Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most popular landmarks on the Oregon Coast – or any coast, really.

“The three large and six smaller rocks, totaling 15 acres, are massive and can be seen from miles and miles away,” says Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex visitor services manager Dawn Harris. “They are a looming presence on the landscape that beckons you to approach. They are near the shore but seem wild and distant from the hustle and bustle of the mainland.”

Three Arch Rocks is also one of the nation’s most distinctive refuges.

It is the oldest national wildlife refuge west of the Mississippi River. It was established in 1907 after conservationists William L. Finley and Herman Bohlman studied and photographed wildlife at Three Arch Rocks for years and persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to conserve the rocks for the benefit of nesting seabirds and sea lions, whose populations were declining at the hands of hunters and sportsmen.

Three Arch Rocks Refuge, which once supported 250,000 seabirds, still has the distinction of providing habitat for more than 100,000 nesting seabirds, including tufted puffins, common murre, forktailed storm-petrel, Leach’s storm-petrel, Brandt’s cormorant, double-crested cormorant, pelagic cormorant, rhinoceros auklet, Cassin’s auklet and pigeon Guillemot. The refuge is also the northernmost pupping site of the Steller sea lion in the Lower 48 states.

Despite being closed to public entry to prevent disturbance to wildlife, the refuge draws more than 300,000 visitors annually. Visitors view it from Cape Meares National Wildlife Refuge or Oceanside State Recreation Area. They not only view the refuge, they hear it.

“Summertime is magnificent at Three Arch Rocks. Warm sun-filled days with cool ocean breezes carry the raucous calls of tens of thousands of nesting seabirds from the distant rocks. You can feel the energy and excitement of the crowded colony of seabirds,” says Harris, who calls the sounds emanating from the rocks “nothing but wildness and mystery.”

Alicia Reed concurs. During storms especially, the long-time refuge volunteer enjoys watching waves crash through the big holes in the rocks and hearing the roar of the sea lions. “On a good day, it can be heard a long ways,” she says.

Three Arch Rocks sunset (Bob Reed)
Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge is a “looming presence on the landscape that beckons you to approach.” (Roy W. Lowe/USFWS)
Three Arch Rocks Refuge has other distinctions. It is the fourth-smallest of the 758 wilderness areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System. There is a book about it – Sanctuary: The Story of Three Arch Rocks, by children’s author Mary Ann Fraser. To mark the refuge’s 2007 centennial, Rogue Ales of Newport, OR, teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to offer a limited bottling of Puffin Pale Ale. Some of the profits from sale of the brew were donated to the refuge environmental education program.

For Alicia Reed and her husband, Bob, the refuge has a personal distinction, too. “We got married in the tower at Cape Meares Lighthouse one year ago with Three Arch Rocks in the background, and that was definitely memorable,” Alicia says. Both she and Bob are past presidents of Friends of Cape Meares Lighthouse & Wildlife Refuges Inc., the support group most closely affiliated with Three Arch Rocks Refuge.

Roy Lowe, who worked for 29 years at Oregon Coast Refuge Complex before retiring this year, points out another distinction associated with Three Arch Rocks Refuge: From one vantage point at Cape Meares State Park, you can see Three Arch Rocks, Oregon Islands and Cape Meares National Wildlife Refuges.

“I doubt you can see three refuges and two wilderness areas from one spot anyplace else,” he says.