Monday, October 17, 2016

Climbing Cascade Head

Just north of Lincoln City's sandy beaches, Cascade Head rises high above the ocean. This mostly-forested promontory holds a 270-acre preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. Part of the Cascade Head Experimental Forest, this preserve is home to a variety of creatures, including the rare Oregon silverspot butterfly.

One of our favorites, the 2.5-mile Lower Trail is the only year-round route into the preserve. To protect habitat, the trail is closed to bicycles and dogs. It begins beside the Salmon River and leads through dense woodland to two high, panoramic viewpoints. To find the trailhead, drive north from Lincoln City, or take Highway 18 to the coast and turn north on Highway 101. Soon you will cross the Salmon River. You will know if the fish are running; the area around the bridge will be crammed with parked vehicles. Drive along a level, marshy lowland and turn left onto Three Rocks Road. This road is winding but well-paved all the way to Knight Park, where there is free parking for passenger vehicles as well as boat trailers. This small park on the riverbank offers restrooms and the opportunity for a riverside picnic with views across the estuary. There is a good boat ramp and a wooden dock. Powerboaters should be aware that the water is shallow in many areas. This is a great area for paddlers, as well, with access to the wetlands and excellent birdwatching. Note that flows can be high following heavy rains, however, and the whole lower river is very tide-affected. Know your skill level, assess what the water is doing, and stay safe.

The trail begins at the northeast corner of the parking lot. Look for a dirt track alongside the road, then cross Three Rocks Road and follow the trail as it parallels Savage Road. In just under half a mile you will find yourself at the old trailhead, tucked into deep woods at a bend in the paved road. The trail immediately begins to ascend Cascade Head. Often muddy, the path here climbs a series of steps and rooty snarls. This is classic Oregon Coast forest, sheltered by Sitka spruce and Western hemlock with an understory of vine maple. Continue climbing, then eventually emerge into a south-facing meadow high above the Pacific. You may not see a silverspot butterfly, but you are likely to find a variety of songbirds, and deer make an occasional appearance. The river snakes along far below. On a clear day, the views only get better as you follow the path through the meadow to the first viewpoint, looking south along the coastline. The second, higher viewpoint is about half a mile further.

When the sun is shining, this hike's wide-open scenery is breathtaking. This is autumn on the Oregon coast, though. If clouds and fog roll in, the hike can turn moody and grey in a moment, with the hillside seemingly dropping away into nothingness. Seagulls appear suddenly in the mist, and the rumble of the ocean is muffled by clouds below. Standing on the upper viewpoint, it is easy to imagine that you are the only person on Earth. A very wet, cold person. In any case, return the way you came. If necessary, coffee and hot soup are available in nearby Lincoln City.

Don't give in to the temptation to continue along Three Rocks Road. It narrows, turns to gravel, and ends in someone's yard; there is no beach access here. To find the beach, combine this trip with a stop in Lincoln City, or head over to Devil's Lake to take a boat out or try for a few fish. Whether you end up paddling on calm waters or storm watching from the window of a cozy cafe, autumn is a great time to visit the Oregon coast.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Case Favorite: The Siltcoos River

This is one of the places we almost hate to share; it feels like it belongs to us, especially as autumn creeps in and leaves drift onto the still river. Often dismissed as the haunt of ATVs, this area has many quiet places far from the roar of engines and the smell of exhaust.

Just south of Florence, the Siltcoos River wanders for three peaceful miles on its way from 3,000-acre Siltcoos Lake to the Pacific Ocean. Before it enters a wide salt marsh, it passes between two campgrounds: Waxmyrtle on the south bank, and Lagoon on the north. The former only opens for the summer season, but the latter is open year-round. These are Forest Service campgrounds and facilities are simple, but there are many sites roomy enough for an RV, and there are even toilets that flush. Lagoon is especially peaceful, with private campsites tucked into trees and bushes. ATV enthusiasts are welcome here, but they may not ride their vehicles in the campground. Nearby Driftwood II Campground welcomes ATVs, or try sand camping with your quad. Click here for an informative website for ATV enthusiasts.

To find the Siltcoos River Recreation Area, drive south of Florence about seven miles. Highway 101 crosses the Siltcoos River well before the turnoff for the area, so don't worry that you've passed your destination. Turn right at the sign onto a paved road that passes the campgrounds, follows alongside the beach foredune, and ends at a parking area tucked among the dunes.

