Oregon and Washington's Roadside Ecology

33 Easy Walks Through the Region's Amazing Natural Areas


By Roddy Scheer

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Discover natural history secrets hiding in plain sight

Have you ever seen a raging river disappear completely into a lava tube? Petrified subtropical plants in the middle of a high desert? Do you know how a 10,000-year-old argillite boulder can wind up 800 miles away from any similar rocks? In this insightful guide, environmental journalist and photographer Roddy Scheer reveals the hidden stories of the Pacific Northwest’s unique ecosystems and teaches you how to “read a landscape,” as you explore 33 spectacular natural areas. All hikes are within easy walking distance of the road, less than two miles long, and include clues to deciphering the terrain—making Oregon and Washington’s Roadside Ecology a must-have guide to some of the area’s most spectacular and unusual natural sights.


A mountain hemlock tree hugs the heather- and huckleberry-strewn ridge just off the Fire and Ice Trail near Washington’s northernmost Cascade peak, Mount Baker.



Panoramic vistas, easy tide pool access, and an 1873 lighthouse DIFFICULTY
Newport, Oregon
0.25 to 1 mile

Jutting out a mile into the Pacific Ocean, Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area lies smack dab in the middle of the wild and woolly Oregon coast. This delightful portal is right off Highway 101 and well worth a stop and a leg stretch. If you time it right, you can even tour the 93-foot-tall Yaquina Head Lighthouse and gain a true bird’s-eye view of the coastal ecosystems spread out before you.

You could spend a half hour or a full day exploring Yaquina Head, depending on how much ground you want to cover. Five short hiking trails crisscross the 95-acre headland, ensuring that each of the different ecosystems there is accessible. The best time of year to visit is late spring through early fall, when temperatures are mild and the notorious Pacific Northwest drizzle has subsided. That said, hearty raincoat-clad travelers can find plenty to like about visiting here any time of year.

Looking south from Yaquina Head toward Agate Beach.

Given the exposed nature of Yaquina Head, watch out for high winds that can yank car doors open and make walking difficult. Watch your step on high cliffsides. If you venture down to the beach or tide pools, stay away from high-surf areas and watch out for sneaker waves (sudden tidal surges that can strike at any time and knock you off your feet into the cold Pacific). Keep kids within arm’s reach (and all dogs on leash) and never turn your back on the ocean.

The ground under your feet didn’t exist until around 14 million years ago. That’s when lava erupted out of inland cracks in Earth’s crust and flowed hundreds of miles west, where it met the Pacific Ocean. There it quickly cooled and hardened into the basalt rock that makes up the natural foundation of this mile-long mini-peninsula.

Driftwood, sand, and beach grasses commingle near the shoreline of Quarry Cove.

There are several short hikes on Yaquina Head, each yielding access to surprisingly different ecosystems, given the small amount of land. Start your visit with a 0.25-mile hike down to Quarry Cove, the former site of a rock quarry that was converted back to a more natural setting in 1980, when the Bureau of Land Management took over management of Yaquina Head. While it might not seem like a former rock quarry would be much of a draw for amateur naturalists, au contraire! Shore pines, Sitka willows, Pacific wax myrtle, and salal line the trail on the way down.

Near the bottom, the trail switches back toward the inside of the cozy little cove. The sandy shoreline along the protected inner cove is teeming with a diverse selection of estuarine grasses, sedges, and shrubs. American searocket, beach morning glory, silverweed cinquefoil, smallflower melic, American beachgrass, and Henderson’s angelica are just a few of the plants populating this sandy transition zone. When you’ve had enough peace and tranquility along the shore of this quiet cove, head back up the hill and make your way toward the western tip of Yaquina Head to see the dramatic setting of the lighthouse and its surroundings.

Birdsfoot trefoil (pictured here at Quarry Cove) may look pretty, but this invasive perennial legume is wreaking havoc on ecosystems across the Pacific Northwest by taking over the traditional domains of native plants.

If the lighthouse is open, it’s worth popping inside to check out the view from nearly 100 feet up. On a clear day from the top, you can see for hundreds of miles in every direction. Once you’ve checked the lighthouse off your to-do list, head down the long concrete stairway to nearby Cobble Beach, where millions of round basalt rocks make a clapping sound when waves roll over them.

If you are there around low tide (consult the tide chart for Newport, Oregon, for the date of your visit), you’ll likely see plenty of ochre sea stars, giant green anemones, and purple sea urchins clinging to rocks as the seawater ebbs and flow around them. Look up and out and you might see Harbor seals popping out of the water to get a closer look at you before they head for any of a dozen offshore islets just off Cobble Beach.

