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Hike: Fort to Sea

One of the unexpectedly nice hikes that Tracy and I discovered for our 29th anniversary was the newly christened “Fort to Sea Trail” that goes from Fort Clatsop to the Pacific Ocean at Sunset Beach, south of Astoria. Now part of the Lewis and Clark National Parks, the trail is a one-way, 6.5 mile jaunt through the woods, under the highway, and along the pastures of the North Oregon Coast, and it is fun. Hikers can go in either direction, though we chose to traverse, as the name suggests, from the fort structure to the beach.

We asked Ramon Anguiano, the Head of Maintenance at the Gearhart Ocean Inn, to drive with us to Sunset Beach, where we dropped off our car. He then ferried us to Fort Clatsop. Ramon said he was happy to take us there, since he had a trip to Astoria that he had wanted to make. We had read that there is also a bus that travels between the end and the start of the Trail, known as the Grasshopper, that is open during the peak summer season. Since we were hiking in mid-May, we asked for and were grateful for Ramon’s travel help. After a brief stop at the Park’s visitors’ center, we assembled our lunches, packed our day pack, filled our water bottles and made our way to the trailhead.

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The Clatsop plain is a wide expanse of grasslands, rivers and bogs that seem to slide down from the Coastal Range to the Clatsop Ridge, with a gradual slope to the ocean. In order to get to the Plain, hikers walk through the fir forests and feel the morning mist on their cheeks.

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The walk through the woods heading west was lush and fragrant, with the boggy areas smelling like skunk cabbage, and, frankly, boggy peat moss. The plants in the area were lush, even as the Douglas Fir branches made the landscape reminiscent of Murkwood in The Hobbit.

We made good time as we caught our breath. We worked out our stiff legs those first few miles. It seems to take a few miles to get into a rhythm for the day and Tracy and I have learned to be patient while the miles roll on. Our conversations often waits for rest periods, so that we can have time to mull over the matters on our minds in peaceful silence. When we start conversations, our stories are epic, important and deep, especially as we recount our years together and plans for our future.

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The Backstory of the Trail

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the co-leaders of the Corps of Discovery, built Fort Clatsop in the fall of 1805, and soon after turned their attention to exploring the hunting grounds nearby. One of the other important tasks they set was to make salt to cure the game they killed. The Expedition members needed salt to cure the meats for the return trip to St. Louis. “The Saltworks” is an interesting display in Seaside, which shows the approximate place the Corps used to boil the sea water. The selection of Seaside is interesting for a few reasons: first, it is many miles from Fort Clatsop, and also it has the right amount of wood and the right type of rocks to build the Saltworks. The Corps brought the bucket brigade to do the real work.

The process of making salt is older than our country and the Corps seem well versed in the process. With the amount of fresh water flowing from the mouth of the Columbia, the Corps knew that they had to travel far enough north or south to have the optimal amount of saline in the sea water. Too close to the mouth of the river would make collection futile, too far away would possibly defeat the purpose of the near-by excursion. Seaside proved a convenient, salt-rich place to do their work.

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We had a very pleasant walk and made it to the farms aflong the Clatsop Plain earlier than we expected. We kept up a strong, steady pace and finished our hike in about 3 hours, including water breaks and lunch. The overcast cleared by mid-day and the sun shone brightly as we hit Sunset Beach. We were hours too early for sunset, so we enjoyed our lunch there and drove back to Gearhart, just north of Seaside, for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

We always offer prayers on our hikes. They are for our girls and families, followed by those who have been on our hearts and minds over the months. The hikes nearly always prove cathartic and rewarding.

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From the Park Service:

Some of the travels of the Corps of Discovery took them southwest to the area’s bounteous beaches, including what are now Sunset Beach and Seaside. While the Corps forged its way through deep woods, muddy bogs and windswept beaches, a 6.5-mile trail now runs much of the same forest, fields and dunes that the Corps traveled. The Fort To Sea Trail wends its way through the woods south of Fort Clatsop to Sunset Beach on the Pacific Ocean, covering land that once was home to the Clatsop Indians who helped the Corps.

The Fort To Sea Trail starts from the Visitor Center at Fort Clatsop. The first two miles take you up a gentle climb to the top of Clatsop Ridge, where on a clear day you can see through the trees to the Pacific Ocean. From there, you descend through deep woods and reach wooded pasture dotted with small lakes. The wooded pasture leads to the crossing tunnel under U.S. Highway 101 and near Camp Rilea. This stretch of the trail marks the beginning of sandy soil and gentle dunes and leads into beach woods before arriving at the Sunset Beach/Fort to Sea Trail parking lot. From there, travel the 1-mile path to the beach.

While the Fort to Sea Trail is navigable in any weather, please note that rain can make the trail slick in some places and muddy in others. Also, while the abundant wildlife that you might see, such as deer, elk or eagles, or bear, bobcat or beaver, might be shy, the domesticated animals, such as cows, you can encounter in the pastures on the south side of U.S. 101 might not be. Finally, a one-way trip requires pickup at one end of the trail. A cab or wait car should be arranged.