Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Oregon Coast Trail - Quick Tips

There's a relative lack of information out there on the Oregon Coast Trail. I did absolutely zero preparation for this hike (I went from "hey, maybe I should do the OCT" to boarding a Greyhound bus in about 36 hours), but even so, found very little information which is relevant to the experienced thru-hiker looking to bang out a quick and easy trail. Most of the information out there caters to day hikers and backpackers who have the luxury of planning for months. So, without further ado, a bunch of bullet points:

  • Location: Oregon Coast (Washington->California)
  • Length: 420ish miles
  • Surface: 40% beach, 40% pavement, 20% road
  • Difficulty: Easy-moderate
  • Land manager: Multiple, but spearheaded by Oregon State Parks 
When and How:
  • Although the trail is doable year-round, it's reputedly miserable during the rainy season (October-April). Most locals recommend doing it between Memorial Day and the end of September.
  • Southbound is the vastly superior choice. The coast is a very windy place in the summer, and the prevailing wind is northerly. The Coastal Sandblaster is much more tolerable when it's the back of your legs getting pounded, rather than your face. Plus the southern half is prettier and wilder, so things get better as you go. 
Purity: Almost nobody hikes every single step of the OCT, for the simple reason that it's sucky and dangerous sometimes. In particular, the tunnel near Haceta Head cannot be walked safely. Certain sections between Yachats and Florence should probably be hitched, as US 101 is full of blind curves and no shoulder. Same thing applies for a stretch between Humbug State Park and Sisters Rock. 

In addition to the safety concerns outlined above, most folks hitch some of the longer roadwalks - through Tillamook, Reedsport, and Coos Bay in particular. Boat ferry options are available for most of the major bays, but are often expensive for the solo hiker. I did all those long roadwalks because, I dunno, that's what I do. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that others follow in my footsteps unless it helps you sleep better at night.

Resupply: Don't worry about it. If you aren't picky, you can resupply in every single town. If you are picky, you may want to plan for the fact that Depoe Bay and Pacific City only have basic convenience stores. I never carried more than a day and a half of food. Do not plan your resupplies. Do not stress. When you're in town, just look up how far it is to the next town and double-check to make sure there's a grocery. Easy as that. There's a reason that nobody has published a resupply guide for the OCT.

Transportation: Transportation on the OCT is incredibly convenient, even if you're taking a flight/trail/Greyhound from out-of-state:
  • Northern terminus is near Warrenton, which is accessible via POINT bus. The POINT will drop you off at the Fred Meyer grocery store, from whence you will want to board the Sunset Empire Transportation District #15 bus and ride it to the KOA. From KOA, walk (or hitch) about 4 miles to the South Jetty of the Columbia in Ft Stevens State Park. 
  • Southern terminus is near Brookings, which is also accessible via POINT. The bus stop is about a 5 mile walk/hitch down from the trail's endpoint on the beach.
  • In addition, nearly every town along the OCT has at least sporadic bus service to surrounding communities. Useful if you need to get to a store/outfitter, or if you want to skip some of the longer roadwalks around the bays. There are multiple agencies and websites, depending on where you are, so just google it. One site I found particularly helpful is the NWConnector site, which provides unified resources for about the northern half of the trail. 
Navigation: There's really not "one map to rule them all" on this trail. You'll end up using a combination of the Oregon State Parks overview series, a random GPS track you found online, and probably Google Maps or similar. Certain segments of the trail are still being constructed, and sometimes you'll be pleasantly surprised with trail tread when you expected to have to walk a road or bushwhack. Generally, you are best off following the signs, when the signs conflict with your maps. I ended up at an airstrip way inland once when I trusted my maps rather than the signs on the ground. Follow the signs.
  • Oregon State Parks overview maps: insufficient for day-to-day navigation, but gives a good at-a-glance picture of when the trail is going to be like. Ten 11x17 printouts cover the entire trail and are available free on OSP's website.
  • I used a GPS track from DoingMiles. I loaded it onto my phone (Backcountry Navigator, though Gaia is similar). This GPS track is a decade old and is not perfect. But thanks to them for putting it together, as it's by far the best navigational resource out there. Check out their entire site; there's a lot of good information on there.
  • I repurposed James and Amy's GPS track onto a custom map overlay (topographical information + OpenStreetMap + trails track) and am pretty happy with the results - far better than USGS quads, which are horribly out-of-date, and just a street map, which doesn't have trails or topo information. Print to your heart's content! I downloaded them as PDFs and saved to my phone. They definitely saved my bacon a few times.
Camping: I never paid to camp, and never had a problem finding a place. A lot of people spend a lot of time worrying about the subject, as legal sites can be few and far between. Any state park campground will offer relatively cheap hiker/biker sites, with running water and showers and such if that's your thing. More up the long-distance hiker's alley, though, is dispersed camping. Dispersed camping is allowed on the beach and on federal (BLM/USFS) land unless specified. It is NOT permitted in state parks except in those designeted campgrounds. The beach is fair game except within city limits or state parks, but beware of tides and so-called "sneaker waves" - the near-shore equivalent of rogue waves. Your sleeping pad may float, but it's probably not designed for use as a life raft!

