Monday, June 11, 2012

In Search of Lewis and Clark

It all started with this article in May's issue of Backpacker magazine.  The Oregon Coast Trail, from Ecola State Park to Arch Cape, was featured in the "destinations" section.  The trail description and beautiful magazine photo got me thinking "why don't I ever hike at the coast?"

Size matters!  Click on any photo to enjoy a larger version.

The first explorers

Growing up in South Dakota, I never had access to an ocean.  When I moved to Oregon, 24 years ago, I gravitated to familiar surroundings - rivers and mountains.  Having never lived near the sea, I didn't know what I was missing.  My home is an hour's drive from the coast, but I hardly ever visit.

Ocean view from Ecola Point

So I decided, if there's a local trail good enough to be featured in a national magazine, I'd better go hike it.  The original plan was to visit Ecola State Park on my Friday off.  But the weather for the coast that day didn't look promising (lots of rain) so instead I went to Three Corner Rock (see previous post).  Sunday's weather, although not sunny, was at least predicted to be dry.  It was as good as it gets for a trip to the beach.

White foamy waves

A big fan of William L. Sullivan's hiking books, I also own his "100 Hikes on the Oregon Coast."  This particular edition details a section of the Oregon Coast Trail, from Seaside to Ecola State Park.  Not only does Sullivan give a dead-on accurate description of this trail, he also includes some historical tidbits.  I learned this portion of the Oregon Coast trail was first traversed by explorers Lewis and Clark during the winter of 1806.

Ancient coastal forest

Wintered at Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark heard from the local Indians of a huge whale that had washed up on a beach south of their encampment.  The party set off in search of the "monstrous fish," hoping to acquire some of the blubber for food.  Led by a native guide, the explorers scaled a large headland now known as Tillamook Head.  Clark described this headland as "the steepest worst and highest mountain I ever ascended." 

A Lewis & Clark viewpoint?

But once on top, the men marveled at the amazing ocean views.  Clark liked one viewpoint in particular, where he exclaimed "I behold the grandest and most pleasing prospect which my eyes ever surveyed."


Frilly petals

Their party found the whale after descending to a "beautiful sand shore" and crossing a stream, which Clark later named Ecola Creek, from the Chinook Indian word for whale ("ekoli").

Wood steps through a muddy area

It was exciting to learn this hike would follow in the footsteps of these great explorers.  My plan was to park at the southern parking area at Ecola State Park.  From this lot, I'd hike 1.5 miles north along the bluffs of Ecola Point until winding down to Indian Beach.  From Indian Beach I'd climb north, hugging the high cliffs for another 1.8 miles, to reach the rocky promontory of Tillamook Head.  From this viewpoint, the trail continues further north 4.3 miles to the town of Seaside. 

A steep, windy trail leads to Indian beach

Sullivan's book promised some excellent ocean views on this final stretch of the trail, including the one that Clark liked. Since I had to hike back the way I came, it was too far to go all the way to Seaside. But I really wanted to find Clark's favorite viewpoint. From the sketch in Sullivan's book, it appeared it was about a mile or so north of the Tillamook Head viewpoint. That seemed doable.  I decided Clark's viewpoint would be my goal.

Bear checking out Indian beach

Bear and I set out under cloudy skies and mild temperatures.  The first leg of our hike, across Ecola Point, wound through a mossy forest of gigantic trees.  Large ferns grew everywhere, and the forest floor was a lush carpet of greenery. 

The tide comin' in

The trail was very muddy in places.  A wooden boardwalk was placed across a few extremely swampy portions, but there were also plenty of boggy areas where Bear and I had no choice but to slide and squish through.

Waves splashing on the rocks

The first section of the trail, from Ecola parking area to Indian Beach, offered two very nice viewpoints, one at Ecola Point.  This headland jutted out into the sea, offering vistas all around.  From the promontory, one could see a trail of sea stacks stretching out into the ocean.  One was in the shape of a small arch - super cool!  Watching white foamy waves crash onto these rocks was mesmerizing.  I sat and enjoyed the show for several minutes before moving on.


