A Drive Through an Oregon Forest to Reach Pounding Surf

Posted By Mike Padgett

Oct. 2, 2011

YACHATS, Ore. – Most of the time, we we were alone on the winding highway while we drove west through the Siuslaw National Forest in western Oregon.

It was late afternoon. Sunbeams became rays of gold filtering through the mist and the branches of moss-covered evergreens crowding Highway 34. Unfortunately, the two-lane highway with a few hairpin turns in wooded areas – right where I wanted to stop for photos – offered few places to pull over and stop safely.

The highway follows the winding Alsea River through the forest from the community of Alsea (population about 1,150) several miles west to the coast. Along the way, houses are scattered every few miles. Many are older. Several are new. Unless these are pockets of private land, the owners probably have federal leases.

To my left, downslope from the road and next to the river, I spotted several small tents squeezed together on a campground.

This green valley bordered by the dense forest stopped us, literally, during our drive west through the Siuslaw National Forest in western Oregon. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Partway through the forest, the evergreens give way to a picturesque valley. The pastoral scene reminded me of a Monet painting. I braked and did a quick U-turn before the highway headed back into the woods. Photo opportunities can fade as quickly as they appear.

I turned onto a side road and stopped. I grabbed my camera from its bag on the back seat and stepped to the edge of a deep ditch at the road’s shoulder. I ignored a dog’s lonesome barking from a house just down the road. If I were a landscape painter, here is where I would set up my easel.

Nature’s palette on this day featured green forests surrounding peaceful fields, the distant dark mountains, a blue sky and deep shadows cast by a late afternoon sun. This is powerful visual magic. Agnostics, if they witnessed this scene, could become believers.

I shot a few photos, and then continued our drive to Overleaf Lodge in Yachats, pronounced YAH-hots. A friend recommended it. This was our first extended visit to the Oregon coast.

The topography on this picturesque drive ranges from farmland around Corvallis in the Willamette Valley, west through Alsea and the forested mountains to the Pacific Ocean. We will exit the forest at Waldport. From there, our journey takes us south a few miles on Highway 101 to Yachats, which has a population of 690, according to 2010 census data.

A brilliant sunset and sounds of the surf marked the end of our first day on the Oregon coast. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Our plan for this trip was different. Our goal was to avoid crowds. We wanted to unwind next to the ocean, enjoy morning walks on the beach and get away from traffic jams and air pollution. The glitz of a crowded resort large enough for its own ZIP code can be overpowering.

From Arizona, we flew to Portland, Ore., rented an SUV and headed for the small communities along the central Oregon coast. We keep flexible schedules during our travels, maybe because of constant deadlines throughout our careers. Our routines now are influenced by mutual interests and by whatever crosses our path, such as an unexpected deadline or taking the longer road. Or an urge to go walking along the beach to find a lookout point suggested by another visitor.

Slowing the daily pace, and maintaining flexibility, allows one’s scattered molecules to regroup. Plus, slower routines often bring out the best in people.

I found that friendly human nature the minute I stepped onto the Oregon Coast Trail in Yachats. It was almost sunrise the day after our arrival. The trail is next to Overleaf Lodge.

“You’re going to miss breakfast and lunch, walking around here with a camera,” the stranger with the goatee and military buzz cut said. “That’s why I left my camera at home this time.”

The visitor from Canada was right. The photographic lure of the rugged Oregon coast is powerful. This is where the ocean meets the forest of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, red alder and western hemlock. Rainfall of up to 100 inches annually has been recorded in parts of the Siuslaw National Forest.

The beach in Yachats, Ore., disappears in the distant mists. After storms, beachcomers search for agates, fossils and other treasures. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

My Canadian friend and I saw each other a few more times during our stay in Yachats. We talked cameras ­– his needed repair – and Ansel Adams, how many pixels are enough, and local photographer Bob Keller’s work at his nearby Wave Gallery.

One morning, while waiting for sunrise, I stopped near a blowhole on the rocky beach. Waves rolled up a long and deep slot to the blowhole in the black bedrock. About every 10th wave, water and white foam exploded out of the blowhole with more force.

Maybe they’re called spouts. That’s what it was called by a woman walking her dog. “Seen any spouts,” she asked me on the trail one morning. The question rolled off her tongue in italics. I pointed the way to the spout.

Another morning, I watched an elderly couple fishing in the surf from the rocky beach. Each carried a bucket with bait. They wore rubber boots and warm jackets. I didn’t see them catch anything, but I didn’t watch long because it was time for breakfast. And I hadn’t had any coffee yet.

