Thru-Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail, Part I
By Audrey Jo Mills
Published: 02/18/2012  Updated: 08/08/2019
Audrey Jo Mills and her dog Pepe hiked the Oregon Coast Trail together.
Audrey Jo Mills and her dog Pepe hiked the Oregon Coast Trail together.  Audrey Jo Mills

We met Audrey Jo Mills and her dog Pepe as they were hiking the Oregon Coast Trail and asked her to share some of her experiences with Coast Explorer readers. This is the first of a three-part series about Audrey Jo and Pepe's adventures on the Oregon Coast Trail.

I was born and raised in Colorado, and like many young adults, craved adventure elsewhere. Between multiple contract seasons in Antarctica, I have worked as a park ranger at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Eastern Oregon. I fell in love with the fossiliferous high desert, but it definitely was not the lush, wet, green Pacific Northwest I had imagined. On my weekends, I would head into Bend or Portland, or go hiking in the Gorge, but I never made it to the coast.

On the verge of turning 30 and coming off of a six month work contract in Greenland, I was determined to spend quality time focusing on myself, an attempt to fend off that mid-life crisis that I'd been warned about. While researching possible thru hikes, I came across a quick blurb about the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT), a nearly 400-mile trail stretching from the Columbia River to the California border crossing beaches, forested headland trails, sand dunes, and occasionally merging with Highway 101.

When I set out to hike the OCT, my goal was to complete my first solo long distance thru-hike and to explore the beautiful coastline I had heard so much about. To keep me sane, I brought along my border collie-shepherd mix and partner in crime, Pepé.

NORTH OREGON COAST: Columbia River to Lincoln City
Arriving at Clatsop Spit and the South Jetty of the Columbia River, I was instantly overcome by the enormity of the waterway. This was the first time I had ever seen such a large river meet its end at the ocean.

Pepé and I started our hike south on the beach under flocks of seabirds and a fiery sunset, watching the tide go out behind the silhouettes of razor clam diggers. We approached the remains of the Peter Iredale shipwreck and the Ft. Stevens State Park campsite as the sun finally sank below the waterline. It was an encouraging start to our journey.

Not being very experienced with beach hiking, or the ocean in general, I soon found myself listening to the wave patterns and searching out the hardest sand on which to trek. Pepé and I hiked to stunning view points at the summit of Tillamook Head, met a meditation group at the WWII bunkers in Ecola State Park, and played in the surf and searched for sand dollars in fading light at secluded Indian Beach. Hiking into Cannon Beach, we met Gary Hayes (Coast Explorer Magazine's Publisher) and his pup Jackson who directed us to a great little café for a hot cup of coffee and savory sandwich.

Walking in the sands towards Haystack Rock, Pepé and I stood out like sore thumbs, both carrying large packs and rain gear, we didn't exactly look like your average beachgoers. We came upon a young couple and their two little boys who inquired: "Are you a homeless person, or are your Mommy and Daddy making you walk home because you've been bad?" Laughs were had all around and well wishes exchanged as we continued on our trek.

Luckily, weather seemed to be on our side for the most part, despite the fact that we were hiking in late October. Pepé and I pushed hard up the steep Neahkahnie Mountain, only to be denied the reportedly stunning view by a thick wall of fog. Over the next few days of beach walking, we were rewarded at our campsites with exceptional sunsets, especially at Barview County Park and the Cape Meares State Park.

At one point, while walking along the Three Capes Loop highway through dairy farms near Tierra Del Mar, Pepé and I found ourselves surrounded by cows. The cows were so interested in us, they came running from all over the grazing fields to the fences and followed us down the roadway for a couple miles. It was actually kind of nerve racking and almost claustrophobic feeling to have over 50 cows on each side of us with big wide eyes staring, and mooing, and tripping over each other to keep up with us!

Pepé proved himself to be a great hiking companion. Not only was he someone to talk to, but also he made me laugh, shared meals with me, and snuggled with me in the tent. Pepé is extremely social and often instigated meetings and conversations with other beach goers. Sometimes we walked away from an interaction only knowing the other dog's name, but often we ended up making friends, exchanging contact info, and sometimes even earning an invitation to camp in someone's yard.

Such was the case as we walked the beach approaching Neskowin, a beautiful township at the foot of Cascade Head and home to the romantic history of Proposal Rock. Waking to a wet foggy morning, Pepé and I reminisced of the good conversations and new friends from the evening before over a hot cup of gas station coffee, before heading over Cascade Head towards Lincoln City.

OCT Tips & Hints
• Bring a tide chart to time hiking around rocky points.
• Pay attention to the ocean! Watch for driftwood and sneaker waves.
• Your feet are going to get wet. Try hiking in closed toe water sandals: they are comfy and dry fast.
• Check weather forecasts daily. Summer forecasts will be more reliable, but in the fall the weather can change rapidly and dramatically.
• Bring an Oregon coast geology guide.
• Bring your pup and make him carry his own food.
• Be sure to stop in towns to try local dishes, coffee, and microbrews.
• If camping, bring a ground tarp!
• Stay a night in a yurt at one of the many Oregon coast's state parks.
• Bring a mushrooming guide.
• Avoid road walking by segment hiking the OCT! A great way to break up the trail if you can't complete the whole thing at one time.
• Try reading local authors.
• Be sure to talk to people!  Most people loved hearing about my adventure.
• Try beach camping (where permitted).
• Try couch surfing.
• Avoid wind on the beach by walking in the dunes.
• Walk on wet sand as the tide goes out, it's much easier to walk on than dry sand.
• Bring a blister kit for your feet!

Click here to read an excerpt of Audrey Jo's journal from the first leg of her trip.
Thru-Hiking the Oregon Coast Trail, Part I