Most visitors to Oregon’s North Coast focus their attention in one direction: west. And while the ocean beaches, coves and tide pools definitely deserve the love, there are 800 miles of hidden treasures waiting for little water bugs and their families who cast their gaze just a bit to the east. There, you’ll find the Tillamook County Water Trails — creeks, rivers, marshes, lakes and bays that make up the five, wildlife-filled estuaries of Tillamook County.

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photo: Paddling Cape Meares Lake with a child-seat insert by Ty Adams

You’ll have the chance to commune with nature, learn the unique human history of the area and get up close and personal with many kinds of critters, including harbor seals, otters, beavers, elk, and over 150 species of birds.

What’s more, because the ocean hogs the limelight, the secrets of the rivers, lakes and bays are mostly known only to locals, so visiting paddlers on these waterways can often find quite a bit of solitude even when the beaches are crowded. And the fall and winter weather can often be much milder than you’d expect.

Before You Go
When planning your trip, we recommend that you check in with the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership (TEP). This non-profit organization is one of the leaders behind the recent community push to publicize the water trails of the five estuaries. They have already published wonderfully detailed, waterproof guidebooks for four estuaries; the Nehalem Watershed, Tillamook Bay Watershed, Nestucca Bay Watershed and Sand Lake Watershed, and they’re planning to create a similar guidebook for the Netarts Bay Watershed by 2016. The TEP makes the guidebooks available online and can provide hard copies upon request by mail or in-person at their offices in Garibaldi.

For utter newbies and those without canoes or kayaks, a guided tour is the way to go. We went with Kayak Tillamook, LLC, which specializes in the waters of Tillamook County, though Columbia River Kayaking is an outfit that specializes in the Lower Columbia River but also advertises limited tours in the Tillamook area. Our guide, Marcus Hinze, the principal executive at Kayak Tillamook, was extremely passionate about the craft and knowledgeable about the area. While Kayak Tillamook can’t take children under 16 on their regularly scheduled tours, families with young children can book a private tour starting at $69.


photo: pixabay via flickr

Kayaks can be rented at Wheeler Marina Rentals, but if you’re not going with a guide, you’ll definitely want to get a tide table, available at local markets or online. Even if your family has the right watercraft and are experienced paddlers, unless you’ll be sticking to an enclosed lake unaffected by tides, Marcus stressed the importance of knowing the tides and understanding the nature of paddling in tide affected waters.

“Most people think that the tide just goes up and down, but [on the inland waterways], it’s a river coming in, and a river going out,” he said. “It’s a lot more complicated than just finding a place to launch.”

People who paddle the bays and rivers without an understanding of the tides could end up beached in mud, paddling against a strong current, or in the worst-case scenarios, pulled out to sea by an outgoing tide or dumped into frigid water by a strainer or other obstacle.  Safety checklists are available in the TEP guidebooks and a free safety course is available via the Oregon State Marine Board website.

As long as families are safe and geared properly for inclement weather, Marcus said that paddlers shouldn’t be afraid of setting out in the fall, winter or spring. In fact, he added that each season offers some distinct advantages over summer trips. “We’re right under the Pacific Flyway, so in the fall and spring,  you’ll get to see all kinds of migrating waterfowl that you don’t get to see in the summer,” he said. “And the light in the winter is the best for photographs. Because the dusk and dawn are closer together in the winter, that’s when we see all the wildlife activity. I love winter paddling, I really do.”

On our late-October trip, even though we drove through monsoon-like conditions with lightning and thunder on the way to the put-in, when we arrived, the clouds suddenly cleared and the rain stopped, making for a clear, sun-speckled cruise. That’s not uncommon, Marcus said.

“On our trips, we make the final decision to go or stay at the launch site, five minutes before [the planned launch time],” he said. “No matter what the forecast is, we ask customers to show up at the launch. Ninety-five percent of the time, we end up going out. It’s actually rare to cancel a trip, even in the winter.”

Garibaldi House Family Suite

photo: The Garibaldi House via Yelp

While a day trip from Portland is certainly a do-able prospect, for those who want to make a weekend of it, there are plenty of accommodations close to many of the waterway launch sites. Kayak Tillamook recommends the Garibaldi House, where we stayed, which provides a 10% discount to KT customers. Garibaldi House owner/chef Gene Tish is also extremely knowledgeable about the history of the area, and quick to share information.

