Swimming and sunbathing are beside the point on Oregon's trail of beaches

Map of Oregon
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

The tip came from a man with no hair on his head and plenty of insulation on his body. He was standing at a viewpoint in Cape Meares, a panoramic detour along the Oregon coast whose natural beauty typically lulls visitors into hushed reverence. But not this guy, who was pointing out a pocket beach tucked between colossal rock formations to a friend. He blurted out its whereabouts for all within decibel range to hear.

"That's Hidden Beach," he said, making its name now obsolete. "You have to hike down a trail that zigzags about a mile, a mile and a quarter. Most people won't make the trek, so you pretty much have it to yourself."

In so many other summery destinations, this man would be muffled for giving away such a secret. But not here, where the beaches -- including the ones requiring hardy constitutions to reach -- are for and of the people.

"Oregon's coast is 100 percent public. There are no fiefdoms," said Kevin Max, publisher and editor of the quarterly 1859 Oregon's Magazine. "It's called the People's Coast for a reason."

The populist notion sprang from a 1913 law that decreed the state's tidelands to be public highways, guaranteeing unencumbered access to the 363-mile coastline. A second bill passed in 1967 further quashed attempts to privatize the coast, declaring "free and uninterrupted use of the beaches" between the low-water mark and the vegetation line. The state has also draped much of the coast in a protective shield, placing many of the seaside areas under the purview of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Additionally, hundreds of islands, rocks, reefs, bays and estuaries are safeguarded by the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex -- so don't even think about scaling Cannon Beach's Haystack Rock.

"It's a wild coast, that's for sure," said Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, who releases a top-10 list of America's best swimming beaches each year. "It's a lot of nature."

The Oregon coast is not your typical Bain de Soleil holiday, however. Raindrops occasionally drip on beachgoers' heads -- this is Oregon, after all, with only three months of sunshine a year -- and cold water temperatures benumb swimmers' fingers and toes. In fact, many folks treat the beach not as a giant soft towel but as a staging ground for their active pursuits.

"People don't really lie around the beach much," said Leatherman. "They dig for clams, fly kites, build bonfires and sand castles, go camping, splash around and explore tidal pools."

So for my 117-mile excursion from Seaside southward to Newport, I stuffed my canvas bag with flip-flops, hiking boots, a maillot and a raincoat -- Oregon's beach essentials.

* * *

Before landing in Seaside, a town of about 6,500 less than 80 miles drive west of Portland, I harbored an ill-conceived impression of the coast. I imagined Oregon's beaches as being riddled with rocks, strewn with logs and frothy with waves, as if sea nymphs were releasing shaken soda bottles underwater.

The reality was quite the opposite. The beaches I visited were covered in soft sand the color of toasted almonds, with no trash (made by Earth or man) marring the broad stretches. A few areas were pebbly -- I stubbed my toe on a cluster of rocks on the southern end of Seaside -- but most of the dramatic formations stayed offshore, granite sculptures best appreciated from afar.

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