What: thru-hike of the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) and on to Arcata via the California Coastal Trail (CCT).
Where: Oregon and California coast, from the Columbia River to Arcata.
When: July 13 – August 4, 2008 (23 days).
Distance: about 542 miles (415 in OR, 127 in CA).
Highlights: nice coastal walking, many miles of beaches, great weather, redwood forests, seabirds.
The Oregon & Northern California Coast Road & Recreation Map is an excellent overview map covering our entire route.
Each trail has a dedicated website with maps and additional information: OCT website; CCT website. We were more aggressive at trying to stay on the beach than the mapsets at these sites sometimes show.
Carrying a tide chart is useful. We use the iPhone app Shralp Tide 2, which is not dependent on having a network connection.
We have published detailed spreadsheets, with directions and mileages including alternate routes around water obstacles: Oregon and California. Please note that these document the route we used. You may find other sources that in some places offer different options.
Why we went
We had really enjoyed coastal walking in France, England, and Wales, and decided to explore coastal hiking closer to home. The Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) and the northernmost section of the California Coastal Trail (CCT) were the most attractive option for a long coast walk in the U.S. Logistics for us were easy: a flight to Portland; a ride with a friend to the trailhead on the Columbia River; and a bus back home from Arcata. We had free time during the best OCT season, so we decided to go.
This was an easy, straight-forward hike close to home, in a part of the world I had never visited. Parts of it were very scenic, and I continue to love the biological diversity and scenic beauty of walking long stretches of coast. However, the OCT is not optimal: real estate developers have run amok; there are numerous clear-cuts right down to the beach; there are quite a few sections of coast dominated by off-road-vehicles; and there are 75-100 miles of walking on busy highway 101.
For all these reasons, although I enjoyed being out there, I don’t think the OCT is nearly as nice as any of the coastal hiking we’ve done in France, England, Wales, Scotland, Turkey, Japan, or Australia. I would not recommend traveling from afar to hike the OCT. On the other hand, I think it is a terrific path for people like us who live nearby and want to immerse themselves in the local coastal scenery.
The nicest stretch of the OCT is the 48 miles between Gold Beach and the California border; the nicest stretch of the entire trip was south of the Oregon border. I highly recommend hiking the 175 mile stretch from Gold Beach to Arcata; that would be a five-star coastal walk, with none of the disadvantages mentioned above.
I really liked this hike except for some of the road walking. It was a really low stress trip. The beaches are quite attractive and in long stretches essentially deserted. The little towns were interesting to walk through. Because there were some inland sections, there was more diversity than I expected. Parts of the coast are very dramatic with inspiring scenery. I enjoyed the section in California as much as anything on this trip. If you want to do a long coastal walk in the US, there is not a better place to do it.
All of that said, there is a lot of time spent on the pavement; too much time to make this an outstanding walk. I did not mind the road walking in and around the towns as the local scene was often interesting. What I did not enjoy were the stretches along the undeveloped coast. In some places, due to impassible heads and beaches with waves crashing up to the base of bluffs, there will never be any option other than to take the road. In other areas, it might be possible to build trail that gets you off of the pavement. I believe that the use use of pack-rafts could significantly improve this walk. They add weight, but eliminating 80 to 90 miles of pavement walking makes it probably worth carrying them.
Notes for Potential Hikers
Prior to this trip all of our long-distance coastal hikes had been in foreign countries because there are surprisingly few extended coastal hiking routes in the US. In our home state of California, there has been a multi-decade effort to develop the CCT, a border-to-border coastal trail, but it still has gaps and too much of it is still routed along paved roads. There are a few coast path segments in Washington, but no formal group developing a complete trail. There are no functional long distance paths on the US Atlantic or Gulf coasts. Oregon is unique in having a formal border-to-border coast trail that is funded and supported by the state.
The northern terminus of the OCT is at the Columbia River on the Washington border. The southern terminus is just past the Winchuck river at the California border; this is where the CCT starts. The northernmost 127 miles of the California Coastal Trail is complete, and forms an excellent extension of the OCT.
Public use of all beaches is protected by Oregon law. The OCT is a sanctioned, documented, and mapped trail which combines stretches of walking on the beach with trail segments through many different coastal parks. There are, however, still many segments that follow roads. The OCT is a work in progress, with improvements being made slowly over time. Portions of the route are still on pavement and may remain so indefinitely. If ferries are not used to cross the numerous river mouths and estuaries, about 39% of the OCT is on the beach, 41% is on paved road, and 20% is on trail and dirt roads. The use of ferries eliminates portions of walking the paved roads.
