Oh, the Oregon Coast. A Pacific Northwest kingdom where vast Douglas fir forests meet a rugged coastline, lined with sea stacks and sea arches that tower hundreds of feet high, and is home to numerous species of ocean and wildlife. Whether you’re a landscape, portrait, or wildlife photographer, or simply love a good road trip, if you haven’t taken a drive down Highway 101 and visited this magical place, you need to put it on the top of your list and make the trip happen.
I’ve been lucky enough to photograph this stretch of coastline multiple times, so I’ve come up with the top five places you need to visit and photograph on the Oregon Coast. Let’s start at the north point and work our way south.
1. Cannon Beach
I know, I know. It’s one of the most touristy beaches in Oregon. Seaside on the weekend is a madhouse and Cannon Beach is always lined with hundreds of sunbathers, families, and swimmers. I even saw a music video being shot when I was there.
However, the hours of the early morning and evening are when Cannon Beach becomes truly magical. The crowds thin out, and you’re left alone to photograph one of the biggest sea stacks you will ever see. Called Haystack Rock, it juts out of the ocean at over 200 feet tall. When golden hour sets in, this beach lights up and glows bright yellow. On a clear day, it’s hard to beat a Cannon Beach sunset, anywhere.
Then, when the sun sets, so does the tide, peeling all the way back to where you can walk up and stand right by the behemoth rock you were shooting all evening. While there is no camping allowed on the beach, it’s a great place to make a fire and shoot the stars behind Haystack Rock and the rugged coastline that make up this beautiful beach. This place, while crowded, is one of my favorite places to shoot on the Oregon Coast.
2. Cape Kiwanda
One of the wildest and most dangerous sections of the Oregon Coast, Cape Kiwanda is magical to shoot. Not only does this protected section of beach have its own large sea stack that looks very similar to Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach (and as one local describes it, resembles a gorilla’s head, with a rat-tail, in a bathtub), but it is home to some of the most dramatic, steep, and picturesque scenery on the Oregon Coast.
Because of the massive, powerful swell that batters its sandstone coastline, Cape Kiwanda is ever-changing. But that also means that shooting in this area can be rewarding, but also dangerous. Once you hike up to the main part of the park, the ridges can drop down more than a hundred feet, and the edges are smooth, unstable, and offer little sure footing. Never test your luck in this area, and give yourself plenty of room from the edge.
This area is also known for deadly “sneaker waves” that can cause you to smack into the rock face or tumble below. I don’t want to sound like a field trip coordinator, but this place is very dangerous, and claims multiple lives each year. I don’t want it claims yours.
Cape Kiwanda is a great place to shoot, but do so carefully. Landscape photographers, as well as portrait photographers, love it. Cape Kiwanda is a local favorite for engagement and elopement shoots. From massive waves, to the wild, multicolored coastline, this part of the Oregon Coast doesn’t disappoint.
3. Cape Perpetua
Cape Perpetua is another rugged part of the Oregon Coast that is truly beautiful. Massive Douglas firs come right up to black, jagged rocks, which make this place truly mystical to shoot. This location is also home to Thor’s Well, a large sinkhole that when at high tide, is beautiful to shoot exposure shots at, especially when the tide sweeps in from below and spews over the edges of the rock basin.
While I wasn’t able to capture Thor’s Well at high tide, Cape Perpetua is still magical to shoot, with wild tides and tide pools teaming with life. It’s a great stop as you head south down Highway 101.
4. Coos Bay
As Highway 101 snakes upward, you will come across Coos Bay. Home to several beautiful lighthouses and large sea stacks, this area is incredibly famous for its sea lion populations, which are incredibly fun to photograph as they play and quarrel amongst each other, and of course, sunbathe.
And if you’re lucky and have the right telephoto lens, you might be able to catch humpback whales breaching and making their way south to warmer waters. This is another beautiful place for sunset, as it is one of the highest sections of Highway 101. It is a true, iconic stretch of the Oregon Coast.
5. Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor
Last, but certainly not least, is the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor, which lies around 15 minutes north of Brookings, Oregon, the last city before the Oregon/California border. This small, yet magnificent stretch of coastline happens to be my favorite section of the Oregon Coast, and that says a lot.
This park is home to natural arches, a breathtaking series of sea arches, towering several hundred feet tall, with multiple broken off sea stacks that seem so close you could reach out and touch them. The most striking part of Samuel H. Boardman though, is the Douglas firs that still reside on several of the sea stacks, giving them immense character when you shoot.
Not only is this place great for sunset, but also sunrise. The numerous trails, while steep and challenging, let you get up close and personal to this special place, thanks to the two trails that lead directly onto the arches themselves. As a landscape photographer who loves playing with scale, this place was a dream to shoot and experience as a whole. It thoroughly exceeded my expectations. Just make sure you have the whole day at Samuel H. Boardman, and be be prepared because you will fall in love and want to come back again.
The Oregon Coast is world-renowned, and for good reason. Highway 101 takes you through a coastline that will leave you speechless and your memory cards full. I hope my list helps you narrow down what to photograph first, but the great part about the Oregon Coast? You could spend your whole life photographing it and every day would be special and unique. That’s how beautiful it is. So whatever trip you take, make it yours and make it special. Happy shooting!