Oregon’s north coast is where much of the beach action is for tourists. You’ve got rugged headlands here, wide-open expanses of sand there, fun beach towns all along the way – and a state population base centered in Portland and the Willamette Valley to come visit. Tillamook, Seaside and Cannon Beach are epicenters, but at the northwest corner of the state there’s a stretch that combines the coast’s legendary beauty with less dense development and a visual sweep of Oregon history.
And you can see the best of it, up close, on a bike.
The Gearhart area has the genteel grandeur of the days when a trip to the beach took several days, and Portlanders would make excursions out in the summer, to grand lodges or homey cabins. Contrast that with the very northern tip of the coast, where Fort Stevens’ history is more military and Spartan, and you get an intriguing glimpse into what this area has seen in the last 150 years or so.
One of the true genius moves Oregon made in the past was to declare the beach to be public property; no one can own land below the high-water line. This guarantees unfettered access to the shoreline, for hundreds of miles. And now that it’s easy and efficient to ride on the beach with fat-tire or mountain bikes, this ride is a great way to exercise that freedom. First, let’s talk logistics. Between the distance involved and the likelihood of a strong breeze, this is a ride best done as a shuttle – we suggest you drop one car at Fort Stevens State Park (free parking) and drive the other to the start of your ride in Gearhart.
And yes, about that wind… On a beach ride it’s vitally important to know which way the wind is blowing; it’s always best to have the wind at your back, so you can enjoy the scenery at the speed of riding a tailwind, instead of spending your energy fighting the gusts.
Starting in Gearhart, head down one of the long tracks that lead onto the beach; Pacific Way and 10th are good choices. If you choose 10th you’ll pass near McMenamins Gearhart Hotel, a stately lodging/bar/restaurant property overlooking the 1892 Gearhart Golf Links. When you hit the beach, turn right to head north; right away you’ll feel the exhilaration of a wide-open beach, a vast ocean, and the chance to pedal wherever you want. There are very few technical features to get in your way here. Ride along the hard-packed, smooth sand and feel like you’re flying.
While Oregon beaches are open to all, only some of them are open to vehicles; this is one section that is, so keep an eye out for vehicles that may not see you. (This also opens up the possibility for you to ride an e-bike here if you’d like.)
Head up the coast, through Del Rey Beach and Sunset Beach state recreation areas. You may catch glimpses of venerable “camps” among the grassy dunes. Just a few miles past Sunset Beach, you’ll enter Fort Stevens State Park; you’ll know for sure when you see the shipwreck of the Peter Iredale, a four-masted steel barque built in 1890. It ran aground in a storm here on Clatsop Spit in October 1906 and was abandoned once it became hopelessly buried in the sand before the winter weather cleared up. Its remains are visible reminders of the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” the stretch of coastline from Tillamook Bay to Vancouver Island; the area where the Columbia River meets the ocean has claimed an estimated 2,000 vessels over the last 500 years. At low tide you can circle around this marine relic.
Once you’re back on your bike, keep heading north toward the jetty to where you parked your car. If you’d like to get in some extra miles, explore the trails in Fort Stevens State Park on your fat bike, and soak up some history along the way – this fort was the primary military defense facility guarding the mouth of the Columbia, active from the Civil War through World War II. There’s camping on-site, including cabins, along with plenty of history and wildlife information and activities at the visitor center.
Once you’re back in your car, you’ll get to experience this part of the coast as most people do – on the road. But you’ll have fresh memories of pedaling blissfully along right at the water’s edge.
Bike resources: Just to the south in Manzanita, at Bahama Mama’s you can find some simple single-speed fat bikes. Cannon Beach has a couple locations to rent beach cruisers that will also do the job. Wheel Fun Rentals in Seaside has bike rentals, while Surfsand Resort in Cannon Beach has free bikes for hotel guests.
If you go: Wherever you go fat biking on the Coast, check the tides and try to go during low tide as much as possible. Beware of sneaker waves and stay off rocks and small, enclosed beaches. Respect the sensitive micro-environments, whether it’s birds or anenome you encounter. In particular, it’s critical for people and pets to avoid areas that are closed due to western snowy plover nesting season, March 15-Sept. 15. Look for bright yellow signs nearby Oregon’s beaches and more info about how to protect this threatened species here).
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