As I approached Indian Beach, I saw a trail descending through the forest underbrush.  Thinking this was the way to the beach, I started down.  Not only was this trail extremely steep, it was also super muddy. I gingerly crept downhill, hanging onto trees and vegetation to arrest my slides.  Luckily, I managed to stay upright the entire trip down, but it was pretty nip and tuck. 

Nice place for a picnic

But at the bottom of the path was my reward.  Indian Beach spread out before me.  I walked through a band of perfectly round rocks until I hit the sandy shoreline.  The southern end of the beach was wilder, hemmed in by Ecola Point and the rows of sea stacks.  The northern end was more developed, a parking lot close by.  There were quite a few people on this portion of the beach, sitting in the sand or walking around.  There was also a small band of surfers in wetsuits tackling the waves.

Lovely wild irises

Bear enjoyed running around the beach, but didn't like the waves coming at him.  I, however, had fun talking photos of the crashing waves, and liked the challenge of trying to click a shot before my feet got wet.  In the sand, there were many interesting things to photograph - rocks, seaweed, and one little sand dollar (which you saw in an earlier post).

Hangin' off the cliff edge

I could've stayed at Indian Beach the rest of the day, enjoying the magnificent sights.  But remembering my goal - Clark's viewpoint - I knew I had to get moving.  So Bear and I walked through the surfers and beach goers, past the crowded parking lot, to the trail's continuation on the south side of Tillamook Head.

Windswept tree

The path climbed steeply from the parking lot.  But not very far up the trail, I was stopped by the most gorgeous viewpoint.  The forest opening offered a wide-angle panorama, looking back over the entire stretch of Indian Beach.  And there in the foreground was a patch of lovely purple wild irises.  The scene was absolutely jaw-dropping!  Certainly one of the highlights for the day. 

One last gorgeous bloom

After memorializing this fantastic place with dozens of photos, Bear and I continued on.  The trail climbed and climbed and climbed some more.  It was steep, muddy, and slippery.  After the wonderful viewpoint, and one other clearing close by, our path turned into the forest and there were no more ocean views.  This middle portion of the hike seemed to take forever, even though it was only a mere 1.8 miles.

Hiker's camp near Tillamook Head

I finally emerged from the forest, coming upon the spur trail leading to Tillamook Head viewpoint.  There at that junction, I was surprised to see three wooden bunkhouses and a covered picnic area.  I'd stumbled upon the hiker's camp.  My guidebook alluded to a hiker's camp in this area, but I wasn't expecting anything quite as established as this!  (The camp even had its own pit toilet.)  I chatted with a young couple who were packing up from a night's stay and they told me it was free to stay here, first come, first served.  The State park hosts even provided firewood.

Tillamook Head's amazing view

After checking out the hiker's camp, I followed the short spur trail to the end of Tillamook Head's rocky point.  And my timing couldn't have been better.  As I approached the clearing, the clouds that I thought would be hanging around the entire day, magically parted to reveal a sunny, blue sky.

Seafoam leads to the lighthouse

And, oh were the views glorious!  They were even better than the Indian Beach panorama, I'd seen previously.  Perched on the side of a steep cliff, I could see for miles in all directions.  The Pacific Ocean stretched before me to the horizon.  Sunshine made the sea sparkle in a lovely shade of blue-green.  Waves churned against the rocks below, foaming white.  Dark green forests framed the rocky cliffs.  Blue skies complimented everything.

Tillamook Rock Lighthouse

Far out in the distance, perched on a rocky island, I had a great view of the old Tillamook Head Lighthouse.  This lighthouse operated from 1881 to 1957.  It's nickname, "Terrible Tilly," was due to its perilous location.  Sitting a mile out to sea, this island was repeatedly battered by winter storms.  Waves brought water, rocks, and fish crashing into the building, at levels as high as the lantern room, which was located 150 feet above normal sea level.  Abandoned since 1957, today the structure stands empty.

Vibrant blue-green sea

A young couple I met on the trail told me they'd seen a bald eagle nest in the forest below Tillamook Head.  But they mentioned in order to see the nest, you had to climb over the protective fencing across the top of the bluff.  As I now scanned the cliffs below, trying to locate the nest, I briefly considered ducking over the fence to get a better look.  But not wanting to be on the evening news, common sense prevailed, and I stayed put on my side of the fence.  Not worth risking my life over, the eagles would have to wait for another day.

