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‘Not-so-secret’ beach still a South Coast gem

Secret Beach on the Oregon Coast is located a short hike off Highway 101 near Brookings. [Mail Tribune/John Stoeckl]
Secret Beach among top sites rapidly gaining popularity in state scenic corridor

BROOKINGS — The nondescript Highway 101 pullout north of Brookings is a place where one can win the U.S. license plate game in less than a week.

Behind the dented guardrail on a recent Tuesday rests vehicles with plates from staples like Washington and California. But squeezed in between the mud puddles are — mostly Subarus — from New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, Arizona and, strangely, Hawaii.

Just how did they find this idyllic place Southern Oregonians have known for decades as Secret Beach?

“Uh, Internet,” says Jason Elias, who claims ownership of the Virginia-plated Subaru. “We were planning on driving up your coast and Googled beach hikes and found this. Sure glad we did.”

This, uh, Not-So-Secret Beach is one of the top draws among the Oregon Coast’s most soul-cleansing hiking destinations that are growing in popularity faster than kale salads and borrowed Amazon Prime passwords.

The 12-mile Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor north of Brookings is seeing a steady increase in visitor use, and its heavy summer visitation has pushed it up to the sixth most visited Oregon State Parks property.

The primary draw is a series of well-signed pullouts, like Indian Sands and Long Branch beaches, that offer relatively short, easy to moderate passages down to beaches where you don’t need to know a guy to be there legally.

There also are a series of pullouts with trails that toggle the edges of ocean cliffs or ferry your feet through massive fern fields to sandy portals for tapping toes in the Pacific.

These public sands sport visages of offshore formations like Natural Bridge and Arch Rock that belong on calendars but can be captured by iPhones without paying a nickel to park.

Capture a windless sunset there, and the drudgery of the day melts away.

“There are few areas as soul-satisfyingly beautiful as the Sam Boardman corridor,” state parks spokesman Chris Havel says. “It’s the sort of thing people see in a postcard. Just being able to view it is remarkable.

“Beauty here is like gravity,” he says.

Thank density for gravity. But for this corridor raise a glass to three men: Oswald West, Sam Boardman and Tom McCall.

West was Oregon’s governor who convinced the 1912 Oregon Legislature to declare Oregon beaches a public highway from the top of tide to the bottom of tide. This so-called “wet sands rule” — if the sand gets wet by the tide, it’s public — later was adopted by states like California.

Boardman, the first Oregon State Parks superintendent, sought a great coastal park in Curry County when he took over the department in 1929. He assembled parks lands from private and federal holdings and even pitched the idea of a national park here before settling on just a state approach. The corridor was named for Boardman upon his retirement in 1950.

Things got even better in 1967 with the infamous Gov. Tom McCall.

You remember him? The guy who famously said: “We want you to visit our State of Excitement often. Come again and again. But for heaven's sake, don't move here to live. Or if you do have to move in to live, don't tell any of your neighbors where you are going.”

McCall championed the Oregon Beach Law. It set the public beach right of way from the lowest of low tides to 16 feet of elevation above low tide. It also set a goal of beach access at least every three miles along the coast.

That opened huge swaths of beachland to public access, far better than the more popular and populous state to the south.

“They’re not used to the idea that they can get down to the ocean pretty much at the drop of a hat,” Havel says. “It’s beautiful and much better access here.”

The access, which is all free, helps boost the Boardman corridor to the sixth most visited state parks property in Oregon, records show.

State parks has car-counters at its main parking lots at five locations, including Arch Rock and Indian Sands. Another, Lone Ranch, gets the lion’s share of the traffic. That could be attributed to the large lot, open beach and public restrooms.

But car-counters aren’t available at the myriad turnouts between Arch Rock and Lone Ranch, Havel says. Also, many of the counts likely are the same people visiting multiple sites, he says.

So don’t fall in love with the raw numbers, Havel says. But they do show a marked increase in recent years, up from 758,000 in 2018 to 1.1 million in 2021, he says.

“Look at the numbers with a squint, but it’s a good count for how much interest has grown,” Havel says.

Which brings us back to not-so-secret Secret Beach.

Googlers easily will find it at Higwhay 101’s milepost 345.4, right behind the guardrail. But there’s no actual milepost sign there, so you can count three pullouts south of the Arch Rock parking area, and you’re there.

The round-trip trail is about 1.6 miles with a 374-foot elevation change. At the end, you scramble down a rock and cross a creek to a beach protected by bedrock.

Low tide opens up even more, as the rows and rows of sandy footprints at low tide attest as clearly as the cars packing the pullout at the trailhead.

That’s why locals prefer Secret Beach in spring and fall. In summer, hit it early or late in the day, or discover a few other nearby trails until the no-so-secret parking area gets less crowded ... like in September.

“For me, right now, I might want to avoid Secret Beach, frankly,” Havel says.

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or email him at mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.