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Cox Rock, Near Florence, an Oregon Coast Puzzle in History, Geology, Sightseeing

Published 09/23/22 at 4:10 AM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Cox Rock, Near Florence, an Oregon Coast Puzzle in History, Geology, Sightseeing

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(Florence, Oregon) – One mysterious rock island, numerous intriguing stories. (All photos Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

That's how you could describe the enigmatic object that's pretty much right in the exact middle of the Oregon coast, halfway between Brookings and Astoria. Looking a little like something out of the mind of Roger Dean (who did most of the Yes album covers), you'll find it as you whiz past Sea Lion Caves towards Florence. Then as you round one of the turns and the ocean vista opens up, you see it.

There's a cliff jutting out in the distance and a blob of rock that was obviously disconnected from it, likely eons ago. Looking a bit lonely out there, it's cause for the imagination to take flight.

That is what is known as Cox Rock.


Besides being a trippy landmark in itself, it has some engaging tales to tell, including a connection to not just the beginnings of Florence but to the genesis of Sea Lion Caves. Going back farther to its own origin story millions of years ago, that's a fiery tale of underwater volcanoes covering this part of the central Oregon coast and frightening sights.

Cox Rock is named after William Cox, otherwise purportedly known as Captain William Cox. He was the man who supposedly discovered the cave that is now known as Sea Lion Caves. As the story goes, he was in a small skiff, exploring the area, when he happened upon the opening in the rocks. This is said to have happened in 1880, but no one knows for sure. It's the tale repeated by many but with some grains of salt.

Either way, he was one of the area's first residents, and it is known he bought up the land in 1887.

How and why gigantic, angular Cox Rock got its name after him is unknown, as are many things about Captain Cox.


Oregon Coast Beach Connection will have more on him in the future, but for now his background is tentative.

According to a 1954 article in The Oregonian, Cox was captain of a sealing vessel called Sapphire. That's "sealing" – as in hunting seals, not sailing. Supposedly, he was from Nova Scotia originally. What is known about the Sapphire is that it shows up in shipwreck records some seven years after Cox supposedly found Sea Lion Caves.

Here's where it gets confusing. According to AlaskaShipwrecks.com, the Sapphire caught fire and exploded about 20 miles offshore from Ucluelet on the British Columbia coastline. The fire ignited powder kegs and the whole ship exploded. Luckily, all four aboard made it to safety before this happened. Personnel included a Captain William Cox.

This was 1887, but the actual date doesn't seem to be known. But that's the year he was in Florence and bought up the land that includes Sea Lion Caves. It's all conjecture at this point: but did he end up here on the Oregon coast right after his sealing career ended? Or was this not the same William Cox?

The website cites two credible sources for this shipwreck entry.


Looking northward from the cliff in front of Cox Rock, towards Sea Lion Caves

In any case, there is reference in some old newspaper clippings from Florence about a Cox Ranch at the turn of the century. It's clear there's more to Cox's story in the area.

Yet that isn't necessarily the story of Cox Rock.

Florence's Cox Rock really goes back millions of years, some 37 million of them. Back then, famed Cape Perpetua – close to what is now Yachats – was a volcano. It spewed lava many times, probably over a few million years, much of it underwater. The Oregon coast all the way to beyond the I-5 corridor was still beneath the ocean then.

All that lava, known as basalt in its current form, created everything from Yachats down to about Cox Rock, where it abruptly ends. That cliff is apparently, according to University of Oregon geologist Marli Miller, mixed with some other things than just basalt, hence its slightly grayish tint. That kind of conglomerate is more prone to erosion than basalt, and somewhere along the line a crack developed in the great cliff. Somewhere after that, the crack grew into a complete schism, and the two sides were worn away from each other. See Inside Heceta Head / Cliffs Near Florence: All Come from Oregon Coast Volcano

Now, Cox Rock is considered a sea stack – like the three Haystack Rocks in Bandon, Cannon Beach and Pacific City.

It's also technically a rock island, and it's part of the federally-mandated Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The rock is a refuge for birds, as is Haystack in Cannon Beach, Three Arch Rocks at Oceanside and a good hundred others along the coast.

In the early '70s, this status caused it to butt heads with one developer, and in turn locals to butt heads with him.

A man named Larry Larson owned land on the cliff that was once connected to Cox Rock, and wanted to build a castle on it. It would've been complete with turrets and medieval walls, and certainly an interesting sight. But a flood of Florence residents were appalled at the idea of the blocked view and protested heartily.

One issue was the federally-protected status of Cox Rock and the fact it was the biggest rookery of cormorants in the state. Both state and federal officials were worried the construction would seriously disturb the birds, though Larson claimed other experts told him otherwise.

In the end, the idea did not happen. Birds and precious Lane County ocean panoramas were saved.

A few miles north of Florence, the last chunk of basalt in the southward drive, Cox Rock still sits alone. Many have likely stared at it for awhile and wondered if it had a name. It turns out, it does.

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