The trailhead is at Knight’s Park at the end of Three Rocks Road in Otis, by the Salmon River. A relatively open area, the trail begins at the edge of Cascade Head Ranch, a privately held, environmentally-conscious residential community. Within the “Ranch” area is the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, established in 1970 by the Neskowin Coast Foundation, and home to many interesting artistic events and scientific efforts.
The greater Cascade Head Recreational area is comprised of lands acquired for conservation and study beginning as early as 1934. This is an ecologically rich locale that has been the subject of public interest for decades.
Last year, Nature Conservancy celebrated the 50-year anniversary of their Cascade Head Preserve acquisition. In the 1960’s, a volunteer effort to save the area enabled The Conservancy to purchase land that was slated for commercial development. Their action added important habitats, such as the prairie headland and old growth forest to this oasis of unspoiled coastal habitat.
The Salmon River estuary, a rare and pristine saltwater marsh, empties the waters of the Salmon River into the Pacific Ocean at the Head. The trail rises gently from the Salmon River through old growth forest to the coastal meadows that once were a ranch cited for development. The meadow provides a view of the estuary, the spit, Road’s End rocks and the vast Pacific Ocean.
The entire protected area was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1980. These unspoiled ecosystems are used to establish the ‘ideal’ for evaluating the restoration needs of degraded habitats in other areas of the Coast. I am standing in an area that is home to more than 350 species of wildlife including four federally listed endangered species.
I am walking with a friend. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in February. The colors are muted. The sky is overcast with occasional bursts of sunshine. Today is the second day without rain. Still, there are muddy spots and I’m glad that I wore hiking boots.
Numerous places along the hillside dribble water from springs gently overflowing through the low growth, moss, grass and ferns. In a few months, the area will be drier. Now, the creeks that we cross are full of rushing, bubbly water. Standing on the bridge, I’m tempted to toss a leaf from one side and wait for it to appear downstream.
Continuing to amble uphill, we encounter steps cut in to the dirt path and braced with timbers. The wet ground would be too slippery to navigate otherwise, but it is not a difficult walk. The outdoors is best enjoyed at a slow pace anyway.
Everyone we encounter is friendly. Sometimes a few words are exchanged about the beauty of the day and the trail. Like us, most are in pairs, conversing as they walk. All ages are represented. Some are outfitted with the latest hiking and running gear while others are in standard casual clothing. A family on a day trip from Portland has their young children with them. Mostly, we wander along contentedly with just the low hums and chirps of the forest.
We comment on the stands of old Sitka Spruces and long-standing Hemlock trees draped with vegetation. The mosses hanging in their boughs have been so heavily watered by recent Winter storms that they resemble huge over-fed cats lying lazily on the branches. Some are basking in the sunlight. As I enjoy the mosses, my eye focuses on a round shape. It is a beautifully built bird’s nest, cleverly lined with the stuff.
My companion tells me about ‘nurse trees’ that provide a growing medium to so many other species of plant by hosting them in their branches, just like these trees. The ground is completely carpeted with moss in some places in the forest.
Light filters down gently. Where a tree has fallen, pockets of pure sunshine create otherworldly gardens surrounded by the darker patches of forest. Mushrooms and lichens adorn rotting stumps. As we bask in the lavish scene of ecology that surrounds us, we notice the clean, white skeleton of a coastal deer on the ground.
A Berwick’s wren calls repeatedly and we stop to try and see this little bird. Our eyes pick up motion in the underbrush. He’s busily kicking up moss and fallen leaves. The little bird moves rapidly, pecking the ground after each foot-scratch.
Suddenly, we find ourselves in open grassland. The sea is ahead of us and the estuary is to our left. The path levels out and we pause, taking in the new surroundings. One of the signs provided by the Nature Conservancy states that this meadow is home to a multitude of rare plants and insects.
The endangered Oregon Silverspot butterfly is found here and in only 5 other locations in the world. The Hairy Checkermallow is a rare flowering plant that lives on this hilltop and 99% of the world’s population of the Cascade Head CatchFly is up here with me, too.
I don’t know if I got near to a Hairy Checkermallow or any other kind. I’ll bring a field guide with me next time and maybe I’ll know one when I see one. We did see a beautiful bald eagle flying high above us. The view from the meadow just gets more and more impressive as we walk towards the headland.
We have arrived at the headland. It juts out over steep cliffs, far above bays and beaches. Some of our fellow hikers are having picnics by the trail. The air is calm and high clouds create beautiful swooping patterns in the sky above.
I notice that many of us are simply standing quietly and enjoying the openness, the view and the joy of being immersed in nature. Without conscious choreography, we find ourselves standing in small groups along the path, facing the same direction, taking in the immense grandeur of it all.
Like this vast area of pristine ecosystems, we have come from the road to the trail and from the river to the sea. We have traveled, in only a couple of hours, through ancient forest to an astonishing headland prairie.
My friend and I made a journey too, from the noise of life in the modern day to the rhythm of the Oregon Coast as it has been for thousands of years. Thanks to those who began this effort and those who continue it, this pristine Coastal experience will be here for generations to come.
I’m Loving The Coast! – Sarah