Two-Fer: Oregon’s Fort-to-Sea Trail & “The Frying Pan”

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Oregon’s Fort-to-Sea Trail is really two hikes in one. About 13.5 miles round trip, this out and back trail includes a switchbacky hike through a lush forest and a few miles through a flat, unshaded, browned-out stretch of cow pasture.

Starting at Fort Clatsop, the trail climbs mildly for about a mile to its first branch-off option, the Kwis-Kwis Trail. Veer right to take the Kwis Kwis Trail to Sunset Beach, or veer left at the sign and take the trail over Clatsop Ridge to Sunset Beach. Both options re-unite near the Skipannon River. We’ve done both.

The Kwis Kwis option is arguably less steep but more circuitous. It’s also quieter and less crowded. On the other hand, the well-marked Sunset Beach trail includes a fine overlook of the ocean at Clatsop Ridge at about 1.5 miles before a switchbacky descent off the ridge. Both trails are well-shaded and join up shortly before the muddy Skipannon River. They merge into a single trail toward the sea.

Just after the four mile mark, the re-united trail passes under Highway 101 via tunnel. It winds past a quaint red-brick church that’s one of the oldest continuously operating Presbyterian churches in America.

You hit the first of nine cattle gates just past the church. About two miles, this stretch of trail snakes through an open cow pasture. It’s treeless and shadeless. We call it “The Frying Pan.” During summer, it’s cooking. You’ll want to plan your hike so that you either clear this two-mile stretch before noon or tackle it after the heat of the day.

Clear The Frying Pan and continue across an asphalt road and a bridge through a patchy wood to the beach. You’ll hear the ocean before you see it. Once you hit the wood, you’re within a few minutes of the Sunset Beach parking lot. There’s a picnic table, bathrooms, and signage.

From the beach parking lot, it’s about one-third of a mile to the beach. Post-parking lot, the trail meanders through tall, thick grass onto a choice beach (also no shade). On a clear day, you can see Tillamook Head. The beach is a nice lunch stop. Then it’s turn around and retrace your steps for 6.5 miles back to the Fort Clatsop start.

Don’t let the RT distance – 13 miles – deter you. Yep, it’s a lot of miles. If you take the Sunset Beach loop, the return trip includes a good climb up and over Clatsop Ridge. You’ll want to save some energy for this switchbacky climb. Once you hit the vertical pillar in the middle of the hike up and out, you’re almost to the ridge overlook and level ground. It’s an easy 1.5 miles back to the parking lot from the overlook.

The Fort-to-Sea Trail doesn’t include any eye-popping mountain vistas, cascading waterfalls, glassy alpine tarns, or Renoir-petaled meadows. But it’s scenic and interesting in its own rite and traces the route of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery from Fort Clatsop to the sea. The sense of accomplishment after completing this hike is significant. (Insert fist-bump here.)

Plan on a full day for this hike. We’ve done it start-to-finish in about five hours. But we usually allot six to seven hours to accommodate additional meandering, picture-taking, or beach-combing. 

We rate this hike as “Moderate” due to the overall mileage and the climb out on the way back. Note that the climb isn’t particularly steep and it’s relatively short. Also, this trail is mostly at sea level. Much of it is flat or nearly flat and an easy walk. However, the climb up and over Clatsop Ridge on the return may be a challenge. That’s because you’ve already done about ten miles at this point and the ‘ole hoofers may be barking. Save some energy for this portion and you’ll be fine.