My discovery of a network of hiking trails near Crescent City, Calif., came a few years ago, while I was on a quest to find the closest beach to the Rogue Valley.
At the time, I just had to know how quickly I could get to the Pacific whenever the yearning to walk on the beach became overpowering. I wasn't even picky about the beach being in Oregon. California would do fine.
I believe I found the winner, by taking Highway 199 to Northern California, then heading south toward Crescent City on Highway 101. I got off at the Washington Boulevard exit, turned right, and drove four miles to the parking lot at the end of the road. I hopped out of my car, walked a minute on a gravel path — and there was the roaring Pacific in front of me, and the sand beneath my feet.
As I would come to learn, this beach belongs to the Point Saint George Heritage Area. Its distance from Exit 30 in Medford: 114 miles.
Nearly 25 miles of sandy coastline, uninterrupted by any headlands, stretches north from this beach to the mouth of the Smith River. Beach walkers couldn't ask for a smoother and lovelier track.
Better yet, the heritage area combines with a state park, Tolowa Dunes, and wildlife area, Lake Earl, to form the so-called Tolowa Coast, an expanse of wetlands and dunes, in addition to the coastline.
The Tolowa Coast is a roamer's paradise, featuring about 30 miles of hiking trails, and that's not counting the beach miles.
A brochure with map and trails guide describes seven Tolowa Coast hikes, varying in length from two to 6.2 miles round trip, leading to forested and grass-covered dunes, as wells as ponds and coastal prairies — all just inland from the ocean. One trail even leads to the edge of Lake Earl, ideal for migratory-bird watching.
Some trails connect to others, making longer hikes possible. Most trails are level, until you get to the dunes standing between you and the Pacific. Then it's time to climb. Expect to hike through sand on all beach-bound routes.
On our most recent visit to this beautiful area, my wife and I explored a northern piece of the Tolowa Coast, parking at the trailhead at the end of Pala Road. The beach, 1.5 miles away, was our destination, but first we stopped at a very solemn place a third of a mile up the trail.
During the winter of 1853, a militia out of Crescent City attacked hundreds of Tolowa people gathered for a seasonal ceremony.
You won't find interpretive kiosks on the small hill where victims of this massacre are buried — just a wooden fence and a modest sign for Yontocket Indian Village Memorial Cemetery. It's as if no words could make sense of this horrific event.
Resuming our hike, we passed a lone, forgotten apple tree and many short pines, before we began hearing the ocean. The dunes ahead of us blocked our view, but there was no mistaking that we were getting closer to the source of the thunderous sound.
Like kids, we quickened our pace as our anticipation rose.
Cresting a dune topped with golden grass, we gazed up and down the coastline, and then out across the ocean, spotting St. George Reef Lighthouse eight miles offshore. The West Coast's tallest lighthouse, it is retired from duty now, its magnificent first-order Fresnel lens on display at the Del Norte County Museum in Crescent City.
Half-sliding, half-stepping down to the beach from the dune, we headed north, thinking we would stroll to the Smith River. But after 40 minutes of steady treading, we realized that the seastacks at Pyramid Point, near the Smith mouth, didn't appear to be any closer than when we began.
In other words, the river was much farther away than we'd thought. Distances across open spaces can be tricky to measure. It was time to turn back.
Though we didn't encounter another human during our stay at the beach, we didn't lack for company. A seal kept an eye on us while treading water, just beyond where the waves were breaking.
Beachcombing sandpipers took off in a burst, when we got too close for their comfort, then landed a little farther up the way. Flocks of pelicans glided in seemingly synchronized flight up and down the ocean highway.
Yes, beaches with parking lots are great when you're making a beeline to the ocean. But it's more fun to arrive and leave via a trail, like the ones at the Tolowa Coast.
Several roads access the trailheads, most stemming from Lake Earl Drive. Pick up the map/trail guide at the Redwood National Park visitor center in Hiouchi, on Highway 199, or at some other tourist spot in or around Crescent City.
You can also find information at www.tolowacoasttrails.org.
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at email@example.com.