Work crew clears brush on new trail route at Ecola State Park

A state Department of Corrections crew works to clear brush along a new trail route at Ecola State Park, where a landslide cut off access. 

Work is underway on the North Coast to close two gaps on the Oregon Coast Trail.

The gaps — where a landslide at Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach cut a trail in half and a spot outside Oswald West State Park near Manzanita where hikers must walk the highway between segments — have taken years to address. They are two of the first significant breaks hikers coming from the north encounter on the nearly 400-mile trail.

State trail planners estimate over 20 gaps exist on the route, ranging from natural hazards like bay and river crossings to interruptions caused by private lands and public roads. Some are more recent developments, like the landslide at Ecola.

“The coast is a really dynamic environment and there’s always new gaps opening and closing,” said Robin Wilcox, senior park and trails planner for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

In 2017, state legislators directed the department to close previously identified gaps on the trail. Last year, Gov. Kate Brown prioritized the development of an action plan to address safety and connectivity issues and suggest fixes to the gaps.

Across the route, fixes are underway and trail maintenance will occur along certain sections this summer.

A big step

The work that will close a gap between the popular south Neahkahnie trailhead down to Manzanita and the next section of the Oregon Coast Trail is a big step for the local community. Hikers have had to bridge this break by walking U.S. Highway 101’s narrow and sometimes almost nonexistent shoulder.

Highway crossing for trail

Hikers starting at the north end of Neahkahnie must cross the highway to get to the trailhead. At the south trailhead, farther down, anyone hoping to continue on the Oregon Coast Trail must walk along the highway.

When Connie Soper, author of “Exploring the Oregon Coast Trail,” was hiking the route, she just skipped the portions that required her to walk the highways. But she owns a second home in Manzanita and continued to wonder why the particular gap next door had never been fixed. With the support of the city and other groups, she has spent the past five years working to address it.

Now members of the Northwest Youth Corps are beginning to cut out a trail from the south Neahkahnie trailhead to the city — work funded by a state recreation grant Soper wrote for the city.

“This is pretty small, about 2 miles,” Soper said. “Some of the other gaps are longer and more complicated.”

The project was still complex. It involved a maze of state agencies and other organizations, the support and sponsorship of the city, and a transfer in land ownership halfway through that delayed the project for nearly a year but also completely altered what was possible.

When the connector is completed, hikers will have access to a scenic route that begins on state park land, crosses into land held by the Lower Nehalem Community Trust and takes advantage of utility district and Oregon Department of Transportation easements and right of ways. Manzanita will have a trail to offer visitors and a new pathway to lead through-hikers into town.

“Projects like this take years and years to happen,” said Steve Kruger, executive director of Trailkeepers of Oregon, adding that the actual work of building the trail takes the least amount of time.

Trailkeepers of Oregon plans to organize community volunteer work parties on the trail this month and throughout the summer. The nonprofit agreed to take on long-term maintenance of the trail, a key agreement when it came to moving the project forward. With other Oregon Coast Trail gaps, the question of who is ultimately responsible for the new sections could complicate any solution.

Clear ownership makes the work at Ecola State Park, and the gap that developed there in 2016, a bit easier to solve.

Beyond “trail closed” signs at Indian Beach and straight up a hill covered in downed wood and tangled salal shrubs, a Department of Corrections work crew followed a bread crumb trail of orange flags. Using small saws and rakes, they “brushed” the path, preparing the route for the construction of a new trail segment.

In 2016, a large landslide swept a portion of the original Oregon Coast Trail — which ran from Ecola Point to Indian Beach — into the ocean. The new segment will be constructed up to solid ground and over the landslide. State parks hopes to reopen the entire section of trail this fall.

All of the work will take place on state land, using state resources and state funds — complicated, expensive, but a relatively easy fix when it comes to closing a gap.

‘Conservation values’

The Lower Nehalem Community Trust did not acquire the land outside Manzanita — 111 acres total — with the idea of building a new portion of the Oregon Coast Trail. The organization wanted the land for wildlife and water quality protection primarily, along with the unique opportunity to start to move above the estuary and preserve upland habitat.

The south Neahkahnie trailhead

A new trail in the works across private land will connect the south Neahkahnie Trailhead to Manzanita, closing a gap on the Oregon Coast Trail.

“We didn’t get it for a trail,” said Doug Firstbrook, a board member and one of the trust’s founders. “We really did get it for its conservation values. But people are part of the landscape, too, and we want people to realize we value them and their health and well-being and their opportunity to be out on the land.”

Some of the trust’s properties are too small or too fragile to allow outside visitors, so this property represented a chance to provide some public access.

Before the trust took over the property, Soper had been working with the Department of Transportation to locate the trail section in a state right of way, off the highway but more or less parallel to it, a decidedly noisier and less scenic option than what the group has available now.

“I hope it can be an example of, like, look, it’s possible to do this,” Soper said of the work at Manzanita. “Get the right people around the table and start the conversation. But every situation is going to be different.”

Katie Frankowicz is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact her at 971-704-1723 or kfrankowicz@dailyastorian.com.

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