In 1974, Congress established the Cascade Head Scenic Research Area with the mission of maintaining and restoring native habitat, enhancing the scenic qualities of the area and educating us on the sensitive relationship between humans and our environment. It’s located just four miles north of Lincoln City and is home to more than 350 species of wildlife, four of which are considered endangered.
The Salmon River Estuary makes up a small part of this 9,670-acre sanctuary. Restoration of the estuary has been ongoing since the 1970’s with the removal of artificial dikes and other infrastructure, filling ditches, realigning streams and reestablishing tidal flow, and planting native species. Much of the destruction of the native habitat occurred in the late 1960’s due to the Pixieland Amusement Park and the Tamara Quay Trailer Park, both of which are gone now.
More than half the estuary is now native tidal marsh providing a critical juncture between fresh and salt water, supporting numerous forms of life and aiding in the spawning migration of fish. Estuaries are important “nurseries” for young salmon.
Salmon River Estuary is a hidden gem on the Oregon Coast and I have brought my kayak here many times, launching it at the Knights County Park boat dock. There are two choices when you arrive: to head upstream through the estuary or head downstream to the mouth of the Salmon River where it converges with the Pacific Ocean. Either way, it is a relaxing day to float and enjoy the scenery.
If you head upstream you’re bound to see an abundance of waterfowl, including Great Blue Herons. The current is not strong and it’s a peaceful glide in and around the grassy marsh, just be careful not to get beached on a mudflat, for the depth of the water can be deceiving. It is considered a popular spot for fishing during salmon runs, though I rarely see many boats there.
If you head downstream, you’ll come to the Salmon River spit, which is a long beach that can be reached only by boat, thus it is quiet and empty most of the time. It is one of my favorite beaches, for there are lots of rocks and shells and sometimes starfish, which I tend to throw back in the sea, hoping they will survive. (Some say you should just let nature takes it course, but I believe a little help never hurts). You can also camp on the beach and make a weekend out of it. The rugged rocky cliffs to the north and Cascade Head make for an incredible view. And since it is only a little over an hours drive from Salem, it’s easy to come on a weekday after work.
If you don’t own a kayak you can rent one in Lincoln City for $35 for the day and that comes with a life vest. I would recommend calling ahead to reserve one. Make sure to check weather conditions and pack extra clothes in case of damp conditions. Waterproof layers is also a good idea!
How to get there:
From Salem, head west on HWY 22 towards the coast. After approximately 30 miles, HWY 22 merges with HWY 18 and continues west another 23 miles till you see signs for US 101 N. Take this exit heading north towards Tillamook/Astoria and in 2 miles take a sharp left onto Three Rocks Road. Stay on this road for another 1.5 miles till you reach Knights County Park and the boat ramp. It takes about one hour and 15 minutes.
Fees and Permits:
There are no fees to park here and there are public restrooms in the parking lot. Dogs are allowed here, but note, they are not allowed on the Nature Conservancy trail should you decide to hike up to Cascade Head.
Distance and Elevation Gain:
Of course, the kayak trip has zero elevation gain, but if you are interested in hiking you can access the Cascade Head Nature Conservancy Trail from this parking area. It’s 3.5 miles and climbs 1,100 feet for breath taking views of the Pacific Ocean. I will save the Cascade Head hike for another story.