Friday, February 8, 2019

Mystery in the Sand: Big Stump Beach

Governor Patterson State Park
On Highway 101 just south of Waldport, Governor Patterson State Park is a great beachside stop any time of the year. Even the parking lot has a great view of the ocean, and a wheelchair-accessible platform offers a bluffside overlook. There are picnic tables, restrooms, and easy access to miles of flat, sandy beach. Small, rolling foredunes provide some sheltered spots when the wind whips up. Walk north to find the mouth of the Alsea River, or wander the tideline in search of shells. We have stopped here over the years to collect driftwood, which is often abundant as you walk south. But one popular feature of this wayside is not driftwood: this is the northern access to Big Stump Beach. Walk out onto the beach and look toward Cape Perpetua. Unless the fog has rolled in you will be able to see it, a mile south: a really big, upright stump. A redwood stump, to be exact, when redwoods are known to be confined to the area south of Brookings. A redwood which, it appears, grew here. People have been visiting it since long before the white settlers arrived; in fact, the local Native Americans honored it with an offering of white stones or shells as they passed by. These days, it has its own website, and a quick Google search of "Big Stump Beach" will yield a list of lodgings near this landmark. Everyone, it seems, loves a mystery.
Stump faintly visible in the distance towards the left
At first it's not quite clear. It is, after all, a mile away. Perhaps it's two tall people standing next to each other. No matter; this is a lovely beach to walk along, flat and smooth. Hopefully you will not arrive at high tide, when the stump might be awash in breakers. Watch the sand as you go and you may find an agate or a sand dollar. Keep walking, past driftwood, over small creeks. It's getting closer, and yes, it is a big stump. Just how big becomes apparent as other curiosity-seekers approach it and give a sense of scale. And at last, there it is, weathered and hollow, its secrets hidden. It tilts a bit, as trees will do at the windy Oregon coast. Why is it here, so far north? Did it actually grow here? Testing has revealed that the tree has been through several earthquakes and tsunamis, and we know that the Oregon coastline has seen many changes over the centuries. We learn from the stump's website that beneath the coastal sand lies a "thick, black muck" which is perhaps the remnant of an ancient forest floor. In any case, it has been here for a long, long time, its visible height varying depending on the current depth of the sand; it may be seven feet high on the day of your visit, or it may be twice that. Climb inside for a stump's-eye view of the coastline.

Seeing one really big stump made me start to examine other stumps along Big Stump Beach. It is well known that the remains of hundreds of ancient trees lie in the sands of Oregon's beaches, some appearing only when the sand is washed out by strong wave activity. A smaller stump nearby appears less weathered, and another one further north seems to be a less-durable species, perhaps Douglas fir. Did these trees grow here and perish when the ground dropped during a massive earthquake? Did they wash in with the tide and then get partially buried in the sand? Perhaps we will never know.
Governor Patterson is not the only access to Big Stump Beach; pullouts beside 101 offer "goat trails" for the nimble of foot. A bit further down the highway, Beachside State Park has a day-use area, camping, and even yurts for rent about a mile south of the stump; unfortunately, this excellent park is only open from March 15 through November 1. For year-round camping two miles south of the stump, try Tillicum Beach Campground; if possible, reserve ahead to ensure that you have an ocean-view site. While these campgrounds are both near the highway, they are also right on the beach and offer excellent access to beachcombing, hiking, and exploration. Sites are highly sought after during the peak summer season, so consider another time of year for your visit if you want to camp (we love the off-season at the coast; click here for some of our winter favorites).

However you access it, Big Stump is well worth a stop along the way. We may not bring an offering as in days of old, but we can climb inside and ponder the mystery of this tree that has watched centuries pass, standing alone on the beach, leaning away from the blustery coastal wind.

Governor Patterson State Park and the view from the wheelchair-accessible platform

Big Stump from the Beachside State Park side

Close-ups of the stump. Note the bug burrows and burn marks.

The author enjoys the view from inside the stump

Mrs. Copeland gives scale to the stump in this ~1920 photograph.
Used by permission from the Waldport Heritage Museum

Small stump in foreground, weathered softwood stump beyond. Big Stump visible in the background.
Softwood stump
Beachside State Park

Tillicum Beach State Park

Enjoy the mystery!