At the end of June, a woman picked up three young backpackers walking along the highway near Gearhart.
They had been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail — a 2,650-mile-long path that twists up the West Coast from the Mexico border to Canada — but heavy snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range stopped them 700 miles in.
Rather than stop hiking, they decided to hop over to the lesser-known Oregon Coast Trail. And they aren’t alone.
“Everyone is coming here,” they told their driver.
This spring, dozens of hikers snowed out of California’s mountains or, as the snow melts, faced with dangerous river crossings, have abandoned the Pacific Crest Trail and jumped over to the Oregon Coast Trail.
But the trail isn’t ready for them.
As he stretches next to a sign pointing back toward Arch Cape, Ryley Delgado has just been voted his group’s sweatiest hiker. Again. He shrugs. The hikers gather at the edge of a road off U.S. Highway 101 to eat a late breakfast in the shade before continuing on to Falcon Cove in Oswald West State Park. Bri Hochadel sits cross-legged and looks around at the forest on either side of the road. Peter Carpenter ventures a couple of steps down the trail and then unfolds his sleeping pad to make a more comfortable seat on the ground next to Hochadel. Tanner Annichiarico, the only Oregonian in the group, remains standing, loosening his heavy pack and stretching his arms.
The four hikers started on the Pacific Crest Trail this spring. They hiked more than 500 miles before they hit snow. They heard it was even worse farther ahead. They didn’t want to split up, but they weren’t sure they wanted to push through the mountains. Should they just wait for the snow to melt?
They hadn’t expected to finish the PCT anyway. At the leisurely rate they were going, hikers who started two weeks after them had already caught up and passed them by. They were the only hikers they encountered who had packed games: Yahtzee and Frisbees. They were put off by PCT hikers obsessed with mileage, whose first question was, “How many miles did you make today?”
Then Annichiarico and Carpenter stumbled on the Oregon Coast Trail while researching alternative routes online. The group canceled a grocery run and started figuring out how to get to Astoria. They began their hike at South Jetty in Fort Stevens State Park and plan to walk the approximately 400-mile-long trail all the way to where it ends near Brookings at the California border.
The trail has been heaven after weeks of California’s deserts, they say. It hugs the Oregon Coast and there are long stretches of flat beach, cliff sides thick with trees, green woods dense with mosses and ferns. But there are also challenges.
The Oregon Coast Trail was officially declared “hikeable” in 1988, a legacy of the state’s landmark 1967 Beach Bill that granted public access to all of Oregon’s beaches, writes Eugene author Bonnie Henderson in her guidebook to the trail. The trail is a work in progress.
Unlike the world-famous PCT, which winds through remote backcountry, the Oregon Coast Trail is what hikers call a “civilized” trail. In Clatsop County, sections of the trail are popular as day hikes at Fort Stevens, Ecola and Oswald West state parks. In a single day’s trek, a hiker might start on the beach, cross a highway, dive deep into quiet woods, climb in and out of ravines and end up in a town packed with tourists trying to escape the heat in Portland.
The trail is not set up for backpackers, or thru-hikers. Legal campsites are few and far between. Different sections of the trail are maintained at different levels. Gaps exist where hikers must trek along highways or down neighborhood roads, or hitch rides with friendly boaters to get across waterways.
There are really only two authoritative books on the trail, one by Henderson and another by Portland resident Connie Soper. Both focus on day hikes, but also offer tips and information specifically for thru-hikers. Soper has advocated for the trail to be finished, the gaps closed.
A bill approved by the state Legislature, House Bill 3149, would do just that. It would require the state’s Parks and Recreation Department to work with other state agencies, local governments and organizations and stakeholders to develop an action plan for the Oregon Coast Trail. The plan would detail what is needed to fill gaps in the trail system, and take into account “the concerns of the public and other interested parties.”
Meanwhile, a number of people in coastal communities are addressing one piece on their own.
Jeanne Henderson has never seen anything like the numbers of hikers passing by her house now.
Henderson, who is Bonnie Henderson’s sister-in-law, lives in Surf Pines between Warrenton and Gearhart. On this stretch of the Oregon Coast Trail, hikers are either on the roads or walking the beach. They are hard to miss. When Henderson sees them on the road, she pulls over and offers them a ride to Seaside. They always get in her car, and they all have her sister-in-law’s book.
