Monday, October 28, 2013

"Is That Safe?" Part I: Motor Homes, River Mouths, and Other Hazards, Real and Not

“Is that safe?”

I don't know how many times I was asked that or something similar (or simply told it wasn't safe) when I mentioned my plans to hike the Oregon Coast Trail. I’m not sure what most alarmed people. Probably it was mostly about my being alone, and being a woman. And, frankly, I think it is more a reflection of the pampered lives most of us lead: warm, dry, and predictable. Not everyone hears the call of the wild.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider possible hazards on the Oregon Coast Trail, some of which are very real.

#1: Getting hit by a car
This is by far the most dangerous aspect of the OCT, IMO. Even if you manage to hitch rides across most river mouths, you will be doing some walking on the side of US Highway 101 and secondary roads. Accidents of this kind happen to long-distance hikers all the time. Earlier this month, for instance: Joe Bell, the father from Eastern Oregon who took off on a kind of cross-country vision quest in the wake of his bullied 15-year-old gay son’s suicide, killed by a careless driver in Colorado. Fortunately for OCT hikers, Oregon state parks folks continue to create off-road OCT routes where there is no beach, most recently north and south of Depoe Bay. Frankly it’s probably safer to hitchhike in some places—which is what I did rather than walk through the highway tunnel just south of Heceta Head Lighthouse (after watching a motor home creep through, nearly scraping the sides). (Photo: Southbound along US 101 south of Humbug Mountain.)

#2: Getting eaten by a bear (or other wild animal)
Not likely. There are black bears on the Oregon coast, but they’re small (females are 5 to 6 feet long, 125-200 pounds, i.e. my size), shy, and mostly vegetarian; if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one, but probably not. Cougars? I have never heard of cougars being a problem on the coast. Plenty of them in the Coast Range, but not west of US 101. Besides, there has never been a fatal cougar attack in Oregon, according to wildlife officials.

#3: Getting attacked by a crazy person
This is what most people were really thinking about, I suspect, when they asked, “Is that safe?” The marauding rapist, the serial killer on the loose, victimizing solitary women, or anyone. I guess that’s always a possibility, anywhere, anytime, but not likely enough to worry about. I will admit that was part what appealed to me about sleeping in hiker-biker camps: I like solitude by day, but I prefer to not camp alone, particularly on the beach, particularly close to a major highway. But crime statistics do not bear out random violence a serious cause for worry on the Oregon Coast Trail.
#4: Drowning while attempting to cross a river mouth
Not if you plan ahead and time your crossings by foot at low tide. Even if you were to misjudge the depth of water and get swept off your feet, the most likely worst outcome is that all your stuff gets wet. (I plan a collapsible trekking pole or two next time I hike the OCT, as the hiker in the photo crossing the outlet of Sand Lake did.) I did have something of a close call at the mouth of Netarts Bay; I had hitched a ride with some recreational crabbers, who dropped me off where I asked them to, right at the tip of Netarts Spit. Only it wasn’t quite the tip, it turned out; it was a sandbar just off the tip, and the tide was rising and I quickly realized I was actually cut off from the spit. Fortunately the crabbers had kept an eye on me and motored back to get me when I waved my arms, then dropped me off on the real spit. That was just stupid on my part.

#5 Getting caught in a sneaker wave
Sneaker wavesunusually large waves that can catch you unawares and knock you off your feet are a mostly wintertime phenomenon, but the adage applies year-round: Don't turn your back on the ocean, not when you're right alongside it. And don't jump on logs or stumps in the drift line, as the next wave that washes in might lift it, knock you off, and pin you under it.

#6: Tripping on the trail, falling down a cliff, or otherwise injuring yourself
Accidents do happen. You should carry a first aid kit and have the mental wherewithal to deal with this kind of thing. But this isn’t a wilderness area; with a few exceptions (the north side of Cape Sebastian), someone’s going to be along soon to help you out if something untoward happens. Don’t assume you can call 911 on your cell phone; reception is spotty in places (Verizon seems to have the best coast-wide coverage, FYI). (Who knew to worry about dislocating a finger in a minor fall on Neahkahnie Mountain? It didn't really hurt, just looked grotesque.)

#7: Getting epic blisters
You will get blisters on a through-hike, I can almost guarantee it. Something happens to the feet when you start exceeding, say, 10-12 miles a day for days at a time. But there are things you can do to prevent them and deal with them. And they won’t kill you.

#8: Getting poison oak rash
South of about Humbug Mountain there are patches of poison oak along the trail. If you’re not familiar with it, memorize the photo at left (by Franz Xavier). It’s annoying as hell, if you’re sensitive to it; figure two weeks of itching, weeping skin. Again, it won’t kill you.

#9: Getting bit by a poisonous snake
Nope. None. Not here.

#10: Getting swept away by a tsunami
It's highly unlikely and certainly not something that should stop you from hiking the OCT. But hikers should understand a little bit about tsunami science and what to do should the ocean suddenly and alarmingly withdraw, or should a major earthquake rattle the ground for four or five minutes while you happen to be on the beach. I will address the topic of tsunamis in more detail in the next post.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mile 99.9 to Mile 118.4: Pacific City to (and over) Cascade Head

Notations such as “(Hike 33)” refer to hikes in my book “Day Hiking: Oregon Coast.”

