your rental of a wetsuit, booties, gloves, and a hood are all included in your class fee, which will surely keep you nice and toasty… right?
7. Go tidepooling
Before moving to the Pacific Northwest, I’d never heard of tidepooling, but it’s a whole thing here. So if you’re like me and don’t know what the hell tidepooling entails, it essentially consists of looking for small pools of seawater left behind during low tide and observing their marine life inhabitants.
The best tide pools for spotting sea creatures are on the north side of Pacific City Beach just south of Cape Kiwanda- here, you can spot colorful anemones, ochre sea stars (hundreds of them!), crabs, sea urchin, and sometimes, even small fish called sculpin. Friendly reminder to follow the guidelines you learned in kindergarten and touch the sea critters with your eyes only (… not, like, literally, though).
If you’re REALLY into tidepooling, consider staying at the swanky Headlands Coastal Lodge and Spa– it’s located just a stones’ throw away from the Cape and in the summertime, they have guided outings (and even offer private tours) to the best tidepools on the beach.
8. Drive on McPhillips Beach
Up until 2021, you used to be allowed to drive on Pacific City Beach and it was kinda iconic- who wouldn’t want a photo of their vanlife rig parked right in front of Haystack Rock? The popularity of driving on Pacific City Beach was interfering with regular ol’ beachgoers’ enjoyment, though, so cruising around the sand is now prohibited.
So what’s almost as good as driving on the beach directly south of Cape Kiwanda? How about driving on the sand directly north of it- McPhillips Beach!
Our first ever beach-cruising adventure was on McPhillips Beach and it felt pretty glorious- wind whipping through your hair, the ocean crashing outside of your window, the cool sandstone formation of Cape Kiwanda rising in front of you.
If you want to try your hand at driving on the beach, please do your research ahead of time and only give it a go if you have the right equipment and understand the risks (if you don’t know what you’re doing, your car can very easily get stuck and permanently ruined by rising seawater). Here’s a few key tips to keep in mind:
- Come with a car with four-wheel drive- the sand at McPhillips is usually pretty soft and saturated, so you need all the traction you can get.
- Deflate your tires before hitting the sand. This will again provide you more traction and give you more control as you cruise across the sand. Just make sure to re-inflate your tires before getting back on the road (we keep a portable air compressor, like this one, in our car, just for these types of situations!).
- Make sure to check the tide tables and visit during low tide. If your car accidentally got stuck in the sand or on some rocks, you want to give yourself plenty of time to get out of there before high tide sweeps in.
Be sure to check out this map of where driving is permitted on South Tillamook County beaches before you roll out on the sand- the restrictions seem to constantly be changing and nothing can take the wind out of your sails (maritime pun!) quite like a ticket.
9. Have a campfire
Saving my favorite for (almost) last- end your day with a campfire! There’s something so magical about feeling the heat of a campfire, warming the sand around your toes, with the cool ocean breeze on your face- plus, the taste of s’mores never hurts!
While sand acts as an excellent fire retardant, fires on Pacific City Beach are not allowed during the height of the Pacific Northwest’s wildfire season (usually late July through early September), so be sure to check local fire restrictions before lighting up (or call the Oregon’s Department of Forestry’s Tillamook office at 503-842-2545).
Even if it’s not wildfire season, be sure to build your firepit away from any brush or trees that may be susceptible to catching fire. Follow responsible fire habits and don’t forget your marshmallows!
10. Explore the Three Capes Scenic Loop
As mentioned above, Cape Kiwanda is the southernmost headland in the area, along with two similar landmarks, Cape Meares and Cape Lookout.
Driving along the coastline to each of these spots is called the Three Capes Scenic Loop (approximately a 30 mile drive one-way), allowing you to stop and explore quaint towns, beautiful coastal forests, and pristine beaches along the way.
Plan to spend a few hours hiking through the lush forests of Cape Lookout, like the 5-mile Cape Trail, which leads you through groves of hemlocks, with peekaboo views of the coastline, all the way to the tip of Cape Lookout. Cape Meares has several short and easy trails to points of interest, like its lighthouse from 1890 that you can walk right up to (and even tour at certain times) or the Octopus Tree, a 300-year old Sitka spruce with oddly sprawling trunks.
If you’re interested in doing the Three Capes Scenic Loop, I’d recommend starting your day at Cape Meares and working your way south, so you can end the day watching the sunset at Cape Kiwanda, campfire at your feet and Pelican beer in your hand.
When should I visit Cape Kiwanda?
If sunny skies are what you’re after, the best time to visit Cape Kiwanda and the surrounding area is July through September. Even in the summer, note that the northern Oregon coast isn’t exactly known for wear-your-bikini-and-frolick-in-the-water weather- while it can get up to the upper 70s or 80s on clear sunny days, it’s not uncommon to have summer days where you’ll be reaching for your sweater. So, regardless if you visit during the summer months, be sure to bring along some warm layers.
