Moody Cape Perpetua is very, very Oregon

Cape Perpetua is known for its massive trees and being part of the largest unbroken forest canopy ů 85,000 acres ů in the United StatesPhoto by Paul Hadella

For the quintessential Oregon effect, fog would be cruising through the trees and moisture would be dripping from the branches, treating us to a rainforest shower. Instead, we are squinting into the sun as we gaze toward the top of a massive Sitka spruce — one of many we have encountered on our hike through the coastal woods of Cape Perpetua.

As we continue our walk, the sun's rays stream through the evergreen canopy, spotlighting a complex spider web hanging above the trail ahead of us. We duck to avoid wrecking all that hard work.

We came to Cape Perpetua — located about midway between Florence and Newport — expecting anything but brilliant sunshine. A pleasant day here in the Oregon fog belt usually means a few sunbursts and a high of 65 or so.

The almost-Hawaiian weather had turned the young ranger back at the visitor center giddy with delight.

"This is the nicest day we've had," he gushed, noting that the temperature was likely to climb to 75 today. "If it were like this all the time, this would be the most beautiful place on earth."

I resisted pointing out that the landscape would be drastically different if such warm, dry conditions were typical. The enormous trees, which thrive on absorbing tons of precipitation, would not be here. And, therefore, much of the beauty and grandeur would be missing.

But, anyway ...

The visitor center — a spacious building with large picture windows for sea-gazing — sits about 300 feet above the ocean, surrounded by Sitka spruce, Western hemlock and Western red cedar.

With the sound of pounding surf in our ears, my wife, my daughter and I began our hike from the well-marked trail head behind the parking lot (day-use fee $5).

For a six-mile loop through the old growth, we trudged up the Cooks Ridge Trail for two miles, scooted down the Gwynn Creek Trail for three and then ambled back to the visitor center along a one-mile, flat segment of the Oregon Coast Trail.

In the process, I renewed my love for Sitka spruce. The world's largest spruce, this species can grow to be 180 feet tall. All three of us holding hands couldn't circle the girth of several we came across on our hike.

I have always liked how funky these giants look. The limbs closest to the ground are often bare and stunted. Draped with moss, they shoot out every which way from the trunk. Add the gray bark to the disarray, and these conifers, more than any other tree in the coastal woods, make me think of monsters.

During our final push to the top of Cooks Ridge, we realized we could no longer hear the ocean. By this time, my favorite trees had disappeared, and hemlock dominated the landscape.

Rule of thumb: Don't wander too far from the coast if you wish to remain in the shade of Sitka spruce.

The downhill portion of our hike, along Gwynn Creek, reunited us with these mossy behemoths. In fact, I believe this trail to be denser with big trees than the path up to Cooks Ridge.

If you don't have time to hike the loop, even the easy stretch along the OCT is "tree-mendous" — and it offers postcard-perfect views of the rugged coastline below.

Or you can get your fill of huge trees on the Giant Spruce Trail, which runs for a mile from the visitor center, along babbling Cape Creek, by the tranquil Siuslaw National Forest campground — to arrive at the grandest tree on the cape, a magnificent hunk of Sitka spruce believed to be at least 500 years old.

If your heart doesn't go out to this big baby — already standing strong when English explorer James Cook "discovered" and named Cape Perpetua in 1778 — then check to make sure it's still beating.

Bonnie Henderson, author of the invaluable "Exploring the Wild Oregon Coast," notes that Cape Perpetua and two neighboring wilderness areas (Cummins Creek and Rock Creek) comprise the largest, intact forest canopy — 85,000 acres — in the United States.

But there's more here than just trees, trees, trees. The cape features rich tide pools while also appealing to anyone who enjoys watching waves smash into rocks, shooting water into the sky like fireworks.

That night, we drove to the top of the cape via the paved forest road that begins by the campground entrance. There's a 1930s rock shelter up there, an ideal spot for watching the sunset. But the fog had rolled in by then, drifting through the trees like dreamy thoughts. This was the moody Cape Perpetua we had encountered on previous visits over the years.

Suddenly, the sun found a break in the fog, setting the woods aglow. It was like we were staring into a huge furnace. Then, just as quickly, the light disappeared, and the trees were cast in silhouette.

The effect was otherworldly.

Or very Oregon.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.


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