When I came to the State of Jefferson a few months ago, I expected a change of pace from the smothering heat of Austin, Texas, which I’d endured some four or five summers. I pictured hiking through deep, cool forests, leaping off waterfalls into icy pools, and wading waist-deep through dripping ferns.
Such was not the case. My pocket of paradise is hot, dry and plagued by forest fires that fill the air with gray-white smoke, terrorize wildlife, and make breathing painful. Our local wildfire, the Natchez, was nothing compared to the Carr fire near Redding, the horrors of which we watched on TV, uncomprehending.
Because burnt marshmallow smells and oxygen deprivation are de rigueur for summer in these parts, it isn’t uncommon to hear the cry at the start of the weekend: “I’m heading to the coast!”
I took a cue from the locals and followed suit. The last weekend in July, I met my friend Nick in Portland, where we were joined by some friends from Denver. On a clear, sunny Saturday we loaded up our packs for an overnight and headed out, following Highway 26 northwest out of the city.
The town of Seaside was small and unglamorous, though some of the houses had a wood-shingled charm that made me nostalgic for New England. We rolled through the quiet streets and found an unmarked parking lot across from a waterfront condo complex called Whaler’s Point. Though signs expressly forbade overnight parking, Nick had called ahead and learned that by giving his license plate numbers to the proper authorities, we were in the clear to park there while backpacking.
We tightened our boots and threw on long sleeves, because the air was cool. Then we passed under a ranch-style overhead sign reading “Tillamook Head,” and started down the trail.
We were immediately swaddled by cool green splendor. This was the lush, wet, fern-riddled forest I’d been dreaming of. The trail ziggled gently uphill in a muddy climb through mixed conifers and the occasional behemoth Sitka spruce. As we neared the bluffs of Tillamook Head, we heard the surf pounding the cliffs below; now and then we’d catch sight of the Pacific, shrouded in its scarf of insoluble mist. The sun rarely pierced the fog, which clung to our damp skin. It felt glorious.
At some point, the trail passed from land of unknown provenance into the Elmer Feldenheimer State Natural Area and then into Ecola State Park. Considering the heavy usage in this area, the trail is generally well-maintained and easy to follow.
After reaching an apex on a bluff some 1,000 feet above the trailhead, we descended 200 or so feet to the campground, catching sight of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, known locally as “Terrible Tilly,” in the distance.
Because the North Tillamook Head Trail is a segment of the Oregon Coast Trail, we’d be staying in a primitive hikers’ camp for OCT thru-hikers — yet (lucky us) it was accessible by an easy 4-mile walk from Seaside.
The hikers’ camp featured several log cabin-style shelters with rough-hewn bunks, a covered picnic table, a vault toilet, and some interpretive signs illuminating Lewis and Clark’s passage through the area in January 1806. We dropped camp in a flat clearing not far from the shelters, and I don’t know if it was the foggy half-light, the damp air, or a long week for us all, but we lay down to “rest” and fell into deep, dreamless, two-hour naps.
Thus refreshed, we got up to do some exploring sans packs. We walked out to a viewpoint overlooking the lighthouse; near there we found and wondered at some abandoned concrete structures sunk into the hillside.
Later research revealed it was a military bunker, part of a radar station used by the military during WWII. According to one source, there was a full camp on Tillamook Head in the early 1940s, and as many as 50 to 100 men lived there in temporary barracks.
Hiking farther, we traipsed downhill, following part of the Clatsop Loop Trail, where Captain William Clark and a small exploration party once walked in a search for a rumored beached whale. The Clatsop and Tillamook tribes created these trails, which originally linked tribal villages along the coast. Walking in their footsteps, I thought of the violence and disease that transformed this place from a system of native villages to a backpacker’s pleasure cruise. The history of most parks in the West is in part the story of white atrocity, and as hikers we shouldn’t forget it.
Reaching Indian Beach, we each cracked open a cold beverage and dunked our toes in the frigid water. We sat watching the fog and the birds until nearly sunset, when we hiked back to make dinner. Overnight, condensation dripped from the trees, falling on our tents with a soft patter.
The next day, we hiked out the way we had come. No one had towed the car, and still-cold seltzer waters awaited us in the cooler. As soon as we drove out of Seaside, the air cleared and the sun emerged.
We drove to Astoria, where we had beers and fish and chips in a brewery overlooking the water. We strolled a boardwalk along the harbor, eating saltwater taffy from a cellophane bag. Then we hit the road home.
Our tents, packs and clothes were damp with mist, but nobody minded. This was just the antidote to the heat we’d needed. We’d live to face down the remaining weeks of summer, carrying with us memories of ferns, fog, and our feet in the ocean.
Kelly Ramsey lives this summer in Happy Camp, California. She writes an adventure blog at www.kellylynnramsey.com/.
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