Most visitors overlook visiting in the winter and spring in Oregon, given the weather tends to be quite rainy and foggy- however, I’d argue this is an oversight. The Pacific Northwest’s scenery can look its most dramatic in overcast weather, it never gets too chilly along the coastline, and you won’t have to brave the hectic crowds (or inflated prices) of the summer. Throw on a raincoat and soak in all those PNW vibes.
What should I pack for Cape Kiwanda?
Thankfully, you don’t need a ton to have a fun day exploring the sand dunes and relaxing on the beach.
But here are some things to bring along that may make your trip a bit better:
- Water bottle: Hiking up those sand dunes is a legitimate workout and, even if you’re just chilling on the beach, the sun can be dehydrating. To be good to the planet and to cut down on wasting money on bottled water, Justin and I both have giant Nalgene bottles that we take everywhere, from international trips to hiking excursions and, yup, even the Oregon coastline.
- Camp chairs: You’re gonna need something to sit in around your warm, cozy campfire, right? Justin and I honestly have a couple of crappy camp chairs we bought from Home Depot years ago, but since they’re so uncomfortable and we use them almost every weekend, I plan on upgrading to something like this chair.
- Cooler: If you’re roadtripping to Cape Kiwanda from home, I’d always recommend bringing a cooler along. It’s perfect for throwing some beer and hot dogs to enjoy around your campfire, plus there’s SO many cute mom-and-pop shops, stands, and farms along the coastline- you never know what kind of yummy goods you’ll pick up along the way!
- Raincoat: With all the moisture and wind from the ocean, the weather along the Oregon coast can be pretty unpredictable, even in the summertime. Bring along a rainjacket (like this one for women and this one for men)- not only will it keep you dry in a surprise downpour, but you can always throw it on as an extra layer if the temperature drops unexpectedly.
- Hiking boots: If you plan on staying at Cape Kiwanda, you can get away with just wearing sandals- I’d recommend a pair of hiking sandals like Tevas (here’s some for women and some for men) or Chacos (for women or men), which can double as hiking and water shoes.
However, if you plan on doing any kind of hiking at Cape Lookout, bring along a pair of actual hiking boots (like these for women or these for men). The trails there are full of roots and stones, so be sure to wear footwear that provides some protection and support.
- Offline maps: Cell signal along the Oregon coast can be quite spotty, so download offline maps for the area in the Google Maps app before heading there to make sure you don’t get lost along the way.
Where should I stay when visiting Cape Kiwanda?
For being such a small town, Pacific City has several great accommodations to choose from. That being said, Pacific City is a POPULAR destination, especially in the summer, so the earlier you make reservations, the better!
- Surf and Sand Inn: This quaint hotel offers simple but clean rooms at an affordable rate. If you’re just looking for a quiet place to rest your head at night between your adventures that won’t break the bank, this is the perfect spot for you.
- Hart’s Camp Airstream Hotel and RV Park: For a more mid-level and unique stay, consider this site just a short walk to the beach, which offers a collection of vintage and new Airstreams to call your home for the night. Alternatively, if you have your own RV, Hart’s also offers an RV campground with full-hookups.
- Inn at Cape Kiwanda: Each room in this boutique hotel offers an oceanfront private balcony and a gas fireplace. The hotel also offers sweet perks, like free rentals of beach cruiser bikes and complimentary weekend happy hours, featuring Oregon-made wines.
- Headlands Coastal Lodge & Spa: If you’re in a “treat yourself” mood, this hotel would absolutely be my choice. From a hot tub overlooking Haystack Rock, to on-staff “adventure coaches” that are at the ready to act as your guide to the northern Oregon coast and complimentary curated snacks and beverages, this is the bougie experience my body craves.
If you’re more of a camper (either tent or RVer), the good news is there’s plenty of campgrounds around. The bad news? They’re a bit on the pricey side, running from about $40 a night for an RV site up to over $80, depending on the season, whether you’re visiting on a weekend or holiday, and the campground.
If you want to stay in Pacific City itself, the most affordable option is the Webb County Campground (starting around $40 a night), which offers full hookups and is a short walk to the beach. For my more budget-minded friends who don’t mind a bit of a drive, Justin and I always stay at the Port of Tillamook Bay RV Park (just $15 a night, which is a STEAL for the Oregon coast) or the Cape Lookout State Park also looks great, with a limited number of sites with full hook-ups starting at $33 a night.
I hope you have the best time visiting Cape Kiwanda and have some time to explore the rest of the Oregon coast while you’re there. What are some hidden gems you’ve found around the Northern Oregon coast? Let me know in the comments below!