If you’re a birder, Yaquina Head may just qualify as heaven for you. For starters, one of the largest nesting colonies of common murres (also known as common guillemots) makes their home here. As many as 65,000 of these handsome, crow-sized birds with black heads, backs, wings, and tails; white bellies; and yellow and black feet crowd together each spring on Yaquina’s high cliffs to breed and incubate their eggs. These large members of the family Alcidae (like their puffin cousins) spend much of their time out at sea, where they feed by diving into schools of small “forage” fish such as polar cod, capelin, sand lances, sprats, and sandeels.

More graceful below the surface than above, common murres can dive 500 feet or more down into the water column in chase of prey. They can live into their twenties, returning with the same partner to the same cliffside nest site to breed every spring—they are monogamous and usually form lifelong pairs.

Common murres might be the poster bird of Yaquina Head, but many other avian species call the rocky headland home, or at least visit twice a year on their way up and down the Pacific Flyway. Barn swallows and violet-green swallows nest along the many cliffsides around the peninsula. White-crown sparrows and song sparrows shuffle around in the brush alongside the park’s woodland trails, as Caspian terns fly overhead, signaling the extent of their territory with their signature raspy calls. Northern harriers and American kestrels hunt for rodents in the grassy flats, while western meadowlarks hop around searching for beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets.

Yaquina Head is home to one of the largest nesting colonies of common murres along the bird’s entire range, from Northern California to the Aleutian Islands.

Peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, and bald eagles swoop down on unsuspecting shorebirds and other small prey near the lighthouse and on forested Salal Hill on the north side of the peninsula. Surfbirds and black turnstones feast on barnacles and snails out on the tidelands, while black scoters and western grebes dive for mussels, clams, crabs, marine snails, and sea squirts in the shallows just offshore. Pigeon guillemots, western gulls, black oystercatchers, and Brandt’s and pelagic cormorants are just a few more of the 159 bird species seen around Yaquina Head. Certain sections of Yaquina Head are marked as off-limits to visitors at times, to give nesting wildlife some peace and quiet.

While you’ve got your binoculars out, train them far offshore in search of gray whales. These 50-foot-long, mottled black cetaceans pass by in the early winter and spring on their way back and forth between their winter calving lagoons along Mexico’s Baja California peninsula and summer feeding grounds in the Alaskan arctic. While you won’t likely get a close-up look at these behemoths from the land, look for their spouts—misty double-pumped jets of vapor shooting as much as 12 feet above the water surface—far offshore, where you might expect to see a tanker ship. (Several local outfitters in Newport take guests out on whale-watching expeditions if getting closer views is appealing.)

Gray whales pass by Yaquina Head twice a year as they migrate 12,000 miles round trip between Mexico’s Baja California and Alaska’s Bering Sea.

If you’ve still got energy left to burn, consider hiking the Salal Hill and Communications Hill trails, both of which are short but steep and cut through forest primeval on the north side of Yaquina Head. These classic Northwest temperate rain forest trails get you next to Douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce trees, while western sword fern and salal spread out in the understory. Only in the Pacific Northwest can you be tide-pooling one minute and hiking through temperate rain forest the next.

With so much ecosystem diversity on such a small amount of land, Yaquina Head is indeed a microcosm of the Oregon coast. Whether you like to hike, birdwatch, explore tide pools, or just breathe in the freshest air in the country as it drifts in off the Pacific, Yaquina Head has you covered.


Introduction to coastal dunes ecology and invasive species dynamics DIFFICULTY
Gardiner, Oregon
2 to 4 miles

This trail is well maintained as it traverses second-growth forest before crossing onto the dunes. At the dunes it becomes tougher going, as your feet slip back in the sand a little bit with every step—so allot extra time if you plan to extend your adventure to cross the dunes and hit the beach. (Tacking on this latter section through the dunes and out to the beach and back adds 2 miles to the out-and-back mileage, making the hike 4 miles total.)

Most people visit in the summer when skies are reliably sunnier and temperatures warm enough for shorts and short sleeves. But the dunes are especially enchanting in winter if you can stand cooler temps and some clouds and rain. Leave dogs at home between March 15 and September 15 when snowy plovers, endangered shorebirds that live in the coastal temperate rain forest here, nest on the beach.

Pacific rhododendron leaves are often at eye level on the forested trail out to Tahkenitch Dunes.

One of the nice things about Tahkenitch Dunes (versus other sections of the sprawling, 45-square-mile Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area encompassing it) is the absence of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). These motorized 3- and 4-wheelers aren’t allowed at Tahkenitch, so visitors here can enjoy the tranquility of nature without the noise pollution of revving engines or worries about getting run over that may accompany visits to other nearby dunes.

Tahkenitch Dunes and the Pacific Ocean at sunset.