Other well-reviewed lodgings near to the waterway ports include Three Arch Inn of Oceanside, Sea Haven Motel of Rockaway Beach, the Old Wheeler Hotel of Wheeler and the Craftsman Bed and Breakfast of Pacific City.

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photo: Marcus Hinz of Kayak Tillamook points out Bayocean Spit by Ty Adams

5 Great Launch Spots for Families

Cape Meares Lake
This freshwater lake is easy to overlook as just another inlet of Tillamook Bay, but it’s actually a body of water unto itself, with a unique ecosystem and history. It’s also a perfect place to start for those unfamiliar with tide affected waterways or those with toddlers who might not tolerate long stints out on the water. It was our chosen location for a first paddle, and turned out to be a great introduction for a two-year-old.

“One of the things I love about this lake is that the ocean is just on the other side of the spit,” Marcus said. “So you can hear the waves but stay in a protected environment.”

In addition to hundreds of waterfowl, the lake features an enormous beaver dam as well as access to the Bayocean Spit, which makes for a nice picnic spot and comes with a “tale of the lost city of Bayocean” as Marcus puts it.

The launch for Cape Meares Lake is located on Bayocean Drive, just before the town of Cape Meares.


photo: Dock at Lake Lytle, courtesy Kayak Tillamook

Lake Lytle
Lake Lytle (and adjoining Crescent Lake), in the town of Rockaway Beach is also a recommended launch for unseasoned families new to the sport, those with very young seafarers or those who are going the rental route. Though not quite as secluded as Cape Meares Lake, being directly off Highway 101, it’s extremely easy access and one of the few spots that gives you the option of disembarking, grabbing a hot meal or a drink and then continuing to  paddle. And there are still secluded portions of the two lakes that make for great bird watching, and the lakes are well stocked if fishing is of interest.

Access the Lake Lytle boat launch by turning right on NE 12th St. off of 101.


Nehalem River

photo: Nehalem Bay kayak tour, courtesy of Kayak Tillamook

Nehalem City Docks to Wheeler
This is another water trail that blends a combination of the urban and the natural, but because of the potential for fast changing tidal and wind conditions, it’s recommended only for those with paddling experience and a knowledge of tidal conditions. For most of the water trails, the best rule of thumb is to leave two hours before high tide and spend no more than four hours on the water. While the direct route is only 1.5 miles, you can circumnavigate and explore a variety of nearby islands if you want to see more of the area. The Nehalem City Dock launch site can be reached in downtown Nehalem, following H Street off of Highway 101.

Hoquarton Forest

photo: Exploring the Hoquarton Forest near Tillamook, courtesy of Kayak Tillamook

Carnahan Park to Hoquarton Slough
Although the Carnahan Park boat launch is located just west of downtown Tillamook, you’ll never guess it once you’re in the water. The park launch places you in the Trask River, which is calm flatwater at this location. Though it is affected by tidal flows, there are much fewer hazards here than most of the other water trails. Follow the Trask out of town toward the bay, then take a right at the Dougherty Slough, and again at the Hoquarton Slough to take a short, 1.5 mile jaunt back to the north side of town where the Hoquarton Slough boat ramp makes for an easy exit. Though be aware that the ramp can be muddy and slick at low tide. This launch point would be a good one for learning the tides and taking progressively longer jaunts further toward the bay as your skills and knowledge improve.


 photo: Aerial view of the Nestucca River and Pacific City, courtesy of Kayak Tillamook

Bixby County to Three Rivers
If Pacific City is your North Coast hamlet of choice, there are plenty of paddling options, though some paddling experience is recommended for all of them. This run on the Nestucca River, from the Bixby County boat ramp to the Three Rivers take out, is not so strongly tide affected, but it does have moving water with some small riffles, and you’ll definitely be sharing the water with anglers from fall through winter. To access the Bixby County boat ramp, headed south on Highway 101, take a left (east) on Blaine Road in the town of Beaver. Turn right on Bixby Road and follow 1.3 miles to the dead end launch site.

Have you discovered the hidden jewel of the North Coast Water Trails or know of another good family paddling spot? Tell us about it in the Comments below.

–Ty Adams