Saturday, August 22, 2015

Bandon to Port Orford backpack

In a sense, this summer hike on the coast had a lot do with winter. Last January I was hiking in the Cone Peak area and there's no way a 5,600 foot peak should have been that accessible in the middle of winter, at least not without snowshoes and a whole bunch of warm winter wear. On that hike, the only snow visible for miles and miles were on the Three Sisters and Mount Jefferson, four white pimples surrounded by a vast tract of dark and snowless forest. I remember thinking "This is so not good", as surely the lack of snow was a harbinger of what surely would be a merciless fire season.

Feet got wet at China Creek
While I was correct in my presumption, we sort of skated here in southern Oregon, fire-wise. Yes, we did have wildfires but none were as catastrophic as they could have been. On the other hand, Washington, Idaho, and eastern Oregon caught the flaming brunt of a snowless winter as the fires there were huge and numerous. One of those fires, the Eagle Fire, caused us (Lane, Dale, and I) to scratch a 50'ish mile backpack in the Wallowa Mountains. We didn't want to backpack in the southern Cascades either, as the fires here were pretty much filling the air with particulate matter and turning the blue sky a dirty shade of gray-brown. It'd be like backpacking in Los Angeles, Tokyo, or Mexico City, the air was so dirty. By default, we headed to Bandon for a shorter, easier, and presumably more smoke-free hike.

All the sand you could ever want to walk on
The Oregon Coast Trail is on my list of things to do but one of the drawbacks to the OCT is that significant portions of the route are on roadways. However, the longest section of roadless hiking on the OCT is the 27 miles from Bandon to Port Orford. Highway 101 heads inland and the land between the highway and the ocean is mostly undeveloped. By hiking the beach from Bandon to Floras Lake, hikers can get a taste of what a truly wild beach can be like. Hikers can also get a taste of what 3 days of walking on soft sand can be like and that's not all that much of a good thing. It's both the best and worst of beach hiking.

This is going to be easy!
We started at mid-day because the restaurant where we ate breakfast was incredibly slow. Good thing we had the time! At any rate, we set out from the Inn at Face Rock (Thanks, Inn, for letting us park our car there) and sallied forth onto the beach, heading due south. The sand at Bandon Beach was firm and hard packed and we made rapid progress underneath a cloudless blue sky.  Hey, this was going to be an easy hike!

My view, for the next 20 miles
Things changed when we hit the mouth of the New River; well, where the mouth normally would be. In this dry summer, the mouth was closed shut by a formidable sand bar and the New petered out within sight of the Pacific Ocean. And just past the New River, the sand changed from hard to soft. Our legs immediately started screaming in agony from the soft sand walking.The best way I can describe it is that walking on soft sand uses the same muscle groups as that evil stair-stepper at the gym, and with the same result: burning quads and calves. The good news was that we would feel the burn for only the next 20 miles or so!

Once past photogenic Haystack Rock, it was nothing but empty beach for the rest of the day. Just us, gulls, and flocks of sanderlings running comically in front of the incoming waves. We were excited to find a few pristine and perfectly intact sand dollars but that soon lost luster as there were like millions of sand dollars strewn about, all in mint condition. 

A log gets slapped by the sea
We were walking through the snowy plover habitat and hikers are required to walk on wet sand only. Amazingly, about 10 miles of dry sand had been roped off all the way from the New River to the public park with the rather unwieldy name of New River Area of Critical Environmental Concern, a few miles north of Floras Lake.

Exhaustion at the New River (photo by Lane)
A sign post affixed to the top of the beach foredunes marked the location of the BLM "campground". The amenities were rather sparse, consisting of a few planks upon which to sit, acres of grass and sand and most importantly, official permission to pitch a tent. We didn't care about the lack of comfort as we were just happy to drop our packs and quit walking on soft sand. The New River was a short walk away and we replenished our water supply. The day had been sunny and naturally, we were treated to a superb sunset, our reward for all that hard work. Now that I think about it, we could have enjoyed the same sunset seated in a car parked at Face Rock but that's beside the point.

Dale, Lane, and Barbie

The second day dawned cold and foggy. While it wasn't raining, the air had that liquidity to it that left us all wet anyway. If anything, the sand had gotten softer than the day before. And just like the day before, the sand sloped steeply into the ocean while on the landward side, a large sand bank had been created by wave action. Trying to be good citizens and walk on the wet sand was exceedingly difficult as we occasionally had to run from large waves only to find ourselves trapped by the sand bank. Our feet got wet and we thought the ocean quite rude.

Yup, the sand is soft
Eventually, we cheated and walked atop the sandy cliff. We periodically found veins of hard sand and chased them like miners following a depleting vein of gold. From the first "hey, I found hard sand!" followed immediately by so-called friends cutting in front and chewing up the hardpack, we learned to keep our hard-sand discoveries to ourselves. However, we learned to watch our comrades' feet and if any of us was walking with a smile on his face, two others cut in front and took the smile away. So we learned to fake walking in soft sand even if the sand was pleasantly firm. We learned a lot about ourselves and our so-called friends as this sand walking turned out to be a pretty cutthroat endeavor.  

