It had been a grumpy Christmas. The day was spent enduring the clinically insane husband of my wife's sister to the point I decided we were leaving first thing the next morning. But the wife and her sister wanted to go to Roseburg to do some shopping and there was no way I was staying around the house with the freak. But out of crisis came opportunity. For some time I had wanted to hike Humbug Mountain, which was a couple hours down the coast and even though the weather had been bad, this was my opportunity.
I timed it right. The one day that wasn’t dominated by rain all week was the day I took off from the sister-in-laws house for Humbug Mountain on the Oregon Coast. That’s not to say the weather was nice. The mountain was cloaked in fog much of the time, shrouding the view from below and the beach from above. But any day on the Oregon Coast is better than a day at in-laws especially when one is a psychotic jerk. Despite the weather and lack of interesting terrain or views, this mountain proved to be interesting still.
I arrived at the trail head shortly after noon and found 4 other cars in the parking lot. I’m not sure if the day after Christmas should be a busy hiking day, but with a trail to the top in a state park along a main highway, I certainly expected company. Throughout the day I ended up seeing perhaps 20 people in about 7 or 8 parties. Though its not close to any significant population center, Humbug Mountain is a bit of a draw because at 1,756 ft. it’s the highest point on the Oregon Coast to rise directly from the water. There are a few other points a bit higher between Washington and California, but they sit 2 or 3 miles back from the water. I hoped the summit would provide a spectacular view of the coast and ocean. With a little luck, maybe some whales would be visible off shore.
The trail starts off passing through a dense old growth forest of Douglas fir and big-leaf maple that form a dense canopy over lush beds of sword fern. The tree trunks are completely draped with mosses, liverworts, Oregon selaginella and licorice fern. The recent rains caused the soggy mountain to bleed rivulets and small streams at any low spot. Lush life dominated from the ground to the high canopies overhead. The moving water and breeze gave endless hum to it all and the fresh smell of the wet temperate rainforest filled the air. The mountain was alive to all the senses.
The trail is three miles to the summit and passes through a variety of vegetation types. Above the old growth rainforest, a slightly less wet world is still dominated by sword ferns, but maidenhair fern and deerfern also hide the ground. Large flowering shrubs such as arbutus and rhododendron fill the mid-layer with aromatic broadleaves and tall twisted stems. The overstory is filled primarily with old growth Douglas fir, some 7 to 8 feet in diameter. In the draws and moist convex slopes, western hemlock dominates.
About a mile and a half in the trail splits with one loop going to the west and the other to the east; they meet up again on the summit. Taking the west branch, I hoped it would offer some vistas of the ocean and soon found one opening that revealed a spectacular view of the north beach toward Port Orford. Taking it in, I didn’t realize it would be the highlight of the day. Soon the trail climbed rapidly toward the summit and began to switchback on the main northwest ridge. The fog obscured the tree tops and limited lateral visibility, but allowed a bright diffuse sunlight to filter in below. The effect was ethereal, but the increasing wind and creaking trees caused some concern.
The forest became much younger near the summit, with the trees being much less than two feet in diameter. The ground was still dominated by swordfern, but the spectacular mid-layer shrubs were mostly gone. Despite the clouds and fog, I anticipated some openings that would reveal a spectacular view from the top. Breaking out of the trees to a small opening I was severely disappointed to see nothing but a small, apparently man-made, weed filled opening in the forest. Even without the weather, the surrounding trees would block any significant view. Dejected I started back down the east end of the loop. Soon I met two mop dogs Poco and Lola, accompanied by their running human. This mountain rises nearly 1,800 feet in less than a mile and people were running up and down it. Poco just wanted to be petted and Lola wanted to eat my ankles.
The forest on the east side of the mountain was similar to the other north side, but perhaps held even larger Douglas fir. Soon I ran into to what appeared a great anomaly to me. Here I was a little over 1,000 feet elevation in a closed canopy, temperate rain forest and beargrass shows up. Not a few weird plants, but loads of it dominated the ground in spots. This is typically a high mountain, open subalpine cold species. How normal this is for the coast, I’ll have to investigate, but it seemed very strange to me. The last significant vegetation feature was the forest of tanoak that locally dominated some of the mid-elevations. Descending through this I soon back in the hyper-maritime old growth forest that fringes the base of the mountain. The parking lot had even more cars now than when I had left less than three hours before.
To my surprise the misty fog had risen and the darkening cloud cover was far above the summit. I could at least drive up the highway and get a few descent pictures of the mountain rising up from the crashing surf. This capped a mixed day of pleasant discoveries and disappointments. The anticipated views were not to be had, but the coastal forest provided plenty of discoveries. Perhaps best of all was the impromptu surprise of getting to make this unplanned hike. When faced with the in-laws, such a bonus is always the highlight of the trip.