When I pull my car into Rocky Creek State Scenic Viewpoint, I see bright green hills dropping into the Pacific Ocean. In the two years since I drove cross-country from New York City to restart my life in Portland, I’ve taken a smattering of day trips to Astoria, Seaside and other popular coastal spots. But I’ve never seen the Oregon Coast quite like this.
I spent the previous day driving along Highway 101, a coastal road dancing along the edge of the state with dramatic curves and swerves; this is the first time I have driven its length. The variety of topography, from sweeping sand dunes to rocky beaches, is a sensory smorgasbord — even when viewed from the road. But as I exit my car and the crisp morning air kisses my legs, I realize I’m about to become more intimately acquainted with the scenery that’s been whizzing past my window.
Exploring the Oregon Coast Trail
The Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) is 382 miles of pieced-together paths, soft lanes of pine needles, wide-open beaches and sidewalks that run through buzzing shoreline towns. It has yet to garner the attention of far more strenuous thru-hikes, such as the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. But the OCT offers something those other famous trails lack: the opportunity to explore a huge stretch of Oregon’s craggy coastline in segments, whether as a single day hike or a string of back-to-back excursions.
Better yet, more than half of the OCT is on sand, where no obvious path exists other than the line of the tide as it rises and falls. Oregon is one of only two states whose coastlines, from surf to vegetation, are entirely public land. Part of what makes this hike so special is that it demonstrates the scope of preservation enacted by the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill, which turned 50 in 2017.
Today I will hike alongside an OCT expert.
Connie Soper, author of “Exploring the Oregon Coast Trail,” spent three summers completing day hikes each weekend until she’d covered the entire OCT from Fort Stevens State Park in Hammond to the California border. Always a thorough note taker, Soper accumulated a wealth of information on how to hike the trail in manageable sections, averaging 10 miles a day. She wanted to share this knowledge with residents and visitors who love the Coast — many of whom do not realize there is a trail that traverses its length. Her book is the first and only guide to hiking the OCT; it pairs detailed routes with history and anecdotes about the region.
Seven sandy miles
When Soper arrives at our meeting point, she hops in my car, which we leave just north of Depoe Bay. By dropping a car at each end of the segment we intend to tackle, Soper and I can cover more ground without doubling back. This method of car shuttling allowed Soper and her hiking friends to rack up the miles faster in their quest to cover the entire trail. Today we use this tactic to cover 7 miles, from Gleneden Beach State Recreation Site to Rocky Creek State Scenic Viewpoint.
We start on the sand, where my dog, Jackson, joyously dashes into the surf. As a born-and-bred East Coaster, I still expect beaches to be crowded and noisy. After living in Portland for two years, Oregon still surprises me. It’s July — the height of Coast season — yet the sand is nearly empty, and distant beachcombers are muted and blurred by low-hanging fog. There’s a peacefulness here that seeps into your skin and settles in your hair, with the same subtlety as the salty air.
Filling the gaps
Once completed, the OCT has the potential to rank among popular thru-hikes. Presently, some gaps remain, but Soper and other coastal residents are advocating for completing the missing sections. As more people look for “Wild”-esque hikes that require extensive time and training, the OCT could become a sought-after route, since its relatively flat terrain offers a challenging yet manageable experience.
Soper sees the opportunity for intense, multi-month adventures here. But she doesn’t want the idea of thru-hiking to intimidate casual hikers. Day hikes are more welcoming to those who’d like to enjoy hot meals and dry beds at the end of the trail. Following Soper’s lead, you can do that and still conquer the entire thing — eventually.
I’m not an extreme hiker,” she tells me. “I just love this place.”
After the brief sandy leg, the trail transitions to a sidewalk, which meanders through a neighborhood of colorful homes. We eventually enter a section that borders Highway 101, and Soper pulls out her guidebook. This is one of the spots she is working to improve with the help of local governments and hiking groups. For now, it’s easy enough to skip them. Her guide offers a detailed outline of trail sections that border the highway, along with alternative routes that are more convenient and scenic.
Blackberries and bay views
I’m too busy gobbling blackberries to care much about the brief presence of traffic — the bulbous, juicy snacks are weighing down the bushes along the road, and I can’t help but stop to munch as Soper and Jackson blaze onward.
It’s lunchtime when we pass through Depoe Bay — a town popular for whale-watching tours, saltwater taffy, and fish and chips. A whiff of chocolate from an ice cream shop makes my stomach grumble, and I take note of the many treats I’d like to indulge in after my legs have completed this workout.
The activity of the town fades behind us, and we’re soon shaded by the overhang of Sitka spruce trees, until the path opens into a sweeping view of the ocean. The sun has emerged for our finale, and floating gulls are the only disruption to the bright blue sky.
I wish we could keep walking, but we’ve covered enough miles for one day. Soper drives me back to my car, and Jackson and I head home to Portland, stopping to reward ourselves with fish and chips along the way. I feel accomplished, but I also have a sense that this is but one segment of a much longer adventure on the Oregon Coast Trail.
(Depoe Bay by Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock; Taffy shop in Depoe Bay by Justin Bailie)