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This trail will light up your imagination

Two historical markers, four miles apart on the Oregon Coast Trail, fire the imagination with thoughts of adventure. And, by the way, this hike also features postcard-perfect scenery and close encounters with wildlife.

The first marker, at Sunset Bay, pays tribute to Malcolm Forbes, who launched from that spot in his hot-air balloon on Oct. 4, 1973.

A month later, he landed near Newport News, Va., thereby making history. He was the first person to sail across the continental United States, coast to coast, in a balloon.

Englishman Francis Drake, on the other hand, sailed the briny sea, not the cloudy sky.

He came very close to touching the Oregon shore on June 5, 1579, when gale winds drove his ship, the Golden Hind, off the open ocean. He slipped behind an immense headland — thought to be today's Cape Arago from evidence in Drake's log — to drop anchor and wait out the storm.

Drake was a pirate, although the commemorative marker on the bluff overlooking the cape's South Cove refers to him more politely as a privateer. He and his men raided ships and settlements, but his victims were the detested Spanish, so he plundered with the blessing of the English government.

It's exciting to think that pirates — everybody's favorite troublemakers — spent a night within hollering distance from an Oregon beach. But, for Drake, it was a detour he gladly would have skipped. In his log, he described South Cove (probably) as a "bad bay," and he complained about the "vile thicke and stinking fogges."

Drake would graduate from privateering to admiraling, leading attacks against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Like Forbes, centuries later, he would accomplish a "first:" He became the first English sailor to navigate around the globe.

Besides their intrepidness and wanderlust, the two men shared a hankering for acquiring wealth. Forbes, however, got rich by sticking to capitalism — he was never known to draw a sword on anyone in pursuit of his fortune.

After Forbes' death in 1990, a New York Times obituary called him "one of the country's most flamboyant multimillionaires," who championed the virtues of the American economic system through the pages of his own magazine — immodestly called Forbes.

He liked motorcycles and yachts, as well as balloons, and he threw extravagant, celebrity-studded parties.

Given his crammed social calendar, the true miracle of his balloon sojourn might not be that he survived a whole month dangling in an oversized bucket. Rather, it's that he managed to go that long away from a shindig.

Even without the bonus of having your imagination stirred by the two historical markers, following the Coast Trail from Sunset Bay to Cape Arago makes for a great hike — arguably the most highlight-packed on the Oregon Coast.

After an initial climb into the woods, dominated by Sitka spruce, the route is mostly flat and easy. It can get muddy, though — so wear shoes that you won't mind mucking up.

For the most part, the trail stays high above the ocean. When it comes out of the trees and breaks into the open, you can see the vast Pacific in all its glory.

About two miles from Sunset Bay, the trail brings you to Shore Acres State Park and its beautiful botanical gardens. Along the way, you'll pass precipitous Norton Gulch and views of Cape Arago Lighthouse, perched atop Gregory Point — a photographer's delight.

The ocean puts on a dramatic show out beyond the bluffs at Shore Acres, as wave after wave smashes against massive, jagged rocks. The explosions look like fireworks bursting on the Fourth of July.

From Shore Acres, the trail dips down to secluded Simpson Beach, where you'll be tempted to sit in the sand and linger for a while.

But more discoveries await hikers who push on.

At the Simpson Reef overlook, fix your eyes on the island a mile or so offshore, where seals and sea lions congregate. The sea lions are the ones doing all the barking.

For much closer views of these gregarious creatures — I almost thought I could reach out and stroke their whiskers, as I looked through my binoculars — follow the descending asphalt path when you reach the parking area at Cape Arago. It will take you down to overlooks of the cape's North Cove and its barking residents.

Across the cape, at South Cove, you'll find the Drake marker — a plaque mounted to a very big rock, among some picnic tables. On your way there, stop at the tip of the cape for some whale spotting. I always seem to see at least one or two spouts, no matter what time of year.

As for the Forbes marker, look for it in the picnic area across from the entrance to Sunset Bay State Park campground — just a few miles west of Charleston, or about 20 miles north of Bandon.

Hiking from marker to marker, then back, will cover eight miles by foot. In your imagination, you'll travel much farther.

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

Sunset Bay at low tide. - Courtesy Paul Hadella