Pick up the trail at the well-marked trailhead near the parking area and entrance to Tahkenitch Campground, off U.S. Highway 101 just north of the little town of Gardiner. Judging from the size of the trees and the primeval quality of the forest, you wouldn’t guess that the area was logged to stumps in the 1920s. It is classic Northwest temperate rain forest, with Douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce trees reaching 150 feet and higher; Pacific rhododendrons draping their leathery green leaves, five to a cluster, across the midcanopy; and beadruby and sword fern lining the sides of the trail. A hike through this forest would be pleasure enough even without the rewards—the dunes and then the beach—at the end.

Evergreen huckleberry is ubiquitous both trailside in the woods as well as out on the dunes, where birds, bears, and other creatures enjoy its mid-fall berry offerings.

In a quick half mile, the trail descends suddenly via a couple of switchbacks and soon you’ll see some light at the end of the forest tunnel with the trees opening up ahead. A few more steps bring you to the foot of the dunes. Close your eyes and listen for the sound of crashing waves which are another half mile ahead, across the dunes and through a small copse of shore pine trees. Venture forward out onto the dunes and look for footsteps of those who came before you to get a sense for where the “trail”—nonexistent because it crosses ever-shifting sand dunes—now leads. If you brought along a piece of cardboard (or even better, a snowboard), try your luck at sledding (or boarding) down the steepest slice of dunes uphill and to your left. Or if it’s the golden hour, find a perch at the edge of the forest and watch the sun go down over the dunes, with the Pacific Ocean as a distant backdrop.

Given the repeated and dramatic shifting of their entire structure, the dunes are home to a dedicated and specially adapted group of native plants. Sitka spruces, shore pines, Port Orford cedars, and Jeffrey pines grow in small, erratically placed clusters, providing all-important cover for wildlife on the otherwise exposed dunes. Hairy manzanitas fill in some of the gaps, where they can grab a patch of soil amid all the shifting sands. Otherwise, the rest of the flora on the dunes—red fescue, sand verbena, seashore bluegrass, bog blueberry, tufted hairgrass, slough sedge, bearberry, skunk cabbage, and evergreen huckleberry, among others—sticks closer to the ground.

Coming out of the forest, the Tahkenitch Dunes await.

You may well see other footsteps in the sand besides those of humans. Of course, American black bear, Columbian black-tailed deer, coyote, cougar, bobcat, and raccoon roam freely through these wild and fecund coastal ecosystems. But some 393 other lesser-known wildlife species, some of them endemic (meaning they only exist here), scrape out an existence on the dunes.

The Siuslaw hairy necked tiger beetle, only 0.5 inches long with a tiger-striped, gray-and-white shell and white “hair” on its neck, is one example that you may see skittering across the sand at your feet. This rare denizen of the coast once ranged from Northern California up into northern Washington State, but now is only hanging on in a few coastal patches where the conditions are still just right—like this one. They can run as fast as 5 miles an hour in a sprint, which may not seem that quick, but it makes them one of the fastest species on the planet when you consider speed in relation to body size.

The Siuslaw hairy necked tiger beetle has benefitted from efforts to protect western snowy plover habitat.

Stay away from the dry sand areas of the beach along the Oregon coast during midsummer to give the endangered snowy plovers who nest there the best chance of survival.

Another seldom-seen native patrolling the dunes for squirrels, voles, eggs, and insects is the Humboldt marten (also called the coastal marten), currently under consideration for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The only subspecies of marten (which is in the weasel family) to live in a nonsnowy environment, these expert hunters are about as big as a small cat and live in the shrub thickets and woodlands at the edges of the dunes. They are busy, because they need to eat upward of 80 calories a day, roughly a quarter of their body weight, to survive in the wild.

Meanwhile, hundreds of bird species either live along this stretch of Oregon coast or pass through and stay for a visit twice a year on their way back and forth along the Pacific Flyway—the migratory bird airspace linking South America and the Arctic along the West Coast. Sanderlings, long-billed curlews, dunlins, and least sandpipers comb the beach and dunes in search of sustenance. Other small birds to watch for as they flitter across the dunes include pine siskins, belted kingfishers, chestnut-backed chickadees, wrentits, northern flickers, red crossbills, olive-sided flycatchers, and Anna’s hummingbirds. Meanwhile, bald eagles, ospreys, northern harriers, and great horned owls patrol from on high, in search of easy pickings as rodents and other prey scoot between hiding places. Woodpeckers, herons, ducks, geese, and four different species of warbler also frequent the Tahkenitch area.

But of all the birds along this stretch of coast, none is more iconic than the otherwise unassuming little brown-and-white western snowy plover. Measuring only about 6 inches from beak to tail and weighing less than 2 ounces, these small, skittish shorebirds breed and nest in the dry sand of the upper beach during the summer—forcing thousands of human visitors to steer clear of certain sections of shoreline from mid-March to mid-September every year.

