By Michael Edwards
For the TODAY
Fourteen miles south of Yachats, a well-worn footpath connects Hobbit Beach to Heceta Head Lighthouse. The trailhead from the dirt parking area on the east side of Highway 101 to the beach is paralleled by a dense canopy of wind- and salt-stunted Sitka spruce and shore pine. Despite the coast’s nutrient-depleted soils and salty gales, these gnarled pines thrive and provide cover for a maze of moss-covered rhododendrons. Years of hikers straying from the designated trail coupled with 75 inches of rainfall per year has eroded parts of the forest floor near the trail’s termination point at the beach. By the looks of the shells littering the sand, the few people fortunate enough to visit this remote stretch of beach, feast on tasty red crabs.
The trail from Hobbit Beach to Heceta Head Lighthouse climbs 600 feet from the sand into thick rainforest. The first quarter mile of the trail parallels Highway 101 before climbing the headland. Watered by summer fog and extensive rains during the remainder of the year, old-growth Sitka spruce and Western hemlock thrive on the headland’s north-facing slope. Even in late summer, persistent fog muddies the trail and slickens exposed roots and wooden steps, so hikers watch your step. The trail from the highway to the beach is designated as the Hobbit’s trail; however, it is in these upper reaches where where J.R. Tolkien’s imagination would likely have taken wing. Particularly at the highest points of the hike, ferns grow from the soiled trunks of ancient conifers. Seated on one of the trail’s well-maintained wooden benches, the rumble of Highway 101’s jake brakes gives way to the distant murmur of surf and the steady weeping of fog dripping from the trees onto the spongy forest floor. Shrouded in mist, a hairy woodpecker flies from a nurse log to a hemlock trunk in a search of insects. If you sit still long enough, the hair on your arms might rise. That may be the chill of the ocean or it may be your sixth sense detecting the gaze of a forest Ent.
As you descend the south-facing slope of the headland, the terrain dries. The path here is dusty and the understory appears in need of a summer shower. About a quarter mile before arriving at the Heceta Head Lighthouse, the fresh smell of dense coastal rainforest gives way to the gastrointestinal workings of sea lions. Across the small cove, the Oregon Coast’s famous sea lion cave visitor center is visible. Bring your binoculars because there is an abundance of animals in the waters between the lighthouse and the caves. Two hundred feet below the lighthouse, corpulent California sea lions fish, belch and frolic in the cold ocean waters while on the guano-encrusted cliffs, cormorants and pigeon guillemots bask in the hazy sunshine and feed their young. One of the friendly Oregon State Parks volunteers at the lighthouse told me that the previous morning there was a Gray whale sighting not far off shore.
The 56-foot-high Heceta Head Lighthouse is under renovation until sept. 30, so tours are limited to the oil room which has a collection of historic artifacts and photographs. The British-built beacon (which will be covered until renovations are completed) emits a light equivalent to 2.5 million candles and be seen 21 miles out at sea — its range limited only by the curvature of the earth. Oregon State Parks publishes and provides free pamphlets that describe the technical specifications of the lighthouse, which was built with bricks shipped from San Francisco, 600 miles away. The pamphlets also provide a brief history of the homesteaders who staffed the lighthouse. In between swatting biting flies, the lighthouse volunteer described the challenges faced by homesteaders due to the remoteness of the location. For instance, the children who lived at the lighthouse a hundred years ago took a two-day wagon ride just to get to their school in Florence, which today is less than 15 miles away by road.
The Hobbit’s Trail is part of a seven-mile network that includes routes of varying difficulty feature beach and wildlife viewing areas. The trailhead is located at the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint, 14 miles south of Yachats, just off Highway 101.