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Fire Below, Ghosts Above: Oregon Coast Science No One Tells You

Published 03/30/21 at 5:25 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Fire Below, Ghosts Above: Oregon Coast Science No One Tells You

(Oregon Coast) – From Brookings up through Astoria, Oregon’s coastline has a lot of mysteries just below it, especially down south. Like the ocean shores themselves, the geology of this place is intense and incredibly dynamic. (Above: Yachats at blue hour can sometimes look like the lava fields it used to be)

And it’s fiery, at times. There is much about the Oregon coast no one talks about, like the ancient volcanoes that dot the beaches, especially in one area. Or the strange, puzzle-like yet searing beginnings of the southern coast. Or where you can see those eerie ghost forests throughout the year.

Year-Round Ghost Forest Fun

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You'd be surprised what's lurking beneath those sands of the state’s beaches.(Coos Bay ghost stump courtesy Brent Lerwill)

Usually, it’s winter sand levels that cause “Ghost Forests” to appear across the Oregon coast. These are stands of trees between 4,000 years old and 2,000 years old that were abruptly buried in the sand and thus cut off from the decaying effects of oxygen. This keeps them preserved in a remarkable state.

Neskowin has the most well-known ghost forest that is found throughout the entire year, but they’re not the only ones. At only 2,000 years old, their story isn’t quite as interesting as the others, such as the two found at Beverly Beach and beneath Otter Rock. Those are especially huge and they apparently just floated around for a bit after some big storm in the ‘90s.

Ghost stump at Otter Rock near Depoe Bay

The really eerie year-round ones are found at Coos Bay, at Sunset Bay. These are relatively young too, at 1200 years old (about the time of the Vikings). Be careful and only look at low tides, but when you do you’ll find some extravagantly twisted, tortured-looking shapes. They are a trip. See full list of Oregon Coast Ghost Forests

Signs of Volcanoes Around Us

Top of Cape Perpetua: this is an extinct volcano

While most of the upper half of the Oregon coast is dotted with the black rocks of the Columbia River Basalts (a gnarly lava flow that came from the east about 17 million years ago), there are some volcano bits looming.

One is quite prominent: Lincoln City’s Cascade Head was an old volcano that was probably higher than one thousand feet, yet all underwater. According to OSU geologist Al Niem, it was formed about 36 to 38 million years ago, and stopped spewing lava not long after. It seems to have uplifted and sunk back down a few times, with even its top becoming part of the ocean floor.

Cascade Head

Sometime around 13 million years ago or less it permanently rose above sea level. Then it was largely eroded away until just this giant nub of soil and rock was left.

A huge stretch of central Oregon coast from Yachats down to Heceta Head (13 miles) is essentially lava from various old volcanoes that formed here. Some were underwater 35 million years ago, some were above – including ol’ Cape Perpetua. That is also an extinct volcano. Parts of the Yachats area go some 250 feet deep in black basalt alone. (Source: geologist / author Marli Miller and Tom Horning).

Fiery Puzzle Pieces of South Coast

Face Rock at Bandon, courtesy Manuela Durson Fine Arts 

The south Oregon coast is a completely different animal. No real underwater volcanoes here in the past (although plenty offshore now). However, lots of this area was born in fire – but in a curious way. Much of this region south of Florence is built upon gigantic terranes, basically large, rocky land masses. All of them were created somewhere else, starting as long ago as 200 million years ago, and a lot of different things went on in their formation. As continental plates moved, so did these different terranes, and they “accreted” onto this continent – basically added to it.

A long story short: many of the rocks that make up these giant masses were formed in subduction zones – but far away from here - under great pressure and heat. This process went on and off as they slowly moved here, creating a lot of rock formations that literally span across millions of years. Parts of it come from one epoch, parts of it from another, etc.

The result is an extremely complex look to the south coast, with all sorts of weird shapes and different kinds of rock sometimes feet from each other. Many famed structures are made up of lots different materials from different periods.

Bandon, its Face Rock and other sea stacks are a great example. As Miller told Oregon Coast Beach Connection:

“Go down the beach and another block is different altogether. It’s really wild to see all these different rock types kind of thrown together.” (How Bandon's Face Rock Was Created A Wild S. Oregon Coast Geologic Tale)

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Cape Blanco near Port Orford (photo Oregon Parks and Recreation Department)

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