“Beach vacation” doesn’t always mean sunshine and margaritas. Exhibit A: the Oregon Coast Trail, which winds through smooth sandy shore, seaside cliffs, and Sitka spruce forests for almost 400 miles. From the mouth of the Columbia River to the California state line, this work in progress samples state parks, national forests, public beaches, and small coastal towns. Half the time there’s no trail at all, as the route traverses open sand shoreline. Get to know the lay of the land and the ways of the locals on this unconventional Oregon trek. Here, our experts answer some of the most essential questions for would-be Oregon Coast Trail thru-hikers and section-hikers, like:
What should I pack for the Oregon Coast Trail?
Where are the trailheads?
What’s the best season to hike the Oregon Coast Trail?
How can I stay safe on the beach while hiking?
Where can I camp on the Oregon Coast Trail?
Where are the best places to resupply on my thru-hike?
How long is the Oregon Coast Trail?
Officially, the Oregon Coast Trail is 382 miles long, but the actual distance varies depending on how you choose to hike it. If you ferry across major bays and rivers, you can shave off about 50 miles, mostly along road shoulders.
Where are the trailheads?
The Oregon Coast Trail starts at the northernmost tip of Oregon, the Columbia River south jetty in Fort Stevens State Park. The journey ends at the California border in Crissey Field State Recreation Site.
What to Expect on the Oregon Coast Trail
Don’t expect a solitary wilderness experience: The Oregon Coast Trail passes through public beaches, small towns, and popular state parks. But that’s part of the appeal. Along with hours-long stretches of remote beach, hikers get to explore small coastal towns in hour-long spurts. Thru-hikers often rave about the people they meet along the way, from fellow hikers to bikers, shopkeepers, and hitchhike-providers.
Some segments of the trail follow road shoulders. Many of these paved segments are quiet, low-traffic, and trail-like, but about half of them are along the shoulder of US 101. If highway-walking doesn’t sound worth it, you can always hitch a ride, though it might not be as easy as it is near more well-known trails like the PCT.
The south coast is a little wilder, with towns further spaced apart. This section will require more planning than the northern half, where regular state parks and towns offer bathrooms, water spouts, and grocery stops.
How long does it take to thru-hike the Oregon Coast Trail?
Most uninterrupted thru-hikes take about a month.
When should I hike the Oregon Coast Trail?
June through September is when the infamous rain of the Pacific Northwest lets up, with only 10 percent of annual precipitation falling during the summer. This means that river and creek levels are also low, which makes for safer and easier crossings. Most people start north and hike south to keep the summer winds at their backs. That said, if you’re careful and not averse to getting a little wet, the trail is hikeable year-round.
How to Prepare for Thru-Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail
Don’t underestimate the ocean. Study the tide tables so you know what to expect on long stretches of beach.
Map out your camping plans. Some designated campsites are far apart, requiring 15 to 20-mile days.
Do I need a permit to thru-hike the Oregon Coast Trail?
No. You don’t need a permit for any sections of the Oregon coast.
Can I bring my dog on the Oregon Coast Trail?
It depends on the time of year. From March 15 to September 15, dogs are prohibited on many stretches of Oregon beach to protect endangered shorebirds (see “Seasonal Restrictions” below). The rest of the year, dogs are welcome. Just keep a leash on hand.
Resupplying on the Oregon Coast Trail
The Oregon Coast Trail passes through towns regularly, so there’s no need to send packages ahead. There are grocery stores within walking distance all along the trail, and even restaurants if you feel like splurging.
Water Sources on the Oregon Coast Trail
Along the northern half of the Oregon Coast Trail, there are plenty of spigots and water fountains at state parks. On the southern half, when such facilities are unavailable, fill up with freshwater from streams and rivers.
Getting Around Bays
The Oregon Coast Trail is littered with bays, inlets, and rivers. Walking around them lengthens a thru-hike by about 50 miles, adds more highway walking, and, by most accounts, is not worth it. To avoid that, you can gain passage across rivers and bays by ferry, and sometimes by hailing recreational boaters.
Beach Safety on the Oregon Coast Trail
It might be a literal walk on the beach, but the Oregon Coast Trail is not without its dangers. The ocean around the coast is wild, and tides can pose an unexpected threat to hikers on the shore. Know their movements so they don’t catch you off guard. Tide knowledge is especially important if you plan to camp on the beach. Pick up free tide tables from a state park office or information center or check them out online.
