September 3: Columbia River to Cannon Beach

Crashing in Josh’s living room, I woke up at 3am and again at 4:30. While I still didn’t feel nervous, my brain was clearly working over the trip. I laid awake in the warm cocoon of my borrowed sleeping bag trying to imagine the days ahead. I had spent months pouring over maps and books and blogs. I had names and pictures rattling around in my mind, but what would it be like to actually experience them? I finally got up at 6am, pulled on my running clothes—the clothes I would wear for 13 days straight—and fussed unnecessarily with my pack. I could see the Columbia River from Josh’s front windows. Somewhere to the west of my vantage point lay the start of the OCT. I felt a shiver of excitement.

The first 14 miles of the OCT run along Clatsop Spit. I planned to start at mid-tide—around 10:00 am—in hopes of finding hard-packed sand at the water’s edge. My brother-in-law Jordan and Josh were brewing coffee in the kitchen, and I wandered in to hang out. Josh had sweetly started pancakes. With blackberries foraged from a nearby park, those were the best pancakes of the trip. My nieces and nephew straggled into the kitchen sleep-rumpled and ready for breakfast. I love them so much, and seeing them in their jammies made me miss my own girls.

I still needed to pick up snacks for the day—not to mention find an outlet for my finally nervous energy—and went in search of a bodega. All of the shops and the local co-op turned out to be closed for Labor Day. Doh. I finally found an open cafe and stocked up on pastries instead. I hiked back up to Josh’s house, squashed the pastries into my pack, washed the breakfast dishes, and then it was time go. Whoa.

The drive from Astoria to Fort Stevens State Park felt surreal. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this. It had seemed like a neat idea way back in the spring, something fun to research and fantasize about. But now I was about to follow through with it. About to be away from my family and work for two weeks. About to run more miles than I had ever run back-to-back in my life. Alone. Whaaaat?

Almost Time to Go!

Almost Time to Go!

Observation Platform at the South Jetty of the Columbia River

Observation Platform at the South Jetty of the Columbia River

We took pictures on the jetty and in front of the observation platform. A couple with a baby wondered what I was doing. After I told them, they asked if they could take a picture with me, too. We’re now friends on Instagram.


I hunted for the trail sign marking the official start of the OCT, but didn’t see it at first. There was a narrow trail leading into the dunes, so after a round of hugs, I started my tracker and GPS watch and followed the path toward the beach. A short way into the grass, I found the official marker. I restarted the tracker and watch there at 10:13am. The trail wound down to a pile of large boulders that I scrambled over. From there a wide swath of beach stretched as far as I could see. I thought about all the miles between me and the California border. Would I make it?

The Official Start

The Official Start

My legs felt fresh after a week of rest, and I wanted to conserve them for as long as possible. I settled into a pattern of running three slow miles and hiking one fast. Throughout the trip until the (spoiler alert) shin splints, alternating slow running with fast hiking allowed me to cover long distances without wrecking my body.

Everything about Clatsop Spit was huge and empty—the nearly cloudless sky, the stretch of sand, the endless ocean. I drank in the sound and smell of the sea. Growing up, my family spent a week at the beach every summer and the coast (any coast) is still one of my favorite landscapes.

Clatsop Spit

Clatsop Spit

After a few miles, I came to the rusting hull of the Peter Iredale, which ran aground in 1906 en route to Portland from Mexico. Here people crowded the beach, enjoying the holiday. As I was snapping pictures of the wreck, I heard someone call my name. Surprised, I looked up to see the couple from the start. Fun! South of the Peter Iredale, I ran through both deserted stretches and areas crowded with people and dogs playing on the beach. Vehicles are allowed on Clatsop Spit, and I saw a few zipping around.

Remains of the Peter Iredale

Remains of the Peter Iredale

In 1913, Governor Oswald West and the state legislature declared all Oregon beaches a public highway. For years they served as the only way to drive between many coastal communities. Today, most Oregon beaches are closed to vehicles, but a few still allow cars and OHVs.

A short section of Clatsop Spit fronts Camp Rilea Armed Forces Training Center. The military occasionally closes the beach for live fire exercises, necessitating a long detour for thru-hikers. You can now check the status of beach here. Fortunately, the beach was “cold,” and I passed on by the American flags planted in the dunes.

Impossible to Keep Your Feet Dry on the OCT

Impossible to Keep Your Feet Dry on the OCT

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At the town of Gerhart, the OCT cuts inland to cross the Necanium river on a bridge connecting Gerhart and Seaside. I missed the turnoff from the beach, but was able to wade one of the Necanium’s feeder streams and find the route through town. I changed my socks after the creek crossing, starting what would become an obsessive campaign to care for my feet. It worked, too, until the very end. More on that later. I pinned the wet socks to the outside of my pack.

First of Many Stream Crossings

First of Many Stream Crossings

In Seaside, I stopped at a town park to refill water and walked along the Promenade in search of snacks. The squished pastries were delicious, but I wanted to stock up. I saw plenty of vacation rentals and hotels, but no food vendors. I returned to the now busy beach and continued south.

From the end of the beach, Sunset Drive leads to the Tillamook Head trail. I was excited for the first of many forested sections over the Oregon Coast’s rugged headlands. On the way up I met an older woman from Kansas hiking with her adult son. She asked me if I was going all the way to the summit. When I told her I hoped to go all the way to California, she said, “Honey, I’ll pray for you.” I bet she did, too. The Tillamook Head trail climbed up and up through a beautiful forest of (I looked this up) Sitka spruce, hemlock, alder, deer fern, sword fern, and salal. Fortunately, I had been running and hiking in the Rockies all summer and my high altitude lungs and legs felt strong in oxygen-rich Oregon. I reflected on all the miles I’ve shared with my girlfriends Jenn, Sarah Jane, and Katie, and how these powerful female friendships have shaped my life. I was getting deep up there.

Eventually the path became very muddy with large blow downs, but I loved it, as I would all of the forested trails on the OCT. The trail rolled along the top of the headland occasionally affording ocean views, including a glimpse of “Terrible Tilly,” the most notorious lighthouse on the Oregon Coast. Switchbacking down the south side of head, I passed a circle of log shelters known as hiker camp. It sounded like a jovial group had gathered there.

Hiker Camp

Hiker Camp

Winter landslides wiped out the next section of the OCT from Ecola State Park to Indian Beach, so the route now uses park roads. I followed OCT markers into the town of Cannon Beach, where I had a motel booked on the far south side. I briefly considered sitting down to an early dinner before continuing on to the motel, but Cannon Beach looked pretty swanky. Most restaurants had lines of well-dressed tourists milling outside their doors. I was already too smelly to join them. I walked the beach for a bit instead and then veered back into town to find a convenience store. Along the main strip, I bought an ice cream cone, salami, chips, Gatorade, baby carrots, and M&Ms. I carried this bounty back out to the beach (I found a public beach access between houses on Pacific St.) and hiked a few more miles to my motel at Tolovana Beach, getting my first taste of soft, high-tide sand.

The Hair Dryer Wasn’t Up to the Task.

The Hair Dryer Wasn’t Up to the Task.

I arrived at the motel well before dark and had time to enjoy lounging on my small balcony. I washed out my socks in the sink and blew the fuse on the hair dryer trying to dry them. I put them outside to dry instead. In the morning I would discover that Oregon is not Colorado, and things left outside to dry only get wetter.

Thirty miles down, feeling strong and content.