From the bluffs, filled with grasses, Douglas irises and seashore lupines, the horizon stretches to a panorama of headlands, sand, offshore rocks and ocean. The clouds have broken for a moment, revealing streaks of blue behind thinning puffs of gray. Along the beach, a few dots move slowly across the sand — people braving the uncertain weather to take in the bracing sea air, the calls of shorebirds and the steady roar of the breakers.

From the bluffs, filled with grasses, Douglas irises and seashore lupines, the horizon stretches to a panorama of headlands, sand, offshore rocks and ocean. The clouds have broken for a moment, revealing streaks of blue behind thinning puffs of gray. Along the beach, a few dots move slowly across the sand — people braving the uncertain weather to take in the bracing sea air, the calls of shorebirds and the steady roar of the breakers.

I am on the Oregon Coast Trail above Lone Ranch Beach north of Brookings on a round-trip hike to House Rock Viewpoint 2.6 miles north. This is not my first hike on the Oregon Coast Trail, but by the end of the afternoon, it will have been my best.

Part of the reason is the nature of the Coast Trail itself. The brainchild of the Oregon Recreation Trails Advisory Council in 1971, it has been developed in stages, and even though it's possible nowadays to walk the 382-mile route from the California border to the mouth of the Columbia River, it's not all pristine trail. Some 41 percent of it is along paved roads, 39 percent along beaches, sometimes around headlands that can only be navigated at low tide, and the remaining 20 percent on actual trails, although often on dirt roads.

The last time I walked part of the Oregon Coast Trail, I started at Cape Sebastian, farther north toward Gold Beach. After a promising start along a scenic headland, that hike deteriorated to a track along a gravel road paralleling Highway 101.

But here, above Lone Ranch Beach, I am seeing the trail at its best. It is all trail, and all of it except for my starting point is above the beach, with striking views for half its length. After scaling the bluffs, the trail eventually winds its way into a dense forest of Sitka spruce where shade-loving plants like thimbleberries, maidenhair ferns, red elderberries and salmonberries thrive. Much of this portion goes through Samuel H. Boardman State Park, one of the Southern Oregon coast's most beautiful sections, with Cape Ferrelo as the midpoint. After curving through lush glens of ferns and false lily-of-the-valley, the pathway emerges from the trees into hardy thickets of salal glistening with pink-red teardrop flowers.

What makes this 2.6-mile stretch so special is its mix of wind-whipped bluffs covered with spring wildflowers and the more forested heights beyond, a change that almost guarantees you'll experience the vagaries of coastal weather along with the shifts in landscape.

At the town of Gold Beach, before I drove to the trailhead, it was overcast. When I reached Lone Ranch Beach, the clouds were beginning to break. On the bluffs about a half-mile from the trailhead there, the sun even came out. And by the time I had hiked to the House Rock turnaround point, the headland was so enveloped in fog, I could barely make out the rock.

The most difficult part of the hike is crossing the creek to begin the ascent to the bluffs. After much searching, I found a bridge of downed logs to cross on, but I couldn't find that spot again on my return and had to walk up and down the creek a while to find another log bridge.

One of the pleasures of the hike is Lone Ranch Beach itself. If you don't explore it at the beginning, be sure and do it when you come back. Shaped like a crescent, the beach is more protected from wind than popular Harris Beach State Park to the south and Whalehead Beach a few miles to the north.

In a pebbly strand on its northern end, you can sometimes find starfish and sea urchins, depending on the tide. There also is a nice picnic area set among trees just up from the beach.

Around a rocky promontory to the south is another stretch of beach reachable at low tide where you can get a better look at birds perching on a large rookery offshore. Meanwhile, raptors ply the sky above the forested sea cliffs at your back.

But as beautiful as the beach is, it's the bluffs about a half-mile up the trail to the north that dazzle the most, not just because of the vistas, but because of their colors — the purple and white Douglas irises, the red-white seashore lupines, the yellow western buttercups set among grasses in many shades of green. I wanted to sit there longer, but with the weather that day so unpredictable, I had to move on or risk missing out on the forested parts of the path.

Although imperfect, the Oregon Coast Trail is another example of Oregon's visionary thinking. Along with the Beach Bill in 1967, which protected most of the state's coastline from development, the trail grants access to some of Oregon's most magnificent scenery to everyone, setting a standard of community consciousness for its coastline no other state has matched. On this portion of the Coast Trail, as I watched the afternoon sun begin to give way again to clouds, that legacy never seemed more precious.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 776-4498 or sdieffenbacher@mailtribune.com