The Oregon Coast Trail had been on my radar for quite some time, so when I saw that I would be in the vicinity this summer, and with my fat bike in hand, it was kind of a no brainer to go check it out. I had about 10 days of free time before my next trip, and place to safely leave my car at a friend’s house in Arcata, California. So I parked the car, loaded up the bike, and hitched my way north to Bandon, Oregon, to start my trip back south. The goal: to ride as much beach and trail as possible, using the OCT as a rough route for the first half.
My bike was a source of much wonder and curiosity wherever I went, and I often heard comments to the effect of, “Wow, those are some great big off-road tires you’ve got there!” Some people had never seen a fat bike before, and on the flip side, avid cyclists flocked around it, drooling and asking questions. And one conversation with a California State Park Ranger in particular left me giggling: I was looking for information on some beaches I was about to ride and he kept trying to point me in the direction of the paved bike path. (Fat tires are not optimized for pavement.) After a lot of explaining on my part, I still don’t think he understood what it was I was doing. “People generally don’t want to ride their bikes on the beach.”
The southern Oregon and northern California coastlines are remote and rugged. A collection of small towns and villages spaced about 30 miles apart exist in lieu of major population centers. Much of the coast is protected land, and a large portion of the California coast I traveled is home to the Redwoods National and State Parks. Due to the rugged nature of the coast, there are no long, unbroken stretches of beach to ride, as they are often interrupted by rocky headlands. Knowing access and egress might be a challenge, I approached this trip as a full-on exploration of all adventure possibilities, not just a beach ride.
Thanks to the kindness of four complete strangers with vehicles large enough to fit me and my loaded bike, I arrived at Bullards Beach State Park in good time and quickly occupied a hiker/biker site. $7 is a pittance to pay for having a nice campsite, free hot showers, running potable water, a picnic table, and a privy. And THIS particular site absolutely knocked my socks off with food lockers that also contained solar-powered USB charging stations. Winning!
The next day was an epic trip all in itself. A pleasant side road took me right to Bandon’s South Jetty, where a nice gentleman in a truck chatted me up about my bike’s big tires and travel in general. After lowering my tire pressures, I hopped down to the beach for my first few miles of sand, literally riding in circles around the sea stacks, and stopping to speak with a Fish & Wildlife volunteer about the Black Oystercatcher birds nesting on some of the stacks. On I went, earning stares and smiles from other beachgoers, all of them on foot. (On this whole trip, I encountered no other beach bikers.)
The people pretty much disappeared from the beach as I headed south to China Creek, where 12 more miles of nice, wet, dense sand stretched before me, along with a sign stating that the area was closed to bikes in order to protect the nesting Snowy Plover. The State Park volunteer in the parking area confirmed that fact as she guided me to the trail up the dunes to her location. Beth not only provided me with information regarding the endangered bird, but also some fun conversation about adventuring as I prepped my bike and self for a short road ride.
I made quick work of the road miles, explored off-road areas, and returned to the beach at Floras Lake, a popular kiteboarding location. With an incoming tide on steep sand, I was largely relegated to riding the shelf of soft sand below the cliffs. After viewing a dead sea lion (massive creatures!) I reached the end of the beach and took a nice, long break, just listening to the hypnotic sound of waves breaking.
The trail to get off the beach ended up being an hellacious bushwhack. Waist high dense brush combined with massive driftwood to actually get to the trail, then a steep push up the super-narrow and massively overgrown path. A loaded fatbike is not lightweight, nor small, and I had to do some fancy footwork to even fit on the so-called trail. Shuffle, shuffle, push, untangle. Repeat. Eventually, I popped out on a legitimate trail, breathed a sigh of relief, and pedaled on.
I navigated down good trails past the end of the runway at Cape Blanco State Airport and out to Blacklock Point. The views there were fabulous, and as luck would have it, there was one spot shielded from the wind and big enough for my tarp. Home for the night!
