Hiking Hart’s Cove via Lower and Upper Cascade Head

Y’all, look.


Last Saturday I hiked Hart’s Cove via Lower and Upper Cascade Head out at the Oregon coast and it’s a good thing this was my last hike of the season because it absolutely destroyed me??? And for no reason????

The weather was perfect (PERFECT) and I was dressed appropriately for it. I got a full night of sleep the night before. I ate well all week and the morning of. I brought (and ate) all my regular hiking snacks. I wore the same socks and boots that I always wear while hiking. I had (and drank) plenty of water. And yet. AND YET! I ended this hike broken—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. My heels were raw. My head was pounding. My joints were aching. My muscles were screaming. EVEN MY BONES HURT. It’s almost an entire week later and my life is still pain!!! I have no idea where or why or how things went so, so wrong.

Photo of me, Kelsey, a white woman, at the end of Hart's Cove Trail. I'm standing in tall, dry grass. The Pacific Ocean is behind me. I'm wearing black leggings, a purple tank top, a red day pack, sunglasses, and a smile.

This was my second attempt at this trail, which is, allegedly, a 13.3-mile out-and-back. The math ain’t mathing, though. When I hit the halfway point (Hart’s Cove, pictured above), I was at 7.8 miles. After turning around and hiking back THE SAME EXACT WAY I CAME, I was at 14.7, not 15.6, miles??? I don’t know!!!

I first tried this trail a few weeks ago. It was a last-minute and poorly planned decision. I was PMSing, it was the morning after I got both my flu shot and my bilvalent Covid booster (the new bivalent booster protects against two of the most contagious variants, the OG booster protects only against OG Covid) (here’s a more scientific and detailed explanation of the new booster) (also: please get a bivalent booster shot if you’ve not already, and please get your ass vaccinated in general if you’ve not already), and the state was under a thick layer of wildfire smoke. Yes, even out at the coast. No, I didn’t bother checking the forecast for anything other than the temperature that day. I made it about 2.5 miles in before turning back because the wind kept knocking me down and the smoke made breathing gross.

Here’s a photo of the hazy, smokey view from Lower Cascade Head Trail, taken at 7:37 am during my first attempt at this hike.

View of the Pacific Ocean and the beach from a hillside portion of Lower Cascade Head Trail. The sky is hazy and smokey, and pastel-colored peach and periwinkle.

And here’s a photo from a similar spot on the same trail, taken this past weekend, about an hour later, at 8:45 am.

View of the Pacific Ocean and the beach from a hillside portion of Lower Cascade Head Trail. The sky is bright blue and clear.

Given how nice of a day it was, and that that was probably the last decent weekend here until next spring, I was surprised at how few people I encountered most of the hike. For the first five hours/11.5 miles, I saw only two other people—one about a mile from Hart’s Cove and one at Hart’s Cove. Most of the people I saw were starting as I was finishing—I passed about 25 people over the course of the last 2.5 miles (or, first 2.5 miles for them).

AllTrails said I gained just over 3,000 feet in elevation, but who the fuck knows if it’s telling the truth. There *are* some pretty steep stretches of trail. The worst of it is in the very beginning of Lower Cascade Head Trail, which is covered by tree canopy, which means SHADE, which is helpful if you hike this on a warm or hot day. Most of those steep portions are actual steps. Some of it’s more like this gnarled mass of tree roots.

Photo of gnarled tree roots that serve as steps on an early stretch of Lower Cascade Head Trail.

Portions of this first part of Lower Cascade Head Trail level out a bit—or at least, the ascent becomes more gradual in some spots. Once you hit the uncovered portion of the trail, though, it becomes more steep again and you basically zig-zag your way up this fucking thing:

Photo taken from the trail, looking up at the hill the trail requires you to hike. The hillside is covered in long and dry grass. The sky is bright blue and cloudless.

Once you make it up that hill, you hit tree canopy for the rest of the way to Hart’s Cove. It’s also relatively flat from the time you hit tree canopy on Upper Cascade Trail until you hit the Hart’s Cove trailhead. A lot of it looks like the photo below—until you hit the Upper Cascade trailhead. At that point, you’re still under tree canopy, but you’re on a forest service road for about a mile (little less) until you hit Hart’s Cove trailhead. The road, NF-1861, is currently (and has been (and, apparently, will remain)) closed to vehicle traffic because of landslide debris, which means the only way you can access Upper Cascade Head or Hart’s Cove is by starting at the Lower Cascade Head trailhead and hiking your ass there. It’s like nobody wants to get their ass up and hike Hart’s Cove from Lower Cascade Head anymore! (The NFS says you can also get to Hart’s Cove via Rainforest Trail, but I don’t know anything about that.)

Photo of a portion of Upper Cascade Head Trail. The trail cuts through the forest and the path is fresh grass instead of dirt.

Here’s what the mile-ish hike along the forest service road from the Upper Cascade Head trailhead to Hart’s Cove trailhead looks like:

Photo of Forest Road 1861, which is currently closed to vehicle traffic. The road is packed dirt and lined by forest.

Hart’s Cove Trail is NOT flat/level. The first 0.5 mile is a fairly steep descent (which means your last 0.5 mile on the way back is all uphill—dizazz), and then it kind of yo-yos the rest of the way to the viewpoint/turnaround spot.

This trail was covered the entire way until you hit the viewpoint, which is wide open, and it was wet and muddy much of the way. There were 2.5 water crossings on this trail, and several obstructions (lots of fallen trees). Some obstructions were things you could mostly just step over.

Photo of a downed tree across a footbridge that allows hikers to cross over a creek.

