Thors Well, located on the Central Oregon Coast, is the most dramatic, awe-inspiring seascape to photograph on the entire West Coast. This is a big statement for anyone who has photographed the incredible sea stacks of Washington, Big Sur in California, or the countless world-class coastal features that Oregon is home to.
With that drama comes plenty of risk, and plenty of reward. Carefully planning for your visit to photograph Thors Well is essential to having a safe and successful outcome. Previous to this, I had tried researching key factors such as tide height to sync my trip perfectly with the ideal conditions, only to find the information vague and limited.
Accordingly, I made a visit to Cape Perpetua, the home of Thors Well, during the final week of May 2020. In addition to photographing Cape Perpetua, I went with the specific intention of studying it. I watched Thors Well carefully through different tides and times, noting when conditions were best for shooting. This photography guide to Thors Well attempts to provide answers for every question that I had prior to my visit.
What is Thors Well?
Thors Well, Oregon is a collapsed sea cave on the waters edge of the Cooks Chasm region of Cape Perpetua. The eroded hole in the roof of the cave sits right about water level, which creates the illusion of a hole in the ocean!
This geological phenomenon creates a powerful photography composition, as well as a unique visual experience. During different tides, water both erupts from the hole due to pressure under the surface, and also crashes in over the top from incoming waves. The result of this activity is a rapid, dramatic drain that flows back into Thors Well almost as if the ocean itself has sprung a leak.
Where is Thors Well?
You will find and access Thors Well from the Cooks Chasm parking lot in the Cape Perpetua scenic area of the Central Oregon Coast. The nearest town is Yachats, which is a semi-sleepy coastal town located just 5 minutes away.
You may not even notice Thors Well immediately from the parking lot above. Be forewarned that it is not the magnificent hole you expect from the photos! While it looks plenty big when you’re staring into it, the hole is smaller than most people expect at first encounter. Photographing it from up-close with a wide angle lens gives it a much larger appearance.
How to Find Thors Well
Finding Thors Well is pretty easy once you know what to look for, especially if the tide is up. From the Cooks Chasm parking lot, follow the wall to the right. You will see a trail with a wooden sign for Thors Well. Follow the short trail, staying to the left. You will descend three separate staircases before reaching the rocky shoreline.
On your way down, keep your eyes peeled for the hole that the water splashes out of and drains into. You will have to scramble over some rough terrain to get to Thors Well. It is not slippery, but it is extremely sharp. Flip flops are not recommended!
There are also plenty of safe and available viewing benches that look down onto Thors Well from above. Staying above the shoreline is the safest place to watch the scene unfold if you are not there for photography.
Safety at Thors Well
Safety at Thors Well is paramount! Protect your life, and protect your equipment, as there is significant risk to both.
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO LOOK DIRECTLY DOWN INTO THORS WELL!
One slip forward and there is no rescue. With that said, just standing a few yards further back makes it nearly impossible to fall in; it is really that easy! Incoming waves get broken before reaching you when they smash into the sea shelf created by the underwater cave. This means that you are extremely likely to get wet, maybe even knocked back by a large wave, but never dragged forward.
With that said, I would not even attempt to photograph Thors Well from up-close with a tide height much higher than 6 feet. It is an absolute certainty you will be punished by large waves. If a king wave comes through, you’ll be lucky if its only your gear that is damaged!
It is a miracle Thors Well is still open to the public, but we are only a few more careless choices away from having it shut down. Please don’t be that person! The difference between safe and not safe is literally a matter of yards!
If you do not live on the coast, you need to understand that waves come in sets. The water can seem relatively calm and docile for 5-10 minutes before a big wave set rolls in. I have seen people lose phones and cameras to that sneaker wave every single visit.
Take some time to observe the patterns first, note where the splashes come from, and survey your scene thoroughly.
Regarding your personal safety, the easiest way to ensure this is to simply stand a few yards (minimum) away from the hole. It is really that simple. You are very likely to get wet. However, you’re extremely unlikely to get “swept” away as the waves crash down but do not have the force to drag out.
Of course, you should never attempt to get close to Thors Well if the coast is receiving king waves or an unusually high and windy tide.