They tell her the same story: They started on the PCT, hit snow, reconsidered their options, heard about the Oregon Coast Trail, decided to try it. Many of them plan to go back to the PCT when they’re done in Oregon.
Henderson’s friend Pat Wollner has often hosted cyclists passing through the area. During the summer, her house is full most weekends. Henderson didn’t quite understood the appeal before. Now, having met so many thru-hikers, Henderson said, “It’s killing me not to pick them all up.”
She worries about a young Norwegian woman hiking alone — “I’ll be fine,” the woman assured her. She exchanges texts with Annichiarico, Carpenter, Delgado and Hochadel. They tell her they’ve reached Newport.
In recent weeks, she has enlisted friends up and down the coast, urging them to let hikers she meets camp in their backyards. One friend was wary at first, but quickly fell in the love with the group Henderson sent her way. When they left, she told Henderson, “I miss my backyard buddies. Send me some more.”
Signs and beer
Nicole Hampsten, a teacher from California and an experienced backpacker, didn’t start on the Pacific Crest Trail this spring, but is considering jumping on it once she finishes the Oregon Coast Trail. She said the OCT is very different from other long-distance hikes and not linear. While planning how far she’ll try to hike each day, Hampsten longs for maps with mileage marked on them — something most available maps lack — and clear signage.
Hiker Andy Gosiak said signage was spotty the entire trail.
“There were about five signs the whole trail,” Gosiak joked.
“There were probably 10,” one of his hiking companions Andreas Hoepfler countered. Catching the smile still on Gosiak’s face, he added, “No. I’m serious right now.”
Still, there are perks.
“We’ve got beer!” said Hochadel, swinging her pack to show where the beers were tucked into its side pockets as the group hiked out of Arch Cape.
“In glass bottles!” Carpenter added.
On the Oregon trail, thru-hikers don’t need to carry much food or water. They can easily resupply at one of the nearby towns. They can indulge themselves, packing things they normally wouldn’t carry on a longer slog like the Pacific Crest Trail.
“You get spoiled,” said Hoepfler, who came from Austria to hike the PCT and ended up on the OCT.
But Hampsten is beginning to think the Pacific Crest Trail hikers are the ones who are spoiled. There are so many resources built around that trail: books, online forums, data, websites, communities. When hikers walk into a town trailing clouds of dust, clothes crisp with a week’s worth of sweat, they are a familiar, even expected, sight.
By comparison, the Oregon Coast Trail, for all its proximity to civilization, is almost uncharted territory. People stopped Hochadel on Sunset Beach, curious, asking, “What are you doing? Why are you carrying that pack?”
‘No solid answers’
This spring, several thru-hikers contacted the Parks and Recreation Department for guidance. Nehalem Bay State Park Manager Ben Cox and his staff could only tell them: Be aware of the tides, here are the campgrounds available, check in with state parks along the way for information.
Before the Parks Department and individual parks can begin to accommodate thru-hikers, they must first address issues on the trail system itself. There are reroutes planned for some sections. There are infrastructure needs. This year, Cox applied for a Recreational Trail Program grant to work on the Oswald West section of the Oregon Coast Trail.
Though some thru-hikers might be camping on park land illegally, they are not the people that worry Cox or his rangers. The average family picnicking at Indian Beach leaves far more litter.
The hikers also know what they’re doing, Cox said. They know how to pitch and break camp and navigate a trail. They are respectful. The problem is that many of these hikers are encountering the Oregon Coast Trail for the first time.
“There are people who are journeying forth for the first time and just assuming something will be there,” he said, “ … and something isn’t there.”
As the Parks Department looks at thru-hikers’ needs, it has to tread carefully. The answer is not as simple as requiring a permit, as the PCT does, or creating hiker campsites.
Oswald West State Park, for example, is made up of numerous parcels of land. Some parcels come with deed restrictions attached that allow or forbid certain activities and limit the department’s options.
The dilemma of where they are going to sleep each night weighs on Annichiarico and the others.
“The worst thing we could do is give rangers a reason to kick everyone out,” he said.
They talk with locals when they enter a town to get an idea of what’s allowed in that area. They’ve been offered backyards, and even beds. But sometimes, they’ve had to take their chances and sleep near the trail in areas where it is probably illegal.
“We’re looking at this,” Cox said. “We really are. We’re looking at things. We have no solid answers.”