Friday, June 7, 2019

Oregon Coast Trail (Thomas Creek Bridge to Lone Ranch Beach)

"You're in charge, Richard!" Bwah-hah-hah, oh how I love to get the mantle of leadership conferred on me. It's like being given free rein to come up with a Richard Hike. Of course, my three comrades John, Katchan, and Edwin were all up to the task and to be honest, a Richard Hike is much easier than a John, Katchan, or Edwin hike, anyway.

A carpet of false lily-of-the-valley
This was the first day of a weekend campout at Harris State Beach, located near the town of Brookings, Oregon. Since the consensus was that I was the only one even remotely familiar with this area, I could and should choose the hikes. Feeling some responsibility for coming up with a challenging hike, I settled on a rugged section of the Oregon Coast Trail that ran through the southern half of Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor. Basically, the Oregon Coast Trail lives and breathes in the narrow strip of land between Highway 101 and the ocean. Despite the narrowness, the coast here is nothing but scenic with a plethora of viewpoints and coastal landmarks to gawk at. And when not gawking at landmarks, we could simply enjoy the lush coastal jungle growing on near vertical slopes that are the rugged line of demarcation where the Pacific Ocean begins and Oregon abruptly ends.

Tangled tendrils on a coastal manroot
The plan was to begin at Thomas Creek Bridge, a highway bridge spanning the narrow canyon of Thomas Creek. At 271 feet above creek level, Thomas Creek Bridge is noteworthy because it is Oregon's highest bridge. It is hard to get a good look at the bridge even on a good day, but it's completely impossible when the viewpoint is closed because of construction, which was the case on the day of our hike. 

John takes the scramble trail down to the Oregon Coast Trail

No worries, even though the viewpoint and trailhead were closed, we followed a scramble path (with some use of hands required) that dropped precipitously to the Oregon Coast Trail contouring through a dark and shady forest. The Oregon Coast Trail in Samuel Boardman Park is notoriously rugged as it constantly goes up and down but rarely level, and suffice to say we got plenty of exercise within the first several miles.

Katchan stops for a photo-op
As we were maybe just starting to get habituated with the forest, the forest suddenly stopped and we found ourselves perched high above a narrow defile, with surf crashing against the rocks well below our trailside aerie. It would be just a few horizontal steps to get to the beach but it'd be roughly about a thousand foot drop to get there so we decided it'd be best to stay on the trail. 

A patch of lupines perch several
hundred feet above the ocean
As the trail descended through trees and salal, stunted and shaped into phantasmagorical forms by the constant sea breeze, we enjoyed an awesome view of the Oregon coast stretching north. Massive cliffs and steep slopes, all densely forested, plunged more daringly than a courtesan's neckline at a royal ball. Below the cliffs were some incredibly narrow but scenic beaches which would be amazing to explore, were it not for the nigh impossible task of getting down to them. Scattered randomly offshore were a myriad of islands big and small, collectively dotting the azure sea like a rash of black measles on a Smurf.

Douglas iris was all along the route
On the trail, Douglas irises were blooming in veined purple profusion and the two hikers with cameras (Katchan and your merry blogster) soon found themselves lagging behind the two without. While the trail steadily lost hard won elevation, we were not going all the way down to the beaches below. Instead, we leveled out at beautiful and fascinating Indian Sands.

Sand dunes at Indian Sands
Indian Sands are a series of sand dunes but what makes them unique from other Oregon sand dunes is the fact they are perched atop a cliff a couple hundred feet or so above the sea. I'm not sure what geological or meteorological mechanism creates and replenishes these dunes but who cares, they are still way cool. 

The rocky bowl at Indian Sands
If the dunes weren't attraction enough, there is a spectacular rocky bowl complete with arch, waterfall, and ocean pulsing through the arch and into the bowl. This whole little scene is ringed with dense and close-to-the-ground patches of purple lupine and bright red Indian paintbrush plants. Just wow, already.

The Oregon Coast Trail was not always this well defined
After an appreciative view-soak at Indian Sands, we bushwhacked uphill back to the Oregon Coast Trail. After the tedious bushwhack, it was a happy occasion to attain the nicely maintained trail, From there, it was another forest walk on a trail lined with lush ferns to an egress at the road leading to Whaleshead State Beach. Unfortunately for us, we could see the Oregon Coast "Trail" continuing on the other side the road.

