Twin Oregon Coast Secret Attractions 4,000 Years in the Making

Published 04/14/2015

(Depoe Bay, Oregon) – Two surreal and unsung attractions sit on the Oregon coast, one hiding in plain sight and the other lurking beneath a popular surfing spot. Both are some 4,000 years old, and their origins are nothing short of mind-blowing.

One is cloistered just beneath Otter Rock, between Newport and Depoe Bay. But the other, its twin, sits at Beverly Beach State Park, on Newport's outer edges.

They are stumps from trees roughly 4,000 years old, part of a “ghost forest” some place between here and Neskowin, almost 50 miles away. Sometime in the late '90s, these ancient, nearly-petrified pieces of wood emerged from hiding beneath the sand when violent winter storms eroded the beaches. It may have been the first time they'd seen daylight in over 100 years. Not much is known about them.

About a year later, more violent storms ripped them both from whatever beach they had emerged from and one washed up at Spencer Creek, in Beverly Beach State Park, while the other managed to sneak its way into a tiny cubbyhole of a cove-like structure right beneath Otter Rock.

The Beverly stump now sits in the park with signage explaining its origin. Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) rangers talk of the other one showing up at the same time, with both having to be moved out of the way at one point.

It's unclear if tides washed the Otter Rock stump to its location, or it was OPRD rangers that helped nudge it there.

The ghost forest stumps along the Oregon coast are numerous but hardly ever seen – found hidden beneath the sands in about 33 locations, from Cannon Beach down to Brookings. There are 540 hidden there, and only rarely coming out, when sand levels have been scoured out enough by winter storms. Many haven't been seen in years, and during the last two winters most were not seen at all because of little storm wave action.

They range in age from seven thousand years to about 1,000, according to carbon dating done mostly by Oregon geologists Roger Hart and Curt Peterson in the 90's and early 2000's, for the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral industries.

The one at Otter Rock is especially engaging as it just sits there with a weird spider shape, going absolutely unnoticed unless you stop at the top of the viewipoints looking down at the surfing hotspot and peer into the mini cove. At lower tides, you can walk up to it, however.

How did these ghost forests come to be?

Essentially, they were swallowed up by sand at some point thousands of years ago and thus cut off from oxygen and its decaying effects on wood. Whatever did this to the forests happened fairly quickly.

Currently, Oregon geologists are divided into two camps on that theory. One says it happened over several years to a few decades as the landscape simply changed. The other theory is more ominous, stating that a major earthquake – like the one in 1700 – abruptly dropped the beach and surrounding ground ten or more feet.

Peterson and Hart wrote a paper on the subject back in 2006, and said each of these forests were already quite ancient when they were sucked beneath sand.

“The age of the largest preserved stumps, established by counting annular growth rings, demonstrates forest soil development and tree growth for a minimum of 200 years prior to burial in the Lincoln, Neskowin and Netarts littoral cells,” the paper said.

“Littoral cells” refers to the areas between headlands, and in this case means the ghost forests found at Neskowin, near Cape Lookout and Oceanside, and near Newport were at least 200 years old. The oldest of the ghost stumps met their fate about 7,000 years ago, found around Bandon. while most others happened between 4,000 and 1,000 years ago, according to Hart and Peterson.

The pair largely look to the slower theory of forest burial, rather than the earthquake-driven idea. But one of the most important components in their preservation had to be wet sand, as the scientists talked finding “forest litter” with the trees – bits and pieces of bark, peat and other stuff you find on the ground of any forest.

“New evidence of rapid burial of persevered tree limbs on buried stumps and intact forest litter on shore platforms indicates that rapid sand accumulation played a key role in killing the forests,” the paper said.

Another section discusses the fact stumps found under dry dunes decomposed more:

“The shore platform stumps are better preserved than the terrace margin stumps.These relations suggest that wet sand played an important role in the preservation of wood. Unlike stumps rooted on poorly drained shore platforms, stumps buried under drained Holocene dunes have apparently decomposed by oxidative degradation. "

This pair of ghost forest stumps are the only ones you're almost completely guaranteed to see year-round, although the 1,000-year-old stumps at Neskowin tend to be visible all year, or at least most of it.

Another interesting factoid: these and other central coast ghost forest stumps have this octopus-like shape because early pioneers sawed off the tops, leaving only root systems. The ones at Neskowin were not chopped up, as well as the ones you periodically find at Cape Lookout State Park and Arch Cape.

A full list of Oregon coast ghost forest spots is here.

Below: Neskowin's Ghost Forest


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