If you want to get up close to Thors Well, be very mindful of the tides and follow the golden rule of coastal life: NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON THE OCEAN!
There are, of course, tons of places to view Thors Well from that have no risk whatsoever.
Protecting Your Camera
We, like many of you, are passionate landscape photographers that accept some risk as long as it is minimized to an infinitesimal degree.
Your personal safety will be in very little jeopardy unless you do something incredibly stupid. However, your camera and photography equipment will be under constant assault! I have visited 5 times now and seen a camera go down EVERY SINGLE TIME.
Many photographers depend on their camera’s weather sealing to be enough. Do not confuse fresh water with salt water! The most common occurrence of phone and camera loss is a sneaker wave arriving during a period of relative calm. I made that mistake twice. One camera lasted only a week before failing, and the other lasted 6 months. In the end, it was salt corrosion that destroyed both.
The other thing I have seen multiple times is people trying to get some shutter drag on the drain (which looks great), only to have their tripod blown over by a strong guest of wind or dragged down by the draining water.
I will go over a method to capture long exposures by using a series of short exposures in the photography section of this guide. Employing this technique will allow you the shutter speed you want with less risk to your camera.
How to Protect Your Camera
A waterproof case would be ideal, but most of us will have to settle for home-made plastic contraptions due to cost and availability.
Personally, I sealed the camera body with a combination of a plastic bags, rubber bands, and a rain poncho. It may not have been the prettiest set-up, but it kept my gear dry and usable!
I first sealed the body with a plastic bag, leaving the lens exposed and removing a hole for the EVF. I then tied a rain poncho onto the tripod with the hood covering the lens. This allowed me to compose the shot between waves, dial everything in, and simply pull the hood off the lens when it was time to take the shot.
Get creative and plan ahead, as the hardest thing about shooting Thors Well is keeping your expensive equipment functioning.
When is the best time to visit Thors Well?
The best time to visit Thors Well is at sunset with a 5-6ft tide. Most guides will simply say “high tide,” but that is too vague to be useful. The height of the tide is extremely relevant and explained below.
That was the short answer. Anyone planning a visit to Thors Well with photography in mind should read the full answer to this very important question. Understanding the best tides and times of day will hugely impact your success and experience.
The best time of day to photograph Thors Well
Photographers traveling through Oregon will want to time their visit to Thors Well to correlate a high-enough tide with the beautiful light of golden hour and sunset.
Your view of Thors Well will be mostly west. The setting sun provides excellent angular light onto Cape Perpetua, while limiting the glare reflecting off the water.
You also get the best chance at some sky burn and cloud color by photographing at sunset. However, it is MORE important to choose the right tide for your visit, and that is not as simple as most guides imply!
The BEST tide for photographing Thors Well
Understanding how various tide height will impact your visit to Thors Well is the most important factor for your photos. Every guide I read simply said to visit during “high tide”. However, that is frustrating because high tide one day might be 5ft and it could be 9ft another day! That is a massive difference!
If you are visiting Thors Well to simply witness the incredible natural phenomenon that occurs there, then the higher the tide, the more intense the experience.
However, landscape photographers will want to carefully track the tide charts by HEIGHT. Ignore words like “high” or “low”, and focus only on the height of the tide. I found Willy Weather to be the most helpful resource as it gives the height by time.
In my research, I found the ideal tide height for photography to be between 5-6ft. Too much lower and the water doesn’t clear the sea shelf, which is what you need to capture the drag effect into the well. Too much higher and you are getting thrashed by waves, making it impossible to steady the tripod and protect your equipment.
If you have a waterproof set up, then you could probably pull off shots up to a 7ft tide, but I would still recommend never shooting beyond that for your personal safety!
Photography Guide to Thors Well
Many of you are out-of-state photographers visiting Oregon and will only have once chance to capture Thors Well. Even if you live in the state, the remoteness of Thors Well may mean a very long trip, and planning becomes essential. This section of the Thors Well guide is written specifically with photographers in mind.
Compositions for Thors Well Photography
We have already discussed the right time and light, so let’s talk about how to compose your shots when photographing Thors Well.
