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!

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