Cumulative mileage figures in parentheses refer to mileage in this section only.

It seems, just from scanning the map, that it should be possible to get a ride across the mouth of the Nestucca River at Pacific City, as at many other river mouths on the coast, and avoid about 6 miles of road walking. Just walk 2.75 miles south to the end of Nestucca Spit and hail a passing fisherman, or stop at the boat landing a short distance down the spit and catch a ride there. The problem lies with the landing on the south side. There is simply no safe place to land a boat near the beach south of the river mouth without risking winding up in the middle of a particularly dangerous bar.

Instead, from “downtown” Pacific City, follow the shoulder of Brooten Road (or take the bus: 2.7 miles to U.S. 101, then follow the highway south another 3.2 miles to Winema Road. Take Winema Road 0.5 mile down to the beach, then walk the beach 3.3 miles to Proposal Rock at the community of Neskowin. Walk alongside Hawk Creek (photo right), which leads to a little trail to the Neskowin Beach State Recreation Site wayside (flush toilets and water) alongside U.S. 101 (10 miles).

Next challenge: ascent of Cascade Head. There used to be a very handy 6-mile OCT trail section over Cascade Head that eliminated 4.5 miles of highway walking, but the northern section of that trail is now closed due to extensive storm damage (blowdown) and a large slide. There are no plans to rebuild that portion of trail due to the steep, unstable terrain.

The new route trades 2.75 miles of highway shoulder walking for 4.75 miles of forest road and trail walking, as follows:  

From Neskowin, walk the shoulder of US 101 south 3.75 miles to gravel Road 1861, at the crest of the hill and on your right; follow Road 1861 west about 1.25 miles to where the OCT resumes southbound (Hike 33); hike it 3.5 miles down the headland to the trailhead near the junction of Three Rocks Road and US 101 (18.5 miles).

ALTERNATIVE #1:  An OCT hiker in September 2012 reported that parts of this trail are in poor condition; he suggested continuing on Road 1861 another 2 miles to the trailhead for the very scenic 4-mile trail down Cascade Head to Knight Boat Landing on Three Rocks Road (Hikes 32-33). From here it’s a 2.5-mile walk east on Three Rocks Road to US 101. This route would lengthen your hike by 5 miles, but this trail down Cascade Head provides some of the most awesome vistas on the entire Oregon Coast (see photo; you won't get this view on the official OCT route).

ALTERNATIVE #2: Consider calling a cab or taking that same bus (, four southbound trips a day at this writing) to hop from Neskowin to the north end of Lincoln City. Regardless which route you choose over Cascade Head, you still have 3.75 miles of highway shoulder walking, and probably another 4 to get to Lincoln City (though that may change, as I’ll discuss in the next post.)

There is no camping on Nestucca Spit (Robert W. Straub State Park), which seems a shame, nor is camping allowed almost anywhere on Cascade Head west of Highway 101 (most of which is either part of Cascade Head Scenic Research Area or part of a Nature Conservancy preserve). This stretch of the coast is just a hard place to find a tent site. There is lodging in Neskowin.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mile 86.2 to Mile 99.9: Cape Lookout to Pacific City

Notations such as “(Hike 23)” refer to hikes in my book “Day Hiking: Oregon Coast.”

Cumulative mileage figures in parentheses refer to mileage in this section only.
This stretch takes you over two of the three capes in the Three Capes region of the Oregon Coast—cape, from the Latin caput: the head, the chief, the top. A headland, in other words. And these two particular capes couldn’t be more different: Cape Lookout, a finger of basalt pointing west, the remains of a lava delta that flowed here from around the present-day Oregon-Idaho border some 15.5 million years ago, and Cape Kiwanda, made of golden sandstone, continuously re-sculpted by the elements as it slowly erodes. (Photo below: Top of Cape Kiwanda, with Cape Lookout faint in the background.)

Pick up the OCT where it leaves the day use area at the south end of Cape Lookout State Park (not far from the hiker-biker camp) and follow it up 2.3 miles to the trailhead parking area at the top of the cape (Hike 23). From here, pick up the trail heading west toward the tip of the cape. But just 75 yards down that trail you hit a junction; turn left to continue south on the OCT (Hike 24). The trail winds 1.8 miles down through the forest to the beach on the south side of the cape (Hike 24). Continue down the beach 4 miles to the outlet of wide, shallow Sand Lake (8.1 miles).

