Go beach-to-bridge along this stretch of Oregon Coast Trail
It looked like the world’s largest rock plopped above the timberline. Up close, its lower slopes held endless playgrounds of climbs and descents amid pines, firs, aspens and mountain streams.
At the edges were vast downward views. Barren flatlands to the north, south and especially east. Rival peaks in the distant west. But we were transplanted West Coasters, and every time we gazed out at a landlocked panorama, we imagined water.
Moving to Del Norte was like coming home — with a twist. Not only did we replace the thin air and alpine aridness with marine breezes and lush forests, but we landed in the midst of old-growth redwoods. Hiking in solitude beneath the tallest trees in the world is an unparalleled experience. Even the critters maintain a reverent silence.
Then there are the coastal trails of Del Norte, southern Curry and northern Humboldt counties. We’ve been knocking them off section by section and each has its charm, some veering inland and others hugging ocean bluffs. Most recent was a 5.6-mile round-tripper north of Brookings from Whaleshead Beach to the Thomas Creek Bridge that did a bit of each.
We’d been to Whaleshead before, but never the easy way. From the south, there are a couple of tightly wound, death-defying descents to the beach. One can be accessed from the Whaleshead viewpoint turnoff on U.S. Highway 101. But drive a few hundred feet farther north and take the Whaleshead picnic area turnoff, and you’ll be on easy street. The road ends at a parking lot and picnic table only a gentle slope away from the sand.
Check it out — the big stone does resemble the front end of a giant marine mammal. Then double-back to another parking area closer to the highway. The Coast Trail, as they call it in Oregon, picks up here.
We headed north and quickly got into some cardiovascular climbing. We meandered past branchy Sitka spruces and came upon a quaint bench somehow secured into an embankment a few feet above the trail. It promised a significant vantage point, but when I climbed into the seat the view was mostly obscured by young trees that must have post-dated the bench.
About a mile and a half in, a babbling brook accompanied the path briefly. Then the trail softened as we skirted the edge of Indian Sands — a collection of high-altitude dunes and precipices that is simply one of the coolest places on Earth. A left turn would have taken us there, but it was already late afternoon and we had an appointment with the bridge. Another junction offered two paths in the same direction — we chose the left because it offered a more gradual ascent. Shortly after the paths reunited, we crossed the
Indian Sands parking area and plunged back into the woods.
Within 10 minutes, we’d reached our turnaround point at the southern edge of Thomas Creek Bridge, Oregon’s highest at 345 feet. Another stretch of the Coast Trail began on the other side of the gorge, promising a walk along China Beach and views of Natural Bridges and Arch Rock, but that’ll wait for a future expedition.
The low sun cast a golden hue on the return trip. The second half of an out-and-back always provides completely different views from the same trail. Even with the afternoon ebbing into evening, we tarried a bit each time the trail opened out to another of the crescents that line the region’s coast.
These days, the plains of Colorado make for distant memories.
THE HIKE: A 5.6-mile round-trip along Oregon’s Coast Trail from Whaleshead Beach to the Thomas Creek Bridge.
HIGHLIGHTS: The path toggles back and forth between lush inland woods and ocean-view bluffs, and the journey is bookended by landmarks: Whaleshead Beach to the south, Thomas Creek Bridge to the north. Halfway to the bridge, the path skirts the eastern edge of Indian Sands — if you have the time, the high-altitude dunes are definitely worth a side trip.
SWEAT LEVEL: Like most stretches of coastal trail, this one has its ups and downs. The ascents are not prolonged, so you can control your heart rate by how fast you climb them.
GETTING THERE: From Brookings, drive north past the first few Boardman State Park turnoffs, watching for the Whaleshead Beach picnic area sign (not the Whaleshead Beach viewpoint, but the next turnoff after that). Find the trailhead next to a parking area on your right — before you get to the beach parking area.