Hike Neahkahnie Mountain
Climb an oceanfront peak haunted by the legend of a lost Spanish treasure.
By William Sullivan
About the Hike: The beach below this mountain might be where Europeans first set foot in Oregon. Today a portion of the Oregon Coast Trail crosses the mountain's summit to a breathtaking, aerial view of the beach south to Tillamook Bay. If you like, you can continue to Short Sand Beach and a walk-in campground at Oswald West State Park.
Difficulty: A moderate but steep 3-mile climb to the summit, gaining 900 feet of elevation. Add 2.1 miles and plan for a shuttle car if you continue to the campground.
Season: Open all year.
Getting There: Drive Highway 101 south of Seaside 20 miles (or north of Tillamook 28 miles) to a brown hiker-symbol sign opposite the Neah-Kah-Nie subdivision, between mileposts 41 and 42. Turn east on a gravel road 0.4 mile to a wide spot with a small "Trailhead Parking" sign on the right.
Hiking Tips: The trail starts at a gray post on the left. Steep switchbacks lead up through meadows 0.9 mile to a ridgetop junction. Continue straight on a path that contours 0.6 mile around the wooded back of the mountain before emerging at the summit meadow viewpoint. This is the recommended turnaround point, although the trail does continue, dropping for 2 miles to a Highway 101 crossing and then ambling along sea bluffs 1.6 more miles to the Os West State Park campground parking lot.
History: This peak is an inspiring place, where the Tillamook tribe believed their most powerful god resided. In fact, the name Neahkahnie comes from their words Ne ("place of") and Ekahnie ("supreme deity"). For some hikers, there's additional inspiration in the thought they might stumble over hidden gold.
Gold was in fact what brought the first European sailors to this Pacific shore. In 1577, the swashbuckling Englishman Sir Francis Drake became the first to venture north of California by sea. In those days, Spanish conquistadors were shipping boatloads of Aztec and Incan gold to Spain. England, virtually at war with Spain, allowed its merchant ships to loot any Spanish treasure ships they could find. The daring Drake took up the offer. He filled his hold with pirated gold off the Pacific coast of South America. Then he realized that bringing his booty back around Cape Horn would mean facing the entire Spanish fleet on the trip home.
In desperation Drake struck north, hoping to discover a "Northwest Passage"-a sea route to England around the unmapped shore of North America. It's unclear how far north he sailed, or whether he actually landed in Oregon, but he certainly didn't like the weather. His log complains of "most vile, thicke, and stinking fogges." When storms forced him to abandon hopes of a shortcut, he tried the unthinkable: He sailed west, circling the globe via Africa. Drake made it back to London the long way, and was hailed a hero.
In the years that followed, Spanish galleons routinely crossed the Pacific between colonies in the Philippines and Mexico. Several treasure ships were lost at sea-and several tribes along the Oregon Coast have legends of ancient shipwrecks. But people didn't connect the two until the 1850s, when Gold Rush miners began spreading out from California, snooping after rumors of gold.
The most widely circulated treasure story describes an early Spanish wreck on the Nehalem spit at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain. Thirty survivors made it to the beach, ferrying the ship's treasure ashore in a longboat. The men dragged the treasure chest up onto the mountain's slopes and dug a hole. Knowing that Indians feared disturbing the graves of the dead, the captain shot his black Caribbean slave and buried him on top of the treasure. Then the captain shot or drove away the crew members who wouldn't fit in the ship's longboat, and he ordered the remainder to row him back across the ocean toward Mexico.
Treasure hunters have ravaged the mountainside and beach here ever since. In 1931, when the Depression fanned enthusiasm for quick wealth, two overly eager diggers died in a collapsed excavation. Despite all the efforts, the only treasure anyone has found on Neahkahnie Mountain is the inspiring view from the summit trail.
Geology: Neahkahnie Mountain's basalt dates back 15 million years, when lava flows from Eastern Oregon poured down the Columbia River and fanned out into the ocean. All along the northern Oregon Coast, tough remnants of these massive basalt floods have survived to form headlands and islands.