William L Sullivan
Where can you hike in August when all else fails? You still want stunning scenery and solitude, but what if parts of Oregon are on fire, it’s 100 degrees in the Willamette Valley, and you don’t have the permits you would need for one of your favorite spots in the Cascades?
The answer is to hike a section of the Oregon Coast Trail. This 362-mile route isn’t quite complete yet, so about 40 miles still follow the shoulder of US Highway 101. Still, you can hike 60 miles from the Columbia River to Tillamook, eat at chowder restaurants, and stay in Airbnbs. Or you can backpack 40 miles through the Oregon Dunes from Florence to Coos Bay and camp in the sand every night. At least 200 miles of the track is on sand. Camping on the beach is legal outside of city limits and state parks.
Perhaps the prettiest part of the Oregon Coast Trail heads south through the 14-mile Boardman State Scenic Corridor near Brookings. Long-distance hikers have a problem here. This is in fact state park land where camping outside of official campgrounds is not permitted. But there are no official campsites. What should backpackers do?
The correct answer is that you should commute 20 miles to the Harris Beach hiker/biker campgrounds every night. But that answer doesn’t make much sense if you’re backpacking the Oregon Coast Trail. Backpackers don’t usually have shuttle cars. They just wander through.
This dilemma has already been solved elsewhere on the Oregon Coast Trail. For example, tented accommodation has been provided for backpackers at Ecola State Park between Seaside and Cannon Beach. Overnight parking is not permitted on nearby trails, so the only people using these shelters are long-range backpackers. Why can’t similar backpacker camps be set up in the Boardman Corridor?
To research this idea, Janell and I did the unthinkable: we broke state park rules and looked for suitable beachside campgrounds. I have to say you shouldn’t do that. And yet something needs to be done to accommodate backpackers using the trail.
As Janell and I backpacked through the Boardman Corridor, the people we met were mostly tourists taking photos of craggy bays and domed islands within a few hundred yards of their parked cars. For lunch we spread out in the middle of the trail for an hour, beside a babbling brook in a forest overlooking the sea, and no one passed. We camped our first night at China Beach, which seemed a good candidate for a campground on the Oregon Coast Trail since it’s only accessible by a hiking trail.
Ironically, the only crowded spot we found was Secret Beach. Our route passed a dozen similar bays, but this one has gained internet notoriety. Dozens of people with dogs and children passed us on this suddenly dusty, suddenly 6 foot wide section of trail. An elderly Japanese couple stopped us in the forest and insistently asked, “Where is Secret Beach?”
We hiked on to the next cove, 2 miles south, where our only footprints were.
About Beach Camping in Oregon: Only backpackers on the Oregon Coast Trail seem to do it. Why?
Firstly, the beach can be very windy in the afternoon until sunset. Plan to pitch your tent on the leeward side of a rock or headland—usually the south side. Use rocks or logs to anchor tent poles in the sand.
Second, sand is rock hard. It’s easy to level a campground, but sand isn’t as soft as it looks. Bring a good air mattress or pad.
Third, will you drown in the night? It’s easy to forget that the ocean can be up to eight feet high in the dark. Even if you camp above the high tide line, a tsunami would be a problem.
At China Beach, I cleared a safe-looking campsite behind a windbreak rock. This mainly involved removing the blackened rocks and buried charcoal from previous picnic fires. Beach fires in driftwood piles or against logs are not permitted in Oregon. Backpackers generally rely on gentle stoves without even making a fire. Honestly, that’s best.
I pumped water from a creek and boiled it on the stove to make our dinner. Then it was time for the sunset show.
On the Oregon coast, the sun sometimes sets in a fog bank rather than the ocean proper. But in the evening the fog often clears, like here at China Beach. So l ignited the clouds with streaks of golden fire, peeking between the layers and then glowing the horizon for a full hour.
As we strolled across the dawning beach, a parade of sea stacks, needles, and islands rose in silhouette against the orange sky. I pointed out a top that looked like Queen Victoria complete with crown and swirls. Janell identified the lumpy rock next to it as a hunchbacked Winston Churchill—though she had to admit as she walked that he was gradually turning into a baboon.
It seems silly going to sleep at 9pm, but we’re tired enough when we’re backpacking that Janell and I agree that we’ll “read in bed” for a while. It’s an excuse to start with 11 hours of rest.
When we are backpacking in the mountains, it is usually so cold that we carry our clothes to bed. On the coast, the temperature ranges from the 50s to the 70s. We slept with our sleeping bags open.
In the middle of the night I looked outside and saw the Milky Way rising out of the dark Pacific like the ocean was boiling. Stellar vapor belched from the spout of the teapot-shaped Sagittarius and swept across the W of Cassiopeia.
The sound of the ocean was a constant rush of white noise. Sometimes I imagined the sound included voices or motors, even though I knew we were miles apart from other people. When I told Janell that morning, she said, “I imagined I heard a radio.”
“What kind of radio?”
“A camping radio. You know, static western music.”
The hardest part of beach camping is keeping sand off your food, tent, and everything else. Washing doesn’t help. Anything wet collects even more sand.
I was glad we didn’t have to hang our food out overnight. Bears don’t go to the beach. There are no mosquitoes either. Lots of seagulls. Black cormorants race past islands. Ravens circle over cliffs. None of these animals are camp robbers.
And yet, when Janell checked our lunch bag, the almonds were missing. Something had eaten a small round hole in the plastic bag. Who knew beach mice?
Treasures of the South Coast
Our second day of hiking took us to Highway 101 at the Thomas Creek Bridge. This is the only place where our trail section followed the highway to cross the tallest bridge in Oregon. Peering 345 feet straight down, we clung to the guardrail, especially as RVs swept by.
Next we crossed Indian Sands, a stretch of dunes that drop off cliffs into the sea. Then the trail led to a picnic spot at Whaleshead Beach. It’s named after a whale-shaped island that actually gushes out of its head at low tide.
Our plan was to outrun the picnickers by walking 1.3 miles to the far end of the beach. Boy did that work! The only people down there were two dog walkers from Brookings who said they let their golden retrievers romp around there every day. All summer, the only other backpackers they saw were a couple from Hawaii who were trekking across Oregon to enjoy deserted beaches. Apparently there aren’t any in Hawaii.
That evening, as Janell and I sat outside our tent on the empty beach, the sun plunged straight into the sea, turning jagged and wobbly before disappearing.
The last day of every backpacking trip is bittersweet. As we wandered through the meadows of Cape Ferrelo to our waiting car, we were already thinking of the reward we deserved – ordering fish and chips from the little chip shop at Port Orford Harbor. But we also wondered if we’d ever be able to backpack this beautiful section of the Oregon Coast Trail again. With no official beach campsites, the 12-mile Boardman Corridor isn’t very backpacker-friendly.
The Oregon Coast Trail is still incomplete. It has the potential to be an even bigger attraction than the Pacific Crest Trail, but do we have the will to complete it? Building the path is not enough. We also need to provide backpackers with overnight accommodations along the way.
William Sullivan is the author of 22 books, including The Ship in the Woods and the updated Oregon 100 Hikes series. Learn more at oregonhiking.com.