Sea Lion Caves


Back when I was a kid, and my family was making the trip down the Oregon Coast, I specifically remember driving by Sea Lion Caves.  I, of course, wanted to stop, but my father was more interested in saving money and driving as many miles as possible in a day.  When I pleaded, he said, “You don’t want to go there.  Those animals stink.  The cave will smell terrible.”  I must have been satisfied with that reason, or maybe I was just powerless to persuade him, so we drove on.

Nowadays, I’m the one who’s cheap, and the one who’s always trying to drive as many miles as possible in a day (funny how that happened, isn’t it?).  For those reasons, I passed by Sea Lion Caves on Day 2, as I headed south, and I almost did it again on Day 8.  But, at the last minute, I decided to give in, hold my nose, and check it out.  Finally, I had made the right decision.

Sea Lion Caves is just south of the famous Heceta Head Lighthouse.  You can see it in the distance; in the foreground is the upper end of the elevator shaft, that takes you down 208 feet to the world’s largest sea cave.

The elevator was constructed in 1960 and 1961.  Drilling and blasting on the shaft was limited to the spring months, when there were no sea lions in the cave. The 208 foot trip takes 50 seconds.

Sea Lion Caves has just one attraction: a giant cave, filled with a couple hundred (more or less on any given day) sea lions.  Once you step off the elevator (and breathe in that natural aroma), you walk down to a viewing area–just one–where you can look into the cave.  The window is fenced off with chain-link, which makes it hard to take good pictures, unless you can maneuver yourself to the one spot where the hole has been widened for photographic purposes.  You can almost bet that someone who doesn’t have a camera will be standing in front of it, completely oblivious, forever.

The cave really is amazing.  There are sea lions everywhere you look–on the rocks, in the water, and on top of each other.  Most are sleeping in the most uncomfortable positions imaginable…

… while a few dozen bellow and bite at each other, jockeying for the best possible position, almost as if they know they are on display.

If you want to take pictures here, you’ll need a camera with a powerful zoom lens, and one that’s capable of taking good pictures in the dark.  Flash photography is forbidden, and probably wouldn’t work very well, anyhow.  Use the fence to help balance your camera for slow exposures.

What’s the difference between a seal and a sea lion?  There are several, actually.


  • You can’t see their ears.
  • Must crawl when on land.
  • Hind Flippers propel them in water.
  • Can weigh up to 5900 lbs.
  • Monogamous or Polygamous.
  • Wean young in a matter of weeks.

Sea Lions:

  • You can see their ears.
  • Can walk using hind flippers.
  • Front Flippers propel them in water.
  • Can weigh up to 2400 lbs.
  • Polygamous.
  • Nurse young for up to 3 years.

After you’ve stared at the noisy mammals for as long as you want, explore the rest of the cave.  There’s not a lot to see, but you can climb up part of the old staircase that was used before the elevator…

… and take in the view of Heceta Head in the distance.

Back on the surface, there’s another sea lion viewing area down a short path.  This is the view south…

… and if you look down into the water (hopefully with binoculars) you might see a sea lion or two.

Sea Lion Caves is located just north of Florence, where US 101 heads into the hills. 

You can find out more about Sea Lion Caves on its official website, here.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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