William L. Sullivan
Where can you backpack in August when all else fails? You still want breathtaking scenery and solitude, but what if parts of Oregon are on fire, it’s 100 degrees in the Willamette Valley, and you don’t have the permits you’d need for any of your favorite places in the Cascades?
The answer is to hike a section of the Oregon Coast Trail. This 362-mile route isn’t quite finished, so about 40 miles still follow the shoulder of U.S. Highway 101. Nonetheless, you can hike 60 miles from the Columbia River to Tillamook, eating at chowder restaurants and staying in Airbnbs. Or you can backpack 40 miles through the Oregon Dunes from Florence to Coos Bay, camping each night on the sand. At least 200 miles of the trail are on sand. Camping on the beach is legal outside of city limits and state parks.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the Oregon Coast Trail is in the south, through 14 miles of the Boardman State Scenic Corridor near Brookings. Here long-range hikers have a problem. This is in fact state park land, where camping is not allowed outside of official campgrounds. But there are no official campgrounds. What are backpackers supposed to do?
The correct answer is you should shuttle 20 miles each evening to the hiker/biker campsites at Harris Beach. But that answer doesn’t make much sense if you are backpacking the Oregon Coast Trail. Backpackers usually don’t have shuttle cars. They are just hiking through.
This dilemma has already been solved elsewhere on the Oregon Coast Trail. In Ecola State Park, for example, between Seaside and Cannon Beach, camping shelters have been provided for backpackers. Overnight parking is not allowed at nearby trailheads, so the only people who use these shelters are long-range backpackers. Why can’t similar backpacking camps be established in the Boardman Corridor?
To research this idea, Janell and I did the unthinkable: We broke state park rules and looked for suitable beach camping areas. I need to say that you shouldn’t do this. And yet, something has to be done to accommodate backpackers using the trail.
When Janell and I backpacked through the Boardman Corridor the people we met were mostly tourists snapping photos of craggy coves and arched islands within a few hundred feet of their parked cars. For lunch we spread out across the middle of the trail for an hour, beside a babbling brook in a forest with an ocean view, and no one passed by. Our first night we camped at China Beach, which seemed like a good candidate for an Oregon Coast Trail campsite because it is accessible only by trail.
Ironically, the only crowded spot we found was Secret Beach. Our route passed a dozen similar coves, but this one has achieved internet fame. Dozens of people with dogs and kids passed us on this suddenly dusty, suddenly 6-foot-wide section of the trail. An elderly Japanese couple stopped us in the woods to ask intently, “Where is Secret Beach?”
We hiked on to the next cove, 2 miles south, where ours were the only footprints.
About camping on the beach in Oregon: only Oregon Coast Trail backpackers seem to do it. Why?
First, the beach can be really windy in the afternoon until the sun sets. Plan to pitch your tent on the leeward side of a rock or headland – usually the south side. Use rocks or logs to anchor tent stakes in the sand.
Second, sand is rock hard. It’s easy to flatten a tent spot, but sand is not as cushy as it looks. Bring a good air mattress or pad.
Third, will you drown in the night? It’s easy to forget that the ocean can rise 8 feet in the dark. Even if you’re tenting above the high tide line, a tsunami would be trouble.
At China Beach I cleared a safe-looking tent site behind a windbreak boulder. This mostly involved removing the blackened rocks and buried charcoal of earlier picnic fires. In Oregon, beach fires are not allowed in driftwood piles or against logs. Backpackers generally rely on low-impact stoves, without building fires at all. Honestly, that’s best.
I pumped water from a beach creek and boiled it on the stove to prepare our dinner. Then it was time for the sunset show.
On Oregon’s coast the sun sometimes sets into a fog bank rather than the actual ocean. But by evening the fog is often breaking up, as it was for us at China Beach. So l ignited the clouds with stripes of golden fire, peeked out between layers, and then left the horizon glowing for a full hour.
As we strolled the twilit beach, a parade of sea stacks, needles and islands rose as silhouettes against the orange sky. I pointed out one pinnacle that looked like Queen Victoria, complete with crown and bustle. Janell identified the lumpy rock next to it as a hunchbacked Winston Churchill – although as we walked she had to admit that he gradually turned into a baboon.
It’s seems silly to go to sleep as early as 9 p.m., but we’re tired enough when backpacking that Janell and I agree we’ll “read in bed” for a while. It’s an excuse to get started on 11 hours of shuteye.
When we backpack in the mountains it’s usually so cold that we wear our clothes to bed. At the coast the temperature ranges from the 50s to the 70s. We slept with our sleeping bags unzipped.
In the middle of the night I looked outside and saw the Milky Way rising out of the dark Pacific as if the ocean were boiling. Stellar steam billowed from the spout of teapot-shaped Sagittarius and streamed overhead to the W of Cassiopeia.
The roar of the ocean was a constant rush of white noise. At times I imagined the sound included voices or motors, although I knew we were miles from other people. In the morning when I told Janell she said, “I imagined I heard a radio.”
“What kind of radio?”
“A campground radio. You know, staticky Western music.”
The hardest part of beach camping is keeping sand out of your food, tent and everything else. Washing doesn’t help. Anything that’s wet collects yet more sand.
I was glad we didn’t have to hang our food up overnight. Bears don’t go to the beach. There aren’t any mosquitoes either. Lots of seagulls. Black cormorants zoom past islands. Ravens circle above cliffs. None of these critters are camp robbers.
And yet when Janell checked our food bag, the almonds were missing. Something had chewed a small round hole in the plastic bag. Who knew about beach mice?
South coast treasures
Our second day of hiking took us to Highway 101 at the Thomas Creek Bridge. This is the only place our section of the trail followed the highway, in order to cross the tallest bridge in Oregon. As we peered 345 feet straight down we clung to guardrail, especially when motor homes whooshed past.
Next we crossed Indian Sands, a patch of dunes that’s crumbling off cliffs into the sea. Then the trail descended to a picnic area at Whaleshead Beach. It’s named for a whale-shaped island that actually spouts from its head when the tide is right.
Our plan was to outdistance the picnickers by walking 1.3 miles to the far end of the beach. Boy, did that work! The only people down there were two dog walkers from Brookings, who said they let their golden retrievers romp there every day. All summer the only other backpackers they had seen were a couple from Hawaii who were hiking the length of Oregon to savor lonely beaches. Apparently there aren’t any in Hawaii.
That evening, as Janell and I sat outside our tent on the empty beach, the sun flattened directly into the sea, turning square and wobbly before it vanished.
The last day of any backpacking trip is bittersweet. When we hiked down through Cape Ferrelo’s meadows toward our waiting car, we were already thinking ahead to the treat we had earned – ordering fish and chips at the little fry shack on the Port Orford dock. But we also wondered if we would ever be able to backpack this beautiful stretch of the Oregon Coast Trail again. Without official beach camping areas, the 12-mile Boardman Corridor isn’t very friendly to backpackers.
The Oregon Coast Trail is still incomplete. It has the potential to be an even greater attraction than the Pacific Crest Trail, but do we have the will to finish it? Building the trail is not enough. We also have to provide backpackers with places to stay along the way.
William Sullivan is the author of 22 books, including “The Ship in the Woods” and the updated “100 Hikes” series for Oregon. Learn more at oregonhiking.com.