For all compositions, you’re likely going to want to capture the water draining into the well. You’ll find that this is best when a large wave splashes over the scene, receding into the well. You will also often see the water splash up from the hole itself, then wash back in. However, this doesn’t create that magical moment as effectively.
When the water comes from below, it is both splashing up and dropping down at the same time. Therefore, there is never a moment in between to capture that surreal ocean-drain effect.
This is why I suggest shooting a tide between 5-6 feet. At 4 feet, you will have to be patient and ready, but you will still get enough of the large waves to get the shot.
Proximity to Thors Well
The closer you are to Thors Well, the larger the hole in the ocean appears. This makes the photo far more dramatic. Of course, this also requires being in the splash zone! You will have to decide how close is close enough, just don’t be the person that stands so close that they fall or are pushed in! That is (obviously) too close!
Photographing from the safety of shore or from further back will make the hole appear small and humble. When you are up close to this thing, the camera captures just how intimidating it truly is!
Which Direction to Face when Photographing Thors Well
Let’s imagine Thors Well as a clock. If you approach it from the final staircase, you arrive to the circular hole standing at 6 o’clock.
If you walked to the far side and turned around, you would be standing at 12 o’clock. You would also be taking your life in your hands by doing this, as your back would be to the ocean and the first big wave would knock you directly into the hole. Do NOT stand at 12 o’clock. There are no good photos from here anyway!
There are three good compositions in my opinion. The first is standing at 6 o’clock and is the most obvious, as well as the safest composition. As you approach Thors Well, you will find some elevated rocks a few feet away that provide some valuable height, helping avoid some of the splashes and rising water. This composition faces due west, so can be good if the color in the sky is best where the sun is setting.
For the second composition, find a good spot around 8 o’clock. You should be facing the mountains of Cape Perpetua in the direction of Northwest.
The bad thing about being here is that you are directly in the splash zone. Be prepared as you will get SOAKED! The good thing about this composition is that it includes a background element where the others do not.
The third composition is around 4 o’clock. This angle best captures the feeling of Thors Well as being a hole in the ocean. The water drains in from all sides, like the bathtub plug has been pulled on the Pacific Ocean!
This is also the most dangerous of the three compositions, so be very careful. It is the only place where a large sneaker wave could push you towards the hole from the back. This is highly unlikely, but something to be aware of.
What will happen often is a large wave will hit the rocks behind you and send a bucket of saltwater your way. You’ll have no idea it is coming and if your equipment is not protected, it could begin the slow, corrosive death of your circuitry.
What lens is best for photographing Thors Well?
I recommend photographing Thors Well with a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera, or an 18mm lens on an APS-C camera. You could go with a slightly wider angle lens than this. However, I have found 24mm (18 for crop sensors) fills up the frame perfectly.
You don’t need to worry too much about prime vs zoom. You will likely be shooting at higher F-stops to slow your shutter down and capture the water drag.
What are the best camera settings for photographing Thors Well?
Shutter Speed will be the main camera setting you need to determine for Thors Well photography. The “ideal” setting varies a bit based on preference and wave activity. I recommend starting at 1/4″ and adjusting to taste from there.
To achieve a “straight out of camera” (SOOC) shot at this shutter speed, you will likely need a polarizer or ND filter. However, I will discuss an amazing option called “LONG EXPOSURE STACKING” for achieving long exposure photos using a series of short exposures in the next section.
I employed that technique for the first time during my visit. It allowed me to combat a shaking tripod and extremely challenging conditions. Additionally, it gave me the flexibility to decide whether I wanted more or less water drag in post-processing, without being committed to any single shutter speed captured in-field.
As for ISO, the lower the better! You should have no trouble shooting at base ISOs. Your aperture should be adjusted to get a good exposure with a shutter speed priority.
Long Exposure Stacking
There is a technique for stacking multiple, consecutive short exposures to create one long exposure. It is most commonly used for star trail photography, but can be used for any scene with motion.
For example, let’s say you took 8 consecutive photos at a 1-second shutter speed. You could stack those images to create a photo that is the equivalent of an 8-second long exposure. Or, you could use just 4 of them for a 4-second equivalent.
