Saturday, November 9, 2019

Cape Blanco (via Sullivan Gulch)


Cape Blanco State Park is one of my favorite places to hike at. To nit-pick a bit though, there's a sameness to the trail network in that all possible routes essentially follow the coast from the Sixes River to the Elk River or vice versa. Yes, you can hike either atop the forested coastal bluffs or on the beach but either way, you are pretty much hiking from the Sixes River to the Elk River or vice versa. But as I recently found out, there is an inland approach that begins at Sullivan Gulch. Yay, somewhere I'd never hiked before, and naturally, the alluring "new trail" siren song called out to me. Powerless to resist its haunting melody, I soon found myself lacing boots at the cattle gate that serves as the Sullivan Gulch trailhead.

For some reason, we did not take this trail, not really sure why that was

Accompanied by my trusty sidekick Lane, I opened the cattle gate and our hiking festivities commenced with a walk up a grassy ranch road flanking the west side of Sullivan Gulch. Per the Oxford English Dictionary, "gulch" is defined as a "narrow and steep-sided ravine marking the course of a fast stream". Well, Sullivan Gulch is not narrow, nor is it what I would call a ravine, and good luck finding a fast stream in the marshy wetlands. The wide swale with plenty of standing water in it does have steep sides though, but the trail here sort of cheats past by finding a gap in the steep sides on its way to the beach.


Waterway in the Sullivan Gulch wetlands

The first part of the route followed the wide grassy marsh containing ponds, drainage ditches, and various other forms of standing water in and among the marsh grasses. Ducks make a home in the ponds and regrettably, our arrival caused them to flee their watery abode in quacking panic. A more intimate exploration of the gulch was effectively discouraged by wire fencing and standing water, so we just looked and did not touch.

Mother and child, toxic mushroom style

It didn't take long for both of us to decide we really like this trail. The path gradually left the edge of the marsh and we hiked in woods sublime. White-trunked alder trees were already leafless, proffering their bony limbs to the sky in supplication for the return of leaves purloined by winter's arrival. Closer to ground level, the greenery was still thriving, unwilling to surrender their leaves like weak-willed alders. Ferns draped over the trail and mushrooms were everywhere. This was too much to expect two dudes with cameras to walk through without engaging in much photography. Consequently, it was slow going through the woods to an overlook of the beach from atop a tall dune.

Bushwhacking is fun!

Before we hit the beach though, we followed an obvious path leading into the forest, curious to see where it went. 
As it turned out, it pretty much went nowhere. The well-defined path quickly degenerated into a loose network of deer paths, game trails, and thick forest clawing at us as we fought our way up a ridge. Eventually, we wound up at the edge of Sullivan Gulch, wrestling head-high grasses while mud sucked at our boots. While fun, the bushwhack venture yielded little reward, so we bushwhacked back to the sandy saddle above the beach.

The mighty Elk River

The tide was out and the exposed wet sand was hard-packed (just like my abs, hah!) and perfect for hiking on. We beach-walked south for about a mile before the swiftly moving Elk River barred further progress south. Surprisingly, the fairly remote river was in use by a moderate population of salmon fishermen. After an obligatory lunch and laze next to the river, Lane and I returned to the overlook atop the dunes.

A sea of silver mercury

Feeling adventuresome and walky, always a potent situation, we grabbed a footpath that headed straight up through some woods. The whole vibe of this section of trail felt like wilderness because we did not see a single soul as we trudged upward. The trail served up some expansive views of Sullivan Gulch and the beach south of Cape Blanco as our route zigged and zagged from the ridge crest to the east side and then back again. After a mile or so of this, the path crested at what presumably is the tallest point in the park.

Flocks of geese head north

Oh, the things we could see from the top! The beach lay immediately below our clifftop perch, albeit several hundred feet below. Fishermen and beachgoers looked like ants on a kitchen counter and their vehicles like little Matchbox toys waiting to be picked up by a giant hand. Offshore loomed the ocean, glinting silver in sunlight diffused by an indistinct cloud layer. Ah, now this is why we hike!

Lane and Richard go for a hike

After admiring the view from our clifftop aerie, it almost seemed anticlimactic to cut across the horse camp and take the trail back to Sullivan Gulch. However, the forest was lush and green and the trail challenged our legs as it dropped straight down into the gulch. I do mean straight down, for the trail plunged as fast as a wingless duck, putting our quad and glute muscles to the test as we bravely resisted the pull of gravity on the way down. Once back down to gulch-level, the hike was finished off with a short walk on a grassy path covered with crawling newts. I think this is my new favorite hike at Cape Blanco State Park.

They say the spirit of Sullivan still haunts the park

For more photos of this hike,
please visit the Flickr album.


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