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Cannon Beach, Ore.: Seaside Solitude

Dramatic skies, stormy seas, the quiet of empty beaches, and a lively arts fest blend in a beloved escape on the Oregon Coast.

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Ore., image
Photo caption
Haystack Rock poses for artists year-round in Cannon Beach.


The conditions in Cannon Beach couldn’t have seemed worse for a weekend at the shore. On my first morning, sheets of rain slanted out of a leaden November sky as whitecaps exploded against Haystack Rock, the Oregon coast landmark known locally as “the Rock.” Lightning pierced the gloom; thunderclaps rattled windows and rumbled across the misty hills and headlands. In the parlance of Cannon Beach old-timers, the storm-tossed waves were “comin’ in over the Rock.”

Yet as dedicated storm watchers, gourmet diners, Gore-Tex–clad hikers, and gallery hoppers know, the heavy-weather season can be a wonderful time to visit this north coast beach retreat and artists’ colony 80 miles west of Portland. Some devotees set aside the first weekend in November to attend the aptly named Stormy Weather Arts Festival, as I did. Others celebrate Thanksgiving at the coast, renting a beachfront condominium or cozy, shingled cottage, filling it with family and friends, and reveling in the natural world when the weather here turns moody, the colors grow muted, and the “summer people” have gone home.

Cannon Beach’s year-round popularity rests chiefly on its small-town charm and magnetic beachscape. U.S. 101 skirts this long, narrow town, and the two principal north-south arteries, Hemlock and Spruce streets, are pedestrian friendly and conducive to leisurely window-shopping. The beach is never more than two blocks away in the compact downtown and midtown districts, where many of the so-called presidential streets (from Taft to Coolidge) dead-end at the sweeping shoreline.

Almost 10 miles of open sand extend between Tillamook Head in the north and Hug Point south of town. Just offshore, midway along Cannon Beach proper, looms Haystack Rock, a hulking, 235-foot volcanic remnant that commands attention from any vantage point in or around town.

Summer weekends find throngs of kite fliers, tide poolers, sandcastle architects, artists, hikers, and beach-cruising bikers on the sands around Haystack Rock. The commerce they bring to the local economy supports galleries, shops, restaurants, and lodgings in numbers disproportionate to the town’s size and unmatched in more remote places along the Oregon coast. This benefits off-season visitors, who get the amenities without the crowds. Although Cannon Beach may enter a state of midweek hibernation in late fall and winter, it comes alive on weekends.

And so it was when I attended the Stormy Weather Arts Festival. By noon, after the weather had calmed, the fiesta downtown was in full swing, and browsers filled the sidewalks in the central business district. People popped into Sesame and Lilies to prospect for take-me-home decor, from old English silver trays to vibrant French table linens. Some perused the big selection of acrobatic Australian sport kites at Once Upon a Breeze, hoping the wind might die down enough to fly one (it didn’t). Others savored Oregon vintages at the Wine Shack, one of the coast’s oldest bottle shops. And many succumbed to the pleasure of picking out a mixed pound of saltwater taffy at Bruce’s Candy Kitchen, a pink-striped building that has been a destination since 1963.

But the weekend was chiefly about celebrating art—visual, musical, and literary—at festival venues from one end of town to the other. I would have had to clone myself several times over to attend every artist’s talk, painting demonstration, wine-and-cheese reception, live music performance, and book signing. My inclinations steered me to the Northwest by Northwest Gallery for Lillian Pitt’s haunting ceramic spirit masks, inspired by the petroglyphs and forest spirits of the Columbia River Gorge, and to the White Bird Gallery. There I met Shirley Gittelsohn, a vivacious 85-year-old Portland impressionist whose evocative Cannon Beach paintings depict the landscapes and lifestyle that draw people to this beloved enclave by the sea.

Artistic expressions have a long tradition here, dating back to the poetic prose of a certain visitor to Cannon Beach long before it was named that: Captain William Clark. On a clear January day in 1806, Clark and his party, which included Sacagawea and her French Canadian husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, struggled over Tillamook Head to barter with the local population for whale blubber. Clark, in his eccentric spelling, described the view from a promontory as “the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed . . . the Seas rageing with emence wave and brakeing with great force . . . gives this Coast a most romantic appearance.” His is the first known written description of Cannon Beach.

Hoping to reach the same promontory, called Clark’s Point of View, I took advantage of a sun break one afternoon to hike the Clatsop Loop Trail in Ecola State Park. (“E co-la,” as Clark spelled it, means “whale” in the Chinook tongue.) Peter Lindsey, a local author and storyteller, consented to join me. We slipped and slithered up Indian Beach Trail, pausing at viewpoints to gape at 20-foot swells bursting into spray on Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, a mile offshore. Ranks of whitecaps surged past sea stacks closer to land before pounding the secluded, crescent-shaped beaches below us.

Several hundred yards up the muddy path, we came upon a colossal Sitka spruce that had fallen and blocked the way. Further progress would have required bushwhacking through thickets of dripping brush. The sun had vanished by then, and rain was threatening. Lindsey checked his watch and announced the hour as “beer thirty.” Later, over pints of Fort George Vortex IPA at the Lumberyard Rotisserie & Grill, Lindsey told me he had moved to Cannon Beach in 1955, when he was 12.

“Only 106 souls lived here then,” he said. “You could shoot guns in town, and there were fights on Saturday night. The summer families came for holidays and left after Labor Day.”

Cannon Beach still has fewer than 2,000 year-round residents, although the population can swell to 10,000 or more in summer. After Labor Day the town grows quieter, but the culinary arts still thrive. At a restaurant and cooking school called EVOO (after the acronym for extra-virgin olive oil), I joined a dozen other guests at the bar surrounding Bob Neroni and Lenore Emery’s high-end kitchen, watching the couple prepare a four-course feast paired with Oregon wines. The menu included pepper-crusted beef tenderloin, pan-seared halibut, smoked roast chicken with Brazilian black beans, and chocolate sou√é cake with Earl Grey ice cream. The next morning, while breakfasting at the Lazy Susan Cafe, I somehow managed to polish off an entire gingerbread wa√e topped with a pinwheel of succulent pear slices, buttery lemon-curd syrup, and yogurt.

During one break in the weather, I took a brisk beach walk. When the sky darkened and the wind rose, I hurried back to my beachfront suite, lit a fire, and opened a bottle of Sineann Abondante, a big, fruity Oregon red blend. Although I was alone, I had good company, as I’d picked up a copy of Lindsey’s fondly recorded oral history of Cannon Beach. Titled Comin’ in Over the Rock, the book made an eloquent companion on a dark and stormy night.

Photography by Don Frank



Check out the rest of our Oregon North Coast package:
Astoria: American history and movie history collide.
Gearhart: Old-fashioned candy and pure relaxation.
Manzanita: Go for the baked goods, stay for the trees.
Seaside: Family fun with seals and wheels, arcades and ales.

This article was first published in April 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.