The final six-mile stretch of our sixteen-day Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) thru-hike was on the beach leading us northwest. We headed towards the south jetty of the Columbia River, which is the northernmost point of the Oregon coast. Hiking on wet sand, we crossed paths with an elk and a bald eagle, as well as a pod of whales cruising just beyond where the waves crash, spouting out of their blowholes. Just prior to the beach walking, we had to road walk six miles around Camp Rilea, a US Army base, because a mile-long portion of the beach was closed for a military exercise. That final day sums up our OCT experience pretty well: breathtaking scenery and fascinating experiences, peppered with the most minor of inconveniences.
The Oregon Coast Trail is a long-distance, thru-hikeable footpath along the Pacific Coast in Oregon. A 1959 brainchild of a University of Oregon geography professor named Samuel N. Dicken, it travels about 382 miles from the border with California to the mouth of the Columbia River. Part of the OCT route is on the beach, part is on paved road, and the rest is on dirt roads and trails. Managed by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the OCT is a unique opportunity to take advantage of the state’s coastal beaches, all of which are public.
The resources for thru-hiking the OCT are limited. There is no guidebook, and Oregon State Parks offers only a basic map available on their website to print out. Having inspected the map, we knew right away that navigation would be a fun challenge. By the end of the first day, it was clear that we would have to use the map, a GPS app (we used Gaia), infrequent trail markers, and general common sense (for instance, the ocean was always meant to be on the left). The practice of common sense extended to the awareness that while road walking, you should always walk facing oncoming traffic. After the first few days and a handful of miles walking against traffic on Highway 101, we realized that Oregon State Parks and Recreation were not, in fact, joking when they suggested that thru-hikers skip the so-called “gap sections” (marked in red on their map) by either getting a ride or a ferry.
Our first gap section came after hiking about 10 miles on the third day. We were just south of Port Orford when we approached a stretch of Highway 101 with the shoulder as wide as a gift-wrapping ribbon; we had no problem accepting a ride to the next trailhead from a good samaritan. From there on out, we made certain to be mindful of gap sections and researched ride access ahead of time. Between starting on the border with California on July 1 and finishing at Clatsop Spit on July 16, we ended up accepting five rides, taking one municipal bus around Tillamook Bay, and catching one boat ride to cross Nehalem Bay south of Manzanita. It was all worth it.
Our gear and daily routines were the standards for lightweight and fast backpacking. ULA CDT backpacks sans the hip belts, TarpTent MoTrail tent, Klymit KSB 20 sleeping bags, and Therm-A-Rest ProLite sleeping pads list the heaviest items we carried. Going stove-less, our trail diet included a breakfast of protein bars, cold-brew tea, and multivitamins; snacks and meals of tortillas, crackers, string cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, nut butter, dried fruit, salmon and tuna packets, jerky, and chocolate; and a personal favorite staple – fruit snacks—a relatively healthy diet, with plenty of plant matter and few unhealthy fats. Our nourishment was supplemented by town food, as the OCT is extremely close to civilization; you can walk into town almost every day. Also, being close to the ocean meant plenty of seafood. Awesome town meals included fish’n chips, seafood pasta, fish tacos, smoked fish, oysters, and even a local and sustainable tuna packet to take on the trail. Take that, BumbleBee corporation!
Proximity to civilization also meant limited opportunities to camp trailside. While the beaches are public, the possibilities of getting sand inside your tent or having all our stuff get wet by a rogue wave were less than appealing. In fact, we only camped trailside on the first and the last day of the entire trip. More often, we relied on Oregon State Parks, which feature a “hiker and biker” section: a cluster of spartan campsites reserved for those on foot or a bicycle. These sites are dispensed on a first-come, first-served basis. Most times, the campsites came with a drinking water spigot, lockers, and electronic device charging stations (!), which made them sheer luxury for thru-hikers.
Following a solid week of 20-30 mile days, we took a zero (rest) day in the town of Florence (yes, the same Florence where a dead beached whale was exploded in 1970). Some rest was needed; being on your feet for over 12 hours takes its toll, and eventually, our bodies started feeling quite sore. After a zero-day of mostly sitting in a motel room (another type of refuge we would occasionally use, due to the limited trailside camping), eating delicious brunch and takeout meals, hydrating, and generally relaxing, we were ready to tackle the remaining part of the trail.
The day after our rest in Florence, we met a friend who brought our trail dog companion for a visit and campout at Carl G. Washburn State Park. Rejuvenated by our friend and pup, we were ready to pin our ears back and crush some miles! Coming across towns became more frequent as we made our way north. More towns meant more opportunities to resupply at grocery stores, cafes, and delis, even an occasional chance to grab a bagel and a coffee for breakfast. With our internal engines revving on all cylinders, towns and landmarks flew by in a whirlwind – Waldport, Newport, Depoe Bay, Pacific City, Cape Kiwanda, Cape Lookout, Tillamook Bay…
We put in some good miles to get to Nehalem Bay to catch a boat ferry to Nehalem Beach, just south of Manzanita. In Manzanita, we met some West Coast Speed Shop friends for an evening of seafood pasta and good times at a rental house. With very little weight in our packs, we were ready to get this trail done! Day 15 was a 27-mile effort through the OCT’s northern beaches and headland trails, which included gnarly roots and mud that was quite reminiscent of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Our last campsite of the trip was also similar to the AT; the Ecola State Park’s Hiker Camp is just three lean-tos (shelter-like structures) and plenty of flat ground around them to pitch a tent.
Overall on the Oregon Coast Trail, the beach walking was fast, the headland trail walking was slow, and the road walking sucked. Throw in fresh seafood and Oregon wine, and you have summed up the experience of the Oregon Coast Trail. The OCT can definitely use some more development, such as more trail building and trail work and more connecting of the nearby communities to the trail. However, the potential for the OCT is gigantic! Maybe, if our country – perhaps the entire world, really – is headed in the right direction (i.e., away from environmental catastrophe, war, civil unrest… generally bad things), we could pour more resources and effort into developing trails like this? It would certainly be a good way to pass the time and to enjoy something that is not consumerist but rather healthy, environmentally responsible, and aesthetically pleasing.
Mae Lucey contributed to this piece.