Yes, this is really the Oregon Coast Trail
Why did the hikers cross the road? Why, to search for the trail, of course. The Oregon Coast Trail was not at all nicely maintained here and in fact, I'm speculating it had not seen a weed whacker at any time since the invention of weed whackers. At any rate, we discerned the route by hiking in brush that was marginally not as dense as the surrounding vegetation. Obviously, most hikers walk down the road to get to the beach. Our reward for this brush beater of a trail was a nice lunch on real picnic tables in the park.

Some of that Whaleshead Beach scenery
The formal Oregon Coast Trail route calls for a wade across shallow Whaleshead Creek fanning out across the beach strand, followed by a mad quad-straining charge up the same hill we had just struggled to come down, and on the same "quality" of trail, too. I told the guys I knew a much better way and even they all should know better, they agreed to follow me.

Tidepools aplenty on Whaleshead Beach

It was a two mile walk on the scenic beach and we explored the many tide pools full of mussels, barnacles, and starfish that had become accessible during low tide. But when the sandy shoreline ended where a creek tumbled over some rocks and boulders to reach the beach terminus, we had to scramble up a cliff, with heavy use of hands required, to gain a faint path on the grassy slopes.

This section of trail was challenging, to say the least
Now, I'd done this trail before and it always had been sketchy at best. In fact, at the upper end, there is a sign discouraging hikers from taking that trail down because of the level of difficulty. On this day, the trail had become even more sketchy, to the point of being nearly nonexistent. Fortunately, there were old trail markers we could follow and if we couldn't find the next marker, sometimes we'd get lucky and find a faint piece of the old trail. As if this degree of difficulty wasn't challenging enough, the route was incredibly steep. The funny thing is, as we worked (emphasis on "worked") our way up, I daresay we all had joyous grins of enjoyment on our faces. On the plus side, the views of Whaleshead Beach and House Rock, a house-shaped island in the ocean, were eminently enjoyable, especially when bent over with hands on knees, trying to restore overworked lungs back to anything resembling a normal respiratory rate.

Back on a civilized trail
Once we enjoyed a felicitous reunion with the blessedly civilized Oregon Coast Trail, it was a relatively level hike through a dark forest, way darker than normal, to the House Rock Overlook where we took a well-deserved break from hiking. From there it was back down through a thinning forest to open grassy slopes on windblown Cape Ferrello.

Windy Cape Ferrello
Did I mention Cape Ferrello was windy? If not, just let me tell you it was breezier than the inside of a wind tunnel at Boeing. All the grass on the cape was laying down sideways and any plant that was not a grass specie did not grow any taller than an inch high. We all put on jackets and layers and it didn't matter, the cold wind forced its way through each and every microfiber as if we weren't wearing any protective clothing at all. Having duly whined, though, the view to the rocky cape from our clifftop perch was pretty cool and was worth battling the buffeting air currents for.

Blackberry was in full flower near Lone Ranch Beach
Instead of backtracking back to the Oregon Coast Trail, we rounded the cape and then performed a tedious bushwhack (grasswhack?) up a windblown grassy slope to where we correctly surmised the trail would lie. Ah, a real trail is so much easier than rough ground, especially when it gently switchbacks down through dense patches of blackberry brambles being tended to by fuzzy bumblebees. As we descended, we enjoyed the panorama of arcing Lone Ranch Beach with a populous congregation of islands afloat in the bay. We also really enjoyed the view because our arrival at Lone Ranch Beach would bring this long and rugged trek to a close. A short boardwalk, in the literal sense of the word, for the boardwalk was just an actual board spanning Lone Ranch Creek, closed this hike out and there was much rejoicing.

A small creek tumbles across the trail
So, this tough 9.4 mile hike was an epic Oregon coast sampler, but not the ultimate Oregon coast sampler. For that, we drove into Brookings for Mexican food and craft beer. Now, THAT was the ultimate Oregon coast sampler!

Oh, what a tangled web of branches we weave!
For more pictures of this epic coastal hike, please visit the Flickr album.

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