A mix-up in our reservation put us on the ground floor. We had asked for a room on an upper floor with a better view. One night (luckily it was for only one night), a guest checked into the room above us. I secretly named the person Thunderfeet.

Despite the one night of noisy footsteps, we enjoyed the view and sounds of the Pacific Ocean. Our patio door opened to the surf pounding the rocky shore. The surf beat like distant thunder, sometimes soft, occasionally powerful. It lulled us to sleep every night.

One morning, which was too misty for photos, I saw waves that were larger and more active than usual. Occasionally, a large wave slapping down on itself sounded like thunder. Gulls dipped and soared over the surf. Behind the waves, several pelicans glided in single file inches above the ocean. I don’t know if it was the wind or the visual power of nature that caused my eyes to water.

Weathered benches along the trail offer places to pause and recharge. From their perches on the rocky shore, fishermen cast their lines into the surf. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Another morning, the coastal fog at dawn created an eerie scene that reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s work. The world was a blend of mostly black and white, because of the fog, and the sound of the unseen pounding surf.

After breakfast, the sun burned off the fog, allowing the arrival of the day’s colors. My traveling buddy and I sat on a weathered bench off the trail to watch the surf. She tried to use her laptop, gave up and pulled out a book. I tried reading, too, but then I dozed in the sunshine and the music from the waves.

On the trail behind us, a few joggers and other visitors enjoyed nature’s views and sounds. Dogs straining against their leashes like sled dogs led several of the hikers.

The Oregon Coast Trail near Yachats sometimes meanders through thick undergrowth along the beach. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

We had already walked the trail a mile or so up the beach and back. The trail was free of trash. We saw signs warning about “sneaker waves,” or wave surges that can reach higher up the beach than usual. We saw a few hikers using their cell phones. Maybe their calls were critical. They could be working business deals or coaching an elderly single parent seeking a little conversation to pierce the loneliness.

This is Oregon’s central coast, where the interstate highway can be a two-hour drive to the east. I don’t know the location of major shopping malls or sports arenas, but they aren’t close. Which is good, if you’re seeking a place to recharge.

Crime is here, though. Recently, according to a local newspaper account, a man stole a car and led police on a high-speed chase for several miles. He surrendered after he ran over a spike strip an officer placed across the two-lane highway. The news report didn’t say how many flat tires the car had when it was returned to its owner.

The average age of housing in this area is 30 years and more. Custom homes in this region, based on local advertising, start at about $700,000. But I’m not sure these numbers are accurate. I’ve checked different web sites, and found different numbers. You’ll have to do your own research.

All I know about the winter weather here is that it can be windy, cold and overcast. That’s what we learned from some local residents. They said it matter-of-factly. Unless they were exaggerating to discourage growth in their local Shangri-La.

But there are other clues. There is the sign we saw inside a local restaurant, warning patrons as they leave the front door: “Careful – Strong Winds.” There are the signs at the approaches to a local highway bridge, warning motorists about strong winds as they cross the bridge.

This tree along the Oregon Coast Trail has grown under the influence of ocean winds. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

And some of the evergreen trees at the edge of the beach offer clear meaning to the word windswept. On overcast days, even in late summer, the gray sky mirrored in the steel-colored ocean makes it difficult to see where the sky meets the Pacific.

We also heard about storm watchers who visit the hotels to watch the exploding surf of winter storms. These storm chasers scour the beaches after the powerful storms pass, searching for agates, fossils, and glass floats from Japanese fishing nets. Local hoteliers market their properties for these weather fans. For more information about Oregon’s coastal weather, check www.coastvisitor.com and www.Weather.com.

For us, and especially during warmer months, the ocean is magical. The surf’s rhythmic sound is nature’s heartbeat. Add the fresh salt air, ocean sunsets, fresh seafood and opportunities to walk hand in hand on the beach, and the results are positive for the soul.

Life is short and fragile.

* * * *

For more informationwww.visittheoregoncoast.com

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Oct 2nd, 2011

2 Comments to 'A Drive Through an Oregon Forest to Reach Pounding Surf'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Hello Mike:
    Your photos are outstanding, especially the ones of the ocean. Breath taking. I have never been to Oregon so your stories and photos are so enjoyable.
    As always ,thank you!

  2. Peggy Hodges said,

    Another amazing travel story with awesome pictures. I read a book last week where one of the characters goes to Yachats and I had never heard of it before. How very clever of you to discover this very special place. So glad you were able to spend this time with your best friend.

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