In 2008, when we decided to do the walk, we could find surprisingly little information for planning purposes. That has changed, and with Henderson’s book, organizing an OCT thru-hike is easy. Compared to many of the long distance trails in the US, few people have thru-hiked this trail. It is not a wilderness hike, but the scenery is mostly excellent, logistics are not complicated, the weather can be benign, and the walking is not difficult.
The Caltopo map with our gpx track has a few limitations. It assumes that the routes on beaches will not be submerged by tides. There are a few places where we could find no accurate trail route data to incorporate into the map, so the tracks may be off here or there. Walking routes through many towns are arbitrary. The proposed packraft water crossings have not been tested and the chosen water entry and exit points may not be ideal.
Resupply is not a challenge. The coast is dotted with small and medium sized towns all with grocery stores and cafes. The longest stretch between towns is a bit less than 30 miles. Finding water is not a problem.
You are not supposed to camp on the beach within town limits. There are exclusion zones in the dunes where the endangered Snowy Plovers nest. Camping regulations on beaches outside the plover exclusion zones were sometimes ambiguous, so we occasionally followed our standard stealth camping practices. We camped most nights on this trip and never had much trouble finding a decent place to set up our tent well above the high tide line. We camped well inland from the beach on a couple of occasions when the route took us that way. We spent one night off route near Gold Beach with friends; a night in a motel in Charleston; and one night is a friendly local teacher’s back yard, where we thoroughly enjoyed her outdoor bathtub, complete with hot water.
There are a number of public and private campgrounds en route, and some of the State Park campgrounds have non-motorized areas for use by hikers and cyclists. There are many commercial lodging options in towns.
A lot of the walk is on the beach. In general, we found most of the beaches to be reasonably hard packed sand, which made walking easy, but conditions certainly vary with the time of year and the particular storm history of each beach. We always tried to find the easiest sand to walk on, moving close to the wave line and then back toward the dunes as conditions changed. Stretches of sandy beach are sometimes broken by rocky headlands. Some of these can be walked around at lower tides or when the ocean is calm and some require a bit of scrambling to get over. Others are impassible at all times.
Off-beach trails were mostly of good quality. However, at Cascade Head a long piece of trail was buried under a huge number of blown down trees; many of which were too large to climb over. The trail was very difficult to follow and very slow going when we were there; we have no knowledge of the current trail conditions there.
Between Pistol River and Brookings is Samuel P. Boardman State Park. This a very fine stretch of coastal walking with many attractive coves and pocket beaches. There are numerous official trails and many use paths between the ocean and highway 101, but we have never found a good map detailing all of these. In places along here, please note that our Caltopo mapped route is only approximate. We were able to walk most of this park off of the highway.
Disclaimer: Do not rely on our exact tracks for your route; use skill and common sense. Use the stated distances as guidance; various sources of trail distances rarely agree.
Oregon has a reputation for being rainy, however about half of the annual rainfall occurs during November through February. June through September are the driest months. Coastal temperatures are generally mild. On our trip we had no rain and mostly sunny weather, with some fog. It was consistently windy, often very windy, usually from the north or northwest, so walking southbound puts the blowing sand at your back. WeatherSpark has an excellent presentation of historical weather: Astoria OR, Brookings OR, Arcata, CA.
There are places along the coast that become impassible at higher tides, including some headlands and some tidal ponds. Carrying a current tide table, such as the iPhone app Shralp Tide 2, can help with daily planning. There are also small inlets and stream mouths on the route that can be easily waded.
When we reached southern terminus of the OCT at the Oregon/California border, we continued walking south via the CCT. We finished our walk at the town of Arcata where we caught a Greyhound bus back to the Bay Area. Along the CCT, we had very fine coastal walking, a chance to explore Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks, and Redwoods National Park. At the Salmon Harbor RV Resort we hired a boat to take us across the Smith River, enabling a beach walk south to Crescent City. The walk from the Oregon border to Arcata was the high point of our trip.
We have never used a packraft, but think carrying one on the OCT could be an interesting way to do this walk. There are many river mouths to cross; in most cases, this requires walking inland to cross on the nearest bridge and then walking back to the beach. Because of private property inland from the beach, it is not always possible to minimize this type of detour and it adds to the amount of road walking. Sometimes it is possible to find a boater willing to carry you across these water obstacles, but that either requires luck or reserving rides ahead of time.
Assuming weather and tide conditions allow it and by using a packraft at all crossings that cannot be waded, about half of the OCT road walking can be eliminated. In some places, crossing an inlet by raft means that you miss most or all of a town, possibly complicating resupply, but that is a solvable problem. On the OCT, crossing the Coquille River to Bandon is the last place a raft would be useful, so it could be shipped home from there, meaning you would not have to carry the raft for the last 90 miles or so. Hopefully someone will try this and publish a report on their experiences.