The next day I pedaled over to Cape Blanco State Park and its lighthouse, of which I had a view from Blacklock Point. After riding the bluff trail, I settled in at a picnic table to eat and weigh my beach riding options. There was a lovely stretch of beach in front of me, but with one big unknown: would the mouth of the Elk River be fordable? The tides weren’t really favorable, and no one I met had any good information. But what really stopped me from going to see about it was the unusually strong wind, which would push me down the beach at record pace, but would also make my life hell for a few miles should I need to come back. I ultimately decided to skip the beach this time.
Next up was an early evening exploration of Port Orford Sate Park, home of the US Coast Guard Lifeboat Museum (unfortunately closed.) There were some short hiking trails with specific signage prohibiting bikes, so I locked up my steel steed and went for a ramble around the cape, taking in the beautiful ocean views and learning about the area history.
One more beach section followed by another heinous bushwhack, and I was back on the dirt and deteriorating pavement of the Old Coast Highway, which is now part of the Oregon Coast Trail and closed to motorized vehicles. There were several suitable campsites in this section, it was getting past dinner time, and I was tired, but the voice inside my head said, “Go to the hiker/biker site at Humbug State Park!” And who was I to argue?
As soon as I arrived I knew why the universe wanted me there (besides the electricity and hot showers): I met a new friend, an OCT thru-hiker, Hawkeye, who had been hiking the entire OCT from the northern tip of Oregon. He shared his Elk River crossing story, which included a brief brush with death as he (at 6’ tall) barely made it across in armpit deep water while holding his pack over his head. I definitely made the right decision to skip that one.
Over the course of the next few days I enjoyed a bunch of fun beach riding and challenging bushwhacks, meeting up with Hawkeye in spots. He got to enjoy some sections of beach where I had to backtrack due to impassable headlands (impassable for the biker, not the hiker.) But I was pretty psyched that I got to ride by my favorite roadside T-Rex. I’m a sucker for roadside attractions.
By the time I reached Otter Point, I had finally learned my lesson about beach access trails, and thus I actually hiked down to scope it out before bringing my bike down it. And I found…AN ACTUAL TRAIL. I was even able to ride down it!!! What a revelation. The beach riding was great: just the right sand density, low tide, sunny, warm, with some boulders to check out and a few sea stacks just offshore. There was a chaotic scene of fishing boats at my takeout at the North Jetty of the Rogue River. Apparently the mouth of the river had recently been dredged and word got out that the salmon were running.
After a brief library and grocery stop in Gold Beach, I headed back to the beach into a crazy headwind. The prevailing summer winds are from the north, but these were from the south. It was not a pleasant beach ride, to say the least, and I also needed to get around the headlands of Cape Sebastian by going uphill on pavement into the headwind. So, quite reasonably, I bailed out at the first possible road access point and promptly stuck my thumb in the air. Five minutes later, a family stopped to give me a ride. They made room for my bike in the seemingly full pickup bed, then drove me 6 miles down the road to the next beach. Phew!
I took a nice, long break in a sheltered area of the beach, used a driftwood tree as a bike rack, watched the tide come in and start to go back out, then continued south. This beach had something new to offer: dunes of soft sand which were actually fun to ride (in small doses,) and quite necessary at times because the tide was still fairly high. During another break I spotted a lone hiker in the distance behind me. It could be only one person: Hawkeye! We camped together and commenced with storytelling about our Cape Sebastian experiences.
The OCT turns off the beach a couple miles south of the Pistol River at a rocky headland. The trail was in better shape than the other ‘shwacks I had done thus far, but it was still overgrown, and started with a tall, steepish dune to boot. I employed Hawkeye to help with the bike push effort, and we made quick work of it.
The 12 mile Samuel Boardman Scenic Corridor is a rugged stretch of coastline defined by many cliffy headlands and limited beach access. The OCT is narrow and steep forest hiking trail through here (unrideable,) and the only road option is the 101. So it was time to ride the road and stash my bike at key points along the way for hikes to the special spots, such as Secret Beach. Based on the number of people who were there, it’s not actually a secret, but it was a fabulous place with a very Goonies-esque feel.
The sun on the road was harsh, plus it takes FOREVER to get anywhere with those fat tires, so I was definitely ready for another plush hiker/biker campsite, this time at Harris Beach State Park. The hot water of the shower on my legs confirmed the degree of sunburn. Ouch! There was a great bike stand at Harris, so I was able to really get some good maintenance done. Sand and salt does a number on the drivetrain.
