High On Adventure - Featuring Photojournalist Larry Turner

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Adventure: Secret Beaches


Secret Beaches

The gems of Curry County

Story and photography by John Shewey



Fighting through dense old-growth buckbrush ranks about a zero on the fun-factor scale, and that’s the least of the difficulties faced by explorers hiking to perhaps the least-visited foot-accessible beach in Oregon. The narrow, mile-long strip of gleaming sand extending south from Humbug Mountain is about 10 miles south of Port Orford. 

At least buckbrush doesn’t bite back; but the short cross-country route to this pristine beach leads through copious stands of poison oak, prickly trailing blackberries, and even pricklier gooseberry. These verdant inconveniences are the price of admission to just one of several fantastic hidden beaches along Curry County’s gorgeously rugged stretch of coastline. Curry County is a long ways from everywhere and home to only 25,000 people; its relative isolation and splendorous geology assure quietude on most of its beaches and especially its hidden gems.


An Unnamed Beach

The route to the unnamed beach south of Humbug Mountain begins at a wide gravel pullout on the west shoulder of Highway 101, milepost 310.6. Park here, walk north behind the guardrail for about 200 yards, and watch for a scramble trail leading down the embankment to faint westerly routes through the brush. Pick your way west a short distance, then turn northward down the brushy slope facing the beach. Head down toward the big black rocks guarding the beach’s south terminus. When the terrain flattens, aim just to the right of the largest monolith and carefully scramble down through the rocks to the beach. Throughout the short hike remain ever vigilant to poison oak.

Once on the beach, you can explore a mile northward, but avoid high tides, especially big tides, when this narrow beach all but disappears, leaving no room to retreat because the headland is too steep to climb. Lucky visitors may spy elk or even a black bear on this beach; usually, however, the only signs of their presence are footprints left in the sand—with not a single human footprint among them.


Agate Beach

Little-known Otter Point State Recreation Site preserves a small, rugged headland about 2.5 miles north of the Gold Beach, providing superb views of the beautiful beaches to the north and south. The real gem here is the rocky, gravelly beach extending off the north foot of the point.

This is Agate Beach, reached by a hidden trail at the northeast end of the Otter Point parking lot. This narrow, winding trail dives down through the trees a mere 100 yards to the beach. Once you emerge on wildly scenic Agate Beach, you’ll feel like you’re stranded on your own deserted island, with abundant bird life, surf crashing against the rocks, and tide pools teeming with critters. Agate Beach is aptly named—explore its gravel fields at low tide for agates and other interesting rocks.

Few visitors find this small state park because there are no signs for it on Highway 101. Near milepost 324, turn west onto Old Coast Road and go 0.25 miles to a signed right-hand turn leading down a narrow dirt road (no room for trailers or RVs) a few hundred yards to the parking area.


Hooskanaden Beach

Hooskanaden Beach—the name, fittingly, means “gravel place” in the Tututni (Athabaskan) tongue—presents two different beaches in one incredible and seldom-visited package, the south half a long, narrow crescent of sand, and the north end a jumble of rocks. This gorgeous beach is one of the least known on the Oregon Coast. No signs indicates the spot and you can’t see it from the highway.

Among other wildlife, river otters inhabit the area, and lucky visitors may spy the gregarious creatures scavenging along the beach. Tide pools at both ends of the beach are fun, but visit them during summer when weather and waves are calm. Hooskanaden Beach can be dangerous during winter, during the highest tides, and during periods of rough seas when it can completely disappear, enveloped by breakers.

Access is surprisingly easy via an undeveloped trail that leads downhill to the shore from a small pullout along the southbound lane of Highway 101 at milepost 344. From the center of the pullout, drop straight down the hill to an Oregon Coast Trail marker, then turn left and then right around a switchback to continue down the slope, through a few pine trees, and down to a modest ravine with a trail junction; turn left to reach the beach and listen to the traffic above, which is so close yet you won’t find a single footprint in the sand.


China Beach

A surf magnificently studded with exotic rock spires, little-known, mile-long China Beach is among the most scenic beaches in Oregon, its lovely gray sand hidden between Thomas Point to the south and Spruce Creek Point to the north.

This lonely beach is supreme at low tide (especially minus tides) when you can explore it from end to end, including intriguing tide pools on the south end of the beach along the foot of Thomas Point. Beachcombers find interesting rocks, a variety of shells, and many other natural wonders. Dense offshore mussel beds assure a ready supply of the colorful shells, some of which are 8 inches long. As birds abound, look for tracks left by river otters, raccoons, and even elk. Photographers revel in the early morning light and the potential for bedazzling sunset shots, but bring a flashlight for the hike back up.

Two trails to China Beach plunge 350 vertical feet in less than a mile. The easier trail begins at a wide gravel pullout at Highway 101 milepost 347.5, about 10 miles north of Brookings, along the southbound lane, 0.25 miles north of Thomas Creek Bridge. Look for the split in the guardrail marking the trailhead (and a small sign). Follow the trail into the forest for about 20 steps to a big Sitka spruce tree on your left, one of its roots forming a ridge across the trail; a few steps past the tree’s thick root, the trail splits. Take the fainter fork going right and continue down this trail about 150 yards and turn right again at an unmarked junction. Hike north for about one-third of a mile, after which the trail begins its descent down to the beach.


McVay Rock Beach

With no highway signage to announce its location, incredibly scenic McVay Rock Beach, just south of Brookings, attracts little attention, even on busy summer days. Go first thing in the morning and you’re likely to have this gorgeous, narrow, gravel beach all to yourself—or wait until evening for mesmerizing sunsets.

The beach is composed entirely of gravel and course sand, making for fun rock collecting, including the occasional agates. Because of myriad large rocks embedded in the surf zone, McVay Rock Beach is great for exploring tide pools on minus tides, and birdwatchers can find many species here between late summer and late spring. You can hike either direction, but high tides block any progress beyond about a half mile south and just a few hundred yards north.

To find McVay State Recreation Area, follow Highway 101 south through Brookings-Harbor and turn right (west) on Benham Lane; go about 0.5 miles and turn left (south) on Wenbourne, and after 0.2 miles stay left (southbound) on Oceanview Drive and continue 2 miles to the state park on the right.


All that and More

These five secret beaches represent the best in all of Oregon, offering endearing solitude amid the tumultuous natural wonders of the South Coast. Visit them and you’ll feel a palpable sense of discovery—beaches are dynamic, changing hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and season-by-season, making each experience unique. Curry County’s secret beaches—and there are others, of course—are stark and addicting reminders that the Oregon coast offers many majestic landscapes that remain unaltered by mankind.

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