Few pathways conjure up more conflicting emotions than the Oregon Coast Trail.
One moment you’re hiking to the top of a rocky headland and looking upon a vast sweep of ocean. The next you’re risking life and limb on the shoulder of Highway 101 as cars and trucks scream past a few feet away.
The 367-mile trail, which stretches from the California state line to Astoria, brings hikers to Oregon’s most beautiful coastal viewpoints and cliff-walled beaches. But it also forces them onto one of the state’s busiest highways, sometimes for miles at a time.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful trail – the only one of its kind in the nation,” said Connie Soper, an author and expert on hiking the Oregon Coast Trail. “Unfortunately, it’s unfinished. Having to walk on the highway is dangerous, unpleasant for hikers and drivers, and really stops the trail from reaching its potential.”
Now a collection of hikers and lawmakers is hoping to change that. Legislation intended to help complete the pathway will have its first hearing Tuesday morning at the Capitol.
An advocacy group, Friends of the Oregon Coast Trail, has been formed by Soper and Salem resident Dan Hilburn to spearhead the project.
They say making it possible to hike the OCT end-to-end – without long stretches on the highway – could make the trail a world-famous destination, providing a “village-to-village” experience unmatched in the United States.
“It has the potential to allow people to hike the entire length of the coast without carrying a tent or stove,” Hilburn said. “It’s set up to let people hike from town-to-town, staying at hotels and eating at restaurants. That’s very popular in Europe, and it could be huge for Oregon’s coastal economy.”
The first step has already been taken. A 2011 report by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department identifies 33 “critical gaps” in the trail totaling around 50 miles. The report even sets a date – 2021 – as a goal for connecting the entire route.
House Bill 3149 is an attempt to keep OPRD focused on that goal. The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Brock Smith (R-Port Orford) and with 10 sponsors, requires OPRD to create a development plan that would get the project as close to shovel-ready as possible.
OPRD officials said they’ve made some progress on closing the gaps. But finishing the trail by 2021 – given complexities with private land, river crossings and other issues – will be a tall order. It would also require shifting resources away from other projects, such as repairing state park facilities.
“With or without legislation, it’s an ambitious goal,” said David Stipe, OPRD planning and design manager. “That said, I love a challenge. If our state legislature and the governor say this needs to be a priority, we’ll get to work.”
Two moments in Oregon’s history made the Oregon Coast Trail possible.
The first is well known. In 1913, Gov. Oswald West designated the ocean shoreline for the public. That concept was upheld and expanded with the 1967 Beach Bill that ensured every Oregonian would have access to the state’s sandy shores.
The idea for a trail stretching from the Columbia River to the California border came from Dr. Samuel N. Dicken, who hiked the coast and wrote about it in his book “Old Oregon,” published in 1959.
“A traveler along Highway 101 has many opportunities to see spectacular scenery in turnouts and from the highway,” he wrote. “But in many sections … the best scenery is lost to a person who stays on the road. A trail will be necessary.”
Dicken’s idea took root and in 1971 construction began. By 1988, the trail was deemed “hikeable.”
Yet the trail never quite became a household name in Oregon. The trail is unsigned and confusing in many places, and the inherent danger of hiking along Highway 101 turns many people off, Soper said. In one particularly scary area, between Heceta Head and Baker Beach, hikers must travel through a highway tunnel with no sidewalk or guardrail.
“I refused to do it,” said Soper, who hiked the entire OCT for her book “Exploring the Oregon Coast Trail.” “But someone in my party tried it with us following him slowly in a car with our lights flashing so he wouldn’t get killed.”
While the OCT has remained mired in obscurity, the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs in one unbroken line through Oregon’s mountains, has ascended to superstar status. It was recently featured in the movie “Wild” and hosts armies of hikers every year.
The OCT, meanwhile, isn’t even well known in its own state.
“I’ve lived in Oregon for 25 years and consider myself an avid hiker,” Hilburn said. “But until last spring, I hadn’t even heard of the Oregon Coast Trail. The reason many people haven’t heard about it is that it was never finished.”
For an example of what’s possible on the Oregon Coast, Hilburn pointed to the Camino de Santiago Trail in Spain.
The 495-mile trail follows a historical pilgrimage route through countless small villages. It’s hiked by upward of 278,000 people each year, most of whom stay in hotels and hostels and eat at restaurants along the way.
“It was such a fun experience,” said Hilburn, who hiked the Camino in fall of 2016. “It’s full of people from around the world, happy to shell out money for a mattress and roof every night.”
Other village-to-village routes include the Queen Charlotte Track in New Zealand, Coast to Coast Path in England, and 88 Temples Trail in Japan.
Done right, supporters think the OCT, which cuts through numerous small towns on the coast, could become the United States’ first village-to-village trek.
“There are the beaches, capes and forest that are all wonderful,” Soper said.”But one of the highlights is that the trail passes through small towns. People get the chance to visit these coastal communities on foot and really get to know them. A connected trail would really give them the chance to shine.”
Two good examples, Soper said, include Depoe Bay and Yachats.
“I particularly love coming into Yachats from the beach, up the historic 804 Trail alongside a dramatic bluff and through town,” she said.
The idea of long-distance hikers arriving on the Oregon Coast and spending money appeals to Oregon’s lawmakers.
Smith, the bill’s chief sponsor, said as a former restaurant owner in Port Orford, he saw a major benefit from bicyclists who rode the length of Highway 101 and stopped to eat along the way. There would be even more customers for local businesses with a completed OCT.
“Anytime we can drive eco-tourism to rural Oregon, let’s do it,” Smith said. “There’s no downside to this for the coast and its communities.”
Soper and Hilburn aren’t asking for 50 miles of entirely new trail.
There are places where the OCT could connect to trails on federal lands, at Cape Perpetua, for example. And they’d be fine with trails built alongside Highway 101.
They just want some movement, which is why the legislation simply asks for a study and action plan.
Parks officials are open to the idea. Director Lisa Sumption even called it a priority.
But the big problem – what kept OPRD from completing the trail in the first place – is that the Oregon Coast is filled with private land and development. In addition, there are wide river crossings, multiple land management agencies and little extra money available, officials said.
“Simply put, the easy work has been completed, and we’ll continue working on it,” OPRD spokesman Chris Havel said. “But we have to think about what we’re willing to sacrifice to get something like this done. As uncomfortable as it can be, our highest priority is taking care of existing park property.”
Soper and Hilburn think the time has come to complete the dream of a fully connected Oregon Coast Trail.
“It would be a win for everybody in the state,” he said. “It’s time for them to get this done.”
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