Hawkeye caught up the next morning as I lazed about the campsite. It was his last day on trail, and I wanted to celebrate his accomplishment of completing the OCT with him at the California border. After a food resupply, I followed the official coastal bike route a few miles to Chrissey Field State Park. My timing was perfect: I had turned about two circles in the sand when Hawkeye arrived. After photos and a quick break, we parted ways, he heading north back to Harris Beach and beyond, and me heading south along the beach into the unknown and wild land of California. With very little information in hand about the CA coastline, this is where the real exploration began!
I could see a rocky point just about a mile ahead and decided to investigate it. There was actually a way through with minimal rock scrambling, so I went for it in order to stay on the beach. The tide was coming in, but I was able to make it nearly the whole way to the mouth of the Smith River with just minimal interference from rocky points. At the mouth I spoke with a local woman who said that in decades of living there she’s never seen it shallow enough to cross on foot. Without any boats about, I was forced to hit the road again. Such a shame, too, because just on the other side of the river was a 10ish mile stretch of beach, Tolowa Dunes State Park. Oh, well. I’d get it from the other side. I continued on to some hiker friends’ home in Crescent City, where I ate fish tacos and slept in a comfy bed. Many thanks go out to Hop-a-Long and the Lorax for their generosity!
After a much-needed day off, Hop-a-Long gave me a lift as far north as possible at Tolowa Dunes. The access trail to the beach was sandy, but otherwise in great shape and fully rideable. Upon reaching the beach, I actually headed north a few miles, to see the mouth of the Smith from the other side. My efforts were rewarded by the presence of a big group of seals! I watched them watching me for a few minutes, and then set off southward, intent on reaching Crescent City by beach. My progress was blocked about 2 miles from town, however, when I came across a breached and impassable lagoon. Ces’t la vie. There are worse places to have to backtrack.
I had already planned to hitch from Crescent City to Klamath around a particularly gnarly section of cliffs and a gnarlier road ride down the 101, so I started my ride-getting efforts after being turned around by the breach. Eventually a gentleman who was relocating from Wisconsin to Crescent City gave me a ride. “I’ve been wanting to help someone out, but my car is always full.” Lucky for me, it was empty at that moment, and he went well out of his way to bring me the 20+ miles to my next trailhead. Camping in this coastal area is restricted due to the Redwoods National and State Parks, but established backcountry campsites are available with a free permit.
I took the California Costal Trail out of the Flint Ridge camp the next day. It followed the Old Coastal Highway and was a fun mix of old roadbed and single-track, all of which I was able to ride except for one exceptionally steep, but short, uphill bit. From the next trailhead was a short stretch of pavement to access the Ossagon Trail – one of the few bike-friendly trails in the Redwoods. The trail started with a heart-pumping but short-lived uphill through old growth redwoods on a well-maintained track, followed by an 800’ drop over 2ish miles on progressively narrower trail to reach Gold Bluffs Beach. It was a super-fun downhill!
Gold Bluffs Beach is only accessible by road in the mid-section of the beach, so it’s very quiet and remote feeling on the north and south ends. I went north a bit to Ossagon Rocks and Carruthers Cove, then turned around and rode clear to the other end of the beach at Sharpe Point, about 10 miles. The beach was spectacular! Blue waters, seals playing in the surf, gulls, pipers, pelicans…for miles and miles! There were multitudes of sea birds, including pelicans flying low to the water. I decided to spend my last night out in this magical place.
What goes down must come back up, and so it was that I started my last day with an 800’ climb on a dusty gravel road, then back down to 101. There were trail alternatives to some of the 101 in that area, and I found a path alongside Redwood Creek that took me from Orick straight to the beach. Score!
The surf was pretty rough south of Redwood Creek, and the tides not favorable for crossing rocky points. The beaches at Freshwater and Dry Lagoons were to be my last, and they were definitely memorable, with big waves crashing into the rocks, creating quite the show. Even at low tide, further passage south was not possible. With my allotted time for this trip used up, I headed out to the road for one last hitch.