Some of the plovers spend the entire year here in the heart of their native habitat, where there’s an abundance of their favorite foods, which include small crabs, clams, sand hoppers, marine worms, and aquatic insects. Others migrate north or south but return to the same patch of beach here in the late spring to breed and nest.

That process starts with a male scraping a nest out of the sand. He then bows next to the female he would like to impregnate while flashing the white part of his tail. Usually this is good enough for most females, who aren’t too choosy, as they are trying to squeeze out 2–3 broods of 2–6 eggs each—typically with a different male each time—while the weather on the beach is accommodating over the summer.

Once the mom lays her eggs and is off to find another male, the dad takes over to rear the young. After hatching, the newborn chicks can’t fly for 4 weeks, making them easy prey for other wildlife on the lookout for an easy meal. Dads distract predators and people away from their nest sites with various behavior displays in the opposite direction. These plover dads can also signal to their chicks to keep a low profile when predators are on the prowl. If the little fluff-ball chicks can make it through their first 6 days, their chances of survival increase dramatically. The birds reach maturity in about a year and can expect to live a full life if they make it to 10 or 12 years old.

Biologists have noticed a sharp decline in western snowy plover populations since the 1970s, and the bird was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beginning in 1993. The primary culprit in the plover’s decline is habitat loss. Originally introduced a century ago to stabilize the dunes and facilitate road and train-track building, invasive species such as European beachgrass, American beachgrass, and Scotch broom have run wild and crowded out native species, overtaking vast swaths where plovers used to nest. The encroachment of these invasive species have changed the structure of the dune landscape, opening it up to coyotes and other predators that used to avoid the sandy expanses as wastelands, where dinner didn’t grow or run.

Introduced 100 years ago as a dune stabilizer, American beachgrass, a non-native invasive species, is wreaking havoc on coastal ecosystems along this stretch of the coast.

Luckily, efforts to remove these invasives and keep people and predators away from plover nesting sites have begun to pay off. A recent survey of the distribution and reproductive success of the plovers along the Oregon coast showed population numbers at their highest since monitoring began in 1990. But conservationists warn we have a long way to go before we can expect western snowy plover numbers anywhere near what they were before we started trying to “improve” on Mother Nature’s work by tampering with her landscapes.

Once you’re ready to move on from the dunes—some spend a few minutes; others spend a day luxuriating in the smooth, blonde sands—you can either turn around and head back to the parking lot (another 0.5 miles back) or keep trekking through the dunes, to the final leg of trail and the beach proper. If you choose the latter, do your best to follow others’ footsteps in making your way across the dunes. (Even if you can’t find others’ footsteps, head due west and you’ll get there). You’ll cross through a small patch of shore pines before emerging onto the beach.

Experiencing the Pacific Ocean in person is awe-inspiring, whether it’s your first time or your thousandth. Out on the beach it’s almost always windier and more exposed than within the confines of the dunes back a few hundred feet. Watch for sneaker waves, avoid logs in the surf or on wet sand, and stay away from deep water and strong currents.

If it’s between March 15 and September 15 (the endangered shorebirds’ breeding cycle), the dry sand areas of the beach where western snowy plovers nest are off-limits. During this 6-month period, hiking and horseback riding is allowed on the wet sand areas only, but dogs, kites, and bicycles should stay home—or at least back at the car. And keep an eye on kids, so they don’t run into plover nesting territory.

If it’s near sunset, you may as well have a seat and wait for the golden orb to drop to the horizon before turning around and retracing your steps to the parking lot. (If you are staying late, make sure you have a headlamp or flashlight to light the way back.) Whatever time of day it is, you’ll be glad you made the short trek and you’ll surely feel invigorated by your immersion in one of nature’s most elemental environments.

The sun makes its final descent over the Pacific Ocean horizon as shore pines separating the dunes from the beach stand by.


  • “A must-have guide to some of the area’s most spectacular and unusual natural sights." —The Good Men Project

On Sale
Mar 29, 2022
Page Count
368 pages
Timber Press

Roddy Scheer

Roddy Scheer

About the Author

Roddy Scheer is a journalist and photographer specializing in environmental issues, the outdoors, and travel. When he is not out in the field taking pictures, Roddy runs EarthTalk.org, a weekly environmental newsletter that is syndicated to 1100 media outlets and reaches 6 million readers. He has served as a regular contributor to E-The Environmental Magazine, Seattle Magazine, Northwest Travel, American Photo, PhotoMedia, Wildflower, and others. He is a three-time Society of Professional Journalists “Excellence in Journalism” winner.

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