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?


  1. Hi Bonnie! Patti from WI, here. Well, I hiked the entire OCT this past summer, highway miles and all. Is the OCT a complete wilderness experience? No. As Bonnie writes so clearly, immersing oneself in each moment and situation as it unfolds, including those highway miles, is part of the forewarned challenge of the trek. That, along with needing to catch a ride through Heceta Head Tunnel (replete with a pen-scrawled sign at the entrance to highway 101), contributed to developing a fearlessness and strength I didn't know I had! So much so, that next summer I'm planning a thru-hike on the Superior Hiking Trail. I might not be a "purist" in the hiking world but the hike was life changing for this 55 year old woman who had completed plenty of day hikes, but had never hiked an average of 12 miles each day over the course of 32 days. Via the kindness of a Vietnam Veteran I was given a ride through that tunnel.

    With memories of people I met along the way (including bikers who shared Hwy 101), momentum of unfolding physical and mental strength, as well as the beauty of multiple stretches of beach so remote that I saw no-one the entire day until getting to camp, well, I'm glad I took on the challenge.

    By the way, Bonnie's guide book and her generosity of time through correspondence provided me with confidence to attempt the hike. Thanks Bonnie for championing the beauty of the Oregon Coast!

    People might feel a need for thru-hiking purity and I understand and respect that. For those of us who love the wildness of the Oregon coast (particularly the Southern portion) and have hiked its entirety, splitting hairs about the definition of thru-hiking misses entirely the point of the inherent adventure and challenge of traversing the coastline! Having said that, finding a way to expand OCT trail miles off of Hwy 101 whenever and wherever possible would be appreciated! Walking on the shoulder of Hwy 101 is an act of pure faith not only in drivers' skills, but one's luck as well. The state of Oregon has much to be proud of in its natural treasures and the Oregon Beach Bill of 1967.

  2. Well said! That's interesting to me that someone would rag on the OCT. my brief experiences with the trail so far have been positive--yes, the road walking sucks. But because of hiking the OCT I've seen bits of the coast that I wouldn't have otherwise--that most people don't--Blacklock Point near Port Orford, for instance. I don't have the good fortune to be able to live on the coast just yet, but hiking the coast like this has given me some precious experiences that make me feel less like a tourist whenever I visit now.
    I'm planning to thru hike the entire OCT at the end of June this year and I'm super excited about it! Road walks don't last forever and the experience of the Oregon coast isn't a strictly wilderness one anyway. Furthermore, I'd like to argue that as a thru hike the OCT will give a more genuine "journey" experience (as compared with other long trails) because I'll be able to resupply as I pass though towns instead of hitching 15 miles off the trail for each resupply.

  3. And here I was thinking I thru-hiked the Pacific Northwest Tr, Pinhoti Tr, Benton McKaye Tr, Appalachian Tr, Continental Divide Tr, Pacific Crest Tr, Florida Tr, Superior Tr, Ouachita Tr, Ozark Highlands Tr, Arizona Tr, etc, blah blah blah..... all with paved and/or dirt road walks and/or sidewalks..."connector sections."

    Patti's third sentence and Bonnie's last paragraph puts it into perspective. Embrace it all, as it is, as it can be...or not.

    Enjoy the journey.

    TU to all for the comments especially Bonnie for the write -ups and all the GREAT folks for supporting the OCT efforts in many ways.

    I'll be "thru-hiking" the OCT, as I define it, and define the experience, SOBO this July.