Most nights, I frankly didn't know whether my campsite was legal or not - who knows where the city limits are anyways? Most days I made camp as it was getting dark and got up at first light, and never had a problem. I'm frankly more concerned with being respectful of others, leaving no trace, and being a good ambassador of the trail community than I am with the strict legality of my campsite. I will offer no specific suggestions, other than to say - stay out of sight, go to bed late, get up early, and don't camp anywhere you wouldn't want other people to camp in your hometown.

Western Snowy Plover: A little white lively bird called the Western Snowy Plover nests on the dry sand March-September and is endangered. You are permitted to walk the wet sand through the closure areas, but you may not walk on the dry sand, camp, and or bring a dog. Respect these closures! And enjoy - they're fascinating little birds and fifty of them peck a tiny spot of beach is just so cool.

Gear: This summary is designed for experienced long-distance hikers who probably have a gear system they're happy with. Just a couple tips for the OCT specifically:
  • You can go incredibly light on the OCT. During the summer months, temps never get below 50, so your summer sleep system and layers should be sufficient. You'll never carry more than a couple days of food or liters of water.
  • Everything will get full of sand. Maybe replace your zippers beforehand as a bit of prophylaxis.
  • Do not skimp on the raingear or shelter. It's a wet environment, with frequent rain. Heavy dew is a near-daily occurence, especially when you're camped close to the water. I bought a semi-freestanding shelter to make camping on the beach a more attractive option. In the end, it was probably unnecessary since I only ended up sleeping on the beach 5ish times, but those times were remarkably beautiful.
Some favorites: I particularly enjoyed the Ecola State Park area (map 1). The Sam Boardman Scenic Corridor (map 10) is probably the most scenic single stretch of the OCT. If I were to hike just a portion of the OCT, I would spend most of my time in the southern stretch. It is more remote and scenic than the more populous areas to the north. Favorite towns included Manzanita (the general store's deli counter is quite yummy) and the historic downtown of Bandon. After you finish, there's a wonderful greasy spoon on the southern outskirts of Brookings called Fely's. The atmosphere is great and they don't skimp on the fries.

Some downers: The long stretch between Garibaldi and Lincoln City is mostly on roads and, aside from Cape Lookout, hardly worth doing in my opinion. While 90% of the beach makes for fast and easy walking, there are a couple stretches of soft, slow, frustrating sand on either side of Bandon. Just treat it as you would postholing (grit your teeth and bear it, don't worry about the pace you're keeping), and it'll be a lot easier, mentally. 


Monday, June 17, 2019

Long Walks On The Beach

Throughout my college years, I worked a summer job as a lifeguard on Lake Michigan's beautiful shores. I lived about 100 yards from the beach. While the campground was a wonderful place to live and work, sometimes I needed some quiet time away from friends and coworkers. I took to walking on the beach - sometimes north, sometimes south. These journeys gradually became longer - sometimes over fifteen miles walking the water's edge. On one occasion, I was forced off the beach onto a paved road because of a jetty protruding into the lake - and ended up burning the bottoms of my bare feet on the black asphalt. Ah, good times.

