By Michael Edwards
For the TODAY
Twelve hundred feet above sea level, looking south from the triangular station marker at Cascade Head, hikers are bombarded with stunning views of the Pacific, Lincoln City, Siletz Bay and, 20 miles away, Boiler Bay. The hike to the top of Cascade Head is steep and, due to exposed roots, soil erosion and moisture, mildly treacherous. Despite the hike’s abrupt climb and uneven footing, people of all ages and ability levels frequent the trail. In a region of the country where beauty is ubiquitous, the scenery of Cascade Head is remarkable.
Less than a mile and a half north from the junction of Highways 101 and 18 turn left onto Three Rocks Road. Follow the winding road two and a half miles to the parking lot and boat dock. The hike begins at the intersection of Three Rocks Road and Savage Road. For a half mile the well-maintained trail parallels Savage Road disappearing into a dense, moss-blanketed alder and spruce forest. To minimize erosion, trail crews have laid two-by-fours across the path, and to prevent slipping, a metal mesh has been fastened to the wooden walkways that cross over wetlands of giant skunk cabbage. The gradual climb leads hikers back to Savage Road. Continue walking on the road (away from the Sitka Center for Arts and Ecology) until you arrive at the big wooden Cascade Head Natural Area Trail sign. Be aware that dogs are prohibited on this section of the trail.
From the wooden sign the trail climbs abruptly through groves of ancient conifers. Old-growth Sitka spruce trees like the ones encountered on this section of the trail are a small remnant of what was. In the final years of “The Great War” the spruce forest of Oregon’s Central Coast was logged extensively. The strong and lightweight old-growth spruce wood was the perfect structural material for biplanes. According to the website Offbeat Oregon History, one old-growth Sitka spruce tree provided enough wood to build 150 French biplanes. There is a fascinating silent documentary film on the internet entitled “Manufacture of Military Aeroplanes 1918 US Committee on Public Information, World War I” that shows the process of constructing biplanes. The first two minutes of the 30-minute film show American soldiers felling and transporting giant Sitka spruce trees. Spoiler alert, on the day the film was shot, OSHA was conspicuously absent from the forest. I measured the circumference of one of the surviving behemoths and it measured 23 feet at its base. As large as that tree is, I bet that some intrepid young scientist with the help of her parents and a tape measure could find an even larger tree in this forest.
After about a mile, the giant spruces gives way to alders. Where the alders stop the prairie begins and so do the incredible views of the Pacific. In 1966, The Nature Conservancy purchased and protected this land from development. Today, because of its unique biological characteristics, the Cascade Head area is recognized as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve. The ascent through prairie to the triangular marker atop Cascade Head is crisscrossed with shortcut paths cut by hikers. Stay on the designated trails because the prairie habitat is delicate and plants and insects like the early blue violet and the silverspot butterfly exist in only a few select areas on the West Coast, so be gentle and encourage others to do the same.
Along with rare plants and butterflies, Roosevelt elk frequent the prairie. Despite their large size the elk blend in well with their surroundings. In order to see these impressive ungulates up-close, bring a pair of binoculars. In the fall and spring those binoculars will come in handy when looking for migrating Gray whales. The wind- and wave-weathered rocky islands between Cascade Head and God’s Thumb are a small part of the Oregon Islands Wilderness. These islands provide nesting grounds for more than 1.2 million seabirds. To put that into perspective, the seabird habitat provided by Oregon’s coastal islands exceeds the protected land afforded to seabirds in the states of California and Washington, combined.
Finally, there is a good chance that you will meet foreign visitors on the trail (and by foreign I don’t mean Medford.) People from Japan and Europe frequent the trail. I asked Rob from the Netherlands where Cascade Head ranked in his extensive travels across America, and he said second, behind Bryce Canyon. The merciless sun in Utah must have cooked the Dutchman’s eyes because the scenery of the Cascade Head is unmatched. Bryce Canyon?