It's a tube thingy!
The beaches here are a beachcomber's delight and we found skinned baseballs, petrified wood, a boat, floats, and a rock that looked like the second coming of Elvis Presley (it's a miracle!). Lane was particularly excited when he found a metal tube that from his Navy days, he recognized as a container for sonobuoys. Me, I would have just called it a tube thingy, without Lane's vast reservoir of knowledge about obscure tube thingies. Thanks, Lane!  

We tried walking in the grass for a bit...didn't work!
A moment of levity occurred when, tired of sand walking, we decided to attempt hiking through the grasses behind the dunes. Through the fog, I could see a herd of elk walking in the pasturelands along the New River. But then Lane said they didn't really move like elk and on second glance, I agreed. Must be cows then but as they scrambled up and down the banks of the New River, they seemed way too agile for cattle. What were those things? As we pondered that question, totally mystified, the faint sound of sheep bleats carried through the mist. Well, it sure is easy to mistake sheep for cattle or elk!

Floras Lake
At Floras Lake, we stopped to replenish our water. I use purification tablets while Lane and Dale use water pumps. Naturally, I was done before they finished. I sat down in the sand and reclined against my pack and totally involuntarily, my eyes rolled up and I promptly dropped off to an accidental sleep. I woke up with a start, totally disoriented with no idea how long I'd slept or whether the guys had left me behind.  No worries, a pair of snores behind me gave it away; they too had checked out. Happy now, I re-closed my eyes and fell into another restful slumber. Afterwards, when we all woke up and resumed hiking, I told Dale and Lane that we had just slept together and I was warned that statement had better not appear in my newspaper story. But they didn't say anything about my blog!

A real trail is cause for celebration
Fully rested, we really enjoyed the hike from Floras Lake to Blacklock Point. We were hiking on the Oregon Coast Trail and best of all it was on a real trail with real trail tread underneath our very real feet. The path cut through a dense coastal forest and we grazed upon ripe huckleberries as we hiked. Several miles later we set up camp in the trees above Blacklock Point. 

Sunset at Blacklock Point
The cloud cover had taken away the sunset but amazingly, the sun dropped through a hole in the cloud cover and Lane and I enjoyed a quick photo shoot of the sunset. Unfortunately, a chill wind was blowing and after several minutes, Lane and I sought shelter in our respective tents. That night, some creature was in our campsite and was croaking "Raik,,,raik,,,raik,," in a strange helium-tinged cartoon voice; it was as if it was trying to talk to us. Maybe it was expressing appreciation of Cape Blanco's lighthouse beam sweeping through the trees every 30 seconds or so while the wind stirred the trees overhead.

On our way to the Sixes River

Day 3 started out misty but the fog burned off by mid-morning. My recollection of Day 3 was the day was bright and sunny but looking at my pictures later, the mist never really fully left. We set out on the scenic beach arcing towards Cape Blanco and as usual, we were soon grousing about hiking on soft sand. Desperate men do desperate things so about halfway down the beach, we beat through the beachgrass and found a cow trail that allowed us to walk on real ground and make quick pain-free progress to the Sixes River.

Lane fords the Sixes River
The Sixes was still flowing to the sea (this time of year, it's not uncommon to find the Sixes dammed by a sand bar) and it was a shallow wade across. None of us felt like walking on the beach to Cape Blanco so we grabbed the Oregon Coast Trail which climbed up the bluffs overlooking the bay. Astute readers will discern we were at this point, harboring an irrational animus towards soft sand. At any rate, the OCT wended its way through a shady coastal forest before delivering us to the parking lot next to the Cape Blanco Lighthouse. From there it was another short forest walk down to the beach on the south side of Cape Blanco.

Freaking hilarious!
Several miles later (on soft sand, too, darn it) we arrived at the Elk River, our intended campsite. The wind was really blowing but fortunately was at our backs. There were no trees at the mouth of the Elk and we'd have to pitch our tents on the sand in the wind, a rather dubious proposition at best. So, after a quick impromptu confab, we decided to hike the remaining three miles to our car. Dale and I crossed the Elk close to the ocean, where the river fanned out and made the crossing relatively shallow. Lane, on the other hand, crossed slightly inland and entertained Dale and I as he flailed his way through a waist deep river.

Please make the soft sand stop
The last three miles were in soft sand, but what else was new. I think I was getting into sand shape because while the going was slow and trudging, I had plenty of energy left when we reached the end of the hike. Afterwards, we stopped for dinner and the waitress told us the special was a turkey sandwich and we all flinched at the "sand" in "sandwich". I think we all have post-trail sand syndrome, or PTSD for short, but it sure beat walking in a forest fire.

This hike was golden
For more pictures of this trip, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. Nice hike. Sorry the sand was so soft and yielding.

  2. Looks like a great trip with lots of beach.....and sand. So how far is the hike one way from Floras Lake to Cape Blanco? We are planning to camp at Cape Blanco next year and hope to hike Humbug Mt again and hike Floras Lake to those cliffs or all the way to Cape Blanco.