From my experience and that of others, you can expect the outlet of Sand Lake to be crossable ONLY at low tide, even in late summer. I got there an hour past low tide, in early September, and managed to find a spot about 100 years inland where it was just barely shallow enough to cross without swimming or losing my footing on the soft sand underwater, but crossing would have been impossible in another 20-30 minutes. Trekking poles could be helpful for this crossing. (If you arrive too late to wade the outlet, you could leave the beach at the RV park just north of the outlet and follow Sand Lake Road south; turn right on Roma Avenue at the north end of the community of Tierra del Mar and follow the trail at the end of Roma to the beach.
Continue south 4.4 miles (from Sand Lake outlet) on the beach and up and over the sandy neck of Cape Kiwanda to the beach access parking lot (and Pelican Pub) at the north end of Pacific City. The center of town is another 1.2 miles south by road (13.7 miles). You can find groceries in both places.
There seemed to be an informal surfers’ camp on the beach just south of Cape Lookout when I hiked by;  it’s a good half-mile north of Camp Meriwether, so the Boy Scouts shouldn't be bothered by your presence. The Inn at Cape Kiwanda and Cape Kiwanda RV Resort (for camping) are right across the road from the Pelican Pub, and there are more motels in the town center.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Where to sleep on the Oregon Coast Trail: A meditation, and some advice

Camping on the beach seems like the most obvious option. I mean, the cool thing about Oregon (one of many cool things) is that the beaches are entirely public, not just to the high tide line but to the vegetation line. YOU CANNOT OWN THE BEACH IN OREGON. You can own an oceanfront motel, but you cannot fence off any portion of that sandy beach for the exclusive use of your customers because it’s public.

Which, I think, is awesome.

Which means you can pretty much camp anywhere, right? 


Cities and towns can prohibit camping on the beach adjacent to city land, and they do. State parks (which  manages the ocean beaches) can prohibit camping adjacent to developed parks, and it does. Only in the most remote parts of the coast can you camp on the beach itself and not risk being rousted out by authorities of one kind or another (never pleasant). The beach immediately south of Cape Lookout seems to be a popular surfer camping site; that seems to work. There are places on the south coast where no one’s going to bother you. Not so the beach between the Columbia River and Gearhart; not only is camping there illegal, but you’re likely to get run over. You can camp on certain sand spits, but not all (Bayocean spit yes; not sure about Salishan Spit, but the nearby homeowners would probably prefer you didn't). The beach at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area: no problem, though I recommend camping back in the dunes and not in on the beach per se. So, you see, it’s kind of tricky. Generally the farther south you go, the fewer people, the more remote the beaches, the more likely you can camp on the beach, or near the beach, such as back in the dunes, if it’s public land.

But beach camping is overrated, in my opinion. For one thing, it’s sandy. And it’s not level. If you’re too close to the ocean, you have to worry about high tide; if you’re too high, the dry sand gets into everything. I camped at the mouth of Tenmile Creek (photo below), between Winchester Bay and Coos Bay, and I worried all night about whether I was camped high enough. But you’re not that stupid, right?

Plus, getting real for a moment: where you sleep, you are likely to want to shit. This is not the forest, where you can dig a cat hole, do your thing, fill it back up with dirt, and no one is bothered. This is the beach. Feces don’t decompose in the sand they way they do in the forest. And a lot of people use the beach. It’s better for everyone if you strive to take care of business in an established toilet of some kind—flush toilet, vault toilet, porta-potty, whatever—of which there are many, in parks and waysides and the like.

Which, in a sense, leads to my preferred alternative: Hiker-biker camps in state parks. (Photo: Hiker-biker camp at Bullard Beach State Park, Bandon. Much laundry was done, apparently.) Yes, they’re in developed campgrounds, which may not be your vision for a backpacking trip, especially if you’re a veteran of the AT or PCT, but you didn’t really think this was a wilderness outing, did you? For $6 (in 2013) you get a flat spot to set up your tent, flush toilets and potable water and hot showers (no extra fee), picnic tables (sweet for setting up a stove and cooking dinner), and like-minded people to talk to, which is kind of nice especially if, like many OCT through-hikers, you’re hiking alone. Only don’t expect to run into other hikers; there aren’t many of us. Hiker-biker camps are mainly used by cyclists riding U.S. Highway 101. In addition to hiker-biker camps in coastal state parks, there are several beachfront (or nearly so) Forest Service campgrounds on the central coast: a little more expensive, no showers, but sometimes right on or near the beach.

Motels are another option: obviously more expensive, but really nice after a long day of hiking, especially if the weather has been less than stellar. You do need to reserve ahead in popular areas (Cannon Beach, Manzanita, probably Lincoln City). I stumbled into an inexpensive motel in Pacific City and another (Motel 6, at right) at the south end of the bridge in Gold Beach (where I spent about two hours in the bathtub). I also spent a night in the shared dorm room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel at Nye Beach in Newport; I wouldn’t do that again. (Love the artsy, funky hotel rooms there, but the dorm room was overcrowded and a little strange.) I do want to point out to any out-of-state readers that it is not unusual to find oceanfront lodging (not necessarily fancy, but still oceanfront) n Oregon for $100 or less. Sometimes much less.

Yurts? Only if you want your entire trip to be scheduled in advance. Yurts (small, round, wooden structures with heat, bunks, etc.) in state parks are popular and need to be reserved well in advance. Give yourself more flexibility and just buy an ultralight tent instead. After a few nights not staying in yurts, you may be money ahead.