Boardwalk through the boggy trail

After taking a long lunch break and soaking in the incredible views at Tillamook Head, I again reminded myself there was one more goal for the day.  I still wanted to reach Clark's viewpoint.  Time to pack up and hit the trail for leg three of my journey!

Late afternoon light on Indian Beach

So off Bear and I went, climbing through more dense forest.  The trail became incredibly muddy, much worse than anything I'd encountered thus far.  A couple of stretches had wooden planks placed over the soupy muck, but for the most part, we were on our own.  Bear's white legs and underbelly turned black with mud and my boots became caked with the sticky stuff.  Climbing up the steep trail, I often held onto adjacent trees to stop myself from sliding.  Progress was glacially slow.

Nice evening for a beach walk

I kept scanning the trees ahead, trying to locate Clark's viewpoint.  Small openings between the trees provided occasional glimpses of the ocean, but nothing seemed to open up to a broad panorama.  These little peep shows were such a tease, I began to get annoyed.  The climbing continued, the mud wasn't letting up, and I was surrounded by dense forest, with nary a viewpoint in sight. 

My gps battery died, so I'm not really sure how far I traveled.  But I'd chosen 3:00 as my turn-around time (promising Roger I'd be home at six for dinner).  The appointed hour arrived, and I still was no closer to the final goal.  I conceded defeat, turned around and slid back down that muddy trail, returning to my car.

Beautiful rugged Oregon coast

As I retraced my steps back to the parking area, I thought about Lewis and Clark and their team of men, who made their way through these very woods over two centuries ago.  There wasn't a nicely-graded, cleared trail back then.  Certainly nothing as established as the trail I hiked today (mud and all).  The men didn't have Vibram hiking boots or technical clothing.  They didn't have a gps, ergonomically designed backpacks, or fancy Camelback hydration bladders.  The explorers didn't have Cliff bars, trail mix, or peanut butter.  All they had was their buckskin clothing, and dried elk to eat.  And yet Lewis and Clark's party successfully traveled through these rugged, muddy woods, discovering amazing viewpoints in their quest to obtain food.

Even though I didn't reach my final goal, this was hands-down the most incredible hike I've completed so far this year.  I've forgotten what a beautiful place the Oregon Coast really is.  I totally understand now why Backpacker magazine included this hike in one of their current issues.  No, this won't be my only trip to the coast.  Next time, I plan to finish the rest of the hike described in Backpacker, starting at Ecola State Park and heading south. 

And of course, I'll also come back another day and find Clark's elusive viewpoint.


  1. That looks like a great place to visit

  2. That is so rugged and unspoiled. We like to choose a new hike whenever we go camping. Our central coast here is rocky and rugged too but drier. We don't get near the rain you do. It sure makes for some lush scenery up there.

  3. We have visited the Oregon coast on 2 occasions (we live in NC) and your pictures look like many of ours. I don't think I would ever tire of visiting the Oregon coast. I have pictures of me standing in some of those ferns you mentioned, and they dwarf me. All the pictures we took are simply spectacular due to the scenery not skill or our camera. I envy you living only an hour away from such a gorgeous part of our country.

  4.!! Interesting post, GORGEOUS photos! You really captured the scenic beauty. I've not been to Oregon, yet. We also love to hike and explore and hope to visit relatives in Grants Pass. If we do, you can bet we will take a few hikes ourselves. Thanks for sharing these stunning spots :)

  5. What a beautiful place! !!!! I would love to visit the northern west coast someday!

  6. My Google Reader hasn't been updating so I missed this post. OMG! This is my FAVORITE post of yours ever!! I know you like to ski, but keep hiking. My interest in Lewis and Clark makes this post extremely special. The hike looked awesome and the views were to die for. Yours pictures are beautiful. Ok, I am SO coming out there one day and you and I are going to do this hike and we ARE going to find that elusive view. Thanks for your best post yet!!!!!

  7. Great site, and gorgeous photos! I'll be visiting often!


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