“Which way do we go?”
There’s an obvious trail straight ahead, and an equally clear path switchbacking sharply to the left. I’ve stopped, considering, and my husband is asking the question behind me. We’ve divided most of the work in our partnership, and route-finding is up to me.
The correct answer is “up,” because we’re a long way from the summit of Neahkahnie Mountain. Both options fill the requirement, so I scout along the current track. It rounds a corner and starts rapidly losing tread and definition: the wrong choice. Returning, I find my husband pointing to the ground and laughing. What I’d taken for a tangle of spruce roots blocking the trail is actually a 2-foot-high word, formed from fallen branches: NO.
Hikers are a helpful species. There are about two official signs on the Neahkahnie Mountain Trail, one at the north entrance and one at the south. In between, several spur trails, a confusing clearing with no obvious exit, and the summit ridge itself could use a little direction. But this is a popular hike, with many regular devotees happy to share the secret.
I rarely speak to other hikers except to ask or receive direction, or exchange the requisite commentary on the weather. Solitary or in groups, we’re absorbed in a private pursuit alongside everyone else, and we keep interruptions to a useful minimum. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” “Great day to be out!” Yet our brief conversations always feel complete: a pleasant duty fulfilled. I feel a flare of companionship with whoever left that sign.
Actual root-tangles resume immediately as we pick up the correct path. The Sitka spruce here grow huge and dense. They’re joined by the slower-growing Western hemlock, which waits patiently in the deep shade of the spruces for its chance to reach the sky. Both trees send out shallow roots on the rain-soaked Cascadian coast, winding over and around each other in beautiful, boot-snagging patterns. On the north side of the mountain, they own the path. No smooth-packed ascents here: I’m taking an endless, uneven staircase two steps at a time.
It’s a relief, though, to be in the forest. It’s warm today on the exposed lower slopes, and besides, the trail already traversed has its own challenging character.
The meadow, for example, which lies on a bluff above the sea and below the northern trailhead. Today it’s a gorgeous russet field of end-of-summer ferns, with tall dried stalks of cow parsnip shaking off their last heart-shaped seeds.
It’s also completely full of spiders. Big ones – just minding their business, I know, but their business is strung directly across my path at chest-level. So I half-collapse one of my hiking poles and starting rhythmically scything the path in front of me. It’s very effective, for one person: my husband says I’m throwing up webs behind, so they float through the air and settle onto him instead.
The actual Neahkahnie Mountain Trail commences on the east side of Highway 101. Switchbacking up a steep slope with no tree cover, it’s narrow path threaded between head-high walls of shrub rose, salal, and thimbleberry. It’s lovely, and the fruit in season is a fine compensation, but it’s also overgrown. I’m always pushing aside spent berries and ducking around spiny branches.
All this riotous life does serve to keep us on the mountain: the path itself is constantly eroding. It’s like an Oregon Coast version of Chutes & Ladders, with boot-sized miniature landslides crumbling into the brush on the sheer downslope. A few corners have been cut, too, by hikers impatient with the gradual nature of switchbacks. I avoid these ladders; this thing will fall off the mountainside soon enough.
Though it means the meadow, I like to begin a trek up Neahkahnie from the beach. The crash of individual waves blurs to a background roar as you climb, but the sound of the sea is constant. Even to the summit, where a truly fine view erases the memory of effort, the voice of the ocean rises. 1600 feet up, your eyes show you lacy lines of breakers floating softly into shore. You need your ears to recall their enormous power, their speed and weight and danger.
Fog hangs over the water this morning as we set out, but the coast is clear, and at 8am the day is warming. I’ve optimistically donned a down vest over my tee-shirt, but after a mile it’s creating a personal sauna.
Colin Fletcher, in his classic backpacking work, The Complete Walker, says hikers fall into two categories regarding layers: those who stop constantly to add or subtract, fine-tuning their comfort level; and those who wear what they wear, blazing on in spite of discomfort. I tend to start in one camp and shift to the other in the course of a single long hike. For a good hour, the down vest remains a Good Idea At The Time, and therefore a good idea. It’s 9am and it should still be cool, dammit. Early in the day, I’m still gripped by this compulsion to move quickly, conquer the summit, remain invulnerable to pain.
I’m not sure where I imbibed this idea, but it’s certainly proving detrimental to a body no longer duped by its invincible 20s. At the meadow, I give up. I’m hot. Now the inertia is broken, I’ll be willing to stop later to roll up my pants, change hats, take a breather. I’ll move a little more slowly from here, and secretly I’ll feel relieved.
Hiking all summer in unseasonable heat, I’ve grown used to listless brush, sunburned shrubs, and crispy leaf-edges. A little of that is inevitable every September, but this season the sun has been fierce, and the entire year unusually dry.
Neahkahnie Mountain’s riotous green is wonderful by contrast. Inland, it’s headed for 95 degrees, and I’d find the land cracked and breathless. But here the blufftop meadow, the forest understory, and the north slope’s wall of brush are all vigorously healthy: just a few curling edges on a leggy thimbleberry, just the lady ferns losing their summer green. Instead of a desperate gasp for water, late summer on the coast looks like… late summer.
It smells that way, too: delicious aromas released by a season of sun. Hemlock sap, warm earth, and spent bracken; sweet perfume from the body of a freshly fallen spruce. Nose to bark, I wish for a camera that can capture fragrance.
With my eyes closed, I remember the rest of my senses. I taste salt on the air, feel the crash of the sea, and follow the flight of a crow by her wingbeats. Eyes open: fantastically shaped spruce trees, curious plumes of sand beneath green waves far below, that breathtaking summit view.
If you were here, I would smile as you passed and tell you it’s a beautiful day. You would nod in agreement, maybe say it’s getting warm out here. And we’d have covered everything that matters.
Neahkahnie Mountain is part of the Oregon Coast Range. It lies within Oswald West State Park, south of Cannon Beach and north of Manzanita on US 101. Park in the large area labeled “beach access” (for Short Sand Beach) to take the route to the beach and then up through the meadow. To skip all that, drive a little further south and park on the side of the road overlooking the meadow. Carefully cross the highway to pick up the trail. You can also park at the southern trailhead and take a slightly better-graded, and slightly shorter, path to the top. There are currently no fees or permits required.
Your hike can be a loop or an out-and-back. Here’s a little more information about your options. Depending on your choices, you can walk about 4 to about 8 miles. It’s challenging, with a lot of slippery or uneven footing, and an elevation gain between about 1200 and 1600 feet. If you start at the beach, do the whole loop, and plan on summit time, budget 5 to 7 hours.