Some, though, were like…this:

Photo of piles of large tree branches and brush obstructing a portion of the Hart's Cove Trail.

And this:

Photo of piles of large tree branches and brush obstructing a portion of the Hart's Cove Trail.

A mile before the viewpoint, there’s a bench (and also a sign nailed to a tree that reads “Hart’s Cove 1 mi.”), where you can sit and take in the loud bark of the sea lions below (can’t see ’em tho), have a snack, take a nap, cry about how much your feet hurt, etc. Directly across from the bench, through the trees, is the grassy viewpoint you’re headed to.

Photo of Hart's Cove from a bench in the forest across the way. The grassy meadow is barely visible through tall Sitka Spruce-Western Hemlock trees in the foreground.

I am NOT a mushroom person. I cannot stand the way they feel or taste or smell. Some of them do look cool, though. And there were a lot of cool, giant mushrooms on this trail. This one, which looks like it got dressed in 1974, was the coolest and most giant one I saw.

Photo of a large mushroom growing at the base of a tree. The mushroom is about the size of an adult's face, and colored white, yellow, orange, and brown.

It took me just under three hours to hike the 7.8 (or however many) miles to the viewpoint. I stopped once along the way to dress my wounds (I started blistering around 2.5 miles and stopped to put on moleskin), and a whole bunch of times to take pictures and say “WOW!” à la Owen Wilson at everything I looked at.

I spent about 30 minutes at the viewpoint. I ate some snacks, took some photos, let my heels air out before applying new moleskin, chatted for a bit with the other hiker up there, laid down in the grass and soaked in some sun, etc. I’d thought about bringing a book. I didn’t, because literally every time I’ve done that in the past, the summit/turnaround point has been crowded and not at all conducive to reading and relaxing. Of course that wasn’t the case this time. This time, I wish I’d brought a book. It was so peaceful and quiet! I could’ve hung out up there, reading, for hours.

Photo of Hart's Cove taken from Hart's Cove Trail. The Pacific Ocean pools in the cove, surrounded by tall Sitka Spruce-Western Hemlock trees on cliffs. The sky is bright blue and cloudless. The water has a green/teal tint to it.

Of all the trails I’ve hiked this season, this one had the most (visible) wildlife. During my failed first attempt at this trail, I saw deer (elk?), a bunch of creepy-looking insects, a ton of bees (portions of the trail are lined with wild berries and, naturally, swarms of bees near those berries), and a giant worm that I learned was actually a small snake almost immediately after bending down to be like “damn, that’s a giant worm.” This time I saw A TON of large black beetles, lots of caterpillars, some frogs, a bunch of mushrooms, a chipmunk, and an impressive variety of animal shit. The other hiker at the top (?) of the trail let me borrow their binoculars so I guess technically I saw a bunch of sea lions, too.

Overall, an unexpectedly brutal hike. The most brutal I’ve ever done, even! I think the blisters are what did me in—though my entire body and all of my bones and even my brain hurt by the time I finished. And for days—DAYS!!!—after. So I don’t know if it was just (“just”) the blisters. It was also a gorgeous hike, and a perfect day for it. If you’re up for a 14-ish mile hike, I definitely recommend this one. Only thing I would’ve done differently, aside from not getting blisters? I would’ve brought trekking poles. There were several times, mostly on Hart’s Cove Trail, that I found myself wishing I’d brought mine. And maybe also a book.


A few more details:

Permit: None.

Fees: None required, a few donation boxes along the way.

Trailhead: This hike is three trails: Lower Cascade Head to Upper Cascade Head to Hart’s Cove. Currently, only the first trailhead—Lower Cascade Head—is accessible by vehicle. So you’ll have to start there. I used the directions that AllTrails gave me via Google Maps and it took me exactly where I needed to go.

Gas stations: This hike is about 90 miles from Portland, so make sure you head out with a full tank, especially if you leave early in the morning. Most of the second half of the drive is through sparsely populated areas. There are a few big gas stations about half an hour out from the trail (the Shell at the casino felt the safest to me (it’s self-service, though, which might be weird or stressful if you’re not used to pumping your own gas)), and a mom-and-pop one a couple miles from the trailhead.

Bathrooms: A pair of vault bathrooms, which were very well maintained and throughly stocked with TP the days I was there. There are spots here and there along all three trails (Upper and Lower Cascade Head, and Hart’s Cove) to pee.

Parking: Paved lot with about 25 marked spaces, including one (1) designated handicapped spot. Cars are to the left, vehicles with boats to the right. I got there early both times I tried this hike—about 6:45 am the first time and an hour-ish later this past time—and there were plenty of spots open both times. By the time I got back to my car last Saturday, around 2:30 pm, the lot was full and there were a lot of vehicles parked along the roads.

Cell service: I brought both my personal phone and my work phone (just in case), which are Verizon and AT&T, and I had service until Hart’s Cove. No service after that. Service came back when I made it back to the Upper Cascade Head trailhead.

Water source: None along either of the Cascade Head trails. Some along Hart’s Cove. Probably best to bring your own. I brought 3L and drank almost all of it.

Viewpoint: You can hike just the first 2.5-ish miles of Lower Cascade Head Trail and you’ll get amazing views. The only other view is at the end of Hart’s Cove, 7.8 miles (allegedly) in. And because the forest service road is closed, the trailhead is inaccessible to cars, so if you want to see the Hart’s Cove views, you’ll have to hike there from the Lower Cascade Head trailhead, or Rainforest Trail.

Dogs: Explicitly not allowed. Horses explicitly not allowed either, FWIW.

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