Beware of sneaker waves. They’re exactly what they sound like: big waves that hit the shore with little warning, potentially dragging hikers out to sea. They’re often described as mini rogue waves, as they surge up high onto the beach, carrying large amounts of sand that can weigh you down and drag you away.
The main takeaway about hiking along the beach? Always keep an eye on the ocean, and don’t climb out onto exposed rocks, where waves can knock you into the water or rapidly changing tides can isolate you from the shore.
Oceanside cliffs experience constant erosion from winds and water, and they’re often composed of soft or wet earth. Assume cliff edges are unstable to walk on, and don’t hang out right under them, where you could get a nasty surprise from above.
Seasonal Restrictions on the Oregon Coast Trail
The Oregon coast provides a seasonal home to the western snowy plover, a small, threatened shorebird that forages and hides in dry sand. While they’re nesting along the coast (usually throughout the summer), regional restrictions protect them from human disturbance and allow them to raise their young in peace.
In plover management areas, from March 15 to September 15, the following restrictions are in place along much of the coast:
Hikers should walk only on wet sand, since hiding in dry sand is this bird’s forte.
Designated trails (like the Oregon Coast Trail) remain open in these areas. Yellow signs mark plover management areas and specify restrictions.
During a summer thru-hike, plan to stick to the above restrictions in these areas:
Where and how should I camp on the Oregon Coast Trail?
Beach camping is prohibited:
Within city limits
Within state park boundaries
Near snowy plover habitat
While you might enjoy beach camping for a few days, it can get old quickly. The logistics add up: sand in everything, keeping meticulous track of the tides, unlevel ground, and nowhere to do your business. (It’s not like you can dig a hole, fill it up, and wash your hands of it.)
Where do you camp if not on the beach? Almost every state park along the trail has hiker-biker campgrounds, as do many Forest Service areas. Campsites are situated near water, restrooms, and showers, and are available first-come first-serve.
What to Pack for the Oregon Coast Trail
Trowel: You can find public restrooms in most state and city parks along the trail, but you might need this in the longer stretches of the south.
Rain gear: Oregon’s weather is notoriously wet, and the coast is no exception.
Continue along the coast to Horsfall Beach to arrive at Coos Bay.
Call Sharkys Charters 1-2 days in advance to reserve a boat ride across the bay. Otherwise, take a hiker’s left inland to cross McCollough Bridge. Navigate the streets of North Bend/Coos Bay southwest to Cape Arago Highway.
At a river junction, take down Seven Devil’s Road south. After 6 miles, it becomes a gravel road, and then drops into the beach.
In the summer, pass Five Mile Point at low tide. Otherwise, take an alternate route around it to Whiskey Run Beach Access.
Pass the scrubby coastline of Bullards Beach State Park and the small town of Bandon.
Bandon to Humbug Mountain State Park
This section is all beach, passing through only one town after Bandon, so plan ahead.
Walk sloping beaches past small communities and strips of forest.
After 15 miles of beach, dip inland through coastal forest, and emerge on the rocky bluffs of Cape Blanco.
Continue south. Cross Elk River at low tide.
Stroll through the streets of Port Orford and continue along the shoreline.
Cross highway 101 and descend to Humbug Mountain State Park. Skirt the mountain and rejoin US 101 to Euchre Creek.
Humbug Mountain State Park to Pistol River Scenic Viewpoint
Follow the highway through gentle coastal hills and above rock outcroppings.
At Euchre Creek, join the beach for 3 miles before reconnecting to the highway for another 3 miles.
Take the beach south to Pistol River, taking a detour to cross a municipal bridge at Gold Beach, and traversing the ridges of Cape Sebastian.
Pistol River Scenic Viewpoint to California
From the Pistol River Viewpoint, walk the highway through shrubby lowlands to the next stretch of beach.
Rejoin the trail to the west as it parallels the highway through Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor.
Follow US 101 through Harris Beach State Park, the bustling town of Brookings, and along coastal bluffs to the California state line.
Fun Facts About the Oregon Coast Trail
Oregon’s shores are entirely public up to the vegetation line, thanks to the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill. Hawaii is the only other state with a similar coastline policy.