Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Clatsop Loop

View of Tillamook Rock Light from the top of the trail
3 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, Ecola State Park entrance fee required ($5 as of 2017)

The short Clatsop Loop in Oregon's Ecola State Park, just outside Cannon Beach, delivers outstanding views of the Northwest coastline and travels through terrain once visited by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The best views of the hike come early in the loop, but the end of the hike also delivers a satisfying view of Tillamook Rock Light, a lonely and windswept lighthouse battered constantly by the Pacific.

I hiked this loop with my mother and sister during our trip to Oregon for the solar eclipse. The day after the eclipse, we drove out to the seashore, spending the morning at Cannon Beach before coming to Ecola State Park for the hike. To reach the trailhead from Portland, we took US 26 west from Beaverton through Tillamook State Forest and the Coast Range until reaching US 101; we then followed US 101 south for 4 miles to the turnoff for Cannon Beach, where we exited the highway. Shortly after coming off the highway, we made a right turn onto 5th St, following signs for Ecola State Park; we then followed 5th St as it narrowed, winding through the forest until it reached the Ecola State Park entrance. We made a brief stop at the Ecola State Park day use area with its iconic view of the Cannon Beach coast before driving to the end of the road at Indian Beach.

Cannon Beach viewed from Ecola State Park
The trail started at the beautiful, sandy Indian Beach, a popular waterfront access point near the wild seastacks of Ecola Point and Tillamook Head. The trailhead was at the north end of the parking lot; a sign at the trailhead detailed the loop and recommended hiking the trail counterclockwise, but we chose to tackle the loop clockwise to enjoy the views of the ocean first.

Indian Beach
The wide gravel trail headed north from the trailhead, quickly coming to a split between the Lighthouse Trail and the wider gravel road; we took the right fork for the coastal trail, which crossed a bridge over a creek and then immediately narrowed and began climbing. The trail quickly came to a series of viewpoints above Indian Beach, allowing us to look down the coast to the seastacks around Ecola Point and giving us an overhead view of the surf as it came onto Indian Beach. We also caught a closer look of columnar basalt cliffs and seastacks: even amateur geologists can easily recognize these as the result of volcanic activity. What is fascinating, though, is that there are no nearby volcanoes: these flood basalts actually flowed to Tillamook Head all the way from Eastern Washington, forming along with the Columbia Plateau flood basalts in massive eruptions over 10 million years ago.

Columnar basalt at Indian Beach
As a number of interpretive plaques on the trail point out, the Lewis and Clark expedition came to Tillamook Head and the area around Ecola State Park during their stay at Fort Clatsop, just to the north. They found the rotting corpse of a whale not too far from the current trail.

View of Indian Beach along the Lighthouse Trail
Indian Beach
This leg of the Clatsop Loop is also part of the Oregon Coast Trail, a 425-mile long distance trail covering the length of the Oregon Coast.

Past the initial viewpoints of Indian Beach, the trail continued ascending through the forest with fewer viewpoints. One of the intermediate overlooks delivered a stunning view over the ocean from a precarious, cliff-top perch. After this viewpoint, the trail delved deeper into the woods, climbing via switchbacks up the slopes of Tillamook Head.

Pacific Ocean
After the ascent topped out, the trail circled around the east side of the high point of Tillamook Head. The return leg of the Clatsop Loop- the fire road- was visible below as the trail began a gradual descent to the junction with that return trail. At the junction, I took the left fork and followed the trail a few steps further to Hikers Camp, the site of a number of small wooden structures in the forest that serves as an overnight shelter for hikers on the Oregon Coast Trail. Rather than head back from here, we chose to continue to the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse Viewpoint. This trail descended slightly through the forest until reaching a small, fenced overlook with a view out to the ocean.

The view at the end of the trail was not very wide, as trees blocked the views along the coast to either side. However, looking out, we could see the lone silhouette of Tillamook Rock Lighthouse against the fog on the sea. The setting of the lighthouse was beyond desolate. The structure- nicknamed Terrible Tilly for the punishing weather conditions it endured- stood atop a large barren rock. A staircase cut into the rock led down to the base of the island, where hundreds of sea lions were beached. At the time of its construction, the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse was the most expensive lighthouse built on the West Coast. Constant battering from the elements led to frequent damage; although the lighthouse helped many ships naviagate down the treacherous Oregon Coast, it was retired in 1957 due in part to high operational costs.

Terrible Tilly
Returning to Hikers Camp, we followed the gravel road back to the trailhead. The descent was steady as it dropped about 800 feet in slightly over a mile through the forest; we soon found ourselves back at the Indian Beach trailhead. We ended our day by driving down to Tillamook for cheese-tasting.

This hike is an easy way to see a spectacular stretch of more wild coast. It's got something for most people- history, gorgeous views, a beach. I've done scant hiking on the Oregon Coast outside of this loop so it's difficult to make comparisons, but it's difficult for me to imagine this hike being anything outside of one of the better short hikes along the coast.

No comments:

Post a Comment