But back to Lagoon: as you drive the campground loop, you will notice that many of the outer sites have a trail running behind them. This is the Lagoon Trail. This campground is encircled by an oxbow of the Siltcoos River, known rather confusingly as "the lagoon." If you aren't able to score a trailside site, or if you're only there for the day, access is also available from a small parking pullout (be aware that this whole area requires non-campers to pay a day-use fee or display a Northwest Forest Pass). The trail runs for about a mile alongside the oxbow, which changes from a marshy meadow at one end to a small, narrow lake at the other. This is a perfect kids' hike, level and smooth. A variety of wildlife can be found here; over the years we have seen baby muskrats, herons, bitterns, eagles, ospreys, deer, a mink, and a bear. Whatever the conditions, you will definitely see nutrias. These non-native rodents are somewhat smaller than beavers, with a distinctive, blocky head and a humped back. You are most likely to find them shuffling through the marshy spots and swimming in the shallows. The water is home to numerous rough-skinned newts, as well as stocked rainbow trout. To fish from the roadside platform, park in the day-use spot at Waxmyrtle Campground just across the bridge or at Stagecoach Trailhead nearby.

Waxmyrtle is a larger, somewhat more developed campground with only a few spots near the river. One attraction here is the Waxmyrtle Trail, which winds through the trees for almost a mile and a half before reaching a long, wide, sandy beach. Beginning in the campground, the path skirts the edge of a small bluff overlooking the salt marsh, then drops into dark forest. The trail grows increasingly sandy as the trees thin into a wide, marshy area behind the foredune. There is excellent bird watching here, so birders should bring binoculars. Once at the beach, be aware that part of the sand is closed for the snowy plovers March 15-September 15th; during that time, obey posted signs. In autumn, though, the whole beach is open to hikers, and the limited access makes this an excellent place to look for shells. To visit the beach without the hike, follow the access road past the campgrounds to where it travels between a wide expanse of wetlands and the foredune. Park in the parking lot and climb over the dune and you're on the beach, but be aware that this area is also open to motorized vehicles.

While the beach is not wheelchair-accessible here, there are many places to observe wildlife from a chair or parked car. It's also fun to drive out the South Jetty road and watch fishing boats enter the river. For barrier-free hiking, check out the nearby Oregon Dunes Overlook Trail. Much of the Lagoon trail is accessible, as well, and well worth exploring.

The entire Siltcoos River is a designated canoe trail. It is possible to access the water from Waxmyrtle Campground, hand launching from the muddy bank. There is also access at Lodgepole Day Use Area, from a rather steep bank. Easier access can be found at Tyee Campground (day use only for most of the year, despite what the USFS website might say), or at a public boat ramp on the western shore of Siltcoos Lake; these are both found by turning left on Pacific Avenue five miles south of Florence. To find the river from Siltcoos Lake, paddle right from the boat ramp and look between the cluster of houseboats for a narrow channel leading into the forest.

The upper river is narrow and deep, winding under overhanging trees and alongside scattered houses. Pass Tyee campground and go under the Highway 101 bridge. Now the river gradually broadens and the banks grow more sandy. You will likely hear kingfishers at some point, as well as the far-off grumble of ATVs. About halfway to the sea you will be confronted with a dam; look for a concrete apron on river right and portage carefully. The lower section of river is generously scattered with snags and downed trees. These are usually just a mild annoyance, but if rains have been heavy and flows are high the trees become serious hazards to boaters, so paddle wisely. Passing under the Waxmyrtle Campground bridge, the river enters the salt marsh, then winds across the beach. Be prepared for wind and tide as you look for wildlife in this ruggedly beautiful section.

Bass fishing in the Siltcoos is reputedly good, but I have sacrificed many lovely lures without success. Wide and windy Siltcoos Lake is known as a good producer of panfish, and if all else fails there are always the planted rainbows in the "lagoon."

Though only three miles long, this unassuming coastal river truly offers something for everyone. The usual coastal conditions prevail here, so come prepared for sun, wind, rain, fog, sand, and cool temperatures, but come prepared to relax and have fun.

Awhile ago, during low tides, it was possible to find the wreckage of an old, abandoned cart by the side of the Siltcoos. If memory serves correctly, it was on river right just downstream from Waxmyrtle campground. Look for it among the beach grass. Happy hunting!