There are a few major advantages of employing this technique. First, it is easier to get the exposure correct in-field. Second, it allows you to experiment and decide what you think is the perfect shutter speed, without worrying about messing it up during the shoot. Third, this technique helps deal with challenging situations, such as those found at Thors Well. Whipping winds, punishing waves, and heavy spray make it difficult to drag the shutter without blur or water spots ruining the shot.
In addition to a camera and lens, this is the essential photography equipment I recommend considering for photographing Thors Well.
The sturdier, the better! You will be battling incoming waves and heavy wind at Thors Well, so you need a sturdy tripod! You could handhold, but this will make it impossible to get slower shutter speeds and also harder to compose the shot in the fleeting moment the photo presents itself.
I always use a CPL (circular polarizing filter) for photographing water features. This cuts the glare off the water and also allows me to drag the shutter speed a bit longer.
Many people use an ND filter to get that shutter drag at Thors Well. However, I prefer using the Long Exposure Stacking method as mentioned above.
Remote Control / Intervalometer
I always see photographers using a remote so they can start firing hands free when the water is dragging. While I usually would do the same, using a remote means either having the side compartment open for a cable to connect the remote to the camera, or a wireless receiver plugged into the hot shoe. If salt water hits your camera while it is open or your hot shoe is active, say goodbye to that camera!
If you are insistent on this approach, I recommend the wireless receiver option so you can still cover your camera body with plastic of some kind. Also, be sure your tripod is VERY sturdy if you are not going to hold onto it!
Other Things to Explore near Thors Well
While Thors Well is the most famous and impressive natural feature of the Oregon coast, there are a lot of other beautiful places to explore in and around Cape Perpetua. The entire coastal drive is beautiful and the seascapes here are absolutely savage.
From the Cooks Chasm parking area, which is also where you will park to visit Thors Well, you will find another interesting natural feature called Spouting Horn.
Spouting Horn only erupts when the tide is high enough, which seems to be 6 feet or higher. Water pressure builds from below, creating a burst of ocean spray from a blowhole above. It is very neat to see, and makes for an interesting photo with the bridge behind it.
Just down from Thors Well is a large crack in the rocky shoreline. This crevice continues to fill as ocean waves pour in, eventually causing incoming and outgoing waves to collide in a spectacular display.
The visual experience is far more exciting than the photographs, and is absolutely worth seeing!
Heceta Head Lighthouse
Located just 11 miles south of Thors Well off Highway 101 is the idyllically-set Heceta Head lighthouse. You can access the beach just below the lighthouse for a nice day of sand and sea. Or, take the trail up to the lighthouse from here.
If you drive past the beach, you will also find some roadside pull-offs with incredible views of the lighthouse with the bay below. While I have always been too preoccupied photographing Thors Well to get in a sunset shoot here, it is high on my list of things to do next.
Yaquina Head Lighthouse
Yaquina Head Lighthouse is one of Oregon’s most popular destinations for ocean photography. It is located 31 miles north of Thors Well on Hwy 101 and is also best photographed at sunset.
Accommodation & Services near Thors Well
The Cape Perpetua Visitor Center will provide information on everything you may want to know, including tides, geographic information, history, and more. It is located almost adjacent to Cooks Chasm, which is where you will park for your visit to Thors Well.
Public restrooms are available at either the Cape Perpetua visitor center, or at the Yachats State Park facility in town.
Campers will need to make a reservation at the Cape Perpetua Campground as there is no overnight parking allowed in most places.
The town of Yachats offers all variety of accommodation, from beachside cottages to 4-bedroom Air BNBs and everything in between. There is also a grocery store, gas stations, and all other services available here.
Final Thoughts on Thors Well, Oregon
Of all the landscapes I have photographed all over the world, none scare and excite me more than Thors Well in Oregon. It is an adrenaline-filled adventure every time!
After seeking more information on Thors Well for so long, I decided it was time to create a definitive guide that provided more specific insights for planning a visit. I have labored to include as detailed of descriptions as I can, but always strive to improve. If you discover inaccuracies or have any important questions that I have not covered in this guide, please leave that feedback in the comments below.
If you are traveling south from Thors Well, be sure to check out our guide to Southern Oregon Coast Photography for more photogenic locations and hidden gems! We also have a guide to Waterfalls in Southern Oregon for those heading inland!