"Dating Service", via xkcd
Over the course of those summers, I grew more comfortable hiking longer distances. I dreamed of someday walking the entire shoreline of Lake Michigan - from the Straits of Mackinac all the way around. That hasn't happened (yet), but from the get-go, even before I hiked the Appalachian Trail or headed out to Utah, beachwalking was integral to my hiking DNA.

Wait, You're Doing WHAT? When last we spoke, I had reached Torrey, Utah on the RIB. Not only was the snow not melting - the result of an abnormally cool and wet spring - but more of it was on the way. In the month of May, many sites across Utah actually added to their snow depth totals. Clearly, I needed to take some time and let it melt out. But what to do in the meantime? This sabbatical is temporary, unlikely to be repeated, and therefore extremely precious. I need to use my time wisely. Three weeks of sitting on the couch is hardly a worthwhile endeavor.

But what to do? June is a tough month even in a normal snow year. The desert is too hot, the mountains are snowed in - where do I go? My answer was the coast - an ecosystem I had never really explored outside of my college beach forays. I settled on the 410-mile Oregon Coast Trail, running the length of the Pacific coastline through the state.

Thank You, Sixties Legislators: Unlike, Michigan, where the limits of public property are defined as the "ordinary high water mark" - e.g. your feet need to be on the wet sand (ish - lawyers can nuance as needed), Oregon in 1967 passed the "Beach Bill", which grants public access to the entirety of the beach up and down the Oregon coastline. Before roads were built paralleling the coast, the beach itself was often the easiest north-south travel route through the area. On my walk through Oregon, about 40% of my miles were on the beach - the same travel corridor that Lewis & Clark used on their 1803-1805 exploration and by the Indians for centuries before them. The beach is beautiful and generally makes for easy travel.

The Flip Side: When the Oregon Coast Trail isn't on the beach, it generally follows US 101. Everyone knows what Route 101 is - it's the worst road in the world. About 40% of the OCT is on pavement - mostly on 101 - and there's no way to whitewash this - it just plain stinks. Most of the time there's a decent shoulder to walk on, but not always, and when you throw blind curves into the mix, the result can be a bit terrifying. I bought a day-glow vest to make myself more visible to distracted drivers, and I did hitchhike a couple short sections (including through a tunnel) where I judged that walking the road was simply too dangerous.

Leftovers are the Best: If you're keeping track, we've accounted for 80% of the OCT miles. The other 20% were trail miles - honest-to-goodness trail miles. Most of those miles are found in the network of state parks that dot the Oregon coastline - and many are extraordinarily beautiful. In my mind, those miles made all the terrible miles on 101 worth it. The trail often climbs a beautiful trail from the beach, travel over a cape or rocky headland, and then return to the beach. These trails were the quintessence of "Pacific Northwest" - green, rocky, and cliffy.

On the OCT, the surface type (beach, road, or trail) determined almost everything. Roadwalk days were largely unpleasant, beach days were great, trail days were slow but exceedingly beautiful. Sometimes I hit soft sand, overgrown and terrible trail, or desolate and pretty road - but those were the exception rather than the rule.

How Thru-hikers Take Vacation: Sure the OCT was 400+ miles of walking. But it was also a vacation. You know there's something wrong with you when your "beach vacation" involves more walking that most people will total in a year. But a vacation it was, and as such, I had the opportunity to visit my uncle Paul & aunt Cathi. I had never been to Oregon before and it was a cool opportunity to see them and get a taste of their lives. I also saw my friends Corona and Debbie - fellow Utahns who recently moved to the Oregon coast. I now understand why.

In addition to social time, my vacation involved a lot of eating. I passed through at least one town every single day, and never carried more than a day and a half of food. I consumed at least one 55-gallon drum of diner coffee, along with deli chicken (which, pro-tip, packs out very nicely in a ziplock bag). While I wouldn't ordinarily trade in my wilderness for town convenience, it's certainly nice as a break from a demanding route like the RIB.

What's next: I'm itching to get back to the RIB - just as soon as I can figure out how to get a ride to Middle-Of-Nowhere, Utah I know that there will be snow left. Hopefully, it will be a little more manageable this time around. Stay tuned!