The original plan was to go to Cannon Beach in Oregon for its annual sandcastle festival. But that turned out to be a minor part of what my friends and I squeezed into three brief days. We hiked, we ate, we hiked some more, we ate lots more. And, along the way, we did get to see the sandcastles.
We had planned to hike the first day but the weather (hey, it’s the Pacific NW) didn’t exactly cooperate. So we stopped by The Astoria Column in, yes, Astoria.
The column is not a lighthouse. Rather, it was built in 1926 with money from the Great Northern Railway and Vincent Astor, great grandson of John Jacob Astor. The goal was to honor the city’s role in the Astor family’s (a-hem, it’s called Astoria, Oregon), business history. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is covered in murals depicting the area’s history, including the Lewis & Clark expedition. Today, it’s part of a 30 acre park. The tower is 125 feet tall and has (puff, pant) 164 stairs up a spiral staircase to an observation deck at the top.
The climb is worth it but perhaps not for those bothered by heights. We saw one gentleman who stood at the doorway up top and absolutely refused to go out on the deck, then white knuckled it back down. My friends and I loved it and one of them ran up those stairs TWICE.
What’s especially neat is that the tower overlooks the mouth of the Columbia River with killer views of the Astoria-Magler Bridge to the west and the rest of the river to the east.
Then it was off to Seaside, 20 minutes north of Cannon Beach. There were half a dozen of us, so we rented a house just half a block from the ocean. The nice thing about this is we were far, far away from the madness that this sandcastle weekend becomes. We had this beach practically to ourselves, and headed out to watch the sun set. As we walked out, I turned around to see sun lighting the row of beachfront houses in one of those glowing colors that comes with northern latitudes late in the day.
Up and over the last ridge of grassy dunes, we saw the Pacific and a hard sand beach with a partially cloudy sky that turned gold, then orange as the sun went down. People snapped photos, one of my friends walked her dog, kids ran and splashed. I’m still not sure if that one couple was in the middle of proposing
The next day, early, we set out for Ecola State Park at the northern end of Cannon Beach where we hiked the Clatsop Loop Trail. The whole trail is only three miles but it climbs 700 feet. At one point, we had to scramble over a precariously angled, downed tree where a slip would have taken us over a cliff. The trail is rated by the state as “easy” making me wonder what it would take in these parts to rate a hike hard.
But the views...wow. From the Indian Beach Trailhead at the beginning, we had stunning views of the beach below with surfers heading in and out of the water. We watched as one father introduced his small son to the finer points of staying upright on a board. And at the top, we got a look at the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse a mile off shore.
OK, we finally did make it to the heart of Cannon Beach. We went to walk downtown (cute shops, nice restaurants) and had dinner at Sweet Basil Cafe. Their signature dish is the pork belly burger...hamburger, pork belly, cheese and so much more. The flowers out front, by the way, turned out to be something in the hebe family of plants that originally came from New Zealand and the Falkland Islands. They seem to really like a seaside environment. Practically every shop had some along the sidewalk.
There’s also a coffee shop (Sea Star Gelato) which specializes in steaming espresso over vanilla ice cream. It’s even better than it sounds.
And, yes, we finally, eventually, got to see the sandcastles. Cannon Beach has held this festival for more than half a century. There are two divisions...the Large Group Division and the Masters. First you enter the Large Group competition and if you win this, you can become a Master.
We parked our car with hundreds of others on the beach (bad choice, it turns out), then walked. And walked. And walked. Probably a couple of miles.
The scene was truly a beach party. People had hauled in grills, stalls were selling food and drinks, kids flew kites. And, a hefty hike north, were the sandcastles. At first, I was seriously underwhelmed. The sandcastles looked like something a kid would build. But the farther we went, the better they got. And then, at the far northern end, were the really good ones, built for the Masters Division.
Of the lesser ones, the only serious contender was by Team Pug Love. Pug, as in pug puppies. It was called “Don’t let the Bed Pugs Bite,” and featured, of course, pugs and a bed.
The masters challengers were all good. There was an elaborate train and a castle and ogres, but my favorite (and apparently also the judges’ fav) was Reverse Safari. It featured an elaborate scene of animals riding safari trucks to watch people. To build this involved intricate sculpting by a horde of team members. We watched one guy use a scalpel and toothbrush on an alligator.
Alas, except for the pugs, we never got to see the sculptures after they were done and without workers all over them. It turns out someone made a tiny error in the timing of the incoming tide. The judging for the masters ended at 3:45pm but around 3:15 a sonorous voice blared over loud speakers telling anyone with a car on the beach who didn’t want to see their vehicle try to swim in salt water to get out...fast.
So we rushed back to our car and joined a seemingly endless line to get out...not exactly fast but fast enough. By the time we got back to the road, the tide had come in and was already demolishing the sandcastles.
Next year, we’ll park on the road.
Our original plan was to come back to Cannon Beach and barbecue on the beach (not all of it was covered by the incoming tide). But between the morning’s hike at Ecola and all day on the beach, we were done. We fired up a grill at our rental house and did our hot dogs there, retiring to play board games.
The next day, before heading home, we hiked the Fort to Sea Trail, which marks the end of Lewis & Clark’s long, long journey in 1804/6 to the Pacific. There’s a Lewis & Clark National Historic Park which isn’t large but is more than worth a visit.
Honestly, I knew nothing about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, about the expedition, about its aftermath. It was actually a military expedition, by order of then president Thomas Jefferson to basically forge a path to the Pacific Ocean.
A few fascinating tidbits...the original cost estimate was something like $2,500, a vast chunk of that set aside for “gifts to the natives.” It actually cost closer to $50,000 (remember, this was the start of the 19th Century). And by the end, everyone’s clothing was so full of lice, hardly anyone could sleep.
Sadly after Lewis was rewarded with the governorship of “Upper Louisiana” for his part in the expedition, he went into debt and deep depression and committed suicide at 35. For 30 years after the expedition, Clark ranked as the leading federal official in the west and the point man for six Presidents, from Jefferson to Van Buren. He died at age 68 and there’s a fascinating mapping of eight generations of his descendants on a wall in the national park.
As for Sacagawea, she served not only as interpreter but also proof that this group of ragged military men was friendly, since they were accompanied by a woman and her infant child. Sadly, Sacagawea lived only a few more years, dying at 25 of a “putrid fever” that present historians think maybe was ovarian cysts.
The five mile trail goes from near the national park, through a beautiful valley, then a forest and finally to the beach. Along the way, near the beach, many trees are stripped bare. It’s the aftermath of storms in December, 2007 that included hurricane force winds. I remember what south Florida looked like after hurricane Andrew and these stripped trees were eerily familiar.
Finally, past 5pm, we headed back for home in Seattle.
We’ve decided next year, we’ll take four days for this trip. And we won’t park on the beach.
Cannon Beach holds its sandcastle festival/competition each year in mid-June. Events include the sandcastle contest, a 5 K run, a parade the night before the Saturday judging and lots more.
If you want to enjoy the festival but avoid the madness, stay at a beach rental in nearby Seaside, 20 minutes north. We used Oregon Beach Vacations.
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