Thursday, November 5, 2015

Is the Oregon Coast Trail truly “hikeable”?

Heading south along US 101 from Humbug Mountain State Park
That’s what Oregon State Parks declared in 1988—the idea being that enough connecting trails had been built between stretches of beach to make it a legitimate long-distance trail, despite the fact that gaps (that required road-walking) remained.

That’s what I thought when I backpacked it in 2007 and 2008—sure, I had to do some road walking, but other than in a couple of spots, it didn’t seem like a big deal.

But that’s not what I heard a couple of weeks ago at a meeting of the Oregon Recreational Trails Commission. In updating the commission on the status of the trail, the state parks staffer charged with maintenance of the OCT described the OCT, apologetically, as not really being hikeable as a thru-hike, due to all the gaps that remain.


I found that rather bizarre. They’ve signed it as a long-distance trail. They promote it as a long-distance trail. I doubt he’s thru-hiked it, I found myself thinking. He has no idea.

But then I wondered if he had a point.

The views from the highway can be pretty nice,
 and you might get to stop and chat with pink lycra-clad cyclists...

So I did a little analysis of the road-walking miles still required of thru-hikers (an analysis that, oddly, I had never actually done) and found that, even in a best-case scenario (getting boat rides across Tillamook, Winchester, and Coos bays, for instance, rather than walking around them), indeed, hiking the OCT still requires a fair amount of road-shoulder walking.

Like 88.2 miles of it, out of 377.3 miles, so nearly one-quarter of the route. Major caveat: only 44.8 of those 88.2 miles (by my calculation) are on US 101; the rest are on quiet back roads. Still, that is a lot of road-walking for what one thinks of as a beach-and-headland hiking trip. And those road miles are pretty evenly distributed along the coast: north, central, and south coast.

So why did those figures surprise me so much?

A few reasons, I think:

Most of the road-walking stretches are short. Like your first road stretch, after 14.7 miles on the beach south from the Columbia River: After you leave the beach at Pacific Way in Gearhart, you follow quiet neighborhood streets for a mile or so, then walk on the highway shoulder for 0.6 mile (like, less than 10 minutes), then you’re back on neighborhood streets in Seaside for a bit before getting back on the beach. In total, a 3-mile stretch of road-walking (so an hour or less at a thru-hiker’s pace), but only a little of it is along the highway. Besides, it’s interesting walking through neighborhoods, it’s part of the experience, and it doesn’t feel like a bummer when you’re doing it.

Some of the road walking feels more like a trail. Like the 2-mile Old Coast Road between Nesika Beach and Gold Beach on the south coast—I actually had to check Google Maps (and then re-field check it) to confirm that it actually is still a road open to vehicles; that’s how quiet it was when I walked it and how little traffic it gets.

As I mentioned already, only about half of that road-walking is on US 101. Like Seven Devils Road, south of Charleston: a half-paved, half-gravel road through forest (and clear-cuts), with almost no traffic. Given the geography here (steep seaside cliffs), it’s a necessary and not really unpleasant piece. (Again, if you walk around the big bays, you will spend a lot more time walking on US 101. I don't know why anyone would do that. Prearrange a boat ride, hitch a boat ride, or take a bus/call a cab!)

And then there's the beach at Warrenton-Gearhart that sometimes feels like a road...
But listen, walking along US 101 sucks, there’s no way around that. North of Cascade Head, I took a bus from Pacific City to the highway and then hitched a ride to Winema Road, but that’s a long stretch of highway walking otherwise. My least favorite part of the OCT came soon after that: walking along US 101 from Three Rocks Road to Lincoln City (next time I’ll call a cab). By the time I got to Humbug Mountain on the south coast (at about mile 304), the 8 miles of highway shoulder walking between Humbug and Nesika Beach didn’t really faze me (but there’s a lot less traffic down on the south coast). And you do a lot of asphalt-pounding on that final day through Brookings, but again, you’re almost done, so who cares?

The point is, yes, the OCT is not a wilderness experience, and you will be walking along roads for a portion of the trek. But when you’re doing it, immersed in the experience, and if you know this going in, somehow it’s not a bummer. Especially if you’re not a hiking fundamentalist and are willing to call a cab now and then.

Any questions?